Venezuelans love soap operas but few are as colorful and convoluted as the murky passage through their nation of Peru's ex-spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, whose capture in Caracas was announced today.
Over the last few months, this oil-rich but poverty-plagued country has been tormented and tantalized by contradictory reports about the whereabouts of the shadowy ex-aide to disgraced former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.
Since he fled Peru in October, Montesinos was thought to have passed through a series of exotic bolt holes, including the Galapagos islands, Costa Rica and Aruba. He was also reported to be in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
Plastic Surgery and 'Magic Realism'
At the start of the year, the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez bluntly ruled out his presence in the country, with then Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel dismissing the possibility as "magic realism."
But then a doctor came forward in early April to say he had performed plastic surgery in Caracas last December on Montesinos, who is accused in Peru of crimes ranging from corruption to drug trafficking and running death squads.
This triggered a frenzied hunt by Venezuelan and Peruvian investigators trailed by hordes of local journalists.
Local newspapers published a photo allegedly showing the ex-spy chief after the surgery, his face gaunt and bearded.
Faced with the outcry, senior government officials changed their story and admitted there was "evidence" he might have been, or might still be, in Venezuela.
Sightings Across Venezuela
Besieged by the press, Rangel, by then defense minister, stopped talking about "magic realism" and irritably described the Montesinos saga as "a soap opera in chapters."
Sightings of the fugitive were reported across the country, from sprawling urban Caracas to Venezuela's wild interior.
Tourists at one resort deep in the Venezuelan bush were surprised one day in April by the sudden arrival by helicopter of a gun-toting posse of masked police commandos.
Their intended prey was human — Montesinos. But they left empty-handed and the trail went cold again.
The furor sparked mutual recriminations between Venezuelan and Peruvian officials who accused each other of incompetence and even complicity in allowing the fugitive to escape.
Chavez promised that "even if Montesinos has turned into a tree, we will ship the tree back to Peru."
Once Declared Dead
Venezuelan lawmaker and Chavez supporter Pedro Carreno added a new twist by declaring he had proof Montesinos was dead, killed in Peru by military officers.
Peruvian officials dismissed that as "tropical fever." In the end, even the announcement of Montesinos' final capture was fittingly theatrical.
Chavez, an outspoken former paratrooper and one-time coup plotter, proudly announced the arrest to fellow Andean presidents in the middle of a summit.
"He's a mysterious gentleman, I've never seen him, but what a bunch of legends were woven around this person," Chavez said.
As Venezuelan authorities prepared to swiftly return the fugitive to Peru, some observers suggested the capture was a carefully choreographed "show prepared by the government," said Patricia Poleo, a journalist who has closely followed the hunt for Montesinos.