Deported Fugitive Spymaster Lands in Peru

Vladimiro Lenin Montesinos, a dreaded spymaster who once worked closely with the CIA and built an empire of corruption, was flown back to Peru today after being caught in Venezuela with the help of the FBI.

A Peruvian National Police airplane and another aircraft that left Caracas today and touched down at 6:10 a.m. local time in Iquitos, a frontier jungle city, 620 miles northeast of the capital, Lima, said an airport official in the tower, who refused to identify himself by name.

Peru's interior minister, Antonio Ketin Vidal, praised the work of several intelligence agencies, including the FBI, for Montesinos' capture.

Venezuelan officials said nothing about the deportation process following Montesinos' arrest late Saturday, ending an eight-month international manhunt for South America's most-wanted man.

But Ketin Vidal told Peruvian TV from Caracas that he was bringing Montesinos home.

The plane was quickly surrounded by some 50 police as it pulled off the runway and into a hanger. It was expected to refuel and later take off for the capital, Lima.

Allegations of CIA Links

Montesinos' apprehension came after dozens of arrests in Peru of top military commanders, politicians and media executives believed to have illicit ties to the former spymaster.

In the late 1970s, Montesinos, then an army captain, was accused of selling classified information about Peru's Russian-supplied armaments to U.S. intelligence officials. He was court-martialed, dishonorably discharged and spent a year in a military prison.

U.S. diplomatic officials have balked at the suggestion from Peruvian lawmakers that Montesinos was a CIA operative during his years as Fujimori's security adviser.

However, they said that Montesinos, as de facto head of Peru's intelligence service, was the liaison for U.S.-Peru counter-narcotics efforts.

Scandal After Scandal

The FBI, which helped track Montesinos down, in February arrested Peruvian police Col. Manuel Aybar Marca, accused of helping engineer Montesinos' escape from Peru last October as the government of then-President Alberto Fujimori crumbled amid scandal.

Also in February, another Montesinos associate, Peruvian arms dealer Victor Venero Garrido, agreed to return to Peru to face charges of embezzling $100 million in public pension funds rather than fight extradition from Miami. He has been cooperating with authorities here, helping to untangle a 10-year web of corruption reputedly spun by Montesinos.

Once in Lima, Montesinos was to be whisked away to a secret location, Ketin Vidal said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was almost casual in informing reporters of Montesinos' capture during an Andean summit on Sunday.

"Fortunately, we have captured Vladimiro Montesinos alive," Chavez said. Montesinos would be deported "faster than a rooster crows," he said.

A Tip-Off

Suspicious neighbors and people whom Montesinos had hired tipped off police to the Peruvian's whereabouts, Chavez said. Agents moved in when it appeared Montesinos was about to leave.

"The people who knew his whereabouts were very desperate because the time had passed to take him to another location. This desperation led [Montesinos] to make some mistakes that were detected by our intelligence agencies," Chavez said.

Ketin Vidal told Peru's Channel 5 television by telephone that Montesinos' physical appearance hadn't changed since he vanished in October, contrary to reports that Montesinos underwent plastic surgery to disguise himself.

"He has the physical characteristics very similar to what we all know. He doesn't have a beard, or anything additional," Ketin Vidal said, adding that Montesinos "was received in good physical condition."

Peruvians Welcome News

Peruvians coping with the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in the country's second-largest city embraced the news of Montesinos' capture.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar thanked Chavez for arresting "a delinquent drug trafficker." Peru had offered $5 million for information leading to Montesinos' arrest.

Peruvian President Valentin Paniagua and President-elect Alejandro Toledo also had words of praise.

Montesinos, 55, faces charges ranging from money laundering to corruption to directing death squads. Peruvian legal experts say convictions on those charges will likely land Montesinos in prison for life.

Accused of amassing a fortune by dealing drugs, weapons and political favors, Montesinos was the power broker behind former President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian 10-year rule. His scandals eventually brought Fujimori down.

Peruvian investigators detailed what they say was a huge criminal network in which Montesinos, as Peru's spy chief, controlled politicians, courts, military officials and businessmen through bribery and blackmail. He allegedly paid off congressmen and judges to ensure Fujimori's 2000 re-election to a third term.

Incriminating Video

In September, videos appeared on television showing Montesinos bribing an opposition congressman to support Fujimori's government. As the number of incriminating videos grew, Montesinos fled to Panama, which denied him asylum. He returned to Peru, and vanished in October.

In November, Fujimori fled to Japan as Peruvian lawmakers declared him "morally unfit" for office.

Montesinos' trail led to Costa Rica, Aruba and finally Venezuela in December, according to statements by three Peruvian army officers and Costa Rican officials. He allegedly used a false Venezuelan passport bearing the name Manuel Antonio Rodriguez Perez.

Until Sunday, Chavez's government insisted it had no knowledge of Montesinos' whereabouts. Months of rumors had Montesinos in Colombia, Ecuador and Cuba.