Peru's Ex-Spy Chief Caught

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Former Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, the mysterious spymaster who was the power behind Peru's throne for a decade, was arrested here after a desperate eight months on the run, Venezuelan officials announced Sunday.

Venezuelan military intelligence agents captured Montesinos at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at a safe house in a Caracas slum, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said. The arrest took place as the fugitive prepared to move to another hide-out with the help of accomplices, authorities said.

The accomplices "were very desperate because the time had passed to take him to another location," Chavez said. "This desperation led [Montesinos] to make some mistakes that were detected by our intelligence agencies."

Chavez promised to speedily deport the captive to Peru to be tried on charges of commanding a gangster-like network involved in death squads, drug trafficking, gunrunning and other crimes. On Sunday night, Venezuelan authorities brought the captive to the Caracas airport and were expected to hand him over to a contingent of police led by Peru's interior minister.

Although there was no official confirmation that Montesinos had been deported, a Peruvian national police plane took off from the airport at 10:20 p.m., followed by a second plane filled with Peruvian officials.

The capture in Venezuela's capital resulted from a joint international manhunt involving Peruvian police and the FBI, whose agents last week obtained a key lead from a Montesinos ally in Miami, according to Jose Carlos Ugaz, the Peruvian special prosecutor overseeing 140 investigations of the former spy chief.

"This capture was an operation that to a large extent was made possible by the FBI," Ugaz said in a telephone interview. "Information obtained from a person connected with Montesinos in Miami was a fundamental clue that ended in the capture. We had been sure for months that Montesinos was in Venezuela and that he was being protected by people with ties to the government. We were able to confirm those hypotheses."

Chavez denied that his leftist government had protected Montesinos, the region's most notorious outlaw of the moment. But the president acknowledged that "certain people" in Venezuela had sheltered the fugitive.

"Now we have to investigate which network or group was hiding him," Chavez told reporters.

The capture does not end the mystery surrounding Montesinos' months underground. On the contrary, it raises more questions about whether Montesinos--a larger-than-life character who has been obscured by a haze of suspicion, subterfuge and myth--used his wealth and talents for intrigue to gain the aid of Venezuelan security forces.

The Montesinos ally who furnished the decisive lead about his whereabouts to the FBI last week had been dispatched from Venezuela to Miami on a mission for the spy chief, according to Ugaz. Recent arrests had revealed that Montesinos was communicating from his Venezuelan hide-out with allies in Miami, where the FBI is investigating him for money laundering and gun sales to Colombian guerrillas.

Although they declined to give further details, U.S. officials confirmed the important role of the FBI.

"The U.S. government has been providing ongoing support to the government of Peru over the course of the investigation and manhunt for Montesinos, support that played a vital role in his capture," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Lima, the Peruvian capital.

Ironically, Montesinos had longtime ties to the CIA and was a point man in Peru for U.S. anti-drug agencies during his reign at the National Intelligence Service, or SIN. He cultivated a sinister and elusive image, avoiding cameras and appearances in public while turning the SIN into the dominant institution of the 10-year regime of President Alberto Fujimori.

According to a former friend and fellow spy, one of Montesinos' favorite sayings is "Other than power, everything is an illusion."

After a video of the spy chief bribing a congressman plunged Fujimori into crisis in October, Montesinos escaped Lima on a yacht and made his way to Venezuela via the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and Aruba, according to Peruvian authorities.

In December, Montesinos eluded Peruvian police who had rushed to a Caracas clinic where he was believed to have undergone plastic surgery to change his appearance.

Dogged detective work tightened a noose around the fugitive recently as U.S. and Peruvian sleuths arrested accomplices in Miami, Buenos Aires and other cities and discovered a fortune of more than $200 million in banks around the world.

But the fugitive dodged two more attempts at capture in the Venezuelan countryside in recent months.

Throughout the cloak-and-dagger odyssey, angry Peruvian leaders accused the Venezuelan government of protecting Montesinos. Peruvian officials said his capture would require a political decision by Chavez, a fiery ex-paratrooper who has clashed with U.S. and Latin American leaders, to prove himself a good neighbor and show that he had no ties to the spymaster.

In fact, Montesinos' fall this weekend had a curiously orchestrated quality. Chavez made his triumphant announcement Sunday in a setting that heightened the public relations impact: the close of a summit of leaders of Andean nations, including Peruvian Prime Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Anticipation in Peru had built after Chavez met Wednesday with Peru's president-elect, Alejandro Toledo, during a brief stopover at the Lima airport while the Venezuelan president was en route to Paraguay. Chavez reportedly promised Toledo that he would bring the fugitive to justice.

On Sunday, Peruvian Interior Minister Antonio Ketin Vidal told reporters that Venezuelan, Peruvian and U.S. agents had been on the fugitive's heels for days.

"Now it can be said that several days ago a secret operation was begun," Ketin said. He added that Montesinos' alleged international array of underworld connections--Colombian drug lords and guerrillas, Russian and Israeli arms traffickers, intelligence services around the hemisphere--made him "not just a dangerous man for Peru, he had become a dangerous man for the world."

Ketin is a veteran terrorist hunter who personally led the manhunt for Montesinos, a bitter rival. Sunday afternoon, Ketin flew a Peruvian air force plane to Caracas hoping that Venezuelan authorities would surrender the prisoner on the spot.

In a subsequent television interview, Ketin said the 56-year-old Montesinos was captured in good health. And despite the reports of plastic surgery, Ketin said his appearance was essentially unchanged.

Peruvians reacted exultantly to the triumph of their reformist transition government, which took power after Fujimori's ouster in November. Even in his weakened state, Montesinos was considered a threat because remnants of his "mafia" survive in the armed forces and justice system. His downfall makes it more likely that Peru can advance its democratic transition and restore the rule of law.

The arrest could mean more trouble for Fujimori, who fled to Japan in November to avoid prosecution in Peru. Japan has said it will not extradite Fujimori because he holds Japanese citizenship.

But if Montesinos testified against Fujimori, the pressure on Japan to relent would intensify. Fujimori is accused of numerous crimes, but investigators do not have the kind of overwhelming evidence against him that they do against his spy chief--largely thanks to Montesinos' habit of videotaping himself as he conspired with generals, politicians, businessmen, newspaper executives and other influential Peruvians.

In addition, any trial of Montesinos in Peru would surely focus on sensitive questions involving his relationship with the U.S. government and on the contents of secret videotapes and audiotapes that might not yet have been revealed. It is presumed that Montesinos, who allegedly built his power with bribery and blackmail, took the most damaging videos with him when he fled his homeland in the same stealthy manner in which he ruled it.

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Miller reported from Caracas and Rotella from Riverside. Special correspondent Natalia Tarnawiecki in Lima contributed to this report.

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