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The Life and Drug Trade of Vladimiro Montesinos: Peru’s Shadiest Drug Trafficker

In December, Peru’s president, Pedro Castillo, tried to shut down congress to prevent its members from impeaching him. Castillo’s orders weren’t followed and he was soon arrested for rebellion and conspiracy. Awaiting trial, Castillo is believed to be held in a police prison in Lima – the same police prison that houses another former Peruvian leader, Alberto Fujimori. 

Fujimori was the son of Japanese immigrants and served as President from 1990 to 2000. Castillo tried to stop Congress from being in power while he was president. However, unlike Castillo he was successful. Backed by the army, Fujimori completely rewrote the country’s constitution, and might have remained in power indefinitely had he not been persecuted and imprisoned for human rights violations. Revered as a conservative strongman – the strongest in recent memory – Fujimori began his career as a political outsider. He was a complete outsider when he declared his candidacy. Today, historians argue the only reason he did win – and kept on winning for so long – was because of the man at his side: Vladimiro Montesinos. 

Montesinos, named after Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was born 1945 in Arequipa. His communist parents wanted him to appear rich and well-educated to his neighbors. Understanding that the army was the only way in which ordinary Peruvians could gain wealth and power, Montesinos’ father arranged for his son to enroll at the famed Military School of Chorrillos in Lima. Although he was an unremarkable student, Montesinos’ passion for reading and obsession with acquiring sensitive information helped him become the single most powerful person in Peru. Following a roundabout path through life, one that involved short prison sentences and multiple career changes, Montesinos eventually found himself serving as the head of his country’s central intelligence network – the Servicio de Inteligencia Nacional, or SIN for short – and Alberto Fujimori’s most trusted advisor. During this time, he also presented himself as an indispensable ally to both the CIA and Colombia’s Medellín cartel. 

After being kicked from the army, Montesinos was forced to enter the drug business. The disgraced young officer was released from military prison and began work at the law firm of his family, which he used to take on drug-related charges against soldiers and police officers. When Montesinos successfully defended the Medellín cartel member Evaristo Porras Ardiles, he gained the interest (and gratitude) of Pablo Escobar himself. After a bacchanal visit to the latter’s Napoles ranch in Puerto Triunfo, Montesinos was not just defending the cartel in court, but also shipping Peruvian coca leaves into Colombia. Pablo’s brother Roberto claims that Montesinos received between $100,000 and $120,000 per drug flight, and that the cartel donated $1 million to Fujimori’s presidential campaign in the hope of expanding their Peruvian contact’s influence.

They were rewarded for their investment. Montesinos became the president of Peru when Fujimori was elected. According to Rafael Merino, who worked with Montesinos at the intelligence service, his newly appointed boss “contacted the main drug mafias in Colombia and Mexico” as soon as he’d settled into his office. This story is confirmed by inmates. Said Los Camellos drug ring operator Boris Foguel in an interview from October 2000: “Anyone who did not negotiate with [Montesinos] the right to cross-border operations – that is, pay him multi-million dollar bribes – was persecuted to death by the Peruvian authorities, to the point where they would shoot down in mid-flight small planes loaded with cocaine and dollars.”

Montesinos was the SIN-head and had to balance a very dangerous and delicate act. He accepted money from cartels in order to continue the drug trade while also working with the CIA as well as the DEA to stop it. In 1996, this double-crossing almost led to disaster. A Peruvian Air Force plane that was transporting military equipment into Russia carrying around 170kg cocaine was confiscated in 1996. However, no one has been convicted in spite of extensive investigations.  

“All the indications,” write journalists Sally Bowen and Jane Holligan in their watershed book Vladimiro Montesinos’ Imperfect Spy: His Many Lives, which I picked up at a book fair in Puno, on the border between Peru and Bolivia, “are that Montesinos remained personally involved with the illegal drugs trade until the late 1990s, perhaps even until he fled Peru. He had power and insider knowledge of the counter-drug efforts, and he let it be known that his influence was for sale.”

The thing that brought Montesinos all the way to the top – his desire for knowledge and control – also proved to be his downfall. Montesinos secretly and routinely recorded himself incriminating politicians, judges and government workers during his political career. He planned to make blackmail with these tapes if it was necessary. This plan was thwarted when one of the videos fell into the hands of a Peruvian television station on September 14, 2000. Montesinos became an outcast. Fujimori attempted to put Montesinos out of business in an attempt to salvage his reputation. However, security chief refused to accept Fujimori’s resignation. In the SIN headquarters, Fujimori began to plan a coup and then fled the country after realizing his odds of success. Montesinos was arrested in Venezuela by the FBI and taken to Peru. Held inside a maximum security prison, Montesinos – still alive – is constantly facing additional charges as new evidence of his criminal activities gets unearthed. 

Vladimiro Montesinos, despite his lengthy imprisonment, still holds considerable power over Peruvian society. His incriminating tapes were often smuggled away by his allies. People in power are still loyal to him, fearing that the tapes will be leaked. Along with Fujimori, Montesinos continues to be admired by Peruvian conservatives who – similar to Trump’s adherents in America – faithfully deny the irreparable damage he has done to their country, not to mention the countless murders he has authorized. Sitting at a bar with some construction workers from Mancora – a beach town in the north of Peru – one elderly gentleman grabbed my copy of Imprecise Spy and told me, “This book is full of lies!” I didn’t reply. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to tell him why I thought he was wrong. But even if it was, I don’t think it would have been my place to tell him anyway.