Vladimiro Montesinos finally has emerged from the shadows. Throughout much of President Alberto Fujimori's regime, Montesinos has controlled Peru's National Intelligence Service (SIN), key positions in the military and, to a large extent, the president himself. But after the broadcast of a videotape showing Montesinos paying $15,000 to an opposition congressman to switch to Fujimori's party, the president announced he would resign from office, hold new elections and "deactivate" SIN. The real reasons for Fujimori's actions, however, are rooted in popular disgust with 10 years of corrupt rule as well as Montesinos' close relations with the CIA. With the help of U.S. officials, Montesinos fled to Panama, where he was granted temporary asylum.
Gustavo Gorriti was the first journalist to investigate Montesinos. As a result of his investigations, which began in 1983 and uncovered much of the information just surfacing in the U.S. media, the award-winning Peruvian journalist was forced to leave the country in 1992. Now associate editor of Panama's La Prensa newspaper, Gorriti spoke with In These Times from Panama City.
TA Who is Montesinos?
GG Montesinos was cashiered from the army in the late '70s for, among other things, suspicion of selling military secrets to American intelligence. Then, after a stint in military prison, he became a narco-lawyer and an all-around strategist, legal and otherwise, for various drug-trafficking organizations. By 1986, he had insinuated his way back to advising people in powerful positions in law enforcement, such as the attorney general. And again, he became an intelligence source for the CIA.
Then the opportunity of his life came [in 1990] when Alberto Fujimori surged out of nowhere to become the new president of Peru -- and a man with several potential scandals in need of a fixer. Montesinos provided those services and began a "Siamese twin" political relationship with Fujimori, in which Montesinos was the one who planned the abrogation of democracy in Peru, replacing it with a de facto dictatorship.
The organization that really controlled Peru was Montesinos' intelligence service, which grew exponentially during those years and concentrated not only on the usual aspects of intelligence gathering and processing, but on government and private economic activity. He was an influence peddler and a partner in almost every enterprise, through privatization schemes and the awarding of government contracts and licenses.
In the process, Montesinos demonstrated total ruthlessness that allowed him to swamp all opposition, including within the armed forces -- where he elevated those closely related or indebted to him and thereby gained a tremendous degree of control.
||There was such extensive vote-rigging in the first round and then in the runoff that it would have embarrassed even the North Koreans.
In the past, Montesinos and Fujimori have been corrupt, violated human rights and rigged elections -- without losing power. Now documentation of a relatively minor act -- bribing an elected official -- appears to have taken them down. What's different?
It is a cumulative effect. We are talking about a regime that had sowed all the conditions to raise discontent among the people. The degree of alienation from the government has been increasing. The reasons are wide-ranging, from an economy that -- despite all the statistical manipulation and misinformation -- was entering hyper-recession, to a wide-spread perception of corruption within the regime, to a pattern of overt abuses and an insulting degree of misinformation through the government-controlled or -influenced press.
In the 2000 electoral campaign, the first two opposition candidates, who had sizable pluralities, were shot down through a relentless, withering campaign of character assassination. The subsequent massive outpouring of support for Alejandro Toledo wasn't just backing for him, but also an expression of opposition to the regime. There was such extensive vote-rigging in the first round and then in the runoff that it would have embarrassed even the North Koreans.
But even then Fujimori's party didn't achieve a plurality, so, in addition to calling on moles they had planted within the opposition, they began a massive campaign of buying opposition votes to gain majority power in congress. The prostitution of this regime just became too much for the people.
TA How did it happen that Montesinos was taped in his own office?
GG It was the Nixon syndrome.
TA It was his own taping system?
GG Of course. Montesinos had wired the whole area so that he had a tape of every interview as a way of pressuring and blackmailing people eventually. We're talking about thousands of tapes. That is part of how he maintained power.
TA Somebody got that tape though and used it against him. How did that happen?
GG There was a long-standing struggle between investigative reporters on the side of democracy and spies on the other. But disaffected spies -- some patriotic people shocked by Montesinos' seizure of organizations they loved, and some people resentful of mistreatment by Montesinos -- contributed to widespread leaking. And then there were so many tapes, which are so easily mixed up or duplicated, it was very difficult to keep them secure. One of the things that prompted Fujimori and the others to withdraw was their knowledge that several more tapes were missing.
What has been the U.S. role through all this? According to the New York Times, the United States was providing some funds for SIN until last year. Now the administration appears to have soured on the regime and told Fujimori to dump Montesinos. Even the CIA, which stood by Montesinos until recently, became fed up.
||This is a mafia government run by gangsters. So first, the money and possibly drugs. Second, to make [Colombian President] Andres Pastrana fail miserably.
Additionally, people within the State Department, like Peter Romero, the top official for the Western Hemisphere, have strongly and unequivocally said that they should get rid of Montesinos.
But perhaps a greater immediate factor for the United States is the case of the smuggled Russian weapons. Some 10,000 Russian assault rifles were purportedly bought by the Peruvian army from the Jordanian army, and air-dropped into Colombian jungle territory controlled by FARC guerrillas.
The press had been investigating the incident for some months when suddenly Fujimori -- and Montesinos, who never appeared in public -- held a press conference to say that Montesinos had cracked the case and found the culprits: two junior army officers. Fujimori heatedly defended that version, which unraveled completely a few days later. The Colombian, Jordanian and American governments called that scenario ridiculous and maintained that the weapons had been officially sold directly to the Peruvian army, which had smuggled them to the guerrillas with high-level army participation.
TA Why would Montesinos be supporting FARC? Is it just for the money or is it in connection with drug trafficking?
GG This is a mafia government run by gangsters. So first, the money and possibly drugs. Second, to make [Colombian President] Andres Pastrana fail miserably. Remember that Fujimori criticized Pastrana's policy attempts to bring peace to Colombia and advanced his own supposedly tough approach. Lima had even leaked to the press that Peru was concentrating troops on the border with Colombia to prevent FARC advances, while at the same time giving them weapons.
You must understand that, as so often happens with spies, Montesinos got so wrapped up in tactics, intrigues and his own dirt that he completely lost sight of strategic goals. He clashed directly with national security imperatives of the United States, which is in a very clear position now of supporting Pastrana through [the $1.3 billion] Plan Colombia, a sort of bilateral approach to both fighting drugs and guerrillas. And then you have somebody trying to weaken Pastrana and his approach, and also earning some money in the process -- obviously, he becomes a threat.
And I think that explains some of the very harsh words that were said about Montesinos and the unequivocal message given by [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright to Fujimori to jettison his intelligence chief. The United States was quite angry, I think, with Montesinos, and also quite embarrassed because they have been in bed with him for so many years.
Just recently the CIA released documents that Gen. Manuel Contreras of Chile -- who was responsible for the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffitt in Washington -- had been on the CIA payroll. Do you see any parallel between the U.S. role with Montesinos and its association with Contreras?
I think the association of Montesinos with the intelligence establishment was much closer than Contreras ever had. He was the U.S. intelligence establishment's most important source in Peru. The parallel with [former Panamanian dictator] Manuel Noriega is closer.
TA What about the drug war? U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey had for some time supported Montesinos.
GG McCaffrey's brain activity poses no danger of creating any seismic event. There is no doubt whatsoever about Montesinos' role in drug trafficking. In the '90s there were so many consistent accusations of his taking part or taking protection money, that only blind people could fail to see it. But the United States consistently ignored it.
TA You have been documenting Montesinos for a long time. How does it feel to see him finally exposed in a way that is incontrovertible and public?
GG It was long overdue. I have followed his career since 1983, and he has followed mine, too. He has tried to silence me, and I have relentlessly continued to expose him. But I don't feel any sense of vindication. The evidence was there, all the time, and it has taught me many practical lessons about the relationship of policy-making and diplomacy to truth. And most of these lessons aren't pleasant, but that's the way things are. As a journalist I have to continue trying to bring clear facts to the public, to the readers so they can't be confused by the jargon of politics, the euphemisms of diplomacy and by all the things hiding the truth -- and sometimes, as it was in this case, that truth is nasty, very nasty.
GRAPHIC: Picture, A protest rally in downtown Lima on September 18. The headline on the sign reads: "Behind every great dictator stands a big assassin. Death penalty for the traitor Montesinos." REUTERS
LOAD-DATE: October 16, 2000