Peru's riveting candid camera of corruption

The hottest videos in Peru aren't the one-day rentals at the neighborhood Blockbuster.

The footage everyone wants to see is a stash of grainy films shot by, directed by, and starring the nation's most wanted crook: Vladimiro Montesinos. The former intelligence chief - still on the lam - covertly taped hundreds of meetings held during his 10 years as ex-President Alberto Fujimori's closest adviser.

The so-called "Vladivideos," thought to feature a veritable who's who of the country's political, military, and business elite, could alter the face of April's presidential and parliamentary elections. The public is clamoring to know whether the candidates that are running were also on the take. "Before we vote, we have to know the truth," says housewife Olivia Soto.

But the videos fill 64 suitcases and 50 boxes, and there may not be enough time to view them before April 8 balloting.

Only three of the videos have been made public, but the images they contain have left the nation reeling. "Everyone is focused on what's happening with the corruption investigations," says University of Lima political scientist Juan Abugattas.

One video released Tuesday shows Congressman Ernesto Gamarra receiving money from the brother of an alleged Montesinos frontman, apparently in exchange for deflecting press inquiries into arms deals linked to Montesinos. Until the video's release, Mr. Gamarra was vice president of the congressional Waisman Commission, set up to investigate Montesinos, and a member of the Independent Moralizing Front, the political party that brought the first Montesinos video to light. Gamarra is now under investigation by congress, which could decide to lift his parliamentary immunity from arrest.

Another tape released last week features former Supreme Court Chief Justice Alipio Montes accepting Montesinos's offer to run the national elections board. On the video, Montesinos informs Mr. Montes that in addition to his salary as the country's highest elections official, he will receive an extra $10,000 per month, adding, "There won't be a receipt.... You just have to help me." Montes is currently under investigation by the attorney general.

Other videos, not seen by the public, implicate the head of a Lima newspaper, a top banker, a former government minister, and the mayor of an upscale Lima district, prosecutors and judges have told the press. The last two were arrested Friday.

In September, the release of the first video marked the beginning of the end of Fujimori's regime. That tape showed Montesinos apparently bribing an opposition congressman to switch sides. In the ensuing outcry, Fujimori called new elections and later resigned as president from Tokyo, where he remains.

The fugitive Montesinos is wanted on a number of charges involving corruption and human rights violations.

As authorities sift through more than 700 videos taken from Montesinos's home, speculation on who was caught doing what on tape has thrown Peru's entire political class under suspicion.

An arrest sweep a week ago landed four retired generals and four of Montesinos' relatives in jail on corruption charges.

The picture emerging confirms what many here long suspected: that Montesinos effectively ran the country, doling out judgeships and other government posts and controlling the courts, the military, and much of the media.

Montesinos and his cronies still wield significant influence in the country's political institutions, commentators warn. A surprise motion introduced in Congress Thursday removed the remaining members of the Waisman Commission - an action many interpret as an effort by politicians linked to Montesinos to thwart the release of more videos.

"We are asking that the list of names that appear on the videos be made public, and that the elections don't take place before the public has a chance to see the videos and know exactly who they're voting for," said Jorge Salazar of the Civil Society Collective. Interim President Valentin Paniagua, however, has declined to postpone the elections.

Presidential candidate and former human rights ombudsman Jorge Santistevan is reportedly one of scores of politicians whose names appear on the cassettes. Santistevan has called for his video to be made public, saying his meeting with Montesinos involved no wrongdoing.

The videos have cast shadows on the campaigns of other presidential candidates, including Independent Moralizing Front leader Fernando Olivera, one of whose close advisers was Congressman Gamarra. Mr. Olivera's campaign suffered a second blow when FIM Congressman Guido Pennano acknowledged he had thrice met with Montesinos, who offered him $350,000 and the economic minister's job in exchange for joining Fujimori's party.

So far, no video has tainted candidate Alejandro Toledo, who leads in the polls by some 20 points. Even so, "the corruption revelations really don't benefit any candidate. They are creating such a climate of suspicion and mistrust" that all politicians will suffer, says Giovana Penaflor, director of the Lima polling firm Imasen.

Amid the Montesinos corruption furor, another candidate announced his run for the presidency. Ex-president Alan Garcia returned to Peru Saturday after nearly nine years in exile. Mr. Garcia, Fujimori's predecessor, left office in 1990 amid hyperinflation, corruption accusations, and advancing guerrilla violence. Speaking before a roaring crowd in Lima's Plaza San Martin, Garcia portrayed the decade-old accusations against him as part of a plot by the Fujimori government, stressing that many of his accusers are now on the run themselves. "They don't have any videos on me!" Garcia told supporters. "I was a victim of the dictatorship."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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