JUST over a year after President Alberto Fujimori dissolved the legislature and assumed dictatorial rule, Peru is confronting the first test of strength between the executive, the military, and the newly constituted Congress.
Charges of human rights abuses directed at two of the country's most powerful men by the No. 3 man in the Army have led some opposition members of Congress - assumed to be a rubber-stamp body - to demand a full parliamentary investigation.
Accused of commanding a paramilitary death squad responsible for a number of unresolved killings and disappearances, the two men are none other than President Fujimori's most trusted lieutenants: Gen. Nicolas de Rari Hermoza, armed forces chief and backer of Fujimori's palace coup in April 1992; and Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's unofficial national intelligence service chief and key personal adviser.
The charges were leveled May 7 by Peruvian Army Gen. Rodolfo Robles, before he and his family went into exile in Argentina. General Robles fled the country, he says, after learning of threats to his family.
Robles' statement said the Hermoza-Montesinos "machinery for coercion, blackmail, and annihiliation" had run amok, and dubbed the two men "an unscrupulous pair ... in charge of a band of uniformed thugs."
Robles implicated the men in two notorious cases, a November 1991 massacre in Lima and the disappearance in July 1992 of a university professor and nine students. Both cases are on the United States State Department's list of nine priority cases of alleged human rights violations that Peru must resolve.
The two cases became causes celebres here for first raising fears that such a squad was operating in Lima to eliminate people suspected of connections with the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement. Strengthened charges
While Lima weeklies had previously printed allegations by anonymous Army officers that General Hermoza and Mr. Montesinos approved the extrajudicial killings, General Robles' stature lends extra weight to the accusations.
Fujimori has thrown his weight behind the men, reiterating his "complete confidence" in them and arguing that they are largely responsible for recent spectacular successes against Peru's prime guerrilla groups - Sendero and the Tupaz Amaro Revolutionary Movement.
Diplomats in Lima express concern at Fujimori's warning that he will "absolutely refuse to allow any interference by Congress in intelligence matters."
"Mr. Fujimori is now in a very difficult position," comments a Western diplomat here. "He obviously doesn't want to show weakness before the Congress, but foreign governments will be pressing hard for clarification of the Robles charges."
Hermoza has already tried intimidation tactics. In late April, he pulled about 30 tanks onto the streets and told congressmen he "would not tolerate" investigation of his officers. The Supreme Council of Military Justice says the armed forces is the place for any investigation, and the Council has belatedly said it will question those charged.
Military experts say there is no doubt that killings like those in these two cases have been carried out by specialist groups - and with the knowledge of superiors at the highest levels.
"Army officers don't take risks anymore," says Enrique Obando, an expert in military studies at a Lima-based international affairs institute. "If we're talking about planning and coldly carrying out the `disappearance' of a dozen people, then it's with orders from above - no one else is so stupid as to do that without being promised immunity in advance." Montesinos' role
A key question is Montesinos' role. The former Army captain-turned lawyer is a shadowy figure, almost never seen or photographed. But he reportedly has been Fujimori's closest confidant since the 1990 election campaign, when he apparently resolved a number of possible lawsuits that could have damaged Fujimori's reputation.
Montesinos was cashiered from the Army in 1975 for allegedly selling secrets to the US Central Intelligence Agency, an enemy of the leftist military then in power. Charges were later dropped, but for years he was an outcast from military circles.
Yet now Montesinos is the crucial link between the president and armed forces. He is the architect of the new-style intelligence service, enlarged and enhanced during Fujimori's presidency.
Montesinos has also become the decisive voice in military promotions, raising the hackles of armed forces traditionalists. According to a Defense Ministry source, "he keeps secret files with information on every high-ranking officer - to use as `persuasion' as and when he sees fit." Some say he has a sinister hold over Fujimori himself.
"Montesinos is the real blot on Fujimori's otherwise valiant efforts to put an end to immorality and corruption," says a Western military attache in Lima. "I cannot understand why the president doesn't simply get rid of him."
Which is exactly what some congressmen are demanding. But the memory of April 5, 1992, when Fujimori dissolved the twin-chambered legislature for allegedly blocking his reformist path, may dissuade the majority from open confrontation with him.
While Fujimori remains unflinching in his support for Hermoza and Montesinos, a senior diplomat says, "the cracks already apparent in Peru's fragile institutional structure can only grow wider."