Peru President's Closest Adviser Linked to Torture, Murder, Drugs

Chicago Tribune -- 9 May 1997

by Laurie Goering

For more information, see also the article by Gustavo Gorriti, an award-winning Peruvian jounalist and fellow at Harvard University. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine and the Los Angeles Times.

He is the president's closest adviser, a brilliant and secretive spymaster who helped end Peru's long and bitter war on terrorism.

It was his plan that brought an end to the four-month standoff at the Japanese ambassador's residence with the rescue of 71 of the 72 hostages, analysts say.

But Vladimiro Montesinos, a phantom-like former army officer with reputed ties to the CIA and proven ties to drug traffickers, is facing unprecedented scrutiny in Peru.

His name has been linked in Peru's press to the murder and dismemberment of a female army intelligence officer who blew the whistle on alleged human rights violations. He also is linked to the torture of another female intelligence officer who went public with allegations of military abuses.

Just before last month's successful assault on the Tupac Amaru rebels holding the hostages in Lima, more than 70 percent of Peruvians surveyed in a public poll called for his ouster.

The raid, which some analysts say was a well-timed gambit to save Montesinos' career as well as a bona-fide rescue attempt, derailed much of that criticism. But as he is increasingly propelled into the spotlight, the rarely photographed man -- so often described as "shadowy" that it has nearly become part of his name -- is growing ever more controversial.

"He's a shady character. In terms of proof it's not so easy to show," said Mirko Lauer, a columnist for La Republica, an opposition Lima newspaper. "But the sheer number and variety of accusations are by themselves a very telling phenomenon," he said.

Montesinos, a former taxi driver and member of a family of respected intellectuals from the mountain city of Arequipa, has a decidedly notorious past.

A former army captain, he abandoned his post in the 1970's to spend a year in Washington, D.C. On his return to Peru, he served more than a year in jail and narrowly escaped prosecution on espionage charges. Since that time he has been rumored to have strong ties to the CIA, though both he and U.S. officials deny any connection.

In the late 1970's, he began a career as an attorney to drug traffickers, including now-jailed Colombian drug lord Evaristo Porras. In time he made his way into Peru's intelligence service, largely serving in quiet but powerful behind-the-scenes posts and building a name for himself as a ruthless and efficient spy chief.

He joined forces with Alberto Fujimori, now Peru's president, during Fujimori's first campaign for the presidency in 1990.

Gustavo Gorriti, a noted Peruvian journalist and associate director of La Prensa in Panama, says he believes former President Alan Garcia, alarmed at the prospect of his political enemy, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, winning the presidency, instructed his intelligence service and specifically Montesinos to assist Vargas' largely unknown challenger.

Fujimori, an agricultural engineer, was at the time battling tax evasion charges that could have derailed his run for the presidency, Gorriti said. After Montesinos was called in, Gorriti said, witnesses to the alleged tax fraud changed their stories and the problem disappeared.

Since then, Montesinos has remained Fujimori's closest and most powerful adviser, analysts say, holding an edge over Gen. Nicholas Hermoza Rios, the head of Peru's armed forces and Montesinos' rival for Fujimori's ear.

Critics of Montesinos see the relationship far less innocently. For years, rumors have circulated in Peru that Montesinos may hold papers showing, for instance, that Fujimori was not born in Peru, making him technically ineligible for the presidency.

"I think he controls Fujimori," Lauer said.

Montesinos' troubles began in earnest last August when a covicted drug trafficker insisted in court that he had paid the presidential adviser $50,000 a month in protection bribes in 1991.

The trafficker, brought back into court days later looking stunned and incoherent, rescinded the charges. But Peruvians, who remembered Montesinos' former work representing drug dealers, were unconvinced, particularly after Fujimori and his political allies blocked efforts to investigate the charges.

Suspicions were revived late last year when copies of Montesinos' tax forms were leaked to Peru's press. They showed the adviser with no official post and a lawyer with no known office earning more than a million dollars a year.

The most troubling charges against Montesinos came in March when an army intelligence officer, the girlfriend of the convicted and pardoned leader of an army death squad known as the Colina Group, was found dismembered in Lima.

The woman apparently had leaked word of army human rights violations, including the torture and murders of nine students kidnapped from La Cantuta University in 1992 and the massacre of 16 people in Lima's Barrios Altos neighborhood in 1991.

A second woman, also an apparent army intelligence whistleblower, was illegally seized and tortured for a month with electric shocks in the basement of Peru's Defense Ministry, she said.

Peruvians blamed Montesinos, charging that the powerful intelligence officer "must have known about these things," one terrorism analyst said.

The woman later told reporters from the hospital that intelligence officers had accused her of leaking information about a plan to track and intimidate Fujimori's political opposition.

Peru's press and opposition groups charge that's what the country's intelligence service under Montesinos spent much of its time doing in recent years, to help the president win an unprecedented third five-year term in 2000.

Analysts say the successful plan to rescue the Tupac Amaru hostages was the brainchild of Montesinos and national police chief Ketin Vidal, a respected police official who in 1992 captured Abimael Guzman, head of the feared Shining Path terrorist movement.

Vidal was dumped from his job just days before the raid, largely because Fujimori and Montesinos feared creating a political rival, said Raul Gonzalez, a terrorism analyst.

"They thought the newspapers the next day would say, `It's Vidal Again,' and would be arguing to kick Montesinos out and replace him with Vidal. And the next headline would be `Vidal for President,'" Gonzalez said.

For now, the shadowy adviser's job seems safe.

"People don't like him. but they get along with him,"Jarama said. "It's dangerous not to."