Peru's Ex-Intelligence Chief Reported to Leave Panama

New York Times -- 22 October 2000

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru - The former Peruvian intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who had fled Peru last month for Panama to seek political asylum following corruption charges. left Panama tonight on a private plane heading for Ecuador, Panamanian officials said.

The reports of Mr. Montesinos' surprise departure followed weeks of debate within the Panamanian government over whether to grant the former aide to President Albert K. Fujimori asylum. It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Montesinos would remain in Ecuador or move on to a third country. American officials, hoping to restore stability to Peru, had applied diplomatic pressure on Panama in recent weeks to grant Mr. Montesinos at least temporary residency.

But even as Mr. Montesinos was trying to find a safe haven, opposition figures in Peru contended that he continued to exert political influence in Peru in an effort to protect himself and his allies in the military from prosecution. Government negotiators have told the opposition here that a date for new presidential elections cannot be set until a law is passed to give military officers and the police a blanket amnesty for a broad range of offenses that would include drug trafficking.

Justice Minister Alberto Bustamante said on Friday night that an amnesty was necessary to build "a policy for the reconciliation of the country." Mr. Bustamante also called for shortening the presidential and congressional term from five years to four, which would create the possibility of a swifter comeback by Mr. Fujimori.

The negotiations began shortly after Mr. Fujimori stunned the country last month, after winning an election that was widely considered flawed, by announcing that he would call new elections to select a successor four years before the end of his third term. The announcement came after a videotape emerged showing Mr. Montesinos, apparently handing a bribe to an opposition legislator.

The new demand came Friday night as the opposition and representatives of Mr. Fujimori met for the first time in a week after the Organization of American States mediator suspended the dialogue over lack of progress in agreeing to build democratic institutions.

The Defense and Interior Ministries issued a communiqué on Saturday in which they said that previous amnesty laws were "insufficient to guarantee that security personnel not be the victims of reprisals."

Opposition politicians expressed distaste for the new demand, saying that the military and Mr. Montesinos were trying to protect themselves from prosecution. "A group of military officers have put the country in a cage," charged an opposition congressman, Rafael Rey.

Mr. Montesinos's fortunes began to deteriorate two months ago when evidence emerged that Peruvian military officers were involved in the sale of a large number of Russian assault rifles to Colombia's largest Marxist guerrilla group. Former Peruvian intelligence officials have speculated that Mr. Montesinos was involved in the scheme or at least knew about it.

The last Peruvian Congress approved an amnesty in 1995 covering offenses by the police and military between 1980 and 1995, during their fight with two terrorist groups. But the proposed amnesty would cover a far wider range of crimes.

How far the government would go in pressing for the new amnesty was not immediately clear. Mr. Fujimori has repeatedly promised that new elections will be called next year, and vital loans from multilateral lending institutions and the United States would be in jeopardy if he backs away from his promise to step down.

However, the military has shown a strong independent streak in recent weeks, and there have been persistent rumors of coup threats. Mr. Fujimori's political position has weakened, and few experts believe he could do much to resist the demands of the high command, most of whom were picked by Mr. Montesinos.

Alejandro Toledo, the leading opponent of Mr. Fujimori in the presidential elections last spring, has called for a transitional government and has promised to take the struggle to force Mr. Fujimori's resignation into the streets. But street demonstrations against the government have been small and scattered. "This trickery cannot be allowed to persist," Mr. Toledo said on Saturday. "Montesinos continues to command Peru from Panama."