Peru's Spy Chief Growing Powerful

Associated Press -- 27 March 2000

by Monte Hayes

LIMA, Peru (AP) - The government's critics say he's a sinister genius with a dark past. His defenders say Peruvians owe him gratitude for his role in neutralizing a leftist insurgency that threatened Peru's stability.

But all agree on one thing: intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos is growing more powerful. Many believe his power now exceeds even that of President Alberto Fujimori, who is seeking a third term in April 9 elections.

``Montesinos controls the armed forces, the judicial system, the attorney general's office,'' political scientist Fernando Rospigliosi contends. ``He has immense power, more than Fujimori.''

Montesinos is the shadow at Fujimori's ear, always close by but out of the public eye. He is a man who prefers the night, meeting with the president during the pre-dawn hours. He is accountable to no one except Fujimori. Many Cabinet members have never met him.

``Today the true power in Peru is Vladimiro Montesinos, an absolutely unscrupulous man,'' says Francisco Loayza, a former member of the intelligence service. Loayza introduced Montesinos to Fujimori during his first presidential campaign in 1990 and has written a book about Peru's spy chief called ``The Dark Face of Power.''

Feared for his extensive network of spies and informants, Montesinos is the key player in Fujimori's authoritarian regime and the architect of his re-election drive. Election monitors within and outside Peru accuse Montesinos' National Intelligence Service of being behind a dirty tricks campaign to intimidate and discredit Fujimori's electoral foes.

With Fujimori leading his opponents in public opinion polls and expected to win a third five-year term, government critics predict Montesinos' grip on power will tighten.

Peruvians got a glimpse of that power recently when retired army Cmdr. Francisco Morales Bermudez, who headed a military government in the 1970s, recalled during a television interview that Montesinos, then an army captain, had been expelled in disgrace for forging documents and served a year in prison.

The next day, the army high command issued a scathing communique attacking Morales Bermudez, who is widely respected for paving the way for the return of democratic rule. It called him a liar.

Fujimori also accused Morales Bermudez of lying, saying he had political ambitions and wanted to muddy Montesinos' image.

Montesinos, as usual, made no public appearance to defend himself.

A few days later, an indignant Morales Bermudez appeared on television to show copies of army documents proving Montesinos was court-martialed and cashiered. He was found guilty of forging Morales Bermudez's name to a permit that allowed him to make an unauthorized trip to the United States.

``Montesinos must have tremendous power if the president and the army come forth to support a man full of dishonor who was punished by the army itself,'' Morales Bermudez says.

The relationship between Fujimori and Montesinos and the question of who is more powerful is a frequent topic of conversation among Peruvians.

Never seen at any public function until a few years ago, Montesinos of late has taken to appearing at military ceremonies, where generals pay respect to him as if he, and not Fujimori, were commander in chief.

Last April, in the only interview he has ever given, the 54-year-old Montesinos appeared with Fujimori in a carefully staged setting at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Service. The two wore identical gray suits and checkered ties.

Montesinos took questions from a television reporter, who admitted later that the intelligence chief had given him the questions to ask beforehand.

``Intelligence agents always work in silence,'' Montesinos told his interviewer, explaining his mysterious ways.

Rospigliosi, the political scientist, says Montesinos has so much power that ``he is rewriting history, trying to erase his shameful past.''

After being released from military prison in 1978, Montesinos became a lawyer for the drug underworld before hooking up with Fujimori. In 1996, a major drug trafficker accused him of taking payoffs but later recanted his trial testimony. Montesinos' intelligence service also has been linked to death squad killings and torture.

Loayza, the former intelligence agent, says he brought Fujimori and Montesinos together.

He says outgoing President Alan Garcia ordered the intelligence service to help Fujimori defeat famed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa for the presidency in 1990 because Garcia feared an investigation into corruption in his government if Vargas Llosa won.

The intelligence service learned Vargas Llosa's campaign was going to accuse Fujimori of tax fraud for having undervalued several houses that the then lowly paid university president and his wife, Susana, had built and sold to supplement their income.

Loayza says he knew Montesinos could torpedo the investigation through his contacts in the judicial system. One night, he took him to Fujimori's home for a meeting with the candidate. Within three days, Montesinos had resolved the problem to the delight of the Fujimoris, Loayza says.

``Montesinos crept in like gas under the door,'' Loayza recalls.

Today, Susana Higuchi is divorced from Fujimori and running for Congress on an opposition ticket. Her opinion of Montesinos has changed.

``His intelligence serves for evil. He is like a sword of Damocles over the president,'' she says.

In December, a newspaper discovered a bank account in Montesinos' name with more than $2 million. It said he had received average monthly deposits of $170,000 from December 1998 to November 1999 from an unknown source. His public salary has never been revealed.

Montesinos requested an investigation to clear his name, and the attorney general quickly issued a ruling that there were insufficient grounds to bring charges of illicit enrichment.

Hernando de Soto, a respected economist who worked closely with Fujimori in his first term, says it may be difficult to dislodge Montesinos from power - even if Fujimori suffers a surprise defeat in his bid for a third term.

``He's Peru's most unpopular man and its most accused man,'' de Soto says. ``They're going to be after him with bloodhounds when this is over, so, of course, he doesn't want it to be over.''