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U.S. Aiding Hunt for Peru's Ex-Spymaster

Latin America: The FBI and others have joined the search for Montesinos partly to assist an ally and partly to blunt charges that Washington helped him.


LIMA, Peru — As Peruvian investigators step up their international manhunt for fugitive spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, U.S. law enforcement officials have taken a prominent role in efforts to bring him to justice.

In addition to aiding the Peruvian operation, the FBI has opened two investigations of alleged violations of U.S. law linked to the former spymaster, who is believed to be hiding in Venezuela.

The cases involve alleged gun smuggling to Colombian guerrillas and money laundering in the United States, according to recent interviews with an FBI agent and other U.S officials. The spy chief's mob-like network allegedly raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from drug trafficking, kickbacks related to military purchases and other crimes, Peruvian investigators say.

Last month, a task force of two U.S. federal prosecutors, five FBI agents and a Miami sheriff's detective spent a week in Lima, Peru's capital, working with a Peruvian special prosecutor and congressional investigators.

"This kind of visit doesn't happen that often," U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton said. "There is a very good level of mutual confidence with the special prosecutor and the congressional commissions. This recent visit kicked it up to another level."

U.S. law enforcement has put considerable resources into the cumbersome task of building a case against Montesinos and his allies for both practical and political reasons.

The expertise of U.S. prosecutors and federal agents is valuable in confronting the worst corruption crisis in Peru's history. The superheated environment and the multiple, sometimes overlapping investigations by the courts and Congress generate scandals and suspects on an almost daily basis.

"This was a very complex organization that had tentacles throughout the government," said an FBI agent involved in the investigation. "It was like a racketeering enterprise."

The complexity of the prosecutions would be overwhelming for the justice systems of most nations; Peru is in the midst of rebuilding democracy.

On the diplomatic front, cooperation by U.S. officials helps blunt criticism here that Montesinos' longtime alliance with U.S. security forces, especially the CIA, helped him consolidate dictatorial powers during the regime of former President Alberto Fujimori.

A Continuing Danger

While most Peruvians are preoccupied with the current presidential campaign, the prosecution of the former chief of the National Intelligence Service, or SIN, remains a top priority of the transition government. Peruvian leaders want to capture Montesinos because of the scale of the alleged thievery--documented by numerous SIN videotapes--and because the remnants of his organization pose a danger at a moment of political uncertainty.

Moreover, there are fears that time is growing short: If the fugitive has not been apprehended when a new president is sworn in July 28, the incoming government may be distracted from pursuing him by its many other pressing challenges, especially the economic demands of recession-weary voters.

The months-long search for Montesinos, who has attained super-villain status in the popular imagination here, resembles a chess game in which the police, soldiers, spies and desperadoes are all pieces. The game has gathered momentum in recent days.

Responding to pressure from Peru, Venezuela's interior minister gave new credence this week to persistent reports that Montesinos is hiding in that country. Luis Miquilena said his security forces are hunting for Montesinos in Venezuela and will extradite him to Peru immediately if they apprehend him, according to reports in the Venezuelan press Tuesday.

Miquilena also suggested that Montesinos may be in Colombia, where he has had allies since his days as a lawyer for Colombian drug lords in the 1980s.

"People like this have contacts all over in the world of the mafia, particularly in the Americas," Miquilena told a radio station in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. "We believe that Colombia could be a country of refuge."

Those comments came a few days after an unusual trip to the capital by Peruvian Interior Minister Antonio Ketin Vidal, a veteran terrorist-hunter who is leading the search for Montesinos. Ketin was following up on recent statements by Venezuelan authorities and a cosmetic surgeon that bolstered allegations that Montesinos underwent plastic surgery in Caracas in December.

For months, Peruvian officials have openly expressed suspicion that the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is protecting Montesinos. Investigative journalists in Peru and Venezuela reported recently that the former spy chief is hiding on a ranch owned by a businessman in Barinas state, the birthplace of Chavez. The businessman is described as a top campaign contributor to Chavez, whose father is the governor of the state.

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