Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Japanese embassy hostage crisis
The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on December 17, 1996 in Lima, Peru, when fourteen members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials, and business executives who were attending a party in celebration of Emperor Akihito's 63rd birthday at the official residence of Japan's ambassador to Peru, Morihisha Aoki.1 One hundred twenty-six days later the hostages were freed in a daring raid by Peruvian Armed Forces commandos, during which one hostage and all the MRTA militants died. While the operation was heralded by President Alberto Fujimori, who used it strengthen his image of being "tough on terrorism", it later emerged that a number the Emerretistas had been executed after they had surrendered, and this revelation tainted the affair. Fujimori later faced murder charges because of the executions, but as of 2005, he has not been brought to trial on these charges because Fujimori has been absent from Peru, and Peru does not hold trials in absentia.
In the years following the capture in 1992 of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán and the rest of the group's leadership, terrorist activity declined in Peru; the country appeared to have finally put behind it the violence which had plagued it for some fifteen years. When news spread of the MRTA's daring assault on the ambassador's residence, the country emitted a collective groan. The Lima Stock Exchange was forced to close three hours early because domestic stocks plummeted. One newspaper political columnist commented, "It is a setback of at least four years. We've returned to being a country subject to terror." The news came at a particularly bad moment for Fujimori, who had previously taken credit for restoring peace to the country. All year, his popularity had been dropping steadily, from a high of 75 percent in January 1996 to a figure of about 40 percent in December. This was largely because, after a promising start, Fujimori's economic program has failed to produce jobs, and the Peruvian economy had stagnatedt after growth in 1994 and 1995. 
The surprise attack was the most spectacular action organized by the MRTA in its 15-year history, and propelled it into the world spotlight. The militants had been able to pass unnoticed, inside an ambulance, through a cordon of more than 300 police officers and bodyguards surrounding the residence. They were armed with AKM rifles, UZI sub-machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, Browning automatic rifles, revolvers, hand grenades, explosives, anti-gas masks, and other armaments. Fujimori was visibly shaken by the bold attack. Not only did it suggest complacency on the part of the security forces, it turned the international spotlight on prison conditions in Peru. 
In the days immediately following the takeover, the Red Cross acted as an intermediary between the government and the guerrillas. Among the hostages were high officials of Peru's security forces, including the chief of Peru's anti-terrorist police, DINCOTE, Máximo Rivera and former chief Carlos Domínguez. Other hostages included Alejandro Toledo, the current president of Peru, and Javier Diez Canseco, a prominent Peruvian congressman. The twenty-four Japanese hostages included Fujimori's younger brother. The leader of the MRTA militants was identified as 43-year-old Néstor Cerpa.
The rebels made a series of demands, the most important of which was the release of some 400 of their comrades from prisons around Peru (including jailed U.S. activist Lori Berenson) and a revision of the government's "neoliberal" free-market reforms. The MRTA also singled out for criticism Japan's foreign assistance program in Peru, arguing that this aid benefitted only a narrow segment of society.  It also protested what it claimed were cruel and inhuman conditions in Peru's jails.
Javier Diez Canseco was among 38 men who were released shortly after the hostages were taken. He defended the MRTA and called for the government to negotiate a settlement. Canseco said that the hostage-takers are "18 to 20 years old, maybe 21 ... They're a group of special forces, commandos. I think they're young men who want to live. They don't want to die." 
On 22 December, Fujimori made his first public announcement on the hostage-taking. In a televised four-minute speech, he condemned the assailants, calling the MRTA assault "repugnant" and totally rejecting the terrorists' demands. Fujimori did not rule out an armed rescue attempt, but said that he was willing to explore a peaceful solution to the situation. Fujimori made his speech shortly after MRTA leader Néstor Cerpa announced that he would gradually release any hostages who were not connected to the Peruvian government.  During the months that followed, the rebels would release all the female hostages and all but 72 of the men.
Speculation circulated that Peru was turning to foreign governments for assistance, but Fujimori publicly indicated that he did not need help from foreign security advisors. Upon being freed, Alejandro Toledo said that what the Emerretistas really wanted was an amnesty that would allow its members to participate in public life. He said that any attempt to rescue the hostages by force would be "insane", as they were "armed to the teeth". Rooms in the building, he said, were wired with explosives, as well as the roof. He added that the terrorists had anti-tank weapons and wore backpacks that were filled with explosives that could be detonated by pulling a cord on their chest. 
The Japanese ambassador's residence had also been converted into a fortress by the Japanese government. A copy of Tara, Scarlet O'Hara's home in the movie Gone with the Wind that was built by a Peruvian millionaire to humor his whimsical wife, the house was surrounded by a 12-feet wall, grates on all windows, bullet-proof glass in many windows, and doors built to withstand the impact of a grenade. It was, therefore, an easy site to defend from the inside.
In search for a "peaceful solution", Fujimori appointed a team to hold talks with the MRTA, including the Canadian ambassador who had briefly been a hostage, Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, and a Red Cross official. Fujimori even talked with Fidel Castro, raising media speculation that a deal was being worked out to let the MRTA militants go to Cuba as political exiles. However, it was reported on January 17 that negotiations with the MRTA had stalled.
In early February, a new squadron of Peruvian troops with heavy equipment took over the embassy vigil. They played loud military music and made provocative gestures to the rebels who unleashed a burst of gunfire. This prompted Japan's prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, to publicly urge Peru to refrain from taking any unnecessary risks that could endanger the hostages' lives. Japanese leaders pressured Fujimori to reach some sort of negotiated settlement with the Tupac Amaru rebels in order to ensure the hostages' safe release. Fujimori subsequently met with Hashimoto in Canada. The two leaders announced that they were in agreement on how to handle the hostage situation but provided few details. 
On February 10, Fujimori travelled to London, where he announced that the purpose of his trip was to "find a country that would give asylum to the MRTA group". Observers noted that his request that the MRTA group be given political asylum contradicted his formerly stated position that the MRTA were not guerrillas but terrorists. On the eve of his arrival, the The Times referred to him as a "dictator" and berated "his barbaric and medieval dungeons". The next day, Fujimori declared that "Peruvian prisons are built in accordance with international standards for terrorists." He also attended business meetings which he described to his domestic audience as an "exercise in reassuring the international investors." 
In February, Peruvian newspaper La República reported the existence of a secret government "intervention plan", involving the direct participation of U.S. military forces. The plan was reportedly devised by Peru's Army Intelligence Agency and submitted to Fujimori. On February 17, the New York Times wrote: "United States participation in the assault is crucial, according to the plan, which said that the commandos would come from the Peruvian Army's School of Commandos and the United States Southern Command, based in Panama." 
The MRTA called off the talks with the government in March when they reported hearing loud noises coming from beneath the floor of the ambassador's residence. Peruvian newspapers confirmed the MRTA suspicions, reporting that the police were digging tunnels underneath the building. The police tried to cover up the noise from the digging by playing loud music over loudspeakers and carrying out noisy tank maneuvers through the nearby streets. 
It subsequently became apparent that the negotiations were a ruse for buying time. It appeared that it was Fujimori's plans for a military assault, not MRTA's "unwillingness to negotiate", that led to the breakdown of talks. According to the New York Times, the Canadian ambassador himself admitted that Fujimori's negotiating team "had served as little more than a cover to give [Fujimori] time to put in place the physical and political elements of a raid." 
On April 22, 1997, a team of 140 commandos, given the name Chavín de Huantar (in reference to a Peruvian archeological site famous for its underground passageways), mounted an dramatic raid on the ambassador's residence. Fourteen MRTA rebels, one hostage, and two soldiers died in the assault.
In preparation for the raid, one of the hostages, Admiral Luis Gianpetri of the Peruvian Navy, who was an expert in intelligence and command operations, was provided with a tiny radio set and given encrypted instructions ordering him to warn the hostages ten minutes before the military operation began, telling them to stay as far as possible away from the MRTA members. Light-colored clothes were systematically ferried in to the hostages, so that they could be easily distinguished from the dark-clad guerrillas. Cerpa himself unwittingly helped with this part of the project when, hearing sounds that made him suspect that a tunnel was being dug, he ordered all the hostages placed on the second floor.
In addition, sophisticated miniature microphones and video cameras had been smuggled into the residence, concealed in books, water bottles, and table games. Gianpetri and other military officers among the hostages were given the responsibility for placing these devices in secure locations around the house. Eavesdropping on the MRTA commandos with the help of these high-tech devices, military planners observed that the guerrillas had organized their security carefully, and were particularly alert during the night hours. Early every afternoon, eight of the MRTA members — including the four leaders — played a game of indoor football for about one hour.
At 15:23 that afternoon, operation Chavín de Huántar began. Three charges exploded nearly simultaneously in three different rooms on the first floor. The first explosion hit in the middle of the room were the football game was being held, immediately killing three terrorists — two of the men who had been involved in the game, and one of the women watching from the sidelines. From the hole created by that blast and the other two explosions, thirty commandos stormed into the building, chasing the surviving MRTA members in order to stop them before they reached the second floor.
Two other moves were made simultaneously with the explosion. In the first, twenty commandos launched a direct assault on the front door in order to join their comrades inside the waiting room, where the main staircase to the second floor was located. On their way in, they found the two other female MRTA guerrillas guarding the front door. The women dropped their weapons and shouted "we surrender," but they were cut down by the rushing commandos. Behind the first wave of commandos storming the door, another group of soldiers came carrying ladders, which they placed against the rear walls of the building.
In the final prong of the coordinated attack, another group of commandos emerged from the other two tunnels, which had reached the back yard of the embassy residence. These soldiers quickly scaled the ladders which had been placed for them. Their tasks were to blow out a grenade-proof door on the second floor, through which the hostages would be evacuated, and to make two holes in the roof so that they could kill the MRTA members upstairs before they had time to kill the hostages.
As the commandos tore the Tupac Amaru rebel flag from the roof of the embassy, Fujimori joined some of the former hostages in singing the national anthem.  Shortly thereafter a beaming Fujimori was seen speeding through Lima in a bus packed with freed hostages.  Peruvian TV also showed Fujimori striding among the dead guerrillas. Some of the bodies were mutilated, with arms and legs chopped off.  The outcome was seen as a triumph and bolstered his hard-line stance against unpopular leftist groups. Fujimori's popularity ratings quickly doubled to nearly 70 percent and he was acclaimed a national hero.  "You had to live in the climate of the time. The operation was so successful that there was no opposition. Peruvians loved it," said historian Luis Jochamowitz , author of a biography of Fujimori. Reflecting on the raid a few days afterward, Antonio Cisneros , a leading poet, said it had given Peruvians "a little bit of dignity. Nobody expected this efficiency, this speed. In military terms it was a First World job, not Third World." 
Fujimori took personal credit for the operation. In an interview with the December 17, 1997, edition of El Comercio, Fujimori stated that shortly after the embassy residence was seized, that he, the National Intelligence Service headed by Julio Salazar and Vladimiro Montesinos, and the Joint Command of the Armed Forces under Army Commander General Nicolás de Bari Hermoza Ríos had planned the operation. ] Fujimori later demonstrated to the media the model of the ambassador's residence which was used to prepare the rescue operation, which included the underground tunnels from adjacent houses used by commandos to enter the building. 
Reports emerged that the U.S. and Israel had helped the Peruvian military in preparing for the raid. U.S. State Department spokesperson Nicolas Burns maintained that the US government had no direct participation in the assault. But former FBI agent Bob Taubert told CNN News on April 23 that Peruvian troops had undergone training the previous December at an undisclosed location in the United States. It was "money well spent," he said. Commenting that the Peruvian commandos performed precisely as he had trained them for such an action, Taubert said he was "very proud." 
The CIA had no comment when asked if it had given intelligence assistance to the Peruvian military in preparation for the raid, but observers pointed out that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were deeply involved in the counterinsurgency operations of the Peruvian military and that CIA had a direct hand in the massive search by the Peruvian secret police that led to the 1992 capture of Shining Path capo Abimael Guzmán 
When the operation was over, the bodies of the Emerretistas were removed by military prosecutors; representatives from the Attorney General's Office were not permitted entry. The corpses were not taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine for the autopsy required by law. Rather, the bodies were taken instead to the morgue at the Police Hospital. It was there that the autopsies would be performed. The autopsy reports were kept secret until 2001. Next of kin of the deceased were not allowed to be present for the identification of the bodies and the autopsies. The bodies were buried in secrecy in various cemeteries throughout Lima. The mother of one of the victims, Eligia Rodríguez Bustamante, and the Deputy Director of APRODEH asked the Attorney General's Office to take the necessary steps to identify those who died when the ambassador's residence was retaken, but the Attorney General's Office conceded its jurisdiction to identify the deceased members of the MRTA, handing it over to the military justice system instead.  The treatment of the bodies of the dead guerrillas raised troubling questions. If the MRTA had no popular support, why did Fujimori refuse to let the families bury their dead ? Why did the government instead secretly bury them in unmarked graves?
In the days following the assault, there were demonstrations in several countries in protest the MRTA deaths. On April 25, hundreds protested at the Peruvian Embassy in Santiago, Chile. Riot police tear gassed demonstrators and pushed them to the ground outside the embassy. Protesters told television reporters, "We absolutely reject these acts of such cruelty, which should never happen again."
In Mexico City on April 23, scores of people gathered to protest at the Peruvian Embassy. Demonstrators hurled red paint and tomatoes at the building, shouting, "Fujimori murderer" and "Latin America is in mourning."
In the U.S., at an April 27 rally in Philadelphia against Clinton's cutbacks, Monica Ruiz told 5,000 demonstrators: "The truth is that these young MRTA revolutionaries were fighting for the same things we are fighting for and against the same enemy. Is it a surprise that the Clinton administration aids and abets the Peruvian government when it muzzles the voice of dissent by using police terror? Are we surprised that Clinton supports a government that enriches a small group of wealthy families in Peru at the expense of 80 percent of the population who live in utter poverty? After all, he is throwing millions of poor people, disabled children and elderly people on the streets here to beg for charity."
In an interview in on April 24 edition of the German newspaper Junge Welt, MRTA spokesperson Norma Velasco assessed the developments leading up to the raid. "The goal of the MRTA unit was not to murder the embassy prisoners," she said. Rather, the guerrillas wanted to win their demands to free the 450 MRTA prisoners held in Peru's prisons. "We had no illusions" that Fujimori wanted a peaceful solution, Velasco said. But "we did have some bit of hope that international public opinion in many countries would increase pressure on the Peruvian government and force them to give in." Alluding to the underlying economic conditions of the country, she observed: "A vast segment of the population still suffers from poverty, hunger and a lack of proper medical care, and these problems are increasing. The end of the crisis at the ambassador's residence showed that Fujimori exclusively relies on military means."
The New York Times on April 28 commented on the regime's dependency on the military, describing Fujimori, Montesinos and armed forces head Gen. Nicolás Hermoza Ríos as "Peru's ruling troika". Despite the secrecy, people discovered where MRTA leader Néstor Cerpa's body wis buried, and his grave in a hillside cemetery in the impoverished pueblo joven of Villa María del Triunfo subsequently became a rallying point for popular expressions of anger. A woman by Cerpa's grave told a New York Times reporter: "He fought for us, for the poor. Look at how we live. Look at how we die." Another said: "He was not a terrorist. He was a revolutionary." 
Doubts about the official version of events soon began to arise, however. One Japanese hostage, Hidetaka Ogura, former first secretary of the Japanese Embassy, who published a book in 2000 on the ordeal, stated that he saw one rebel, Eduardo Cruz (aka "Tito"), shortly after the commandos stormed the building, tied up in the garden. Cruz was handed over alive to Colonel Jesús Zamudio Aliaga, but along with the others he was later reported as having died during the assault. Another witness, former agriculture minister Rodolfo Muñante, declared in an interview eight hours after being free that he heard one rebel shout "I surrender" prior to taking off his grenade-laden vest and turning himself over. Later, however, Muñante denied having said this.  Another hostage, Máximo Rivera, then head of Peru's anti-terrorism police, said recently he had heard similar accounts from other hostages after the raid. 
Some aspects of what happened during the rescue operation remained secret until the fall of the Fujimori regime. Rumors began to circulate not long after the rescue operation that surrendered MRTA members had been executed extrajudicially. On December 18, 2000, El Comercio published a story in which the hostage Hidetaka Ogura again stated that he and other hostages saw three of the MRTA rebels captured alive, one of which whom was "Tito". Media reports also discussed a possible breach of international practices on taking of prisoners, committed on what was seen, under rules of diplomatic extraterritoriality as sovereign Japanese soil and speculated that if charged, Fujimori could face prosecution in Japan. 
On January 2, 2001, the Peruvian human rights organization APRODEH filed a criminal complaint on behalf of MRTA family members against Alberto Fujimori, Vladimiro Montesinos, Nicolás De Bari Hermoza Ríos, Julio Salazar Monroe and anyone else found to be guilty of the crime of the qualified homicide of Eduardo Nicolás Cruz Sánchez and two other MRTA members. Special Provincial Prosecutor Richard Saavedra was put in charge of the preliminary inquiry into the complaint. Non-commissioned National Police officers Raúl Robles Reynoso and Marcial Teodorico Torres Arteaga corroborated Hidetaka Ogura's testimony, telling investigators that they took Eduardo Cruz Sánchez alive, as he was attempting to get away by mingling with the hostages when they were at the house in back of the Japanese Ambassador's residence.
In an inteview in March, assistant state attorney Ronald Gamarra told CPN radio that Fujimori should face murder charges over the alleged executions: "(We have) information regarding how post-mortems were conducted on the dead MRTA rebels, which in opinion could corroborate accusations of extrajudicial killings." He said unofficial post-mortems plus reports by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and rights groups, suggested rebels had been executed with a shot in the head. The state prosecutors ordered the exhumation of the rebels' bodies. 
Fujimori's defenders say the Tupac Amaru investigation is just another attempt by political enemies to destroy his legacy. "Not giving in to terrorist blackmail is the only good thing remaining from the previous government," said Carlos Blanco, an independent congressman and one of the hostages. "And now they want to destroy that like everything else." 
Prosecutors are acting on remarks from former Japanese Embassy political attache Hidetaka Ogura, a hostage who published a book last year about the ordeal.
The bodies of the deceased MRTAs were exhumed and examined by forensic physicians and forensic anthropologists, experts from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, from the Criminology Division of the National Police, and from the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, some of whom have served as experts for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Statements were taken from various officers who took part in the rescue operation and from some of the rescued hostages.
The examination done by the forensic anthropologists and forensic physicians revealed that Cruz Sánchez had been shot once in the back of the neck, while in a defenseless posture vis-à-vis his assailant.  Other forensic examinations established that eight of the rebels were shot in the the back of the neck after capture or while defenseless because of injuries.
On May 13, 2002, judge Cecilia Polack Boluarte warrants for the arrest of eleven senior army officers who participated in the 1997 raid. The warrants allow the accused to be held for fifteen days before formal charges are filed.
The judge's decision provoked an outcry; the ministers of defense, justice and the interior all criticized the arrest orders. However, Attorney General Nelly Calderón supported the measure. In a statement made on May 20, 2002, to Radio Programas del Perú (RPP) she said: "We prosecutors are supporting the action taken by prosecutor Saavedra, because he has done a careful investigation (and) unfortunately the evidence suggests culpability. That evidence has to be collated to determine what degree of responsibility each arrested officer bears."
On May 16, two amnesty proposals were announced in congressional committees, one submitted by the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance party (APRA) of former president Alan García, the other by the National Unity party (UN). The UN bill "granted amnesty" to army General José Williams Zapata, who headed up the operation, and to the "official personnel who participated in the freeing and rescue of the hostages." Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch strongly protested the move. "The successful rescue of the hostages turned these commandos into national heroes, but the evidence of illegal killings is compelling. National gratitude is no reason for shielding them from justice," the organization argued in a press release. HRW argued that the amnesty proposals clearly conflict with the principles enunciated by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in its March 2001 ruling against the Peruvian government in the case of the 1991 Barrios Altos massacre. In that case, which involved the amnesty law passed in 1995 by the Fujimori government, the Court declared the amnesty null and void because it conflicted with Peru's human rights treaty obligations. It later interpreted that ruling as applicable to all similar cases. 
On June 7, at a ceremony organized by the army to commemorate loyalty to the National Flag, the commandos were honored and decorated, including those whom the judicial branch had under investigation for alleged involvement in the extrajudicial executions. On July 29, 2002, the Chavín de Huántar commando squad was selected to lead the independence day military parade. This appeared to have been done to exert more pressure on the Supreme Court justices who had to decide the jurisdiction question raised by the military court, all in order to make certain that it would be the military court that investigated the extrajudicial executions. 
On August 16, 2002, the Peruvian Supreme Court convened to hear the oral arguments of the parties to the jurisdictional challenge brought by the military tribunal. The military prosecutor heading up the parallel inquiry being conducted in the military court and who had to bring the charges and prove them, was the person arguing the military's challenge. However, in his oral arguments he made a defense for the commandos, stating that "heroes must not be treated like villains." The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the military court system had jurisdiction over the nineteen commandos, thus declining jurisdiction in favor of the military tribunal. It held that the events had occurred in a district that at the time was under a state of emergency, and were part of a military operation conducted on orders from above. It further held that any crimes that the 19 commandos may have committed were the jurisdiction of the military courts. It also ruled that the civilian criminal courts should retain jurisdiction over anyone else, other than the commandos, who may have violated civilian laws.
On February 3, 2003, APRODEH, on behalf of MRTA family members, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the Peruvian state, alleging that Peru violated certain rights recognized in the American Convention on Human Rights to the detriment of MRTA rebels Eduardo Nicolás Cruz Sánchez, David Peceros Pedraza, and Herma Luz Meléndez Cueva, by detaining them and then summarily executing them. The Commission determined the petition was admissible.
1. The crisis did indeed take place at the ambassador's residence and not the embassy, but the media and others customarily referred to as the "Japanese embassy" hostage crisis.
- Petition for admissibility: Eduardo Nicolás Cruz Sánchez et al. (IACHR, February 27, 2004; retrieved March 9, 2005.)
- Troops storm embassy in Peru (BBC, 22 April 1997; retrieved March 9, 2005.)
- "Peru's Fujimori: A Latin American Pinochet with an Asian Face (Pacifica News, January 30 1997; retrieved March 9, 2005.)
- The Spiritual Dimension of the Hostage Drama (Catholic.net; retrieved March 9, 2005.)
- "Fuerzas especiales liberan a los rehenes de Lima" (in Spanish)
- "Rescate el Lima" (in Spanish)
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