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Why Don’t We Talk About Peru’s Forced Sterilizations?

Under former President Fujimori, over 200,000 women were violated—one of the largest such projects since Nazi Germany. His party is still in power.

Esperanza Huayama, 59, a victim of forced sterilization procedures, at a press conference in 2015 (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Peru’s supreme court overturned the pardon of brutal Peruvian ex-President Alberto Fujimori, tossing the leader back to his 25-year prison sentence for human rights violations and corruption. Human rights groups, outraged when Fujimori was pardoned by former-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski on Christmas Eve last year, reportedly as part of a backroom deal to save his doomed presidency, are understandably ecstatic. Yet as the reversal is welcomed by Amnesty International, and splashed across international headlines, one of Fujimori’s less-discussed and most appalling legacies is still missing from the conversation: the over 200,000 indigenous women who were forcibly sterilized under his regime.

María Mamérita Mestanza Chávez was 33 when Peruvian health officials began threatening her with jail if she did not submit to surgical sterilization, according to those presenting her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1999. Mestanza was a low-income, illiterate indigenous woman, and when after numerous intimidating visits she finally agreed to tubal ligation, she wasn’t informed of the risks, nor was she examined for potential complications. Her husband contacted doctors shortly after the surgery, concerned that his wife wasn’t well, and was told it was simply the effects of the anaesthesia wearing off. Mestanza died at home nine days later.

Fujimori gained international support and USAID funding for the sterilizations by presenting them at the UN Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 as part of a progressive reproductive rights program—a classic case of ethnic cleansing masked in “development” rhetoric. The number of those sterilized under Fujimori’s so-called “family planning” program between 1996 and 2000 is estimated at 294,032 people, including 22,004 men, by Peru’s official human rights watchdog Defensoría del Pueblo. Other estimates are even higher.

Mestanza’s case ended with an $80,000 payment by the Peruvian state and a promise to “conduct administrative and criminal investigations.” The petitioners, in the words of the settlement document in 2003, made clear that this was only one example of a “systematic government policy to stress sterilization as a means for rapidly altering the reproductive behavior of the population, especially poor, Indian, and rural women.”

Yet despite the fact that this case and the ensuing investigation played out alongside the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) that followed the collapse of the Fujimori regime, not one mention of forced sterilizations is to be found in the commission’s public report. The CVR’s broad mandate allowed it to cover two decades, three presidents, two Maoist terrorist groups, and several distinct instances of state-backed violence—both before and during Fujimori’s time. But the commissioners decided to leave the sterilizations out, claiming they were tangential to the period of violence, even while including other tangential crimes with higher stakes for Peruvian elites—such as Fujimori’s embezzlement scandal. While individual cases have been opened and re-opened by various investigations, the Peruvian government has repeatedly denied the existence of systematic forced sterilization.

Meanwhile, many more victims’ stories have emerged. In 2013, the interactive Quipu project began enabling women to call in and share their stories via telephone, building an online oral history. Yet these women’s stories were still nowhere to be found in this week’s headlines, even in write-ups of the court decision that mentioned other Fujimori-era atrocities. On a superficial level, this is because Fujimori was only formally convicted for embezzlement, bribery, authorizing death squads and rigging elections—as per the major crimes outlined in the truth commission. But at the same time, the available estimates for the sterilization campaign would make it one of the biggest such programs since Nazi Germany. Why does it receive so little attention?

Spanish colonial rule not only guaranteed sickness and death for many indigenous Peruvians, but created the fragmented and divided structures that continue to exist in Peruvian society today. That includes the geographical divide between the coastal region—predominantly urban, white and Spanish speaking—and the highlands—mostly rural, indigenous and Quechua or Aymara-speaking, not to mention the rainforest where 10 percent of the Peruvian population lives and over 17 languages are in danger of extinction. Indigenous peoples in the highlands and the Amazon are still in many ways second-class citizens, without the political and economic capital of their white and mestizo counterparts on the coast—their languages, voices and lives are disposable in the eyes of the state.   

Fujimori’s sterilization campaign, which didn’t come to international attention until hundreds of thousands of indigenous and primarily Quechua-speaking women had been forced into tubal ligations, is one of several cases highlighting the indigenous populations’ disposability in Peru. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of indigenous peoples in Ayacucho were massacred by the Shining Path, a Maoist terrorist groups that grew its base in the Quechua highlands.* The massacres went unnoticed by the Peruvian state for years—and many innocent indigenous people were subsequently caught in crossfire and killed by the Peruvian military itself.

Political amnesia has consequences—ones Fujimori and his political party have profited from time and time again. Peruvian journalist César Hildebrandt has gone so far as to refer to a “Peruvian Alzheimer’s” going back to the 1990s, when Fujimori consolidated support through the false claim that he was responsible for capturing Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán—even though the counterterrorism directorate police force that carried out the operation was not under his supervision. Collective misremembering of 90s-era crimes has also allowed for Fujimorismo, the political ideology and personality cult built around Fujimori and his family that includes his daughter’s Fuerza Popular party, to grow. Since Fujimori’s initial arrest and sentencing in 2009, his daughter Keiko’s party has gained the majority in congress—through a system that was constitutionally drafted by her father—and nearly won the presidency in 2016

Keiko became first lady in the ’90s after Fujimori’s wife and Keiko’s mother, who says she was tortured by Fujimori for denouncing him, was stripped of the title. Keiko has repeatedly downplayed her father’s human rights violations, and this week expressed sorrow over his jailing. She intends to run for presidency again in the 2021 general elections.

Over the past decade, Peruvian politicians such as former President Alan García have framed attempts to resurface the atrocities of the Fujimori regime as pointlessly dwelling on sins of the past. This has led, for example, to García initially rejecting funds from the German government to build a museum focused on the era of terrorism and dictatorship. The reality, however, is that addressing the systemic oppression of Fujimori’s regime is vital to understanding the political systems that allowed for such atrocities to occur—under a party that remains the congressional majority in Peru.  

The over 200,000 women who were violated under Fujimori have been treated as, at best, an afterthought for the past two decades. As the world becomes more aware of the perils of ignoring women’s stories, and as another Fujimori gears up for a presidential bid in 2021, there’s every reason to start listening to them.

*Correction: This article originally suggested that the Revolutionary Movement of Tupác Amaru (MRTA) was a Maoist terrorist group involved in the massacre of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples in Ayacucho. In fact, the MRTA was active mainly in Lima, and was responsible for closer to a thousand deaths.