Details of Peru's crisis come to light

Military feared secrets' release, officials say

The Dallas Morning News -- 5 October 2000

by Tod Robberson

LIMA, Peru -Like most of the murky details surrounding the conduct of Peru's leadership in recent days, it may never be known whether President Alberto Fujimori actually faced ouster by military coup last week, as has been widely reported.

But what appears certain, according to diplomats and former senior military officers, is that many of Peru's darkest secrets were on the verge of being revealed after Mr. Fujimori's closest adviser fled the country on Sept. 24 in the wake of a scandal.

The military leadership, in particular, had many reasons to make sure those secrets were not revealed and was willing to go to extreme lengths to protect its personal interests, the former military officers said.

The leaders' desperation may have pushed them to spread rumors of a coup just as Mr. Fujimori left on a surprise trip to Washington, the former officers said.

These sources described senior officers immersed in a variety of corrupt practices and abuses of power. There are allegations of personal enrichment on military-procurement contracts, a huge arms-smuggling ring, military-supported drug-trafficking networks, and other activities that clearly worked against the stated goals of the United States in its $1.3 billion war on drugs in Colombia.

Peru, on Colombia's porous southern border, is a key player in U.S. efforts to stem the flow of cocaine and heroin from the region. But at least three army generals and numerous junior officers have been convicted and imprisoned in recent years for colluding with drug traffickers.

The Peruvian military has contended that the conviction of individual officers does not reflect broader institutional involvement in illegal practices. It points to the fact that senior officers have been convicted as evidence that the military is weeding out wrongdoers.

Diplomats suspect the level of corruption is far more widespread.

"It's the people who have been involved in the dirty things - corruption, drug trafficking, human-rights violations," who are behind the talk of a coup, said a Western diplomat. "They're in a tough spot right now."

Courts have been loyal

The military and civilian court systems, both dominated by judges loyal to Mr. Fujimori, have a long history of acquitting senior military officers allied with the president. In the cases of the generals convicted of drug-related offenses, at least two were released by military decree after serving short prison sentences.

According to these sources, the man who had the goods on everyone, Vladimiro Montesinos, Mr. Fujimori's closest adviser and former chief of national intelligence, fled Sept. 24 to Panama, where he is seeking political asylum.

A week before his departure, Mr. Montesinos was shown on videotape handing $15,000 to a newly elected opposition congressman, apparently as a bribe for the legislator to join the president's congressional coalition.

The same scandal prompted Mr. Fujimori to announce plans to quit as soon as the country can elect a new president. A target election date is being set for March or April.

The government is in the process of dismantling the much-feared National Intelligence Service, or SIN, which Mr. Montesinos ran. The SIN, created in 1990, cooperated with the military high command and used hundreds of military personnel to spy on Peruvian civilians and politicians.

Mr. Montesinos used his powerful position within the SIN to obtain promotions for loyal generals, including his own brother-in-law, while arranging for the ouster of those who were uncooperative, according to former intelligence and military officials. He is widely reported to have worked for the CIA. He was ousted from the army in 1977 for passing government secrets to the CIA.

Bribery and other forms of corruption were key to ensuring loyalty, and Mr. Montesinos was meticulous in videotaping military and civilian officials engaged in compromising activities, the sources said.

The Montesinos scandal has caused Peru to sink into its most severe political crisis in decades. The crisis reached fever pitch last week when a congressman said he had been asked by the military command to participate in a coup plot.

The military command publicly voiced its support for Mr. Fujimori shortly after the Montesinos scandal erupted. The army's information office insisted last week that the coup allegations were "absolutely false."

Nevertheless, something urgent apparently prompted Mr. Fujimori to board a plane at 2 a.m. Sept. 28 and fly to Washington with little warning, forcing Clinton administration officials to arrange hasty meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the White House national security adviser.

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats have been trying to persuade Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso to grant full political asylum to Mr. Montesinos on grounds that Peruvian democracy could hang in the balance. Ms. Moscoso has not announced a decision.

Mr. Fujimori returned to Peru on Monday. He obtained a cautious statement of support from the Clinton administration stressing the importance of completing a democratic transition in Peru and emphasizing the need for Mr. Fujimori to make good on his pledge to leave office after calling new elections.

Rumor a ruse?

A former SIN official and several former military officers said in interviews that the coup rumor appeared to have been a ruse by the military command and SIN. They noted that there had been no confirmed reports of unusual military movements or preparations to lend credence to the coup allegations.

The former SIN official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said the organization typically spread coup rumors and planted news reports of "terrorist threats" during previous crises when it appeared that Mr. Fujimori's and Mr. Montesinos's grip on power faced serious challenge.

He said the agency repeatedly cooked up false news reports of frustrated terrorist bombings and guerrilla attacks to keep the nation off balance and loyal to Mr. Fujimori in the final years of Peru's 17-year battle against two leftist guerrilla groups.

"Terrorism never really existed in this country," the former SIN official said. "Yes, subversive groups did exist. But terrorists? No. That was made up."

He said the same type of activity may have been employed by the SIN to ensure that Mr. Montesinos would receive political asylum outside of Peru, so he would never have to face trial in his own country.

"The day that man talks is the day all of the secrets come out," the former SIN official said of Mr. Montesinos.

Former military commanders agreed.

"I think the threat of a coup was false. In Peru, any time there are tensions, everyone immediately begins talking about a coup, even if it's not even a possibility," said Jaime Salinas Sedo, a retired army general who in 1992 led an attempted military insurrection against Mr. Fujimori.

"But let's say the threat was real. When would have been the time to do it? When Fujimori was out of the country and Montesinos is gone, of course. You could do it without even putting a single tank on the streets," he added.

Even if the military command attempted a coup, Mr. Salinas said, it is unlikely that officers below the rank of general would have supported such an action, largely because the lower ranks are fed up with the bad image that the armed forces are getting.

Mr. Salinas and other former officers said the main cause of concern, and the reason for Mr. Fujimori's urgent trip, is that the military fears the exposure of illegal practices commonly undertaken by senior officers.

"We are talking about total, out-of-control corruption," said Jaime Rios Araico, who retired as an army general in 1998 after being jailed but later absolved in a drug-trafficking investigation. "Corruption has attacked this country like an infection. They have lost sight of everything moral. That is to say, when corruption takes control, any practice can be rationalized."

The most vivid example, he said, was the revelation last month that an arms-trafficking ring operating out of Peru was responsible for delivering 10,400 AK-47 assault rifles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that nation's largest guerrilla group. Investigators say as many as 50,000 weapons would have been delivered had the ring not been shut down.

The Peruvian news media have speculated that Mr. Montesinos was behind the arms shipments, although no solid proof has emerged to support those assertions. The former SIN official said that it would have been impossible for the arms-trafficking ring to have operated without the SIN being aware of it.

Some low-ranking army officers have been arrested in the case. The military says it regards the case as solved and that no high-level officers were involved.

But Daniel Mora, a decorated army war veteran who retired as general in 1998, said the low-ranking officers who were arrested "could not possibly have been the masterminds of this operation. They were the scapegoats."

Mr. Salinas said, "You cannot run an arms-trafficking network of that size without the military knowing about it at the highest level."

Most upsetting, the retired generals said, is that the military spent so many years fighting leftist guerrillas in their own country, only to see Peru being used as an arms conduit to support Colombia's guerrillas.

Mr. Mora said part of the reason for such corrupt activities is the need for ranking officers to supplement their low salaries. A general, he said, officially earns only $400 to $700 per month. Off-the-books perks and supplements, such as a coupon book for gasoline purchases, help boost a general's pay to about $1,500 per month.

The former intelligence official showed copies of documents indicating that a group of generals earned millions of dollars by arranging arms purchases from dealers in Poland and South Africa.

He showed one document containing price quotes for the purchase in 1995 of 12 MiG-29 jet fighters from an arms dealer in Poland. The price quoted by the dealer was $192 million, but the officially stamped receipt entered in government ledgers for the purchase was for $260 million.

Shortly after the purchase, according to government property-registration records, one top general involved in the arms sale purchased six properties in Lima worth about $750,000. The general identified in the property records holds a senior command position in the army.

"You don't own property like this on a salary of $400 a month," the former intelligence official said.

Mr. Fujimori has dismissed allegations about generals profiting from arms procurements, saying the accusations are nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors spread by his political opponents.

Even as Mr. Fujimori's government begins the process of dismantling the SIN, there are indications that the military high command is moving quickly to seize files and documents, possibly with an eye toward rebuilding the intelligence network under a new name.

The daily newspaper El Comercio reported Sunday that an estimated 500 military personnel who had worked for the SIN were being transferred to the Army Intelligence Service, including Mr. Montesinos's closest aide, Col. Roberto Huaman Ezcurra.