Why you should care
This hostage crisis would make the reputation of Peru’s most controversial former president.
In July, Princess Mako of Japan embarked on her first official visit since her uncle became emperor this year, traveling to Peru and Bolivia to celebrate Japanese migration to Latin America.
If she had been visiting Peru 23 years ago, she likely would have been invited to a party at Lima’s Japanese Embassy honoring her grandfather’s birthday — a party that changed the course of Peru’s history and sparked one of its largest political crises.
Peru’s relationship with Japan stretches back to the 1870s, when it was the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic relations with the kingdom and the first to accept Japanese immigration. In 1990, Peru elected its first Japanese-Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori. But some people weren’t happy about the ties between Peru and Japan — and in December 1996, that would end in explosions and eventual bloodshed.
In the 1980s and ’90s, two separate left-leaning Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organizations were rebelling against the Peruvian authorities. The smaller of these two was the anti-imperialist Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, which decried the influence of empires — Japan and the U.S. — on Peru. MRTA was named after an 18th-century rebel Ieader who’d resisted the Spanish — the same one who lent his name to American superstar rapper Tupac Shakur.
Fujimori staked much of his reputation on defeating these groups, going so far as to suspend the constitution and purge the judiciary in 1992, furious that crucial anti-terrorism and trafficking legislation was taking too long to pass. Senators who turned up to work were dispersed with tear gas by the army.
The Japanese ambassador’s residence in the upscale district of San Isidro was symbolic of the long-standing ties between both countries. Under Fujimori, who in 2001 would attempt to resign his presidency by fax from the comfort of Tokyo, the Japanese had pumped in loans and other assistance programs in a bid to help him boost the Peruvian economy.
On Dec. 17, 1996, MRTA struck during a reception at the ambassador’s residence celebrating the 63rd birthday of Emperor Akihito, Mako’s grandfather. One of the most important diplomatic events in Peru, everyone who was anyone in the diplomatic community had made an appearance. That included ambassadors from Japan, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, Bolivia, South Korea and Austria, as well as other diplomats, Cabinet ministers, congressmen, multinational CEOs and heads of public entities. Fujimori did not make it to the party, but his mother and sister did.
Unfortunately for them, so did 14 MRTA militants. Some were dressed as waiters, while others blasted a hole in the estate’s garden wall to enter, letting them take the house by surprise. The police response was swift, but after a 40-minute gun battle, the rebels had the upper hand, and nearly 500 hostages. Once they had control of the house, its security measures — like window grates and bulletproof glass — made it easy to defend from police.
Peru was suddenly thrust into the international spotlight. “You had press crews from all over,” remembers Bibiana Melzi, a documentary filmmaker who at the time was a production assistant at Panamericana TV. “Businesses collapsed because all the streets [in that area] were closed … other people became millionaires because [international] news crews were renting rooms with a view of the residence for $500 a day.”
MRTA wanted an exchange: the release of more than 400 of its members from prison and safe passage to a communist country. Initially, Fujimori refused to give in to their demands or to rule out the use of force to retrieve the captives. Meanwhile, the guerrillas let a number of female guests and senior citizens, including Fujimori’s mother, go free after that night. They allowed others, particularly those with health problems, to leave in subsequent days. Four months later there were only 72 hostages left in the building.
In those four months, Peru’s security forces went to work on a daring rescue operation, named Chavín de Huantar after a local tourist site famed for its underground passageways. It took months to plan and involved the construction of a replica of the embassy at a nearby military base, which they used for practice while digging a network of subterranean tunnels under the residence.
They had eyes on the inside too: Archbishop of Lima Juan Luis Cipriani, one of the hostage negotiators, smuggled a Bible and guitar containing a microphone and spy camera into the residence, allowing the hostages to communicate. They also exchanged messages with the military outside using music and car horns, while army trucks parked in front of the building organized noisy parades with sirens to provoke the guerrillas and distract them while the tunnels were under construction.
The military executed its plan on April 22, 1997, blowing up the tunnel after they entered. During the rescue, all 14 militants died — which later drew scrutiny, as hostage accounts indicated that they’d been extrajudicially executed — as did two soldiers. Only one hostage didn’t make it out, a Supreme Court justice.
Fujimori, who later claimed to have helped plan the operation himself, became an instant hero in Japan and Peru. His popularity nearly doubled, and the operation destroyed support for the MRTA, consigning the group to history shortly after. “The MRTA did that and that was their goodbye,” explains Melzi. Fujimori, though, wouldn’t be around much longer: By 2000, his support had collapsed; shortly after, he fled to Japan. He’s now in prison after being sentenced for embezzlement.
The residence was demolished later that year, but the compound is still standing and now sits amid a gentrified neighborhood, it’s a desolate outlier suspended in time. “There should be a movie about it,” says Angel Silva, a lawyer who was a teenager at the time of the crisis. “I [was] very sure the Americans would have made a movie about it.”