Peru puts past behind bars

Monday extradition of ex-spymaster Montesinos is seen as step toward democratic renewal.

While many among Peru's political and business elite are trembling at what dirty secrets ex-spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos might reveal now that he is behind bars, most Peruvians are breathing a sigh of relief at the fugitive's capture.

And analysts say prosecuting Peru's most wanted criminal will aid the country in its road to recovery after 10 years of virtual dictatorship.

"The capture of Montesinos is a positive event for Peru. His capture eliminates a potentially destabilizing factor for the [incoming] government of [president-elect Alejandro] Toledo," says Lima security expert Francisco Loayza. "The information Montesinos provides will allow for a thorough cleansing of corrupt elements at every level of the state apparatus."

Mr. Montesinos, who was the top aide to now disgraced ex-president Alberto Fujimori, had been the target of an international manhunt since last October, when he went into hiding following a corruption scandal that toppled the Fujimori government.

The fugitive was extradited from Venezuela on Monday. His arrival was broadcast live on several television stations. Wearing jeans and a cream-colored jacket, with a sweater draped over his handcuffs, Montesinos looked calm but slightly haggard. His hawkish features appeared little changed by plastic surgery he reportedly underwent while on the lam.

After a medical exam, Montesinos was taken to court for questioning by judges and prosecutors and then returned to an underground jail cell at the Palace of Justice in central Lima.

Montesinos faces 52 charges for crimes ranging from money-laundering, drug-trafficking, illegal arms dealing, and murder. Another 88 cases are pending investigation by Peru's Public Ministry. If found guilty, Montesinos could be sentenced to life in prison.

Montesinos staged a dramatic escape from Peru in October, and press reports ultimately placed him in Venezuela. As months went by, the government of President Hugo Chavez faced growing accusations that Venezuelan officials were protecting the fugitive.

To many observers, the timing of Montesinos's arrest - which was announced Sunday morning during the close of an Andean summit meeting in Venezuela and just days after Mr. Chavez met with president-elect Toledo in Lima - raises questions. "My feeling is that Montesinos had been captured some time ago," says Mirko Lauer, a political columnist with the Lima newspaper La Republica. "What Chavez did was simply execute an order from Washington" that the time had come to bring Montesinos in, Mr. Lauer theorizes.

Peruvian Interior Minister Ketin Vidal said Sunday that the FBI had played a "significant role" in finding Montesinos in Venezuela. Mr. Vidal declined to describe how Montesinos was found or the circumstances of his arrest.

According to an investigative report published in La Republica, the FBI obtained information leading to Montesinos's capture from a retired Venezuelan police officer arrested in Miami last week. According to the report, the fugitive had dispatched the retired policeman to Miami to withdraw several million dollars from a branch of the Pacific Industrial Bank there. Bank officials notified the FBI, which then arrested Montesinos's front-man and persuaded him to collaborate with investigations.

Authorities say Montesinos used an extensive network of corruption to amass a fortune and effectively run the country. Some $264 million have been discovered in foreign bank accounts linked to Montesinos.

Many of Montesinos's top allies and collaborators have been arrested, and more than 550 people, including Peruvian military officials, judges, government officials, businesspeople, politicians, and media executives, are implicated in Montesinos's crimes.

It could be months before Montesinos will face trial. Observers say information he provides could strengthen the Peruvian government's efforts to extradite Fujimori from Japan, where he remains in self-imposed exile.

Japan has refused to hand Fujimori, born of Japanese parents, over to Peruvian authorities on the grounds that he is a Japanese citizen. Japan has no extradition treaty with Peru.

"Montesinos will no doubt be a stupendous witness. If he provides proof of Fujimori's' involvement in human rights violations, it could make a significant difference" in upping the pressure against Japan, says Lauer.

Some observers speculate that Montesinos might attempt to portray Fujimori as the criminal mastermind from whom he simply received orders.

Fujimori was elected in 1990, but two years later, arguing that a crackdown was needed to rein in terrorist groups, he dismissed Congress and, with the help of Montesinos, instituted strong-arm tactics in an increasingly corrupt administration.

Where Montesinos will be held as he awaits trial is unclear. Justice Minister Diego Garcia Sayan says prison and judicial authorities are working together to ensure that Montesinos is held "under conditions of complete isolation and maximum security."

"There are many sectors or organizations interested in quieting Montesinos, including some disposed to eliminating him. His imprisonment must be treated with the utmost care," says Mr. Loayza.

Montesinos will most likely be held at the maximum-security naval prison in the port of Callao, whose most famous inmate is Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, until security measures are in place at another Lima prison to which he will be transferred.

Peruvian authorities discounted the possibility that Montesinos would be able to negotiate the terms of his imprisonment in exchange for divulging information. "Mr. Montesinos is just another accused. He has all the rights of any other defendant ... but no special privileges," interim President Valentin Paniagua says. "The government has nothing to negotiate with him."

The scandal surrounding Montesinos and Fujimori has riveted Peru. Not long after Fujimori's reelection last year, the release of a video showing Montesinos bribing a congressman ended their joint reign. Subsequent "Vladivideos," secretly taped by Montesinos and showing apparent bribe-taking by top business and political leaders, led to arrests and left the nation reeling. Later a Lima news magazine produced a computer game in which players could put Montesinos behind bars.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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