Call it Peru’s version of The Fugitive.
Machine-gun toting agents and sniffer dogs led by the nation’s president raced through streets of a resort town in search of the country’s shadowy top fugitive — all broadcast on television to astounded Peruvians.
But the prey — ex-intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos — proved too elusive, possibly shielded by his military allies. A clearly upset President Alberto Fujimori did not speak to reporters Thursday after the search flopped.
Peruvians, however, remain transfixed by the search for the spymaster, with one Lima tabloid even putting his picture on its front page above the caption “wanted dead or alive.”
Bribery Scandal, Political Chaos
Montesinos, once the president’s top adviser, returned to Peru Monday after a monthlong exile in Panama, plunging the country into political chaos and forcing Fujimori to act to calm a furious opposition and critical international community.
Montesinos had fled Peru in September after a videotape showing him apparently bribing an opposition congressman set off angry protests and led Fujimori to call early elections in which he will not run.
But now the game is on to see whether Montesinos can be shielded from popular outrage by the web of spies, informers and allies in the military and judicial system he built up during his years at the head of Peru’s feared intelligence service.
Peruvian prosecutors announced Thursday they will investigate seven criminal complaints charging Montesinos with assorted human rights violations.
Meanwhile, congressman Alberto Kouri — the lawmaker seen taking $15,000 from Montesinos on video — reportedly fled to Dallas on a commercial flight late Thursday, hours after Congress voted to charge him with corruption, illicit enrichment and malfeasance.
A Nationwide Soap Opera
Fujimori searched Chaclacayo because Montesinos was thought to have a home in the affluent community of weekend homes, swimming pools and mountains, 22 miles east of Peru’s capital, Lima.
Members of an elite police force under Fujimori’s command swarmed over the town Wednesday and maintained their positions overnight. Helicopters crisscrossed overhead throughout the morning Thursday.
The search for Montesinos has become an ongoing soap opera that has amused and enraged Peruvians.
Radio stations cut into regular programing into the night Thursday with reports, even long after the hunters had given up and gone home.
“It was like they went hunting for a rabbit, a very smart little rabbit,” joked Jorge Lopez, who works as a housepainter here.
But some government officials and pundits don’t find the extravaganza so funny.
“This is gangland. None of the trappings of law are at play here,” said Hernando de Soto, an international economist who worked closely with Fujimori during his first term as president in the early 1990s. “The president himself has to head this ridiculous group of forces to try to find” Montesinos.
Lima Mayor Alberto Andrade said it was an embarrassment for Peru that Fujimori took along his eldest daughter — first lady Keiko Sofia — as well as a cook and a butler while directing a late-night portion of the raids.
“Never have we seen a president like this one playing cowboy or cop,” Andrade said.
Fujimori was further criticized for offering contradictory statements about what he will do if he finds Montesinos.
First he said he was not out to detain Montesinos, only locate him. Then, he said that once the spy chief was found, police would turn him “over to judicial authorities.”
Before his return, Montesinos’ allies had pushed for Congress to pass a sweeping amnesty law that opposition leaders contend was meant to shield him and his allies in the military from prosecution for ties to drug and arms trafficking.
His return to Peru was seen as an attempt to force the amnesty law through and may also have been a product of Panama’s hesitancy to grant his political asylum. As head of intelligence, Montesinos is rumored to have built up a large collection of videotapes compromising many people in power in Peru.
Though the operation failed to net the shadowy Montesinos, who has been an integral part of the Fujimori regime since 1990 but was first seen in public just a few years ago, some say Fujimori’s stand against his former right-hand-man may prove to be a wise decision.
Former First Vice President Francisco Tudela, who resigned in disgust on Monday saying he didn’t think Fujimori’s government would survive Montesinos’ return to Peru, urged the nation to “support with full hearts,” Fujimori’s attempts to capture Montesinos.