A graduate of the Chorrillos military academy’s 1966 artillery class in Lima, Peru, Montesinos was an ambitious officer whose lackluster military career came to an end in March 1977 when he was imprisoned for two years, convicted of leaking classified information. After his release and his dismissal from the army, Montesinos qualified as a lawyer and gained a reputation for successfully defending drug smugglers. In 1990, following the surprise election of Alberto Fujimori as Peru’s president, Montesinos became his national security adviser, and although Julio Salazar Monroe was the titular director of the Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional (SIN), he effectively ran that, too.
During the decade Montesinos exercised control over the SIN, he pulled off two impressive successes. The first, in September 1992, was the capture of Dr. Abimael Guzman, the Marxist academic who led the feared Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement. Following an extraordinary series of lengthy interviews with Montesinos, he was persuaded to publicly renounce the organization and abandon his support for terrorism. The second was the rescue in April 1997 of 71 hostages who had been held in the Japanese ambassador’s residence for more than three months by a group of 14 Maoist terrorists. In a daring rescue, all the terrorists were shot dead, and only one hostage was killed, allowing Montesinos to claim credit for the raid.
Fujimori was reelected in 1995, but his victory in April 2000, despite the constitutional limit of two terms, was open to doubt as a million more people voted than were registered. Montesinos was accused of having rigged the polls. Worse, one of his collection of compromising videos was stolen, showing him in the act of bribing a politician with $15,000. Over the years Montesinos had been suspected of involvement with the notorious military death squads that had roamed Lima and of blackmailing judges, money laundering, influence peddling, participating in drug deals with the Colombian cartels, tapping the telephones of critics, demanding kickbacks from arms sales, salting away $48 million cash in Swiss bank accounts, running an illegal slush fund, working for the Central Intelligence Agency, and using his battalion of ZEUS bodyguards like a private army to exert pressure on the media and his opponents. All would turn out to be true, although few realized the scale of his corruption.
According to the parliamentary commission that investigated Montesinos’s activities, he had misappropriated more than a billion dollars and distributed a proportion of it to cronies, girlfriends, drug smugglers, and arms dealers. Proof of his misconduct would come from his vast library of audio- and videotapes, each compromising a politician, judge, or general.
The eventual fall of Montesinos was spectacular. Dismissed by President Fujimori, he fled the country but was refused political asylum by Panama. He went on the run and underwent plastic surgery in Caracas, but was eventually betrayed in Venezuela and returned to Lima to face trial in July 2002, when he was sentenced to nine years in prison. Meanwhile Fujimori also fled the country and took refuge in Japan, where his parents had emigrated from originally. After his trial, incarcerated in the prison block he had constructed to accommodate Dr. Guzman, Montesinos identified his CIA contacts and claim that SIN had undertaken numerous joint technical surveillance projects on local Eastern Bloc embassies and visiting targets.