Forced Sterilization: Peru’s Darkest Secret

An investigation into whether Alberto Fujimori’s government carried out mass forced sterilisations in the 1990s has been reopened.

by Simeon Tegel
The Independent
December 8, 2011

Victoria Vigo shows no flicker of emotion as she recounts how she discovered – by chance – that she had been surgically sterilised against her will. Heavily pregnant, she was admitted to a public hospital in the city of Piura, on Peru’s northern coast, in April 1996 to undergo a Caesarian section. Within hours of the procedure, her ailing new-born child had died and Ms Vigo, 32 at the time, was being consoled by two doctors.

“I was exhausted and just wanted to go home,” Ms Vigo says. “The doctors were trying to comfort me and one told me I was still very young and could have more children. But then, afterwards, I overheard them talking and the other said that it would not be possible for me to conceive as he had sterilised me.”

Not only had Ms Vigo never given her permission for the procedure. The doctor had omitted it from her clinical records and failed to inform her. “I felt totally violated and brutalised. I still cannot understand what motivated him,” Ms Vigo says. “He sterilised me and then hid the evidence. I could have tried for years to have another child without even knowing I could never conceive.”

Doubly traumatised, Ms Vigo went home without confronting the doctor. But she eventually sued him and, in 2003, won damages of approximately £2,000. During the trial, Ms Vigo says, the doctor claimed that he had been following instructions and that the practice of sterilising patients – with or without their knowledge or consent – was standard among Peru’s public healthcare providers.

That allegation may now finally be tested in court, after Peru’s Attorney General last month reopened an investigation into the alleged forced sterilisations during the government of Alberto Fujimori, President from 1990 to 2000, who is currently serving a 25-year prison term for embezzlement and directing death squads during the crackdown against the Maoist Shining Path.

The investigation will look at the entire issue of forced sterilisations while focusing on one sample case, of Mamerita Mestanza, a 33-year-old, Quechua-speaking mother-of-seven, from the Andean region of Cajamarca. She died in 1998 from complications from sterilisation surgery that health officials allegedly harassed her into accepting.

According to human rights groups, there may have been as many as 300,000 victims, overwhelmingly women, the majority of them poor and often indigenous, Quechua-speakers with limited Spanish. “They were the weakest and most vulnerable,” says Ms Vigo, whose case remains the only one to have reached the courts in Peru.

According to the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights, Fujimori’s Peru is one of only two instances of forced sterilisations being adopted as state policy since the Third Reich.

The case had previously been shelved in 2009 after it was deemed to have lapsed under the statute of limitations. However, prosecutors have now reclassified the sterilisations as a crime against humanity, meaning there is no time limit for perpetrators to be brought to justice.

That could pave the way for high-profile trials of Fujimori and his three health ministers Eduardo Yong Motta, Alejandro Aguinaga and Marino Costa Bauer.

Although they have conceded there were problems in individual cases, all four have denied ordering forced sterilisations. Silvia Romero, a lawyer representing the Association of Women Affected by Forced Sterilisations, which has approximately 2,000 members, mainly from the Cusco region, retorts: “This was a state policy that came from the highest spheres of power.”

But Ms Vigo also wants to see the doctors who carried out the sterilisations in the dock. She believes recent allegations by Peru’s medical association, that its members were pressured into carrying out sterilisations, including with the threat of losing their jobs, is too little, too late. “They had a choice,” she says. “If more of the doctors had spoken out at the time, the sterilisations might never have taken place.”

Fujimori first unveiled the policy of providing free sterilisations for men and women in 1995 as a way of tackling Peru’s entrenched poverty and rising population. It initially received a warm reception, including from the United Nations, which provided financial support. The United States’ international aid agency, USAid, donated $35m (£22m).

But word quickly spread about doctors being pressured to meet sterilisation targets, and patients being tricked or bullied into undergoing the procedure. Human rights groups even reported alleged cases of medical personnel and members of the armed forces being ordered to undergo sterilisations simply to allow clinics to make up the numbers. As the scandal mushroomed out of the Fujimori administration’s control, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stepped in and oversaw a settlement in 2001 between the Peruvian state and the family of Ms Mestanza, including a compensation payment of $100,000. The Commission also instructed Peruvian authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice and provide reparations to all the victims – a ruling yet to be fulfilled.

The sterilisations remain highly controversial and arguably swung the result in June’s presidential elections away from Mr Fujimori’s 36-year-old daughter, Keiko. She had apologised to the victims while insisting the procedures were the work of individual “bad” doctors.

According to Ms Romero, the sterilisations remain “the most forgotten crime of the Fujimori government”. That is partly because of the sheer scale of the alleged practice. But it is also down to the fact that, unlike the human rights abuses carried out on Fujimori’s orders in the fight against the Shining Path, the sterilisations were never considered by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All of which leaves Ms Vigo wondering: why her? In many ways, she was an atypical victim. Qualified as a teacher, she worked as the administrator of her family’s construction business, making her an unlikely target for a practice aimed at reducing poverty.

She now believes she was chosen for the procedure as a result of random misfortune, the confluence of the fact that she already had two children and the pressure on the doctors at the hospital to meet quotas: “I was not a candidate for sterilisation,” she says. “I did not fit the profile.

“Of course it has changed my life. I am lucky to have already had two children but I wanted more, including a second and possibly third child with my husband [her first child was with an earlier partner]. The instinct to be a mother is so powerful. Having that snatched away from you takes away your whole purpose in life, your reason for being.”

Of Fujimori, she says: “I voted for him twice. As President, he did many good things. I looked up to him, like a daughter to a father. What he did to me was the worst kind of abuse of trust.”

Shining Path terrorists plead for an amnesty

The Shining Path has been militarily defeated and its few remaining members would be willing to lay down their arms, one of the terrorist group’s leaders has admitted for the first time.

From his jungle hideout in the eastern Andean foothills, Comrade Artemio said the group wanted an amnesty to come out of hiding. But President Ollanta Humala has promised to wipe out the Shining Path, and most Peruvians were sickened by their numerous atrocities, including dynamiting victims’ corpses in front of families.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, inspired by a Khmer Rouge-style ideology, the group plunged Peru into a civil war that claimed 70,000 lives. But they have been on a downward spiral since founding leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992.

The few left still attack soldiers patrolling remote mountain areas, occasionally even downing helicopters, but now seem more interested in cocaine-trafficking than revolution.

Mossad in South America

By WAYNE MADSEN | WMR | JUNE 2, 2010

“N”, a correspondent from an Iranian media agency, whom I met in the association of foreign journalists in Caracas, told me that he Israeli Mossadused to work in Buenos Aires for some time. Things were going well, N’s employer was satisfied with the job he did, and he planned to spend a few more years in Argentine, but eventually had to change his plans. After a while “N” noticed that he was under surveillance and that his mail regularly got stolen. Uninvited guests started to frequent his office. He talked to the local police and counterintelligence service, but both replied they had nothing to do with the problem. They did mention to “N” cautiously that he was in the sphere of interests of «the Zionists». He told me: «The people in my agency in Tehran knew that Iranian citizens often encounter such problems and concluded that the Mossad was planning a provocation against me. This is why I relocated to Venezuela. It is a country friendly to Iran, one enjoys a certain level of security guarantees here and can expect to be protected in case of need».

I had a similar conversation with “F”, a journalist from Syria. He told me frankly that he preferred to stay on the alert even in Venezuela because the Israeli intelligence service watches over all Syrians working in Latin America and often attempts to compromise them. Like most of his countrymen, “F” believes that hostile acts by the Mossad — drugs put in his pocket, allegations of links to Arab terrorists, the emergence of «documentary evidence» of connections to Colombian guerrillas — are likely. “F” said: «I am ready to face whatever happens. I’m not paranoid, I just look at things realistically. I even obtained a gun permit» and showed me a gun he wore under his jacket.

The Mossads’s objectives are listed on its official web site. They include secret collection of operative, political, and strategic information abroad, termination of terrorist activity targeting Israeli and other Jewish installations, prevention of development or acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries hostile to Israel, and covert operations abroad. The January, 2010 killing by the Mossad of the leader of the the paramilitary wing of Hamas Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel gives an idea of what the term «covert operations abroad» refers to.

A Mossad hit squad of 11 agents disguised as tourists blocked the corridor leading to the hotel room where al-Mabhouh stayed. Then the Israeli hitmen got inside, electroshocked and strangulated the man. In several hours the Mossad agents left the Emirates with fake British, Canadian, Irish, and Australian passports.

The demonstrative character of the act was supposed to highlight the Mossad’s capability to score with the enemies of Israel in any part of the world. The operation drew extensive coverage in Latin American media, most of which published the photos of the Mossad agents and, of course, that of their chief – the 64 year old Meir Dagan who has long deserved the nickname of «a man with a knife between his teeth». Among other operations, hundreds of killings of Iranian and Iraqi scientists who were involved in military-related research and were regarded as potentially dangerous to Israel are tracked to Dagan.

According to ALAI (Latin America Information Agency), the Mossad is using at least 40 Israeli companies (as well as embassies and other official institutions of the state of Israel) as fronts for its activity. The total number of the Mossad operatives in Latin America is not greater than 100-110, but an extensive network of agents and the cooperation with Jewish organizations and communities ensure the Mossad’s presence across Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Mossad’s interests gravitate to the regions south of the Rio Grande which are densely populated by Arab immigrants. The Mossad analysts believe that the epicenter of the potential «Muslim terrorism» in Latin America is located in the Zone of Three Borders between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Venezuela’s Isla Margarita, a place where Lebanese and Syrian immigrants hunting for pearls started to settle down in the early XX century, is viewed similarly. When a free trade zone was opened on Margarita Island, the Arab populations switched to selling shoes, textile, and bijouterie. The Venezuelan government was a number of times forced to disprove allegations that Chavez hosts Muslim terrorists. In reality, Margarita is a small island where more or less everybody knows everybody else and no secret activity — least the operation of Hezbollah training camps — is possible.

Over the years of spying on the above «terrorist centers» Mossad never discovered the networks that could present a threat to Israel. Nevertheless, the Mossad’s efforts were not wasted, at least since the Israeli «reliable» data were invariably used by Washington in planning its struggle against terrorism in Latin America. This is the mechanism of ideological support for the establishment of increasing numbers of US military bases on the continent in the proximity of the Latin American countries with «populist» regimes.

In many cases, Israeli intelligence operatives are involved in legal arms trade business which they use to gain connections in local military circles and security services.

The Mossad also uses affiliated companies to advise its Latin American colleagues on fighting terrorism, «leftist extremism», guerrilla groups and their support networks, as well as to help intelligence services modernize their technical base. A company most often mentioned in the context is Israel’s Global CST, whose CEOs are retired high-ranking Mossad operatives. In July, 2009 the Peruvian government hired the company to help reorganize the country’s intelligence community in order to boost the efficiency of its struggle against «subversive and terrorist organizations» including the re-emerging Sendero Luminoso Maoist group. Global CST is also helping the Peruvian government create a joint system of control over mobile communications, Internet, and other communications media.

Global CST has grown notably more active in Colombia. The Israeli company familiarizes the country’s military intelligence and political police (DAS) officers with new techniques in the spheres of anti-terrorist activity and espionage. Over recent years, Columbia’s intelligence services have been increasingly assertive outside the country, evidently imitating the modus operandi of their CIA and Mossad peers. Columbia maintains intelligence networks in Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and other Latin American countries. The FARC and ELN envoys are finding themselves under permanent surveillance, routinely kidnapped and sometimes — assassinated.

International Security Agency (ISA) mainly staffed by former Israeli special forces officers and intelligence operatives is also active in Latin America. The agency (in tight cooperation with the CIA and the Mossad) took part in the coup that displaced M. Zelaya, the legitimate President of Honduras. Currently ISA specialists are working in the security service of the current President of Honduras P. Lobo, who was propelled to presidency as the result of an imitation of free elections like those Washington realized in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is a consensus among experts that the Mossad’s number one adversary and target in Latin America is Hugo Chavez, the political leader condemning Israel’s attempts to resolve conflicts in the Middle East by force. Chavez suspended Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with Israel in August, 2006, following the Israeli aggression against Lebanon. At that time Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Cohen and the embassy staff (mostly Mossad operatives) left Caracas. In several months Chavez took steps to normalize the relations with Israel, largely in response to the requests made by Venezuela’s 12,000 Jewish community.

The diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Israel were severed again in January, 2009 when the former protested the crimes committed by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli operation resulted in the killing of over 1,000 Palestinians, a third of them — children. In a televised address, Chavez criticized Israel as a country guilty of genocide and inhumane persecution of Palestinians. Not surprisingly, Israel’s reaction was negative. In November, 2009 Shimon Peres addressed a thinly veiled threat to Chavez by saying that «Chavez will soon disappear». The Venezuelan leader remarked that Perez had to undertake a long journey to Latin America to say the words and wondered publicly what would have happened if similar words were said about Peres in Venezuela.

TV commentator and former Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel often warns in his TV show that the Mossad is planning to assassinate Chavez. Agents with the corresponding qualifications were sent to Columbia, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Curacao Island. In Rangel’s view, the greatest threat emanates from Colombia as DAS — instigated by the CIA — already conspired quite a few times to kill Chavez. Alarming comments were also made by US journalist Eva Hollinger who is a renown expert in operations against Venezuela. Author of CIA in Venezuela Hose Sant Ross calls the Venezuelan authorities to be mindful of the Mossad’s operations in the country.

As a rule, the efforts of Venezuelan security services to identify the Mossad agents echo with carefully orchestrated protests staged by the country’s Jewish community and with «solidarity» campaigns across Latin America. Media synchronously respond by charging Chavez with antisemitism and collusion with Muslim extremism.

Actually, the theme of antisemitism recurs due to a range of causes, for example whenever the Venezuelan government takes measures to scrutinize the country’s financial sphere. For decades, there used to be a number of jewelry stores in La Francia building in downtown Caracas, not far from the Venezuelan Foreign ministry, where gold and jewelry were bought and sold with practically no fiscal control. The administration’s attempts to make the business take legal shape and to subject the accounting documents of the stores to the long-overdue audit were condemned by the opposition media as persecution of Jewish businessmen. Nevertheless, the announcement of the coming audit had an explosive effect: in a matter of hours La Francia building was completely abandoned. The most valuable stuff was evacuated secretly at night.

Venezuelan counterintelligence agents watched the process from a distance, occasionally taking pictures. They did not expect to learn anything new — it was known that the Mossad used La Francia to carry out its financial transactions.