Peru elections in doubt after exiled spy chief returns

Latin America's top diplomat arrived Tuesday to try to resolve the mounting political crisis.

Every October in Lima, the faithful gather in the streets of the Peruvian capital to pay homage to the passing image of the Christ of Pachacamilla, otherwise known as the Lord of Miracles.

In the face of a deepening political crisis sparked by the surprise return of former intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos on Monday, many Peruvians are beginning to feel that the country's tenuous democracy just might require a miracle.

Mr. Montesinos, a former presidential adviser and one of the country's most feared and hated men, is at the center of a corruption scandal that forced President Alberto Fujimori to announce new general elections four years ahead of schedule. Following the release of a videotape in which he appeared to be bribing an opposition politician, and accusations that he was plotting a coup, Montesinos fled to Panama in September.

His return, which he claims came with the government's blessing, is eroding President Fujimori's international support. It also has thrown into question the government's commitment to the elections, tentatively set for April.

Latin America's top diplomat, Cesar Gaviria, was expected to meet yesterday afternoon with Fujimori and opposition leaders in an attempt to resolve the crisis. Mr. Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, had played a key role in convincing Panamanian authorities to consider Montesinos's request for asylum.

Before his arrival late Tuesday, Gaviria said his mission was "to strengthen the mechanisms that have served as a framework for a political dialogue, and to defend the agreements that will assure Peru returns to its democratic institutions."

Montesinos returned just hours after the government presented a proposal tying new elections to passage of a broad amnesty law. Analysts here say the timing was no coincidence. "Montesinos has come back to ensure his impunity," says Daniel Mora, a military analyst and retired general. "[His exile to Panama] has been a farce, a big joke played on the international and national community."

In recent weeks, suspicion had been mounting that Montesinos retained significant control over the Peruvian military and political scene from his would-be refuge. Fujimori admitted he spoke regularly on the telephone with his ex-adviser. The government has dragged its heels on promised democratic reforms, including deactivation of the National Intelligence Service that Montesinos headed. The government's latest proposal would extend a constitutional amnesty to military officials, police, and civilians for crimes committed in the ongoing battle against drug trafficking. A 1995 law granted amnesty for abuses committed in the 15-year war against leftist rebels.

The government has insisted that acceptance is a prerequisite for new elections, prompting First Vice President Francisco Tudela to resign in protest. Opposition leaders denounced the proposal as political blackmail and on Monday pulled out of OAS-brokered talks on new elections. "Fujimori and Montesinos are the primary beneficiaries of the proposal, and it is something we are not going to allow," says Jorge del Castillo, an opposition member of Congress.

Opposition leaders have said they would consider a modified amnesty in the interests of national reconciliation, but say they are not willing to grant impunity to Montesinos and a handful of military and civilian cronies who have run roughshod over the country's laws for the past eight years.

Montesinos's exact whereabouts are not known, but his presence cast a long shadow over the country. In a radio interview Tuesday night, he said he left Panama because of death threats.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have upped demands for Fujimori's resignation, saying that the president's continued collusion with his disgraced former adviser has stripped him of all legitimacy.

But the president has shown little inclination to step down. After spending most of Monday afternoon visiting military installations, including intelligence agency headquarters, Fujimori attempted to assure reporters that he was in full control of the armed forces. "Whenever there is a problem or a crisis, I am here, facing the country," Fujimori said.

Analysts say it is unlikely Montesinos would stage an actual coup, but as long as he remains in Peru, they say, he presents a threat to stability and democratic reform.

"Montesinos and the military high command are on the defensive," political analyst Santiago Pedraglio said in a television interview. "They can still cause great harm to the country, but the transition process will continue."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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