LIMA, Peru – A group of young women hike up their skirts and smear each other’s inner thighs with red paint to symbolize the victims of forced sterilizations. Some women also use black paint to write “never again” across their arms.
They line up in five rows and link arms, ready to join a march against Keiko Fujimori, the 40-year-old daughter of a former president and the the clear frontrunner in Peru’s upcoming presidential election.
“Today we are going to use our bodies as a political tool,” says an organizer who is prepping the protesters for their march through Lima’s historical center. "We are going to scream and march for those who can’t be here, for those whose voices have been silenced.”
The march begins and the women pick up their pace, belting out chants at the top of their lungs. A pack of TV crews tries to keep pace. “For memory and dignity, no more Fujimori!” they scream in unison. “We are the daughters of the campesinas who you couldn’t sterilize,” they yell, drawing supportive applause from some onlookers.
In the 1990’s more than 300,000 women were sterilized in Peru by a controversial birth control program run by autocratic president Alberto Fujimori, who has been in jail since 2005 for his role in ordering two massacres that killed dozens of activists. Keiko Fujimori, his daughter, served as the first lady for her divorced father at the time.
Related: watch Fusion's special video on Peru's mass-sterilization:
Many of the women submitted to the program were uneducated campesinas who were tricked—and in some cases forced—into getting fallopian tube surgery by doctors who were under pressure to fill government quotas. More than 2,000 Peruvian women claim they were forcibly sterilized, though Keiko Fujimori says that the number is as low as 300.
The candidate has promised she will “try to find out the truth” about what happened if she’s elected president. But feminist organizations fear the progress that has been made on these cases over the years will be reversed if Fujimori wins the June election.
“She has described these cases as a mistake made by doctors, but not as a [flawed] state policy,” said Sandra de la Cruz, a campaigns organizer for the Women’s Rights group Demos.
“If you look at her congressional record, you can see that she has no track record on women's rights,” adds Lisbeth Guillen, a policy director at Manuela Ramos, a women’s foundation that has been pushing for a law that would allow rape victims to have abortions which has been met with stiff resistance from Fujimori’s party.
Feminist groups aren’t the only ones concerned about the prospect of another Fujimori in office.
Alberto Fujimori was an iron-fisted president who ruled Peru in the 1990’s. He had a blatant disregard for human rights and was famous for using the military to overthrow his country’s Congress. He also rewrote the constitution so he could get re-elected multiple times, and created paramilitary groups to fight leftist Shining Path insurgents.
Still, "El Chino," as he was known, was also very popular for curbing hyperinflation and quelling rebel violence. And many people from his old base of support are now backing his daughter.
“She's a young woman with good ideas, and she’s a fighter like her father,” says Maria Begono, a seamstress who recently attended a pro-Fujimori meeting in Lima.
“You must not forget that it was Fujimori who ended terrorism in Peru,” adds friend Marta Avalos, who’s had a 15-foot wide Keiko Fujimori billboard placed on top of her home. “We used to live with lots of uncertainty here, with car bombs and killings going on all the time.”
With relentless campaigning across the country, and a capable team of policy wonks, Keiko has slowly built on her father’s political capital and formed her own political party—something her father never did. She now leads a field of 10 presidential candidates, with around 35% of support in most polls. Her closest opponent, former economy minister Pedro Pablo Kucinski, hasn't topped 18% in the polls.
The apparent likelihood that Keiko will win the presidency has alarmed those who considered her father’s government a dictatorship. On April 5, a day marking the 24th anniversary of Fujimori’s coup against congress, some 50,000 people marched on Lima to reject Keiko’s candidacy.
“We can’t allow someone who participated in a corrupt government that was involved in human rights abuses to be in power again,” said Rafael Vergara, an accountant who showed up at the protest.
“We’re not just here to protest forced sterilizations,” added Monica Reyes, one of the feminists who painted her thighs red. “There was a system here that trampled on our rights to access information by manipulating the media. It also trampled on our rights to protest by trying to depict any opposition as violent people.”
Fujimori supporters argue that Keiko is committed to not repeating her father’s mistakes. They point out that she recently pledged to provide reparations for victims of state violence and promised to support the truth commission that is investigating human rights abuses—including forced sterilizations— during her father's administration.
“We want to know the truth, too,” Fujimori said during a recent campaign stop. “As a woman I stand in solidarity with those who might have been operated without consent, and in the future my government will have no problems in investigating those cases.”
But protesters say campaign talk is cheap. Some note that her father made a similar promises during his 1990 presidential campaign, when he vowed not to implement economic austerity measures—a pledge he quickly reversed once elected president.
Fujimori supporters dismiss protesters as being too obsessed with the past. Keiko, they say, should not be punished for the sins of her father.
“Everyone should have the chance to make his or her own history,” said Paul Neira, a congressional candidate for Fujimori’s party. “It is unfair to assume that she will be exactly like her father.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.