Alberto Fujimori was nothing if not hands-on during his decade as President of Peru. In January 1997, in the midst of the hostage ordeal at the Japanese embassy in Lima that dragged on for four months, "Fuji," as Peruvians called him, took TIME on a ride around the capital in his Toyota 4x4. His aim was to demonstrate that he, not the Tupac Amaru guerrillas who were holding 72 civilians (including Fujimori's brother) at the embassy residence, who enjoyed the support of the country's poor. At one shantytown he rolled down his window and basked in the thank-yous for the new streets and microbuses. One woman called out, "Fuji, the new water pumps you gave us aren't working!" Ever the engineer, Fujimori shot back, "Do you have the pressure set right?" He opened the Toyota's door and was about to step out until he stopped, as if remembering that he was a President, not a plumber. But Fujimori clearly wanted to fix that woman's water pump.
So engaged was Fujimori in the details of operating the government he had taken over in 1990, in fact, that a special Peruvian tribunal has now concluded that it's hard to believe he didn't also give the nod to a military death squad that massacred civilians during his rule. As a result, Fujimori was convicted on Tuesday of being the "indirect perpetrator" of at least 25 murders and two kidnappings in the early 1990s, at the start of his ultimately successful campaign to stamp out Tupac Amaru and the even more bloodthirsty Maoist rebels known as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. The verdict makes Fujimori, 70, the first democratically elected head of state to be tried and convicted on human rights abuse charges in his own country. He was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment, with fines ranging from $7,000 to $20,000 for each victim. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)
Fujimori insists he's innocent, and his attorneys announced his intention to appeal. In his impassioned testimony last week, he said of the tribunal, "From an ice cube they have tried to find an iceberg." Human rights watchdogs, however, say the evidence presented at Fujimori's 16-month trial, held on a police base with judges presiding, is more likely the tip of the iceberg of abuse that occurred during the early years of Fujimori's authoritarian rule. The abuses "were committed as part of a broad, systematic policy of executions and forced disappearances that [Fujimori] ordered and carried out through intelligence services," charges Maria McFarland, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in New York City, who has followed the case from the start. "These cases are a 'for example' of what happened, which is not only a message to the families in these cases but all cases."
Although the more than 80 witnesses and 500 documents submitted to the tribunal offered no smoking-gun evidence of direct orders to the Colina Group death squad by Fujimori, Judge Cesar San Martin concluded there was "no question" that Fujimori had sanctioned the killings during massacres in 1991 and '92 as well as the '92 kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Goritti and businessman Samuel Dyer. "There is never a written order to forcibly disappear and kill someone," says Cromwell Castillo, whose son Ernesto Paez was killed in 1990. "[But] the circumstances have demonstrated that Fujimori not only knew but sanctioned the actions of the Colina Group." (Read an interview with Fujimori.)
The tragic irony is that it was Fujimori's attention to detail that helped make him one of Latin America's most popular leaders of the late 20th century. The son of Japanese immigrants, he emerged out of left field to win the 1990 election and take over a country of 28 million people that was adrift and under siege by Marxist guerrillas. Its annual inflation rate was near 7,600%, and insurgents had three quarters of the country under a state of emergency. Fujimori quickly tackled the hyperinflation, and in 1992 his security forces arrested Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman in a counterinsurgency war that saw more than 70,000 Peruvians disappeared or killed between 1990 and 2000. Fujimori scored social triumphs as well, including granting land titles to urban squatters that made hundreds of thousands of Peruvians homeowners and participants in the formal economy.
Fujimori's success, however, was based on reclaiming the image of the populist caudillo, or strongman on horseback, just as the continent was ridding itself of the legacy of dictators who had turned disappear into a verb when dealing with their political opponents. He shut down Peru's Congress and judiciary in 1992; he created an "emergency" government that gave him and his spooky security chief (Vladimiro Montesinos, who himself was convicted in 2002 on a variety of corruption and human rights abuse charges) autocratic powers; and he rewrote the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected in 1995. All the while, he made sure that Peruvians knew it was Fuji who was personally handling it all right down to the pressure levels of the water pumps. His power reached its zenith when his security forces eventually staged a dramatic rescue of the embassy hostages in 1997. That same year, he insisted to TIME that his counterinsurgency operations had not violated human rights. "Draconian measures were needed here, and I wouldn't agree that Peruvians now demand more flexibility from the judicial system in our fight," he said. "Democratic rules and human rights haven't been set aside in the emergency, though some mistakes were made." (Read "The Trials of Alberto Fujimori.")
The gravity of those "mistakes" eventually began to drag Fujimori down. In 2000 he ran for a third term, but by then news of atrocities such as those committed by the Colina Group had begun to surface, and his victory was marred by allegations of electoral fraud. Four months into his third term, Fujimori fled into exile in Japan, after a $1 billion corruption and embezzlement scandal involving Montesinos and other close advisers had unraveled his government. He returned to South America in 2005, hoping, incredibly, to take part in Peru's 2006 presidential race, but he was arrested in Chile and handed over for trial in Peru two years later. A Peruvian court in 2007 convicted Fujimori on corruption charges, while illegal wiretapping charges are still pending. (He has pleaded not guilty to those.)
Tuesday's verdict, say human rights watchdogs, is a warning to authoritarian leaders everywhere that the age of impunity has passed. And when human rights records are scrutinized, water pumps and new streets are not the basis on which caudillo leaders will be judged.