A Supreme Court verdict in Peru this week once again shows how the U.S. government has engaged in unholy alliances — often with those involved in the very drug trade it claims to be combating — in order to further its short-term drug policy objectives and to the detriment of broader U.S. foreign policy goals.
After four years of deliberations, a tribunal of the Peruvian Supreme Court finally upheld the 2006 verdict sentencing Peru’s Vladimiro Montesinos to 20 years in prison and a steep monetary reparation for selling weapons to the Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or FARC. At the same time that Montesinos was running guns to the FARC, he was the right-hand man of then-Peruvian president turned dictator Alberto Fujimori, functioning as de facto security adviser and drug czar. He was also a key ally of the U.S. government in the so-called war on drugs. Even more ironic, Montesinos’ arrangements with the FARC coincided with the launching of Plan Colombia.
As in the case of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (a paid CIA informant until the 1989 U.S. invasion), the U.S. government’s relationship with Vladimiro Montesinos shows the absurd lengths that U.S. policy makers have been willing to go in attempting to show progress in the “war on drugs.” While in power in Peru, Montesinos organized death squads, orchestrated the undermining of Peruvian democracy with the aim of keeping Fujimori in power indefinitely, and amassed a huge illegal fortune (by some estimates over $250 million) through corruption and blackmail. He was also the U.S. government’s prime interlocutor on drug policy issues.
Before emerging as Fujimori’s trusted aide, Montesinos was widely known as a lawyer for major drug traffickers. Now-declassified 1991 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Lima carried clear warnings; one stated, “There is substantial circumstantial evidence linking Montesinos to past narcotics activity…among the police and military figures recommended by Montesinos are men with possible ties to drug trafficking.” Yet even that did not persuade U.S. intelligence and drug-related agencies from seeking to forge an alliance with him. Montesinos quickly won the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which then, with Montesinos’ help, edged out the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as the lead anti-drug agency for the U.S. government in the country.
He was soon courted by State Department officials as well. He became known in U.S. government circles as “Mr. Fix It.” If you wanted to get something done, you went to Montesinos. But the strategy worked both ways. If Montesinos didn’t like what he thought Washington was up to, he would withhold drug-related intelligence and slow down or even cease drug control activities. One U.S. official told me privately that Washington was always quick to give in. It seems that Montesinos, an expert in blackmail, managed to get the upper hand over his U.S. backers.
Montesinos was also quietly running the drug business behind the scenes. During Fujimori’s ten years in power, Peru went from being a coca producer (coca being a primary product in the production of cocaine) to a player in the cocaine business. And if you wanted to do business in Peru, you had to pay off Montesinos. The consequences for not abiding by his rules were steep: “intelligence” would be provided to the DEA and Peruvian anti-drug policy that would result in the arrest of any potential rivals.
Even as evidence mounted of Montesinos’ involvement in the drug trade, the U.S. government provided important political backing to him and it appears that the CIA continued to provide him with a lucrative monthly stipend. That assistance continued until the bitter end. After fraudulent elections and a series of outrageous scandals, Fujimori finally accepted defeat and on Sept. 16, 2000 he announced that he would call new elections, deactivate the notorious national intelligence services (which also got U.S. drug control assistance, despite its involvement in horrific human rights abuses) and fire Montesinos. It was only four days later that then Secretary of State Madeline Albright issued a directive that the U.S. government was to have no further contact with Montesinos. A week later, he fled to Panama. In June 2001 he was arrested in Venezuela and extradited to Peru, where he has remained in prison facing more than 60 separate court cases. Sentences run consecutively in Peru, so this verdict ensures that — barring some sort of political pardon — he will spend 20 years behind bars.
In Peru, justice has been served in this particular case. But what about in Washington? No serious effort to evaluate U.S. drug policy in Peru in the 1990s (or in any other period) has taken place. One 1994 inter-agency working group concluded only that relations with Montesinos should be downgraded slightly (one U.S. official involved at the time told me that despite a majority in favor of more drastic action, the CIA managed to get the upper hand in the internal debate). Later calls for investigations into U.S. support for Montesinos and intelligence agencies in Peru have gone unheeded. Similarly, efforts to obtain declassified documents have been met with resistance.
While allowing the full truth to come out about the U.S. relationship with Montesinos may be embarrassing for the U.S. government, such transparency and an honest reflection is necessary to avoid continuing to repeat the same bad strategies in the future. It is time for Washington to do two things: open up the files on Montesinos and undertake a serious review of how the U.S. government ended up throwing its support behind a corrupt, gun-running, drug-trafficking thug.