Lima, Peru – Maria Elena Carbajal still vividly recalls the doctor’s chilling response when, from her hospital bed, she asked repeatedly to see her newborn son, Francisco. “Once you have the procedure, you can see him,” the mother of four said the doctor told her, before asking: “You’re thinking of having more kids, like guinea pigs?”
It was September 18, 1996, at Maria Auxiliadora Hospital in the Peruvian capital, Lima – and Carbajal, then 26, had given birth around 4am. Within three hours, she had been sterilised.
Now a quarter of a century later, she is one of thousands of Peruvian women hoping to finally receive justice for one of the most notorious cases of mass forced sterilisations in history.
The tubal ligations, irreversible surgeries that prevent women from having children, occurred under the guise of a family planning and population control programme during the 1990-2000 government of Peru’s then-strongman President Alberto Fujimori, who is now serving a 25-year jail sentence for ordering two massacres of suspected subversives.
After decades of legal roadblocks, a judge finally heard details of the case against Fujimori and three of his former health ministers earlier this year. The judge is due to decide soon whether the case can finally go to trial.
If Fujimori is eventually found guilty, the sterilisations would constitute a crime against humanity as defined by the International Criminal Court. Yet the case is at serious risk of collapsing before it even begins.
Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, 45, is running for president and has promised to pardon her father if elected. It is widely assumed in Peru that she would also seek to shut down new prosecutions of her father, including for the sterilisations case.
Alberto Fujimori remains revered by some Peruvians for ending a hyperinflation crisis and presiding over the crushing of the Shining Path, a group that Peru had declared a “terrorist organisation”. But Transparency International accused Fujimori of stealing $600m from public coffers. He has consistently denied the allegation and the many others made against him by prosecutors and human rights groups.
His daughter has acknowledged the former president made “errors” but has insisted that corruption “attacked” his presidency. During the weekend, Keiko Fujimori also dismissed the “so-called forced sterilisations”, saying, “That was a family-planning plan. These are investigations that have been going on for 20 years and which have been shelved on four occasions.”
Meanwhile, she has been quickly making up ground on the presidential frontrunner, leftist candidate Pedro Castillo, in advance of the June 6 presidential runoff, and some commentators now regard her as the favourite.
Keiko Fujimori, whose Popular Force party is widely blamed for destabilising Peru since she narrowly lost a 2016 election, also faces a trial of her own; She has been accused of laundering $17m and prosecutors are seeking a 31-year sentence. Keiko Fujimori has denied the money laundering allegations.
But if she were to become president, her trial would be postponed until she steps down in 2026 – unless she were to emulate her father’s control of the judiciary in the 1990s. According to the International Commission of Jurists, by the end of Alberto Fujimori’s decade in power, the executive ended up manipulating the courts, even using them to attack opponents.
Antonio Maldonado, the prosecutor who oversaw Alberto Fujimori’s extradition from Chile, said her victory would pose “a serious risk to the rule of law and democratic order” in the country.
“It would be the triumph of impunity,” Maldonado told Al Jazeera. “It would be a grave wound to Peru’s international image. Little by little, Peru could end up like Venezuela or Nicaragua, facing serious reproach from the international community.”
Alberto Fujimori unveiled the birth control programme in 1995. In its early days, it was funded by a $36m donation from the United States and a smaller amount from the United Nations.
But allegations soon emerged of medical personnel bullying and tricking women, often Indigenous and with limited education, into undergoing sterilisations. So, too, did claims of doctors – under pressure to meet unrealistic quotas – cutting corners, failing to use sufficient anaesthetic, and ejecting patients in severe pain from clinics almost as soon as the procedures were completed.
Keiko Fujimori, whose team did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment, was first lady during the latter part of the programme after she replaced her mother, Susanna Higuchi, who had a bitter separation from the former president.
According to Peru’s health ministry, 272,028 women were sterilised, although it remains unclear how many of those procedures were carried out against the wishes of the patients. Human rights groups believe the number likely runs into the tens of thousands.
Amid a storm of national and international criticism, the programme was eventually ended in 2000. To this day, the Fujimoristas insist that any abuses were the isolated acts of rogue doctors rather than state policy.
Despite a deep dislike of the Fujimori dynasty’s alleged crimes, many Peruvians equally fear Keiko Fujimori’s surprise opponent in the presidential runoff next month.
Castillo, a firebrand teachers’ union leader, ran on an explicitly Marxist platform and has argued that Venezuela is a democracy. The 51-year-old also has pledged to free Antauro Humala, a radical army officer who led a 2005 military insurrection against the elected government of then-President Alejandro Toledo.
There are also concerns that Castillo might attempt to interfere in the justice system on behalf of the leader of his Free Peru party, Vladimir Cerrón, a Cuban-trained doctor and former regional governor who is serving a suspended sentence for corruption and also faces nearly a dozen more graft cases. Maldonado, the prosecutor, regards him as also being a threat to Peru’s fragile institutions.
Castillo and Keiko Fujimori made it to the runoff with record-low support in the first round of voting – at 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively – with Peruvians ground down by five years of political scandals, as well as the world’s worst per capita COVID-19 death rate.
“People are hurting and need to be able to get on with rebuilding their lives. What they are most afraid of is more chaos,” said Norma Correa, an anthropologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “This is a campaign that is only going to get more emotional, reopening old wounds and triggering more fears as we get closer to the election.”
For Carbajal, now 51, those fears all centre around the possibility of the Fujimori family returning to power.
She still suffers from health problems linked to her unwanted sterilisation, which she said messed with her hormones, leading to arthritis and forcing her to retire from her job as a geriatric assistant. Carbajal said she is now unable to even lift her two-year-old grandchild.
“It’s like a bucket of cold water in the face,” said Carbajal, about the looming possibility that the next government will shield the former president from justice. “After all these years, we were finally getting close to justice. They treated us like animals, like cattle, and now they could be about to get away with it forever.”