Fujimori's Shadowy Aide Highlighted by Election

The New York Times -- 2 April 2000

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru -- President Alberto K. Fujimori's intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, is rarely seen in public. Former associates describe him as a loner with a taste for history books and classical music. The few photographs that do exist show him to be a man with a wide smile and a fondness for double-breasted suits, a handkerchief folded neatly in the breast pocket.

To those outside the Fujimori administration, however, Mr. Montesinos is known as the Rasputin of Peru's politics, whose power is largely derived from his knowledge of the president's deepest personal secrets and who is held responsible for a daunting catalog of political sins.

According to a critical book published here this week, he was a dominant force in the shutting down of the Congress and Supreme Court in 1992, the eavesdropping on opposition presidential candidates in the 1995 elections, and the manipulation of judges and the news media that has helped keep Mr. Fujimori in power.

Now Mr. Montesinos, 53, is accused by opponents of running a campaign of dirty tricks intended to assure Mr. Fujimori's re-election on April 9.

He himself has become an issue in the race -- one that has hurt Mr. Fujimori by association.

"He has been fatal for the country," Alberto Andrade, mayor of Lima and a leading presidential candidate, told El Comercio, Lima's leading daily.

"Montesinos is the Machiavelli who over the years has built the machine for Fujimori's re-election," Mr. Andrade said in a separate interview, "from the appointment of friendly members of the electoral tribunal, to the appointment of friendly judges who have assisted in substituting the owners of critical television stations with minority shareholders friendly to the president, to the firing of judges who opposed his re-election to an unconstitutional third term."

An opposition newspaper recently obtained detailed information showing that Mr. Montesinos has in recent years had an annual income of more than $2 million and refueling old charges, never proved, that he was in the pay of drug traffickers. Another newspaper published photographs showing trucks delivering tons of Fujimori campaign paraphernalia to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Service, the agency Mr. Montesinos runs, for distribution.

Mr. Montesinos has been a crucial ally of the Clinton administration in efforts to stop drug trafficking in the Andean region, and American officials have not mentioned him by name in public criticisms of the current election campaign. But opposition politicians and journalists here hold him responsible for television and newspaper smear campaigns against several presidential candidates as well as other irregularities.

The opposition media speculates on his campaign role almost daily and he is repeatedly the subject of questions at news conferences given by presidential candidates. Several have promised to fire him and to conduct criminal investigations of his activities should they finally succeed after 10 years in wresting the presidency from Mr. Fujimori.

Mr. Montesinos was born into a family of Marxists. He joined the army and rose to the rank of captain before he was expelled in 1977 on allegations that he sold state secrets to the C.I.A. He went on to practice law and defended drug traffickers against prosecution in the 1980's.

A retired general, Francisco Morales Bermúdez, Peru's last military dictator, publicly disclosed that Mr. Montesinos, while still an army captain, had forged signatures to allow him to visit Washington furtively and meet with American officials.

And in a challenge to the intimate relationship that Mr. Montesinos -- and, by extension, Mr. Fujimori -- maintains with the Peruvian Army, General Morales Bermúdez accused Mr. Montesinos of manipulating top military promotions to aid Mr. Fujimori's political interests.

Like a good spy, Mr. Montesinos does not answer any of these charges, and he did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

But Mr. Fujimori, in an interview, said he had complete confidence in Mr. Montesinos, whom he described as "superintelligent, very agile, very analytical."

Mr. Fujimori said that there was nothing unusual about a successful lawyer acquiring riches and that he had no problem with Mr. Montesinos's having defended shady characters in the past. "He provides the security that allows the government to be successful," the president said, crediting the intelligence chief with helping to defeat two terrorist insurrections. He added that Mr. Montesinos was a crucial ally of the Clinton administration in efforts to stop drug trafficking and assure stability in the Andean region.

"There is a very good relationship between the Drug Enforcement Administration, the C.I.A. and Montesinos," Mr. Fujimori said. "The C.I.A. calls Montesinos from time to time. There is cooperation. It is good for both countries."

Mark Mansfield, a C.I.A. spokesman, said, "As a matter of policy, we don't comment on such matters."

American officials have long refused to confirm or deny any ties to Mr. Montesinos, only noting that last year they cut off a three-year $200,000 State Department aid program to his intelligence agency.

Still, Peter Romero, the acting assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, called Mr. Montesinos last year to lobby for Peruvian help on a United Nations human rights resolution in Geneva condemning Cuba. Peru did not vote with the United States, and an aide to Mr. Romero refused to speak about his conversations with foreign officials or comment on Mr. Montesinos.

"We have been sending a mixed message on Montesinos," said Elliott Abrams, the Reagan administration's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, who is now a paid consultant for a Peruvian television station owner who was stripped of control of his station after it broadcast reports in 1997 criticizing Mr. Montesinos.

"We are in the position of decrying human rights abuses on Monday while working with Montesinos on Tuesday," Mr. Abrams said.

One candidate who has been careful not to attack Mr. Montesinos directly is Alejandro Toledo, a business school professor who is Mr. Fujimori's strongest challenger. Toledo aides say privately that the intelligence chief is behind news media reports that Mr. Toledo fathered an illegitimate daughter and refused to support her. The aides and Mr. Toledo's wife, Eliane Karp, deny the charges.

Mr. Toledo, by his own account, has been receiving polling information from Mr. Montesinos's agency, spurring speculation that he might be ready to make some kind of arrangement with the intelligence chief after the campaign is over.

"Toledo does not want to confront Montesinos directly," said Carlos Tapia, a former lecturer at the Army Intelligence School. "He'll seek a negotiated settlement but he won't allow Montesinos to stay on if he wins. The question is how he will work that out."

Mr. Montesinos's influence over the military is rooted in his extensive collection of files of personal information on young officers beginning from his days as an army intelligence officer in the 1970's. Furthermore, in his first term as president Mr. Fujimori gave Mr. Montesinos broad independent powers as his go-between with a security apparatus and military with which Mr. Fujimori had had little previous contact.

Intelligence officials are supposed to keep a low profile, but Mr. Montesinos has had an uncomfortably high profile since 1996, when a drug trafficker, Demetrio Chávez, publicly said that he paid Mr. Montesinos $50,000 a month in exchange for landing rights at a jungle airfield outside an army base. Mr. Chávez, appearing visibly disoriented, later retracted his charge but Montesinos had already become a household name.

President Fujimori has tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to improve Mr. Montesinos's public image, particularly after the 1997 rescue of 71 hostages held for four months at the Japanese ambassador's residence by terrorists. Mr. Montesinos was credited with planning the rescue, and he appeared for the first time publicly in years when he triumphantly toured the residence after its liberation.

If Mr. Montesinos is a political liability for Mr. Fujimori, many Peruvian analysts wonder why the president does not dismiss him.

The answer, said Francisco Loayza, a former official at the intelligence agency who introduced Mr. Fujimori to Mr. Montesinos 10 years ago, is that the intelligence chief knows too much about the president's private life. As Mr. Fujimori's personal lawyer during his first presidential campaign, Mr. Montesinos handled some outstanding tax matters, and later his divorce.

Mr. Loayza also charged that Mr. Montesinos handled the paperwork to cover up Mr. Fujimori's birth in Japan since the Peruvian Constitution requires that the president be a native-born citizen. Mr. Fujimori has repeatedly denied the charge, saying he was born in Peru shortly after his Japanese parents immigrated here.

"Fujimori is Montesinos's hostage," Mr. Loayza said. "While Montesinos has everything on Fujimori, Fujimori has nothing on Montesinos."

Asked to respond, Mr. Fujimori began to speak in the third person: "Please. Mr. Fujimori cannot be controlled," he said. "There is no power above or behind him."