Montesinos’s Revenge


It’s a cinematic thriller, maybe even a Vanity Fair piece in the making. On June 23, Venezuelan police arrested Vladimiro Montesinos, the former chief of Peru’s CIA and the evil mastermind behind Alberto Fujimori’s 10-year regime. The details read like pulp fiction: A diamond-studded drug lawyer allegedly uses torture and blackmail to build a political empire, secretly videotapes his cronies, and then flees the country through a tunnel under his bathtub. After eight months on the lam, he gets sold out by a bodyguard and locked away in the maximum-security prison he designed for his own enemies.

Most news accounts have centered on the details of the capture and the controversy over who engineered it. But all the outrage over Venezuela sheltering Montesinos seems a bit hypocritical, given America’s longtime support for the Peruvian spymaster. Newspapers like The New York Times have played hot potato with the fact that the CIA did business with Montesinos for years, enlisting his officers to shoot down suspected drug planes while ignoring allegations that he supervised a death squad and took monthly $50,000 bribes from drug dealers. Coverage in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times has been more hard-nosed than in the Times, but even the stories that detail how the U.S. propped up Montesinos are steeped in self-aggrandizing quotes from an unnamed “U.S. embassy official” in Lima.

U.S. Ambassador to Peru John Hamilton has good reason to want to massage this story: Montesinos has the power to expose the seamy activities of the CIA, which has a secret office inside the U.S. embassy in Peru. According to Jeremy Bigwood, a journalist who covers Latin America, “The U.S. has done an amazingly good job of spinning” the news accounts about Montesinos, with the result that the U.S. government “is now the hero in the picture instead of the bad guy.” For a fine example of damage control, see Isabel Hilton’s March 5 New Yorker story, which offered rich details about Montesinos’s rise to power, but not a word about his ties to the U.S. embassy in Peru.

Last week, as story after story hyped the FBI’s role in Montesinos’s arrest, one fact was conspicuously missing. In September 2000, when the spy chief first escaped Peru, the CIA lobbied hard to get him political asylum in Panama. Indeed, if the U.S. had taken a tougher stance, Peru’s Don Corleone might have been locked up months ago.

The CIA’s complicity with this criminal was also missing from a Times editorial on June 26, which called for “dictators and strongmen” to be held accountable worldwide. The Times noted that “if Mr. Montesinos is cooperative,” he could “shed some light on his long relationship with Washington.” What the Times has yet to point out is that powerful media outlets could also shine a light into that abyss by calling on the CIA to declassify its files on Montesinos.

What did the CIA know, and when did they know it? According to the Peruvian press, that’s what Peru’s new president, Alejandro Toledo, asked on June 26, when he lobbied Colin Powell to release the files. Maybe Toledo or the media will have better luck than the National Security Archive‘s Tamara Feinstein, whose repeated FOIA requests on Montesinos have produced a few gems from the State Department, she says, but “absolutely nothing” from the CIA.

Even the most innocuous U.S. documents suggest that Montesinos and U.S. officials have played more footsie than powerful media have told us so far. A 1996 biographical sketch of the spy chief is almost completely redacted, while another document identifies the year Montesinos made a splash in the U.S.: 1976, when the State Department wined and dined the young political aide, introducing him to a number of top policymakers who specialized in Peru.

Upon arriving in D.C. that September, Montesinos met with experts from the State Department, Congress, and the CIA; then proceeded to New Haven, where he had an “all-night” bull session with students; to New York, where he met with a Council on Foreign Relations rep; and to San Francisco. (Why the largesse? Perhaps because, around the same time, Montesinos sold the CIA some info on Russian arms sales to Peru.)

According to his State Department interpreter, Montesinos took “copious notes, which he carefully reviewed” every night, and left with a “more positive attitude” toward the U.S. In conclusion, the interpreter wrote, “He is a firm friend of the U.S., and the results of his visit will accrue benefits to both nations for years to come.”

Legalize It

You don’t read much about Gabriel García Márquez in the States, but the septuagenarian novelist is now Mexico’s champion of independent journalism. After surviving a bout with cancer, García Márquez surfaced in Mexico City last month with Cambio, his new weekly news magazine.

Roger Black, who designed the mag, says that on the night of the launch, “Gabo was hanging out the whole time, running around telling people what he thought of their writing. In New York, I don’t think many young writers could take it — to have the great man come in and tell you your work is shit.”

Cambio brings together a team of visionaries. Black is famous for designing magazines from Rolling Stone to The New Republic. After a foray into interactive Web design in the mid 1990s, he cashed out and has now returned to his first love, editorial. Meanwhile, García Márquez began publishing the Colombian edition of Cambio in 1999. For the new version, he partnered with the Mexico-based Editorial Televisa, which publishes 41 magazines in Spanish. His editor in chief, Ramón Alberto Garza, was for years the editor of the independent newspaper El Norte. With Cambio, the team hopes to deliver a mix of politics and culture to a growing middle class with a passion for democracy.

The ties go way back. Black’s business partner, the Mexican designer Eduardo Danilo, first worked with Garza on El Norte, and Black helped García Márquez stage a journalism seminar in Cartagena. “He’s amazing to watch in person,” says Black. “It’s like having Muhammad Ali around. The men yell out to him — ‘Gabo!’ — and all the women come running around.”

Black has acquired some potent political views from his friends south of the border. Says the designer, “There’s nobody outside of the U.S. who believes in a military drug war.” In fact, he says, “I am one of those who believe the U.S. is to blame for the corrosion of Colombian society. I think that our drug habit destroyed Colombia, [and] I don’t see how any moral American can not do everything in their power to stop this.” Thanks to the U.S. demand for drugs, he says, Colombians die, their system is corrupted by drug money, and coca cultivation increases every year.

For all the hardware the U.S. has thrown at the problem, Black says, “It’s only getting worse. All we have to do is stop demanding so much drugs, or legalize.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 3, 2001

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