On December 17, 1996, the official residency of the Japanese ambassador, Morihisha Aoki, in Lima was raided by fourteen members of the Marxist revolutionary group Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). A night that began as a festive occasion celebrating the 63rd birthday of Emperor Akihito soon turned into nightmare as hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials, and business executives were taken hostage.
The crisis didn´t end until 126 days later when in dramatic fashion Peruvian Armed Forces commandos stormed the complex through underground tunnels, exploded holes in walls and a direct assault through the main door, freeing the then 72 hostages. The operation was a celebrated success though one hostage, two commandos, and all the MRTA militants died.
The rebels said they targeted the home of Aoki because of what they saw as “constant meddling” by the Japanese government. They singled out Japan´s foreign assistance program in Peru, arguing this aid benefited only a narrow segment of society. The rebels were also critical of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s president at the time, who is of Japanese descent and had close ties to Japan.
The Japanese ambassador’s residence was the site of the four month hostage situation. (photo: El Comercio)
After taking the hostages, the MRTA insurgents made several demands, most importantly the release of about 400 of their comrades from prisons around Peru, including the leader, Nèstor Cerpa`s own wife.
Publicly, Fujimori wanted a peaceful solution to the crisis. He created a negotiation team to find a peaceful solution, a team that included the country’s archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, the Peruvian Red Cross, and the Canadian Ambassador Anthony Vincent, who had briefly been a hostage. Privately, however, Fujimori had no intention of allowing the rebels to succeed, or, arguably, even to live as upcoming events showed.
Fujimori´s private plan could be compared to something out of a Cold War spy movie. Over the course of weeks, cameras and microphones were placed in key locations throughout the building by those hostages with military training, such as Navy Admiral Luis Giampietri. Brought in from the outside, these spy gadgets were hidden in water bottles, books and board games brought in for the hostages.
But the key to the eventual rescue were the extensive tunnels that were dug from adjacent buildings, leading to several strategic points under the Japanese residence. To conceal the noise patriotic music was played from the outside of the building while tanks repeated rolled back and forward.
Military men planning the raid in a room in an underground tunnel beneath the residence. (photo: El Comercio)
The rescue began on April 22, 1997, more than four months after the beginning of the siege. A team of 140 Peruvian commandos mounted a dramatic raid on the residence.
Three explosive charges exploded almost simultaneously in three different rooms on the first floor. The first explosion occurred in the middle of the room where a soccer game was taking place, killing three of the terrorists immediately – two of the men involved in the game, and one of the women watching from the sidelines.
Through the hole created by that blast and the other two explosions, 30 commandos stormed into the building, chasing the surviving MRTA members in order to stop them before they could reach the second floor.
In the final prong of the coordinated attack, another group of commandos emerged from two tunnels that had reached the backyard of the residence. These soldiers quickly scaled the ladders that had been placed for them. Their task was to blow out a grenade-proof door on the second floor, through which the hostages would be evacuated, and to make two openings in the roof so that they could kill the MRTA members upstairs before they had time to execute the hostages.
The rescue created much controversy which continues to this day. According to a Defense Intelligence Agency report, Fujimori personally ordered the commandos participating in the raid to “take no MRTA alive”.
After the raid, Peruvian TV also showed Fujimori striding among the dead guerrillas, showing some of the mutilated bodies. Shortly thereafter, President Fujimori was seen riding through Lima in a bus carrying the freed hostages.
The military victory was publicized as a political triumph and used to bolster his hard-line stance against armed insurgent groups. His popularity ratings quickly doubled to nearly 70 percent, and he was acclaimed a national hero.
For everyday Peruvians the effectiveness of the rescue bolstered national sentiment. 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”.
Roughly ten months after the crisis began, Japan demolished its bombed-out and gutted diplomatic residence located in Lima’s residential area of San Isidro. “We are erasing the last remains of this nightmare,” a guard outside the residence said at the time.
More than 16 years after the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis, it´s still important to remember.