In December, Peru’s president, Pedro Castillo, tried to shut down congress to prevent its members from impeaching him. His orders were not obeyed, and hours later he was arrested on charges of rebellion and conspiracy. Awaiting trial, Castillo is believed to be held in a police prison in Lima – the same police prison that houses another former Peruvian leader, Alberto Fujimori.
Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, served as president from 1990 until 2000. Like Castillo, he tried to shut down congress while in office. But unlike Castillo, he succeeded. Backed by the army, Fujimori completely rewrote the country’s constitution, and might have remained in power indefinitely had he not been persecuted and imprisoned for human rights violations. Revered as a conservative strongman – the strongest in recent memory – Fujimori began his career as a political outsider. When he announced his first candidacy, no one thought he had any chance of winning. Today, historians argue the only reason he did win – and kept on winning for so long – was because of the man at his side: Vladimiro Montesinos.
Named after the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Montesinos was born in 1945 in Arequipa to communist parents who desperately wanted to be perceived as rich and cultured by their neighbors. Understanding that the army was the only way in which ordinary Peruvians could gain wealth and power, Montesinos’ father arranged for his son to enroll at the famed Military School of Chorrillos in Lima. Although he was an unremarkable student, Montesinos’ passion for reading and obsession with acquiring sensitive information helped him become the single most powerful person in Peru. Following a roundabout path through life, one that involved short prison sentences and multiple career changes, Montesinos eventually found himself serving as the head of his country’s central intelligence network – the Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional, or SIN for short – and Alberto Fujimori’s most trusted advisor. During this time, he also presented himself as an indispensable ally to both the CIA and Colombia’s Medellín cartel.
Montesinos entered the drug trade after he was kicked out of the army for an unauthorized visit to the U.S. Freed from military prison, the disgraced and impoverished young officer started working at the law practice of a family member, where he took on soldiers and police officers accused of drug-related offenses. When Montesinos successfully defended the Medellín cartel member Evaristo Porras Ardiles, he gained the interest (and gratitude) of Pablo Escobar himself. After a bacchanal visit to the latter’s Napoles ranch in Puerto Triunfo, Montesinos was not just defending the cartel in court, but also shipping Peruvian coca leaves into Colombia. Pablo’s brother Roberto claims that Montesinos received between $100,000 and $120,000 per drug flight, and that the cartel donated $1 million to Fujimori’s presidential campaign in the hope of expanding their Peruvian contact’s influence.
Their investment paid off. When Fujimori was sworn in as president of Peru, Montesinos took control of the SIN. According to Rafael Merino, who worked with Montesinos at the intelligence service, his newly appointed boss “contacted the main drug mafias in Colombia and Mexico” as soon as he’d settled into his office. Incarcerated criminals corroborate this story. Said Los Camellos drug ring operator Boris Foguel in an interview from October 2000: “Anyone who did not negotiate with [Montesinos] the right to cross-border operations – that is, pay him multi-million dollar bribes – was persecuted to death by the Peruvian authorities, to the point where they would shoot down in mid-flight small planes loaded with cocaine and dollars.”
As SIN-head, Montesinos played an extremely dangerous and delicate balancing act, accepting money from cartels to keep the drug trade going while at the same time working with both the CIA and the DEA to try and shut everything down. This degree of double-crossing was bound to backfire eventually, and it nearly did in 1996. That year, around 170 kg of cocaine was seized aboard a Peruvian Air Force plane transporting military equipment into Russia. Despite extensive investigations, nobody was ever convicted.
“All the indications,” write journalists Sally Bowen and Jane Holligan in their watershed book The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos, which I picked up at a book fair in Puno, on the border between Peru and Bolivia, “are that Montesinos remained personally involved with the illegal drugs trade until the late 1990s, perhaps even until he fled Peru. He had power and insider knowledge of the counter-drug efforts, and he let it be known that his influence was for sale.”
The thing that brought Montesinos all the way to the top – his desire for knowledge and control – also proved to be his downfall. During his political career, Montesinos routinely and secretly filmed himself bribing politicians, judges, and other government employees. His idea was to use these tapes as blackmail if necessary. However, this plan fell apart when, on September 14, 2000, one of these videos ended up in the hands of a Peruvian TV station. Exposed, Montesinos turned into a pariah. When Fujimori, in a futile attempt to save his own reputation, tried to lay off Montesinos, the security chief flat out refused to accept his resignation. Holed up inside the SIN headquarters, he started planning a coup, then fled the country when he realized his chances of success were microscopic. With help from the FBI, Montesinos was captured in Venezuela and extradited to Peru. Held inside a maximum security prison, Montesinos – still alive – is constantly facing additional charges as new evidence of his criminal activities gets unearthed.
Despite his long-term imprisonment, Vladimiro Montesinos still has considerable influence over Peruvian society. Many of his incriminating tapes were spirited away by allies, and people in power remain loyal to him in fear of those tapes getting leaked. Along with Fujimori, Montesinos continues to be admired by Peruvian conservatives who – similar to Trump’s adherents in America – faithfully deny the irreparable damage he has done to their country, not to mention the countless murders he has authorized. Sitting at a bar with some construction workers from Mancora – a beach town in the north of Peru – one elderly gentleman grabbed my copy of Imperfect Spy and told me, “This book is full of lies!” I didn’t reply. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to tell him why I thought he was wrong. But even if it was, I don’t think it would have been my place to tell him anyway.