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Behind Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's rise to power lurks the powerful Vladimiro Montesinos Torres. Montesinos first appeared at Fujimori's side to defend him against charges of real estate fraud when Fujimori was running for president. The paperwork in that case mysteriously disappeared, the charges were dropped, and Fujimori was elected president. Montesinos received cadet training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas soon after becoming an army officer. In 1976, he requested sick leave, stole and falsified a blank form, and went to the U.S. Embassy in Lima. On September 5, 1976, Montesinos flew to the U.S. as a guest of the U.S. government. According to Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti, once in the United States, Montesinos met with Luigi Einaudi, of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, and CIA Office of Current Intelligence officer, Robert Hawkins. He also met with academics in Connecticut and Washington and gave a talk at the Inter-American Defense College.
Upon his return to Peru, Montesinos was arrested and later charged with treason. The treason charge was dropped, but he was convicted of lying and falsehood in May 1977. He was expelled from the army and sentenced to one year in jail.
During his time in jail, Montesino studied the law and in the 1980s, he made a fortune representing drug traffickers and policemen linked to drug trafficking. In the early 1980's, he signed legal documents on behalf of a Colombian client for the purchase or lease of two buildings in Lima that were later raided and found to house cocaine processing.
By 1990, Montesinos had developed a comfortable relationship with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including meetings with the station chief in Lima and a visit to CIA headquarters in Langley. In 1991, Montesinos took over command of nearly all of the joint Peru-U.S. anti-drug operations and developed an anti-drug unit within the National Intelligence Service (SIN). Now, with the fox guarding the hen house, cooperation in anti-drug efforts took a downward turn, and the SIN anti-drug unit committed human rights and other abuses, but did not catch drug traffickers.
Since then, Montesinos has consolidated his power as de-facto head of the Peruvian National Intelligence Service (SIN) and as a Peruvian military power broker. His zeal for rooting out "subversion" has made him many powerful friends in the US but it has often resulted in grave human rights abuses and illegal acts against the political opposition.
In November 1991, fifteen people, including an eight-year-old, were killed when hooded men with silencer-equipped automatic weapons opened fire without warning on a party in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima. The Barrios Altos massacre was later revealed to be the responsibility of the Grupo Colina death squad, which answered to Montesinos. The Grupo Colina consisted of members of the Peruvian military and intelligence.
After Fujimori's auto-coup in April 1992, Montesinos took advantage of the situation to even the score with Caretas journalist Gustavo Gorriti who had written articles critical of Montesinos and the Fujimori government. Gorriti was arrested hours after the coup and questioned about what information he had about Montesinos. After two days of interrogation, Gorriti was released to find that all information about Montesinos has been erased from his computer. In the days following the coup, police generals who had arrested Montesinos' former legal clients also received payback as they lost their jobs.
Three months after the auto-coup, the Montesinos-directed Grupo Colina abducted nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University. The case was blown open by General Rodolfo Robles, the third-highest ranking military commander, who took refuge at the US Embassy after he stated in May 1993, "The crime of La Cantuta was committed by a special intelligence unit (known as the Grupo Colina) operating under the orders of Vladimiro Montesinos..." After the civilian judge indicated her intention to call Montesinos and Army Chief General Nicolas de Bari Hermoza to testify in the case, the Peruvian Congress (installed by Fujimori after the auto-coup in April 1992) passed a law moving jurisdiction in the case from the civilian courts to military courts. In March 1998, former Peruvian Army Intelligence Agent Luisa Zanatta said that army intelligence agents killed fellow Mariella Barreto Riofano because she gave a magazine information about human rights violations and where from the La Cantuta massacre were buried. Shortly before Barreto was killed, she told Zanatta that she was part of the Grupo Colina death squad responsible for the La Cantuta massacre. Barreto's body was found by a roadside on March 29, 1997. The body showed evidence that Barreto was tortured before she was decapitated and her hands and feet cut off.
When self-confessed drug trafficker Demetrio Chavez, known as El Vaticano, was arrested in 1996, he was originally charged with drug trafficking. However, after he claimed that he paid $50,000 per month to Montesinos in exchange for protection of his jungle drug operations, he was charged with collaborating with terrorists. This gave the military jurisdiction his case. Later, a visibly dazed Chavez retracted his allegations and Chavez' lawyer claimed Chavez had been coerced. According to the Los Angeles Times, transcripts of radio intercepts compiled by Peru's navy intelligence gave the impression that Chavez was an ally of the military, as he talked of working with military officers.
In October 1996, Montesinos was seen in public for the first time in years when he met with former General Barry McCaffrey, head of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. Despite the failure of Peruvian authorities to investigate Montesinos' links to confess drug trafficker El Vaticano, McCaffrey stated his belief that the Peruvian government has the political will to eradicate drug production.
Although Peru receives millions of dollars from the U.S. each year ($25 million in fiscal year 1997) to support anti-narcotic efforts, Peru continues to provide the largest source of coca leaf, coca paste, and cocaine base (The Supply of Illicit Drugs to the United States, The NNICC REPORT 1996, U.S. DEA) . The March 1998 U.S. Government Accounting Office report, Status of U.S. International Counternarcotics Activities, cited widespread corruption in Peru and noted that four previous reports had "concluded that U.S. officials lacked sufficient oversight of aid to ensure that it was being used effectively and as intended in Peru..."
Less than a year after Demetrio Chavez claimed that he paid Montesinos $50,000 a month to protect his drug operations, the Peruvian press reported that Montesinos' tax records showed that he had an income of $600,000 per year, although his official salary was just $18,000 per year. Does Montesinos augment his government salary from the CIA, skimming US funds for anti-drug operations, drug traffickers, or all of the above? We're unlikely to know unless the US decides to tell what it knows about Montesinos or the Fujimori-controlled Peruvian Congress decides to investigate him.