How Fujimori uses spies to tighten his grip on Peru

Miami Herald -- 4 February 1999

by Joel Simon

If information is power, then Peruvian President Alberto K. Fujimori is a new kind of Latin American leader. Obsessed with information-gathering, he has turned Peru's intelligence services into an enormous spy bureaucracy that controls the opposition, the government, and even the armed forces.

Peru's intelligence services represent a new model for political control based not on outright repression but the use of information to out maneuver opponents, or intimidate them. For example, Javier Perez de Cuellar, who ran against Fujimori for president in 1995, often wondered how Fujimori seemed to know exactly what he was going to say and where he was going to campaign. Two years later, Perez de Cuellar learned that intelligence agents had been listening in on every phone call.

``What is painful is that they invaded not only my political life, but my private life,'' complained the former U.N. Secretary General. ``It's as if a thief entered our house and stole our sensibilities.''

Yesterday President Fujimori arrived in Washington along with Ecuadorean President Jamil Mahuad, with whom he signed a peace treaty last year. While Fujimori deserves credit for ending a long-standing border dispute between the two countries, the circumstances under which the treaty was negotiated raise serious questions about his commitment to a free and fair public debate.

In August, according to Peruvian journalists, the country's top newspaper editors were called into a meeting and told that during the peace negotiations newspapers should only publish information authorized by the government. Television newscaster Cesar Hildebrandt who defied the government order and broadcast an interview with Ecuadorean President Mahuad was charged with treason.

The way in which the Peruvian ``infotatorship'' functions became clear last year with the defection of several agents, including Luisa Zanatta, who is seeking political asylum in Miami.

Zanatta, who was recruited in 1993 when she was working as a cashier in a Lima restaurant, was assigned to monitor the phone calls of suspected terrorists. Once the guerrilla threat was reduced, she was reassigned to eavesdrop on opposition politicians and journalists.

``Sometimes, female agents are used to seduce military officers and capture it on video tape,'' said Zanatta.

Behind Peru's spy network is shadowy adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, a former army captain and CIA informant. In 1990, during Fujimori's first campaign for president, Montesinos, then an adviser to the National Intelligence Service, helped smooth over a brewing political scandal over Fujimori's underpayment of taxes. Since then, Montesinos has become the power behind the throne.

Disgruntled spies such as Zanatta have been a bonanza for Peruvian journalists, providing firsthand accounts of government-sponsored massacres and tapes of surreptitiously recorded conversations. Former spy Leonor La Rosa, who is undergoing medical treatment in Mexico, gave interviews last year to journalists describing how she was tortured by her colleagues to prevent her from making public a secret government plan to murder leading journalists.

Zanatta says she went to the press to back up her colleague's story. She began providing information to journalist Jose Arrieta, fueling a series of explosive reports on Channel 2. The station aired conversations recorded by the intelligence service between journalists and opposition politicians, and between known drug traffickers and army officers.

Fujimori launched a counter-offensive. In July 1997, Channel 2's Israeli-born owner, Baruch Ivcher, was stripped on his Peruvian citizenship and eventually forced to leave the country. When Arrieta learned in January 1998 that he faced arrest on trumped-up terrorism charges, he also fled Peru.

Santiago Canton, the newly appointed special rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States, has made several trips to Peru to investigate evidence of systematic harassment of the press. Baruch Ivcher, who now divides his time between Miami and Israel, has been waging an international campaign to restore his Peruvian nationality and regain his station. International law appears to be on his side: On Feb. 15, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is expected to refer Ivcher's case to the Inter-American Court in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Peru's `infotatorship'

Even the U.S. Congress is concerned: In October, U.S. Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a resolution condemning Fujimori for systematic violations of press freedom.

Fujimori seems as determined as ever to hold onto power. All that is standing between Fujimori and the consolidation of the Peruvian ``infotatorship'' is the press. If he succeeds in silencing journalists, he may be able to establish a dangerous new political control based on massive spying. In Peru, ``information age'' has taken on an entirely new meaning.