Former President Alberto Fujimori arrived in Lima on Saturday after being extradited from Chile to face charges of corruption and sanctioning death-squad killings, a grim homecoming for the strongman who fled Peru seven years ago as his government collapsed in scandal.
Fujimori maintains a strong following — a recent poll showed that 23 percent of Peruvians want to see him back in politics — and some worry his return could provoke turmoil in a country emerging from decades of political and economic chaos.
"There will be a sector of the country that will identify with him, and he will play a destabilizing opposition role," said Javier Valle Riestra, a congressman and leader of President Alan Garcia's Aprista party.
Fujimori was widely admired for ushering in economic stability and defeating the Shining Path rebel movement during his 1990-2000 government, but his presidency increasingly came under fire as it drifted toward authoritarianism and evidence surfaced of corruption.
He was flying to Peru under police custody Saturday, a day after the Chilean Supreme Court ordered his extradition on human rights and corruption charges.
A Peruvian police airplane carrying the 69-year-old former ruler departed just before 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) from Santiago. It touched down on Peruvian soil in the early afternoon to refuel before continuing its journey to the capital of Lima.
Earlier, a white-and-blue Chilean police helicopter flew Fujimori to the airport from the suburban residence where he was under house arrest for months while awaiting the ruling on his extradition.
Fujimori's followers and foes alike were stunned in November 2005, when he landed in a small plane in Chile and revealed his ambition to run for president in the 2006 elections, even though Peru's Congress had banned him from seeking public office until 2011. He was promptly arrested.
‘How Houdini gets out of this one’
Fujimori had earned a reputation as a cool-headed strategist in handling multiple crises as president. But he may have miscalculated when he decided to leave his safe refuge in Japan, where he enjoyed immunity from extradition because of his Japanese nationality, inherited from his migrant parents.
It "will be interesting to see how Houdini gets out of this one," said Michael Shifter, a Latin America analyst at Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Peru wants to try Fujimori on corruption and human rights charges, including sanctioning the death-squad killings of 25 people.
Fujimori, who calls the charges politically motivated, said on the eve of his departure that while his government made mistakes, he has a clear conscience.
"This does not mean that I've been tried, much less convicted. ... I hope that in Peru there exists the due process to clarify the accusations against me," he told the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio.
He noted that while the Chilean Supreme Court authorized his extradition, it significantly reduced the charges for which he can be tried in Peru. According to the extradition treaty between the two countries, he can only be tried on the charges for which the extradition was approved.
‘There will be a political heir’
Fujimori also suggested that he's eyeing a political comeback, saying, "I still have majority support from a very popular political current.
"I assure you that there will be a political heir if I am no longer around," he added. "There will a Fujimori movement for a long time. I guarantee that there will be some Fujimori in the next presidential race."
He said his daughter Keiko, who was elected to Congress last year with 600,000 votes, far more than any other legislator, has "what it takes" to be president.
On Friday, Keiko, 32, who is six months pregnant with her first child, demanded that he not be mistreated while in custody and urged supporters to greet him at the airport.
"Fujimori was the one who brought peace to this country, who defeated terrorism, and it seems a paradox that today Fujimori is being tried for human rights," she said.
Fujimori-allied Congressman Rolando Souza predicted that if the former leader does not receive a fair trial and is sentenced to a long prison term, indignation among his supporters would propel his daughter into the presidency in 2011.
"I'm completely sure of it," he said.
Peruvian prosecutors are seeking 30 years in prison for each human rights charge, and up to 10 years for the corruption charges. But prison terms run concurrently under Peruvian law.
‘It's hard to say who is guilty’
Some Peruvians say Fujimori's controversial crackdown on the bloody Shining Path insurgency was justified.
"Maybe it's a crime now, but there was a war going on then," said Miguel Capac, 40, a civil engineer who voted for Fujimori. "And in a war it's hard to say who is guilty and who is innocent."
But for others, his administration's alleged crimes outweigh its successes.
"He has done good things. No one denies that. But that doesn't allow him to get away with the acts of corruption he committed," said Maria Huaman, a 35-year-old architect.
Many believe Garcia didn't want Fujimori extradited, fearing he could become a powerful opposition leader. Garcia's political opposition is fragmented, giving him a free hand to rule, and he maintains a fragile control of the 120-seat Congress with the backing of 13 legislators allied to Fujimori.
Larry Birns, director of the Washington think tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said the trial also could prove to be embarrassing for Garcia. He said human rights violations were even greater during Garcia's first term in 1985-1990 than in Fujimori's administration, "and I think Fujimori is going to use that as his defense."
The trial "will open up not one but many cans of worms because corruption in Peru was endemic at that time," Birns said.
"Peruvian politics are still very unstable," he added. "The trial and its aftermath are going to have a disruptive effect. There will be no real winners of this except probably the Peruvian human rights community."