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World Perspective | SOUTH AMERICA

After Fraud, Bribes, Videotapes, Peru Finds Hope in Disclosure


AREQUIPA, Peru — White-stone colonial facades and the Andean backdrop make this city look impervious to the storm of cutthroat politics and nonstop scandal shaking Lima, the nation's capital.

In fact, Peru's second-biggest city has always kept its distance from Lima. Independent-minded locals consider Arequipa, 500 miles southeast of the capital, a separate republic. Mayor Juan Manuel Guillen jokes that he represents Peru's exterior, not its interior.

Despite the apparent provincial tranquillity, however, Arequipa these days mirrors the feverish, fearful, yet somehow hopeful national mood three months after the fall of President Alberto Fujimori. Peru has embarked on a moral and political transformation that could do great things for democracy and justice but will subject the society to further traumas along the way.

The grimly amused citizens here who crowd around newsstands plastered with banner headlines aren't discussing the presidential election set for April. They are talking about videos.

"Vladi-videos," to be precise. Every day brings a broadcast of one of at least 2,400 videos left behind by Vladimiro Montesinos, the fugitive former chief of the National Intelligence Service, or SIN.

The grainy images show a parade of Cabinet ministers, judges, legislators, executives and other big shots making deferential pilgrimages to Montesinos, who holds court wearing casual clothes and an icy smile. The videotaped visitors cut dirty deals; the scenes often end with the spy chief, or an emissary, handing over an envelope stuffed with cash.

The videos have shot down numerous careers. No one seems safe; SIN cameras even caught a supposedly reformist congressman taking money a few months before his crusading party brought down Montesinos in September with the first release of a bribery video.

Paced by a drumbeat of arrests and indictments, the spectacle has been compared to political pornography, soap operas and a forcible injection of truth serum administered to the ruling class. Critics accuse the interim government of selectively releasing videos in order to damage rivals. There are, conversely, suspicions that Montesinos' allies want to trash all presidential contenders in hopes of neutralizing the corruption issue and retaining political strength.

Nonetheless, Mayor Guillen and others want authorities to release all the videos before the election. Only the whole truth, they say, will bring catharsis to a society consumed by distrust and disgust.

And Montesinos' success at turning Peru into a giant surveillance system had a positive aspect: It left behind hard evidence. That makes it more likely that the rich, powerful and guilty will be punished.

"I hope that this process, which is painful but necessary, could lead to a true cultural change based on honesty," said Guillen, 59, a former university dean who is one of the nation's most respected regional leaders. "This process should be used to educate the population. It should emphasize the consolidation of the democracy. It's a risk we have to take."

Guillen was a longtime foe of the Fujimori regime. His defiance angered the intelligence service, which he says conducted political espionage and harassment here through a "virtual military-political command" at regional army headquarters. The former local commander is under investigation.

And the mayor survived a potential Vladi-video surprise of his own with a wise preemptive move. Months ago, he announced that there was no doubt a video of him talking to Montesinos.

After his election in 1999, the mayor explained, he was invited to meet Montesinos in Lima. Guillen said he accepted because the spy chief was at least the second-most powerful man in Peru and a person one might have to talk with to get things done. Other well-regarded figures gave similar explanations for sitting down with Montesinos.

"I made it clear that I approached the monster and it involved neither a bribe nor an attempt to buy me," Guillen said. "We have to draw a line between those involved in corruption and separate those who appear on videos but had nothing to do with illegality."

As the mayor points out, the clamor for justice has at times crossed the line into witch-hunting. Some politicians have been excoriated for merely admitting that they met with Montesinos, even in the absence of videos or other indications of dishonesty.

But that's the messy business of rebuilding democracy. For months to come, the most terrifying word in Peru's political lexicon will start with "V."

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