LIMA, Peru – Alberto Fujimori came into the presidency as a political outsider and quickly became known as "The Emperor" for his authoritarian style. He moved swiftly to end the economic chaos of the 1980s and defeat leftist insurgencies, offering hope to Peruvians.
After weeks of scandal, Fujimori resigned Monday, in a letter sent to Congress while on a visit to his ancestral homeland, Japan. Fujimori arrived there Friday after leaving Peru unexpectedly in the midst of a deepening political crisis.
"His exit from Lima had all the characteristics of a furtive escape from justice," said Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist defeated by Fujimori in the 1990 elections, speaking in a radio interview from Madrid.
When the bespectacled mathematics professor took power, he faced the challenge of running a country many Peruvians feared had become ungovernable. Leftist rebels rattled the capital with nightly car bombs. Electricity was rationed. Foreign investors had fled the country. Prices jumped daily. Basic food items were in short supply.
Fujimori put an end to the economic chaos and defeated the leftist insurgencies. But with time, Fujimori's goal seemed to be power itself, at any cost.
And the same Peruvians who once saw Fujimori as a savior celebrated his ignominious exit from power.
"After my 2-year-old granddaughter, Fujimori's resignation is the greatest gift God has given me," said Lucia Canales, 45, who joined hundreds of protesters in front of the Government Palace to celebrate Monday.
"Fujimori didn't keep his 1990 campaign slogan of Honesty, Jobs and Technology. He left us with corruption, unemployment and poverty."
Fujimori acknowledged in an interview after his tainted re-election in May to a third, five-year term that his government was an "imperfect democracy."
"I have a particular governing style that puts great emphasis on efficiency," he said.
Efficiency, for Fujimori, translated into a disregard for the checks and balances of democracy.
Fujimori seized dictatorial powers in April 1992, dissolving the opposition-controlled Congress and closing the courts — moves supported by a majority of Peruvians, fed up with weak and ineffective governments. A new constitution was written and a new Congress elected, dominated by his supporters.
He was re-elected in 1995 by an electorate grateful for an end to the guerrilla violence and inflation that topped 7,000 percent in 1990.
The son of impoverished Japanese immigrants who picked cotton for a living, the 62-year-old Fujimori had a common touch that appealed to Peru's poor. He donned Andean ponchos on his trips into the rural interior, more comfortable with Indian peasants than at cocktail parties.
But his May re-election came amid rampant irregularities and allegations of fraud. With his support already eroded by lingering poverty, his popularity plummeted.
David Scott Palmer, a Boston University professor and authority on Peruvian politics, said that if Fujimori had not sought a third term, "he would have gone out as someone who had really made a contribution to the country."
Over the years, Fujimori showed himself to be shrewd and calculating, a high-stakes gambler bent on winning at any cost.
Fujimori's close association with his former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, finally brought him down, with the revelation of a scale of corruption never before seen in Peru.
Montesinos is wanted for alleged money laundering after Swiss authorities froze $48 million in accounts linked to the former spymaster. The amount swelled to $58 million after other accounts were discovered.
Few Peruvians believe Fujimori's assertion that he had no inkling of Montesinos' criminal activities, although many recall his pledge to wage a war on corruption when he first took office.
"I remember that one of the things that most worried him was corruption," said Hernando de Soto, an international economist who worked closely with Fujimori in the early 1990s. "The incredible thing is that his government is now being stained and destroyed by the corrupt ones he employed to help him stay in power."