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Bribery scandal brings President Fujimori down

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Lima, Peru

The predawn flight of Vladimiro Montesinos, the powerful de facto head of Peru’s intelligence service, to exile in Panama climaxed a political chain reaction in Peru that included coup rumors, accusations that military officers were involved in running guns to leftist guerrillas, and the broadcast of a video showing Montesinos apparently bribing an opposition congressman to switch to the governing party.

On Sept. 16 -- less than two months after his July 28 inauguration to a third term widely considered unconstitutional and two days after opposition legislators showed the video in public -- President Alberto Fujimori stunned the nation by announcing that he had decided to call early general elections and deactivate the National Intelligence Service.

The bribery scandal and its aftermath overshadowed another bombshell that had dropped several weeks earlier, when the government announced a new trial for Lori Berenson, a 30-year-old New York woman who made headlines in 1996 when anonymous judges in a Peruvian military court sentenced her to life in prison on charges of terrorism and treason.

For years, Fujimori had been adamant that the New York woman would be treated like any other prisoner and that “no terrorist will be released,” but on Aug. 28 the Supreme Court of Military Justice said it had nullified Berenson’s military court trial and transferred her case to a civilian court.

The new trial is under way, but the case practically dropped out of the news on Sept. 14, with the airing of the video showing Montesinos giving Congressman Luis Alberto Kouri $15,000 in cash and discussing the need to ensure Fujimori’s governing Peru 2000 Party the legislative majority that had eluded him in the April 9 general election. Kouri was among about 20 legislators who switched to Peru 2000 in the weeks after the election.

Two days later, Fujimori’s announcement that he would cut short his third term was greeted with jubilation, but it actually raised more questions than answers. It was not clear when or how either of the two goals -- elections and deactivation of the National Intelligence Service -- would be carried out. Moreover, Montesinos was not under arrest for corruption, and the congressional majority’s legitimacy was in question.

After apparent negotiations with the military, Fujimori said elections would be held in March, and the new president and legislature will take office next July.

Political analysts say Fujimori’s decision was prompted by a failed attempt to get rid of Montesinos after the video was aired. They say his announcement -- which was followed on Sept. 19 by a news conference in which he said Montesinos might have “made mistakes, like any human being” but underscored the security adviser’s role in fighting terrorism and drug-trafficking -- only highlighted the power that Montesinos and his military allies continue to hold.

On Sept. 22, in a session mediated by Eduardo Latorre, foreign minister of the of the Dominican Republic who acted as representative of the Organization of American States, the government agreed to remove Montesinos from his advisory post within 48 hours.

While opposition politicians called for Montesinos to be removed from his post and tried for corruption, observers said safe passage out of the country was more likely. Montesinos was granted asylum in Panama.

Bishop Luis Bambarén, head of the Peruvian Conference of Bishops, called for the country to continue to work toward democracy and freedom of the press, under the auspices of the Organization of American States. Referring to Montesinos, he added, “One must always forgive the sinner, but the sin must be condemned.”

The political disaster came as Fujimori faced increasing pressure at home and on the international front. Fifty-four percent of the country’s 24 million people live in poverty and the country remains in the grip of the worst recession in recent history. Fujimori’s democratic credentials, thrown into question when he sought a third term, were further sullied by an electoral process from which OAS monitors withdrew saying “conditions do not exist for free and fair elections.” His main rival, Alejandro Toledo, pulled out of the May 28 runoff election, charging fraud.

The OAS has been overseeing a dialogue among representatives of the government, opposition groups and civil society organizations, but the discussions have made little progress in the face of the chaotic events. The opening of the dialogue on Aug. 21 was overshadowed by a news conference in which Fujimori and Montesinos announced that the intelligence service had broken up an international gunrunning ring, including several retired low-level military officers that had been parachuting arms to Colombian guerrillas.

The announcement that Peru’s intelligence service, on its own, had broken up a group running arms from Jordan to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, along a route that included stops in the Canary Islands and Guyana, drew an immediate chilly reaction from the other countries involved, including Jordan, which insisted that the sale was legal.

It also marked the first time that Montesinos -- a lawyer and former army captain whose murky past includes legal defense of drug traffickers and reputed links with the CIA -- had assumed a public role. Although he has never held an official post, Montesinos has controlled the Peruvian intelligence services throughout Fujimori’s time in office.

The news conference -- which appeared to be an attempt to gain legitimacy for Montesinos and curry favor with the United States -- was a gamble that backfired. Peter Romero, U.S. undersecretary of state for hemispheric affairs, has said U.S. officials knew of the arms trafficking, and that at least two high-level Peruvian military officers, one active and one retired, were involved. Suspects under arrest have fingered Montesinos.

The trafficking of arms to guerrillas in the area where money from a large U.S. aid package is to be used in anti-drug operations that will almost certainly involve confrontations with the guerrillas has cooled relations between Peru and the United States.

Relations were further strained by indications that payment for the arms was made in cocaine. The United States had considered Peru an important ally in its anti-drug crusade. U.S. officials have been critical of the erosion of democracy in Peru. During her August swing through South America to discuss the situation in Colombia with the region’s leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright skipped Peru.

Sofía Macher, executive secretary of the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (“National Human Rights Coordinating Committee”), a respected human rights coalition, sees a connection between the announcement of the arms smuggling and the decision to retry Berenson.

The arms trafficking “was going to be denounced, and they announced it first to make it seem that they had discovered it, to protect themselves,” she said. The subsequent announcement of the decision to retry Berenson, she said, was an attempt to deflect attention from the more serious problem and restore Peru to favor with the United States.

Berenson’s parents say they doubt their daughter can get a fair trial even in a civilian court. In what probably will be a self-fulfilling prophecy, David Pezua, head of the executive commission that has overseen the judiciary since Fujimori’s “institutional coup” in 1992, has already said he expects her sentence to be reduced.

While Berenson became a cause célèbre for solidarity groups in the United States, there has been little sympathy for her in Peru. When she was paraded before the press in January 1996, she shouted that the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, known as MRTA, of which she was accused of being a leader, was a revolutionary movement, not a terrorist organization. For most Peruvians, weary of more than a decade of violence, that was enough to convict her.

Berenson made several depositions in mid-September, and other people have also been called to testify in closed hearings. Several people who were taken hostage when the MRTA seized the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima in 1996 have said leaders of the group told them that Berenson was not a leader of the organization, but that they took advantage of her sympathy. The evidence against her now appears to be more consistent with the charge of apology for terrorism, which normally carries a six- to 12-year sentence.

Unconvinced of her innocence, Peruvian human rights organizations steered clear of Berenson’s case, focusing instead on cases of people who were clearly innocent, many of them fingered by “repentant” Shining Path and MRTA members who took advantage of a 1992 amnesty law.

Human rights groups won freedom for nearly 460 inocentes (“innocents”) through an ad-hoc commission consisting of the minister of justice, the government’s well-respected human rights ombudsman and Fr. Hubert Lanssiers, a Sacred Hearts priest known for his human rights work.

Another 500 were freed after courts reviewed their cases, and about 200 cases are pending, Macher said. The Berenson case “gives us more arguments for continuing to insist that they resolve the pending cases of inocentes,” she added.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000