Peru's Ex-Spymaster Exercises Power From His Jail Cell

The New York Times -- 27 October 2001

by Clifford Krauss

LIMA, Peru For a decade as Peru's spy chief, Vladimiro L. Montesinos bugged the presidential palace, videotaped the goings-on in bordellos and restaurant bathrooms to blackmail the nation's power brokers and controlled everything from drug trafficking to the army and, some said, even the president himself.

Four months after his capture and imprisonment, Mr. Montesinos continues to exert influence over Peru even from his jail cell, using the same network of collaborators in the security forces, news media and justice system that he built up through the 1990's, senior government officials say.

His enduring reach has raised concern that even in captivity the former spymaster presents a nettlesome challenge to the fledgling democratic government of President Alejandro Toledo as it struggles to dismantle a discreet yet formidable apparatus of control.

"Montesinos still maintains authority and power," Justice Minister Francisco Olivera said in an interview. "He still controls judges. He maintains a certain influence in the navy, and I have the impression in the army and air force as well. The cleansing process is not over."

No serious analyst here talks of a coup, given the sharp blows that the security forces have received after revelations of their corruption in the last two years. But many believe that Mr. Montesinos and his allies may be stirring opposition to the new president to resist change and sabotage their prosecution.

While Mr. Montesinos may be behind bars and is unable to pull all the strings, officials say, the vast network of corruption that he honed is proving so deeply entrenched in all of the society's major power centers that it has become nearly impossible to root out completely.

Mr. Montesinos, who shared power with the previous president, Alberto K. Fujimori, and ran a C.I.A.-financed antidrug program, is imprisoned in a high-security naval prison in the port of Callao, awaiting trial for gun running, money laundering, drug dealing and leadership of death squad activities.

He no longer enjoys his old perks of power like his beachside mansions, gold-crusted watches and the giant Jacuzzi he installed in his office. But his jail keepers have granted him some unusual courtesies, like allowing him to use his lawyer's cellphone, tape recorder and laptop computer, senior officials say. He even managed to respond to questions three weeks ago for an unauthorized television interview.

Since then, security has been tightened at the Callao prison, but government officials say they believe that Mr. Montesinos is still able to communicate with the outside world.

"Montesinos can hand a note to any navy guard and say, `Give this to your commander,' and it will be done," said Carlos Tapia, a member of the government Truth Commission investigating past human rights violations. "That shows you he has power, and he is still manipulating the political agenda."

Using this influence, Mr. Montesinos has been able to suppress evidence against himself and allies, officials say, while timing leaks of incriminating videotapes to embarrass his opponents. He has regularly sent messages to coerce and instruct law enforcement officials and even make drug deals to raise cash, senior government officials say.

The former spy chief's meddling has further complicated the already difficult task of President Toledo in sorting through the government apparatus to identify those who were active protagonists in the old regime and those who were passive supporters but not involved in wrongdoing.

So far, Mr. Montesinos's continuing reach suggests that many in powerful places, particularly in the justice system and the security forces, are resisting anything that resembles a meaningful purge.

Dozens of army officers aligned with Mr. Montesinos have been cashiered and imprisoned since Mr. Fujimori announced his resignation from Tokyo and went into exile there a year ago, and Mr. Montesinos's intelligence agency has been remodeled.

But most of the senior commanders of the police, air force and navy remain in place, and several intelligence units believed to be riddled with Montesinos allies remain unreconstructed.

Justice Minister Olivera said the navy commander in charge of the Callao prison was so afraid of the former spy chief's powers that he had recently refused to join a deputy justice minister in an inspection of the prison for fear of being seen with the government official.

While a direct connection to Mr. Montesinos is not clear, officials said allies of Mr. Montesinos and former President Fujimori had already begun organizing street protests to harass the new government. Senior military officers, meanwhile, have quietly closed ranks to resist change.

Mr. Montesinos's position as the second most powerful official in Peru began to crumble early last year when efforts to fix Mr. Fujimori's re-election to a third term through fraud were disclosed by international monitors and directly tied to the spy chief.

Shortly after Mr. Fujimori's July 2000 inauguration, evidence emerged showing that Mr. Montesinos was smuggling guns to Colombian guerrillas, and a videotape surfaced showing him bribing a Peruvian opposition lawmaker.

The scandal eventually forced Mr. Fujimori to flee to Japan, and Mr. Montesinos became a fugitive until he was captured in Venezuela in June.

Though Mr. Montesinos had served as a C.I.A. collaborator since the 1970's, Clinton administration officials gradually distanced themselves from the intelligence chief as the extent of his vote rigging and gun running was revealed.

But since the earliest days of his career, starting as an army captain, Mr. Montesinos has spied on and kept personal files on a wide swath of the Peruvian elite. As a lawyer for drug barons in the 1980's, he learned which judges, prosecutors, military officers and police agents were pliable and which bankers laundered drug money.

As Mr. Fujimori's spy chief, he handpicked the country's leading military and police officers and law enforcement officials and curtailed the career of anyone he viewed as independent. He organized the corrupt officials into a coordinated apparatus, Peruvian prosecutors say.

Hundreds of videotapes captured from Mr. Montesinos after he fled the country last year have shown him bribing and conspiring with scores of the country's top politicians, news executives and military officers. Through old associates, he is believed to control hundreds of other tapes, which he can still use to extort protection.

Several of Mr. Montesinos's old collaborators remain in key positions in the armed forces and control three television networks and several newspapers. Military intelligence agents friendly to him are suspected of still operating a vast telephone tapping operation outside the authority of the government.

Gen. Víctor Bustamante, the new army commander, recently appointed as his personal secretary an officer who appeared with a group of other officers in a videotape captured from Mr. Montesinos in which the spy chief thanked them for their loyalty during Mr. Fujimori's 2000 re-election effort.

"Montesinos's allies continue to have influence in the armed forces, though they do not appear to be centrally organized," said an army colonel who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "It's very discouraging when officers who participated actively in the Fujimori election campaign now are being promoted to general."

Three weeks ago, six imprisoned senior military officers who were closely allied with Mr. Montesinos were transferred from one prison to another, more secure one after they were discovered plotting to destabilize the government from their jail cells. They had been using cellular and satellite telephones without any interference from prison guards, senior officials said.

There are already signs that the security forces have not responded to recent violent demonstrations and land invasions by peasant squatters as readily as they once did, as a sign of their latent discontent with the new government.

The government also uncovered a recent plot to spring several jailed members of Mr. Montesinos's network from prison, involving an active member of the government's central intelligence service.

The former spy chief recently managed to smuggle a taped response to questions from Telemundo television, a foreign Spanish-language network, in which he called on Mr. Fujimori to stop hiding "under geisha skirts" and return home from Japan to stand trial.

After the Telemundo broadcast, the navy inspector general's office recommended that nine Callao prison officials be transferred to another prison. Investigators also discovered that several people had visited Mr. Montesinos without authorization and without signing an entrance log.

Mr. Montesinos refused to identify the person to whom he had passed the tape that had gone to Telemundo. For his act of defiance, he lost his rights to take part in outdoor recreational activities and to read newspapers and magazines for 90 days.