The Betrayal of Peru's Democracy: Montesinos as Fujimori's Svengali
Covert Action Quarterly -- Summer 1994
by Gustavo Gorriti
On April 5, 1992, almost two years after he was elected president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori dissolved parliament and seized dictatorial powers. The mastermind behind the conspiracy to overthrow democracy is Vladimiro Montesinos. For over two decades, Montesinos has operated from the shadows. Narco-lawyer, traitor, human rights violator, former soldier, spy, he has mesmerized Fujimori and used close links to drug trafficking organizations, and then to the CIA, to become not only the country's de facto drug czar, but perhaps the most powerful person in Peru.
On the night of November 13, 1992, Lima was surrounded by a sort of fog of war. In the temporary panic accompanying that night's attempted coup, the shroud of intrigue and secrecy lifted for a few hours, and the truth began to emerge. In the seven months since President Fujimori staged his auto golpe, his self-coup, he had conducted extensive purges within the judiciary and the state apparatus, aggregated dictatorial power, and come increasingly under the sway of his personal Svengali Vladimiro Montesinos. Some in the military had had enough. That November night they planned a counter-coup to restore constitutional rule and unseat the dictator. The conspiracy was doomed to fail. Probably infiltrated, it may have been an elaborate sting designed to lure into the open and entrap those army officers opposed to Fujimori's armed seizure of dictatorial powers. But as often happens, the provocateurs lost temporary control of the operation just as they sprang the trap. When more officers than expected followed Gen. Jaime Salinas, the brave but unfortunate leader, the coup suddenly looked viable. Fujimori panicked. He fled the presidential palace and headed for army headquarters. But midway, he changed direction and rushed to the Japanese Embassy in Lima, seeking refuge.
With his whereabouts unknown, the regular system of communications broke down. Voices reached out across the night on cellular phones, while tape recorders hooked up to scanners recorded the conversations. Fujimori, his voice slightly distorted by anxiety but unmistakable in its nasal tone, was at one end of the line. A rapid fire high-pitched voice at the other end reassured him that he was sending men to reinforce the presidential escort. Fujimori gave directions on how to reach him.
As the tape recorders eavesdropped, the man with the high thin voice went into gear. He suggested actions to army commander-in-chief, General Nicolás de Bari Hermoza Ríos, identifiable from his barking proclamations of allegiance to Fujimori. Hermoza immediately acceded and said: If we don't find him [coup leader Salinas] now, we'll detain him tomorrow. Why don't we detain him right now? asked the other. I have agents here....I'll have him detained, we'll take him out by force, Hermoza echoed enthusiastically. By force, by force.
Later, when several arrests had been made, they talked again. It seems we reacted fast, said Hermoza. Who gave you the information? I'll tell you later, answered the other. Then just before dawn, after the coup had fizzled and General Salinas had been captured in a shoot-out, the conversation resumed, for a little gloating. He [Salinas] is half crazy; he's out of focus, said Hermoza. He's all fucked up. He's dead, sentenced the other man. The other man, the one with the high-pitched voice, was promptly identified. It was Vladimiro Montesinos. While some people claimed he was the most powerful man in Peru after Fujimori, others asserted he was the real power, albeit behind the throne.
Several army officers detained that night at the National Intelligence Service's (SIN, Peru's equivalent of the CIA) headquarters experienced Montesinos' power in its most crude form. Montesinos and others hit Lt. Col. Enrique Aguilar del Alcázar in the face; later his hands were tied behind his back and he was hanged by his arms (a torture technique known in Peru as la pita or la colgada ) until pain compelled him to sign whatever they asked. Montesinos pricked Maj. Salvador Carmona (ret.) in his arms and legs with needles and had him strung up colgado. He hit Lt. Col. Marco Zarate and when the officer tried to hit back, Montesinos' bodyguards tied him to a chair and administered electric shocks until he signed the documents they presented. Maj. Csar Céceres, a former aide of Gen. Salinas, was thrown face down on a mattress. Two policemen caught his arms in a shoulder bar, and as a third sat on his waist and pounded on his back, Montesinos hit him in the face. Two days later, C ceras was hanged by his arms tied behind his back. I told them, he later wrote from prison, anything they wanted because I felt my arms were being yanked off my body.
Those who denounced the torture or criticized Montesinos or Hermoza were targeted: The homes of Gen. Luís Cisneros (ret.) and two other political leaders were bombed. Gen. Alberto Arciniega a counterinsurgency commander in the coca-carpeted Upper Huallaga Valley was sent into retirement and sought asylum in the Argentine Embassy.