Declassified documents tap resentment of US in Peru

The Associated Press -- 3 February 2002

PERU - Uncle Sam can be many things to Peruvians. At times, he's a rich, generous neighbour. Other times he's ameddling bully. Often he is an Oz-like power, pushing buttons behind the curtain and controlling everything.

Nothing has nourished those perceptions more in recent months than a spate of declassified State Department documents about Peru's former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, who now faces dozens of corruption charges.

While the diplomatic cables paint an incomplete picture, they provide a glimpse into how US officials warily managed relations with the now-jailed spy.

The embassy relied on Montesinos to fight drug trafficking but questioned whether it should as unconfirmed allegations of corruption and human rights abuses dogged him through much of the 1990s, the cables show.

In Peru, however, the documents were interpreted differently

"US KNEW EVERYTHING ABOUT MONTESINOS," shrieked the block-letter headline from La Republica newspaper a day after the embassy released the cables Jan. 7.

Congresswoman Anel Townsend, who heads a panel investigating Montesinos, said the US government owed Peru an apology for hiding information about the spymaster.

Heduardo, a popular political cartoon in Caretas magazine, lamented that the United States "knew everything" Montesinos and former President Alberto Fujimori were doing but never took "drastic measures to stop them."

"We will never forgive the United States for this. We are so disappointed in that country," Heduardo concluded in a recent cartoon strip.

Congressman Daniel Estrada spoke of CIA cover-ups, with the US documents citing unconfirmed rumors that Montesinos was linked to death squad killings.

"This probable cover-up should worry the world community," Estrada said. "We are entering dangerous ground."

In fact, rumors of Montesinos' involvement with a paramilitary death squad had been widely reported since 1993. Various allegations of wrongdoing surrounded the spymaster for years while he was Fujimori's secretive right-hand man and security chief.

But it wasn't until a bribery scandal involving Montesinos triggered the collapse of Fujimori's 10-year government in November 2000 that Peruvians had their worst suspicions confirmed.

Since then, investigators have uncovered a network of corruption run by Montesinos that has implicated dozens of politicians, judges, military officers, businessmen and journalists. Montesinos awaits trial on charges ranging from extortion to arms smuggling to directing a death squad.

The declassified US documents were delivered to Townsend's investigatory committee. Another batch about human rights abuses dating back to the early 1980s was released Jan. 22 by the National Security Archive in Washington.

"The documents themselves show that we didn't know much more about corruption and human rights abuses in Peru than the average well informed Peruvian," US Ambassador John Hamilton told The Associated Press.

"In some cases, local reactions have shown a human tendency to want to transfer responsibility for those abuses to the US"

Dennis Jett, Hamilton's predecessor from 1996 to 1999, put it more bluntly

"Mainly Peruvians and their own institutions have the responsibility" for Montesinos' wrongdoing, he said in a recent interview. "I wasn't going to say that Vladimiro Montesinos was guilty because I didn't have evidence."

Even if Jett had evidence of Montesinos' wrongdoing, it is unclear that he could have used it to force Fujimori to get rid of him.

US relations with Fujimori's government were often strained because American officials pressured the former president over Peru's poor human rights record.

"It was actually hard to influence Fujimori," said Ted Piccone, who worked on Latin American policy at the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council in the 1990s.

"He didn't want to hear this stuff," he said. "Fujimori ... cut off communications at several points entirely."

Maintaining relations with Fujimori was key to the US government's war on drugs since Peru was the world's largest producer of coca, the raw material of cocaine, until the late 1990s.

Still, as one declassified 1996 cable shows, US officials were wary of working with Montesinos, whom Fujimori had designated as Peru's top anti-drug official.

"Given the superhuman qualities to deceive or influence events that Peruvians ascribe to the United States and the CIA, we always stand to be accused ... of blindly supporting Montesinos," the document said.

"The question of whether our relationship with Montesinos will become a liability looms before us."