Massacre Helps Fujimori Push Tough-on-Crime Message in Peru Vote

It was a scene chillingly reminiscent of an era Peruvians thought was behind them: 16 people, including children, massacred in a jungle village by what authorities said was an offshoot of the Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path.

With a crucial presidential election on Sunday, the country now faces not only an exploding Covid death count, a shattered economy and turbulent politics — like much of the region -- but also a terrorist shadow.

And although it’s unclear who the perpetrators were, in a campaign built on fear of the opponent the killings bolster the law-and-order message of Keiko Fujimori who accuses Pedro Castillo of links to the violent left — an accusation he fervently denies.

“Fujimorismo defeated terrorism,” she said recently, referring to the movement begun by her father. “Castillo needs to look in the mirror because it’s him, and his group, that are accused of being close to and linked with terrorism.”

The race is so close that many predict the counting will last beyond Sunday.

Fujimori’s allies have repeatedly warned of a revival of groups like Shining Path confronted by her father when he was president in the 1990s.

Massacre Helps Fujimori Push Tough-on-Crime Message in Peru Vote

In fact, the legacy of her father, Alberto, looms over this election partly because the sense of crisis feels similar to then. Many Peruvians credit him with saving the country from chaos, defeating the guerrillas and taming hyperinflation, even though he also presided over mass corruption and was later jailed for death squad killings.

He is still in jail. His daughter, 46, has been jailed three times since 2018, and is campaigning while out on bail. She hasn’t been convicted of anything, though investigations for money laundering and leading a criminal organization are ongoing.

Her brother, her husband and several of her closest aides are also under investigation, and some family members are still on the run from justice for alleged crimes committed during her father’s presidency. In a country where, since 1985, every elected leader but one has been impeached, imprisoned or sought in criminal investigations, Fujimori is seen as part of the problem by many people.

Massacre Helps Fujimori Push Tough-on-Crime Message in Peru Vote

Despite frequent political turmoil, Peru's economy has been one of the region's top performers in recent years. The campaign has whipsawed markets, with a sell-off in Peru's stocks, bonds and currency whenever Castillo gained ground on fears that he might overhaul the economic model.

Massacre Helps Fujimori Push Tough-on-Crime Message in Peru Vote

This is Fujimori’s third run for president -- she came very close in 2016 -- and the hardcore support her family once enjoyed has eroded. Fewer than one in seven Peruvians backed her in the first round, but she made it to the runoff.

And now, there is such concern over Castillo’s left leanings among many in Lima and the business community that her backing has grown.

“From a markets perspective, the most exciting thing about her is the fact that she is simply not Castillo,” said Paul Molander, a Latin America strategist at NatWest Markets Plc.

On the other side, many blame her for the growing political chaos. She used her party's influential position in congress to back impeachment bids against two presidents, which helped render the country ungovernable.

The nation of 32 million suffered one of the world’s highest death rates from Covid-19 and its worst economic slump since the 1980s. Fujimori has pledged subsidized loans for farmers and small businesses, and also promised a “heavy hand” to combat crime.

Fujimori was a teenager, the eldest of four children, when Shining Path’s terror campaign was at its height, car bombs left the capital without electricity and death squads carried out massacres and extra-judicial executions in poor regions.

With the country in flames, her father, a hitherto little-known engineer of Japanese origin, ran for office in 1990 promising a hard line. He defeated Nobel-prize winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa to take the presidency.

Three decades later, Keiko is running on a similar platform though, until two weeks ago, most Peruvians thought the Shining Path was history. Whether what just happened is a sign of its revival or not, it is stirring fear again of the lawlessness it once sowed.

Massacre Helps Fujimori Push Tough-on-Crime Message in Peru Vote

Apart from the focus on order, Keiko is also seen by many as sharing her father’s tendency toward authoritarianism.

Her campaign didn’t respond to an interview request. Both candidates have signed pledges to leave office in 2026 and respect the nation’s institutions and separation of powers, including the judiciary and central bank.

She was finishing her elite private schooling in 1992 when her father dissolved congress and began governing as an autocrat. That same year, a police intelligence unit tracked down and captured Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path’s founder, leader and chief ideologue.

Keiko left to study at Boston University but returned to Peru in 1994 to become acting first lady after her parents divorced.

“She began her adult life as a public figure,” said Fernan Altuve, a friend who was formerly a lawmaker in her father’s party. “Public life is all she’s ever known.”

Keiko met her husband, Mark Villanella, an American businessman from New Jersey, while studying for an MBA at Columbia University in New York. After returning to Peru, she was elected to congress in 2006 with more votes than any other candidate, tapping the popularity her father still enjoyed among some sectors.

Villanella has played a distinctly public role in her career. When she was imprisoned on allegations of corruption, he went on hunger strike and took to social media to plead for her return to their two teenage children, insisting that she was being framed.

Massacre Helps Fujimori Push Tough-on-Crime Message in Peru Vote

Fujimori knows that her image has suffered. This week, she acknowledged mistakes by her and her party and begged voters to look at her afresh. The alternative, she emphasized, was dark.

“Without making any excuse, I ask for your forgiveness,” she said. “I know there remain many doubts about my candidacy. I ask all of you, and all Peruvians, to give me a chance to prove myself.”

Then she added, “There is a risk that communism will come to power and stay there.”

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