Fujimori's gamble reaps huge political dividend

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The Independent Online
President Alberto Fujimori ran an enormous risk, when he ordered the storming of the ambassador's residence without informing his Japanese counterpart, when the resolve of the Movimento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA) guerrillas inside the building appeared to be weakening.

The reasons for the President's decision may have had as much to do with political as with strategic considerations. Mr Fujimori's popularity, which had been built on his success in pacifying a country torn by a virtual civil war since the earlyEighties, had begun to wane since the new year. His perceived weakness in failing to bring about a swift resolution of the hostage crisis was one of the factors behind the President's declining prestige.

But there were other, perhaps more significant, reasons. A spiralling crime rate and evidence of vicious infighting and corruption within the security forces added to the impression that the authoritarian Mr Fujimori was losing his grip on his government, which depends heavily on the backing of the armed forces.

The military, who came badly out of a brief war with neighbouring Ecuador in 1995, had become embroiled in accusations of torturing and "disappearing" alleged enemies of the state. Evidence also mounted that the President's closest adviser had accumulated large, unexplained amounts of money while earning only a modest government salary.

So both Mr Fujimori and the military badly needed a dramatic success to restore their flagging credibility.

The scene was set, a few days before the assault on the ambassador's residence, when two senior generals were suddenly replaced as minister of the interior and as national police chief. Their removal seems to have been part of a compromise deal between warring factions inside the government and the military. It also cleared the way for a military solution to the hostage crisis, for which police inefficiency was blamed.

Nobody in Peru has dared to suggest that the President should have persevered a little longer with attempts to negotiate a settlement. Even the opposition parties agree that Mr Fujimori was left with no choice because of the intransigence of the MRTA guerrillas. The latter had recently reduced their demand for the release of more than 400 jailed comrades to about 20. None the less, Mr Fujimori's decision to end negotiations has not been questioned, and all sides joined in applauding the skill and bravery of the 148 commandos who carried out the rescue.

The MRTA representative in Europe has warned of dire retribution for the bloody outcome of the embassy siege. But it is doubtful whether the MRTA has the capacity to do much more than make a nuisance of itself. Perhaps one column of 200 fighters is still operating in the jungles beyond the Andes. But the movement's leader, Victor Polay Campos, remains in prison, and its most experienced military commander, Nestor Cerpa, died in the smoke and din of the Japanese residence.

Mr Fujimori's long-standing claim that the two left-wing insurgencies that almost brought Peru to its knees a few years ago are finished, may now be approaching the truth. The fundamentalist Maoists of the Shining Path movement have never recovered from the capture of their founder and ideologue, Abimael Guzman (alias Chairman Gonzalo), in September 1992. Until that point they appeared to be heading for military victory, but they are now split and demoralised.

It is hard to see the MRTA, always a much less formidable and ideologically committed organisation than Shining Path, avoiding a similar decline.