Fujimori’s former spy chief testifies he is innocent of sanctioning death squad

Ex-President Alberto Fujimori’s once-feared intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, testified Monday that his former boss is innocent of charges he sanctioned the Colina group paramilitary death squad.

Fujimori, 69, could hardly contain a grin as his former spy chief depicted him as a “courageous” hero who defeated a bloody leftist insurgency and lifted Peru from its knees. The two men made a cataclysmic break eight years ago in the waning days of their decade-long authoritarian regime, after Montesinos was caught on video in September 2000 bribing an opposition congressman.

The revelation came three months after Montesinos engineered a fraud-riddled, third-term victory for Fujimori that was condemned internationally, prompting the spy chief to plot an aborted coup against Fujimori to install a crony.

But the bad blood between them was not evident in court Monday.

“I have come here to be able to clarify that Mr. Fujimori bears no responsibility for the acts that are being tried in this case,” said Montesinos, before launching into a contentious, and often sarcastic, three-hour exchange with the lead prosecutor, José Peláez.

The Colina group killed 15 people in Lima’s Barrios Altos district in 1991 and nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University in 1992 who were suspected of collaborating with the Shining Path insurgency. Fujimori is accused of authorizing the killings. He faces 30 years in prison if convicted.

Montesinos is currently serving 20 years in prison on multiple convictions for everything from bribing media barons, judges and legislators to selling assault rifles to Colombian FARC guerrillas, and also faces a separate trial accusing him of directing the Colina group.

He repeatedly refused to answer Peláez’s questions, invoked a smörgåsbord of legal justifications to respond only to what he deemed valid, starting with his right against self-incrimination, and then arguing that as Peru’s former de facto intelligence chief, he was still obligated to protect classified state secrets.

He even claimed attorney-client privilege, saying he did not have permission from Fujimori to disclose the circumstances of how they first met in 1989, when Fujimori, then a university rector running for president, needed Montesinos’ legal services to make a nettlesome tax evasion charge disappear.

Montesinos also denied the prevailing history that he was cashiered from Peru’s army in the 1970s, and narrowly avoided a possible death sentence for treason, for leaking military secrets to the CIA, and that, later in the 1980s, he worked as a lawyer behind the scenes in Peru’s Palace of Justice fixing cases for drug traffickers.

Montesinos turned over to the court a DVD that he said contained 18 minutes of video footage of him interrogating Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman after the rebel leader’s capture in 1992 to demonstrate that he legitimately carried out his duties as intelligence chief.

Declassified U.S. State Department documents, hundreds of videos surreptitiously recorded by Montesinos himself, and reams of court testimony all paint another picture of Montesinos: He was Peru’s behind-the-scenes power broker throughout Fujimori’s 1990-2000 rule, using bribes and intimidation to gain control of Peru’s Congress, the courts, and the media.

A master of subterfuge, Montesinos cultivated an atmosphere of paranoia and fear among Peru’s political, business and military elite with rumors that he kept a vast collection of wiretapped phone conversations and videos documenting orgies, illicit drug use and myriad acts of corruption.

He fled to Panama after one of his own videos was leaked, showing him bribing Congressman Beto Kouri in September 2000. It was the first of the infamous ‘vladi-videos’ to be broadcast and led to the spy chief going underground until his capture in Venezuela in June 2001.

Fujimori fled to Japan and faxed his resignation to Peru’s Congress, where he was shielded from extradition by his dual Japanese citizenship. He remained a fugitive until his arrest in Chile in November 2005.

Montesinos, 63, depicted himself Monday as a simple subordinate of the president, and denied that he held any sway over Peru’s military, or had any connection to the Colina group.

“They are trying to incriminate Mr. Fujimori and myself, and it is false because Mr. Fujimori does not bear responsibility nor do I in these matters,” Montesinos said.

He depicted Fujimori as a consumate leader, who “with the grand courage that characterizes him more than any other head of state in the history of Peru” confronted and conquered the Shining Path insurgency where it was most strongly rooted, in Peru’s impoverished slums, in soup kitchens and on university campuses.

“What was the policy of prior governments with respect to subversion?” Peláez asked.

“An ostrich policy,” Montesinos replied. “What does an ostrich do? It sticks its head in the sand and let’s whatever is going on happen.”

Fujimori smirked and took a sip of water.

A little more than three hours into his testimony, Montesinos said he wanted to invoke his right against self-incrimination and refused to answer any more questions.

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