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Montesinos' New Life in a Prison of His Own Making

July 05, 2001|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMA, Peru — Former spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos is in very familiar surroundings in his new jail cell. He ought to be. He designed it.

The Peruvian spy chief's hand in constructing the top-security prison on a navy base just outside this capital city is only one of many strange twists surrounding his capture late last month. If you want delicious irony, grab a plate. Montesinos' incarceration is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

First is the prison itself. Montesinos had it built on Callao naval base in the early 1990s as a final "resting place" for members of the leftist Shining Path, a terrorist band responsible for 30,000 deaths in a decade of struggle.

As a result, Montesinos spared no privation. The cells had neither heat nor light. Toilets were holes in the ground. Prisoners were let out of their gloomy cells for one hour a day. It has only been in recent years, after vehement protests from human rights groups, that inmates have been given a mattress, television and four hours of exercise per day.

Improvements notwithstanding, Montesinos' new environs are a far cry from the starlet-and-yacht lifestyle he enjoyed before his capture in Venezuela. Judicial authorities, who seem barely able to contain their glee, insist that the harsh conditions are necessary for Montesinos' own safety. There are plenty of people who want to kill the notorious former head of Peru's spy agency, they point out. The only place secure enough is the prison he built.

"He must be in complete isolation and complete safety," said Diego Garcia Sayan, Peru's justice minister.

Understandably, Montesinos is not particularly pleased to be lying in the bed he made, especially considering it is a concrete slab with a thin foam mattress.

He had reportedly been refusing food to protest his detention in the facility and for fear of being poisoned, subsisting on cookies, crackers and soda that he brought with him.

A spokesman for Peru's prison chief, Gino Costa, said Wednesday that Montesinos had ended his hunger strike after officials agreed to allow his family to provide his food.

Earlier, though, one source told local newspaper La Republica that Montesinos had no problem polishing off his first prison meal of chicken kebabs, lasagna, lemonade and ice cream. Another insisted he hadn't touched his food.

The second bit of irony involves Montesinos' new prison mate, Abimael Guzman, the portly, well-read leader of the Shining Path, whom Montesinos personally stalked in the early 1990s as head of the National Intelligence Service, known by the wonderful acronym SIN. Guzman was caught in 1992.

The two men are now separated by a fence specially constructed to keep them apart. And while there is no love lost between them, they have at least one common irritant. Antonio Ketin Vidal, whom Montesinos hired to track down Guzman, caught in 1992, is the same man who methodically hunted Montesinos during the former spy chief's eight months on the lam.

"I have an idea about his weaknesses and his abilities," Ketin told a news conference shortly after Montesinos' capture, a slight smile on his face.

Guzman is upset with Montesinos for reasons that reveal much about the topsy-turvy world of Peruvian justice these days. For one thing, Guzman is reportedly angry that authorities cleared out the cell of his girlfriend and fellow guerrilla to make room for Montesinos. He had been enjoying conjugal visits.

Not only that, but Guzman is also apparently unhappy that Montesinos, accused of common crimes--albeit a lot of them, ranging from thievery to death squad activity to drug trafficking to gunrunning--will share the same space as political prisoners such as himself.

It seems that Guzman and his band of fellow terrorists are worried that Montesinos will lower the cachet of the exclusive prison. There goes the neighborhood.

"They think he is a common criminal, that what they have done is more legitimate," said Walter Alban, the human rights ombudsman for Peru. "Also, [Montesinos and Guzman] aren't very friendly toward each other."

A final irony is that human rights groups have taken up the cause for Montesinos, insisting that his incarceration is unjust.

For one thing, a prison is just that--a detention center built for those convicted of crimes. Jails are the appropriate place to hold the presumably innocent, even those who taped themselves for more than 2,000 hours bribing and threatening top political figures.

For another thing, the prison's location on the navy base and its security--it's ringed with razor wire and mines--make it difficult for the accused to have free access to lawyers or family members. It's also difficult for civilian authorities to monitor living conditions at the prison.

Meaning that human rights groups find themselves fighting for the very man they have fought against for so long. This, they say, is no strange twist, but rather proof of progress.

"There's nothing ironic about it," Alban said. "It's proof that my job as the human rights ombudsman is to defend the human rights of all people, no matter who they are."

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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