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Saturday, 23 February, 2002, 12:49 GMT
Peru stymied in search for truth
Former Peruvian spy-chief Vladimiro Montesinos
Montesinos (left): Refusing to say anything
By Nick Caistor in Lima

This month sees the start of the first trials based on the videotapes apparently made by Peru's former spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

Along with ex-President Alberto Fujimori, Mr Montesinos fled Peru with hundreds of these videos - allegedly showing him bribing high-ranking officers, politicians, judges and other important members of Peruvian society.

But the trials don't mean that the whole truth will ever emerge about the decade when Peru was run by the two men known as the "Siamese twins".

>Ghost battle

The battlefield of Ayacucho in Peru is one of Latin America's most famous landmarks. It is a wide green plain high in the Andes mountains above the bustling city of Ayacucho.

Or was it? As I looked down on the field from the ghastly 1970s monument to the battle's American heroes, my local guide offered me a very different version of what had taken place.


He is accused of taking $20,000 to vote for Mr Fujimori's party - money he used to buy himself a truck for transporting fish.

According to him, the battle of Ayacucho never actually happened.

No bones, weapons, cannon balls or other signs of battle had ever been found there, he said.

In his view, the two sides arrived at the battlefield, but after several days' talking, agreed it would be stupid to spill blood when the Spaniards could obviously not win in the end.

So both armies went home, telling anyone who cared to listen that a famous battle had taken place.

Demonstration in Lima street
Fujimori: Resisting efforts to bring him back to Peru
The difficulty of establishing the truth of what has happened in the past is part of the strangeness of Latin America. And it doesn't just apply to distant history.

I came down from the Ayacucho battlefield into the city, and was soon confronted with a much more recent example of something similar.

Peru has only recently emerged from a time of violence in which more than 30,000 people were killed, and another 6,000 "disappeared", with no explanation.

Now a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been set up, as in other countries of the continent and in South Africa.

The commission is trying to find out exactly what happened to all those thousands of people killed, usually in remote villages with few means of communicating with the outside world.

Identity shocks

I spoke to a priest, Gaston, who is a member of the commission. He talked of the first excavations that are now taking place, to dig up the bodies of those murdered in the violence.

He described how when some of the bodies - reduced now to a few bones - were handed over to their families, it was the remains of the clothes they had been killed in that brought the biggest shock of identity.

One woman burst into tears when she recognised the brightly-coloured waistband she had woven for her husband almost 20 years earlier. Another recognised her son's hatband.

Gaston spoke of the sense of relief and peace that the whole community seemed to feel now that some kind of truth had emerged from the ground, and the village could properly bury its dead.

The next day, back in the capital Lima, I came up against another, even more recent example of how hard it is to discover the truth in a place like Peru. Almost a year and a half ago, the president Alberto Fujimori and his unofficial spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos were forced to flee the country.

Their ignominious flight after 10 years in power followed the public showing of several hundred videos that Montesinos had filmed during his years in control.

Lynchpin

Now the politician shown in the first of those videos is being tried. He is accused of taking $20,000 to vote for Mr Fujimori's party - money he used to buy himself a truck for transporting fish.

His lawyers demanded to cross-examine Mr Montesinos to find out his version of events.

And so I found myself with another 100 or so journalists waiting in the baking-hot naval base in the port of Lima for the arrival of Vladimiro Montesinos.

For almost two hours we were kept waiting while the judges set up their tribunal, read out the deposition from the previous hearing, and then called for him to appear.


Within a minute, Montesinos was whisked out of court once more. With him went the possibility - for now at least - of getting at the truth.

Finally, the man said to have stolen $1bn from the Peruvian state, the person thought to have masterminded many of the campaigns that led to the unexplained massacres, the lynchpin in the use of Peru as a drug-producing centre, was ushered into court.

Montesinos is a short, hooked-nose man. That day he was dressed casually in shirtsleeves and looked totally relaxed.

The judges reminded him he was a witness in this particular case, and warned him that if he did not co-operate and tell the whole truth, he could face another two years in prison.

They waited as expectantly as the rest of us to see exactly what Peru's most wanted man would say. Would he finally tell something of the truth behind all the secret machinations that characterised the years he and Fujimori were in power?

In solitary

Of course he didn't say a word. He was not going to say anything in this case or in any other of the 100 or more he is already involved in, he told the court.

The authorities were keeping him in solitary confinement, so he had no possibility of consulting with his lawyers, reading notes, or being able to defend himself properly. So he was staying silent.

Within a minute, Montesinos was whisked out of court once more. With him went the possibility - for now at least - of getting at the truth.

Perhaps sometime in the future, the naval base will be shown to foreign journalists as the place where Peruvian democracy won its greatest battle against the forces of darkness. But I can tell you now - it didn't happen.

See also:

08 Jan 02 | Americas
US reveals ties with Montesinos
29 Dec 01 | Americas
Peru spy chief boasts of bribery
26 Jun 01 | Americas
How Montesinos was betrayed
27 Jun 01 | Americas
Montesinos 'knows of 30,000 videos'
27 Jan 01 | Americas
Peru shocked by 'Vladi video' theft
25 Jun 01 | Americas
Montesinos timeline
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