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Keiko Fujimori’s Chances of Becoming Peru’s President Depend on Her Jailed Dad’s Legacy

Her position as the favorite to win Sunday's first round presidential vote lies in the nostalgia many Peruvians feel for her father, Alberto Fujimori. But the hard right former president imprisoned for abuses during his rule, is also widely hated.
Photo by César Von Bancels/EPA

With a ready smile, enviable stamina, and unshakable discipline when it comes to sticking to the script, Keiko Fujimori has spent years visiting all corners of Peru's challenging geography, quietly preparing the ground for her presidential bid.

Now, just days ahead of Sunday's first round vote, that hard work appears to have paid off. Polls suggest the conservative 40-year-old former congresswoman, known throughout Peru as Keiko, has the unwavering support of roughly a third of the electorate, and a double digit lead over her nearest challengers.


Yet whatever her personal qualities, Keiko's greatest political asset — and liability — is her last name that remains omnipresent, even if it is not voiced. Without the name, she would likely not be in the race. But it may also prove to be her downfall.

Keiko's father, Alberto Fujimori, was president from 1990 to 2000.

That deeply turbulent period saw civil war, economic collapse, serial human rights abuses, a presidential coup against the courts and congress, and the installation of what many regard as Peru's worst kleptocracy.

Yet many Peruvians, especially among the poor, remember Fujimori as a savior. They credit him with taming inflation of more than 12,000 percent, and with breaking the terror of the Shining Path rebels, who killed an estimated 31,000 people.

Related: Allegations of Giving Voters Cash Could Disqualify Peru's Presidential Frontrunner

Fujimori senior, who fled to Japan during a vote-rigging scandal in 2000 and was then extradited back to Peru from Chile, is now in prison. He was sentenced to 25 years behind bars in 2009 by a court in the capital Lima for kidnapping and ordering the extrajudicial killings of terrorism suspects. One of the victims was an eight-year-old boy.

In a subsequent trial, he was given a concurrent term for using public funds to systematically pay off unscrupulous journalists to attack his opponents.

"I have suffered and carried a large backpack full of the mistakes of third parties and other people," Keiko recently said about her father's divisive legacy. "I will never allow my daughters to carry this backpack that I have carried for so many years."


Gustavo Gorriti, Peru's leading investigative journalist and one of the two people whose kidnapping led to the former president's conviction, says she got the metaphor wrong.

"It's not a backpack," he told VICE News, "It's a cargo ship."

But Gorriti also has kinder words for Keiko, who became her father's "first lady" when she was just 19. The role arrived while her parents were going through a messy divorce and Keiko stood by her father. Her mother, Susana Higuchi, subsequently testified that the president had had secret service agents torture her.

"I have heard from good sources that Higuchi told Keiko to back her father publicly," says Gorriti. "That often does not come out. Life dealt her a pretty complicated set of cards. It must have been very difficult, as a teenage daughter, coping with that situation."

Gorriti also highlights Keiko's decision to stay in Peru when her father took up exile in Tokyo. He also says he believes her claims that she sought to distance her father from his powerful Machiavellian national security adviser Vladimiro Montesinos.

Montesinos is now also serving a long jail term for, among other crimes, running death squads and trafficking weapons to leftist Colombian rebels. He is also currently on trial over Gorrti's kidnapping.

But Gorriti's empathy for Keiko does not extend to trusting that she would not repeat her father's abuses if she wins the June 5 runoff vote.


"It is possible you could see a gentler, kinder Fujimorismo once in power. It is within the range of possibilities but I think it is improbable," says the journalist who was himself forced to leave Peru when he became unemployable when Fujimori senior was in power. "There is a hardcore current that definitely wants an iron fist, which would like to see critical journalists in the courts, would close down foreign NGOs, and criminalize protest."

A mother of two young daughters, Keiko is married to New Jersey businessman Mark Villanella, who she met while the pair were MBA students at Columbia University. She has largely kept her family out of the limelight.

Keiko's only known job is the single term she served as a congresswoman, from 2006 to 2011. Critics say she failed to show up on more than 500 days during that time.

Since launching her presidential campaign she has given few interviews, and none to foreign journalists. When she does talk, she has worked hard to moderate the image of her Popular Force party.

During a TV debate on Sunday, the frontrunner accepted that her father had made "mistakes," though she made no mention of "crimes." She also avoided saying whether, if elected president, she would pardon him. Most Peruvians assume she would.

"I will respect the separation of powers," she promised. "I will not use political power to benefit any member of my family and I will put the opposition in charge of the [congressional] oversight and intelligence commissions."


She also signed a written commitment to respect human rights and the democratic order.

"Never again a 5th of April," Keiko said, in reference to the 1992 autogolpe, or self-coup, when her father sent tanks and troops to close the congress and courts in a flagrant breach of the constitution.

Related: An Alleged Killer, a Plagiarist, and a Jailed Ex-Leader's Kid: Meet Peru's Presidential Field

For many Peruvians, the return of Fujimorismo to power via the ballot box would represent national ignominy. Two days after the debate thousands of demonstrators marked the 24th anniversary of the autogolpe with a peaceful march in Lima and other cities across Peru. The protests are an annual event in Peru, but were unusually large this year as the country comes to grips with the growing likelihood that Keiko could become president.

Keiko's debate rhetoric was just the latest attempt to move Popular Force from the hard right to the center right. She has also expressed approval of same sex civil unions and some limited legal abortions, in cases where the mother's life is in danger.

Other campaign promises include a "shock" of infrastructure spending to reignite the economy, which has suffered as the price of its mineral exports has fallen, and tax incentives for businesses.

But Keiko has also kept the faith with a central tenet of Fujimorismo — the pledge to tackle crime with an "iron fist."

That includes a program of new prisons for hardened criminals to be built above 13,000 feet in the Andes mountains, beyond mobile phone range to ensure they cannot continue to order murders or orchestrate extortion rackets from their cells. She also talks about using the army to guard government buildings, thus freeing thousands of police to patrol the streets.


Keiko's delicate juggling act has also included a public confrontation with her father after she removed three of Popular Force's longest serving, and most extreme, lawmakers from the party's list of congressional candidates. The former president issued a letter, via Facebook, from his prison cell demanding they be allowed to stay on, and insisting it should be voters who decide "their merits and define their continuity."

The face off was widely interpreted in Peru as Keiko asserting her authority over her father, while also demonstrating that she was a modern, democratic politician out of step with the harsh reactionary rhetoric of the Fujimori loyalists. Some, including Gorriti, believe the whole row may have been staged.

One of the outgoing lawmakers who also served as Alberto Fujimori's cabinet, denied the very public father-daughter falling out was a ploy.

"I didn't know about it and I have no need to stage that kind of a stunt," Luisa María Cuculiza told VICE News.

But while Cuculiza said she was disappointed at her imminent exit from Peru's single chamber 130-member congress, she also said she would be happy to serve in a Keiko government if asked.

"She is very ready to be president," Cuculiza insisted, highlighting Keiko's travels around the country and her studies in the US.

"It's not about her surname. That is why people call her Keiko," the congresswoman said. "What happened 20 years ago, is not her responsibility. Blaming the child for a parent's actions would put us back in the stone age."


But Cuculiza also revealed the kind of uncompromising attitude that her young party leader is trying to play down.

"You need to reestablish the principle of authority. Cut it off at the root, so that it can never grow again," she said, when asked about how a Keiko administration should tackle crime. Her tone suggested she would happily wield the machete herself.

Related: The Prosecutor Investigating Peru's Powerful First Lady Has Been Fired

Keiko's other problem is that the corruption and undemocratic conduct that marred her father's administration keeps rearing its head in Popular Force today.

Her campaign chief, Pier Figari, was caught on video thrusting his forehead into a cameraman's temple as he filmed anti-Keiko protesters. Another prominent Fujimorista called the loud but peaceful demonstrators "terrorists."

Numerous scandals surrounding senior Popular Force figures include a money laundering probe of the party's general secretary, Joaquín Ramírez.

When the Panama papers, published on Sunday, named a major Fujimorista donor, Jorge Yoshiyama Sasaki, among the clients of offshore finance specialists Mossack Fonseca, most Peruvians just shrugged.

The revelation was just the latest regarding Popular Force's murky campaign finances, including payments via the Cayman Islands and Delaware, a US state notorious for its permissive financial legislation.

Meanwhile, some believe that tax-dodging would be the least of it.


Jaime Antezana, a leading independent analyst of Peru's booming cocaine trade, says that his research has identified 17 narco candidatos, among Popular Force's congressional candidates, mainly in the provinces. He says that in some cases, their campaigns are financed by local drug traffickers, while in others the candidates themselves are leaders of local cocaine clans.

"If Keiko wins, Peru will become a narco state," Antezana warns. "Of course, she knows where her campaign money is coming from."

Related: Peru's Booming Cocaine Business Is Turning It Into Latin America's Newest Narco State

VICE News sought interviews with both Keiko and her vice presidential candidate, José Chlimper, but neither was available. Chlimper texted that he could talk after the elections.

Keiko appears certain to win Sunday's first round, but without the 50 percent that would allow her to avoid the June runoff. Only then, perhaps, will the real weight of her father's controversial legacy be revealed.

Follow Simeon Tegel on Twitter: @SimeonTegel