Subsequent investigations revealed Montesinos to be at the centre of a vast web of illegal activities, including embezzlement, graft, gunrunning, and drug trafficking. He has been tried, convicted and sentenced for numerous charges. Montesinos had strong connections with the CIA (the United States Central Intelligence Agency) and was said to have received $10 million from the agency for his government's anti-terrorist activities. Montesinos is cousin of the incarcerated terrorist leader Óscar Ramírez Durand, a.k.a. "Feliciano".
Vladimiro Montesinos was born in the city of Arequipa, the capital of the Arequipa Region in southern Peru. His parents, who were of Greek descent and communists, named him after Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union.
In 1965, Montesinos graduated as a military cadet at the US Army's School of the Americas in Panama. A year later, he graduated from the Military School of Chorrillos, in Lima, Peru.
In the early 1970s, during the leftist military junta of General Juan Velasco, Montesinos became a captain in the Peruvian army. By 1973, he had been appointed to the role of aide to General Edgardo Mercado Jarrín, who served as both Prime Minister and Chief of the Armed Forces.
In 1976, Major Jose Fernandez Salvatteci of the Military Intelligence Service (Spanish: Servicio de Inteligencia del Ejército (SIE)) charged Montesinos with the crimes of spying and treason, accusing him of delivering military documents to the embassy of the United States in Lima. The documents included a list of weapons which Peru had purchased from the Soviet Union. General Mercado ordered the charges dropped.
That same year, Montesinos went on a two-week trip to Washington, D.C., paid for by the United States government. Upon his return to Lima, he was arrested for having failed to obtain formal government permission to make the trip. The subsequent investigation revealed that top-secret documents had been found in his possession, and that he had photographed them and given copies to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Montesinos had travelled to the U.S. without authorization from army command, and had forged military documents to allow him to complete the trip without being detained. He visited several foreign institutions as an official representative of the Peruvian army, also without authorization. Montesinos was dishonorably discharged from the military and sentenced to a year in military prison. This was a far less severe sentence than the customary death penalty that was the punishment for traitors during the military regime.
Years later, declassified US State Department documents revealed the reason for the CIA's interest in Montesinos. In the 1970s, Peru was governed by the only left-wing regime in South America, a continent dominated by right-wing governments. Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and fearing its influence in the region, as well as that of the Communist government of Cuba, the US was seeking information about activities in Peru. Montes conjured up and told a story about potential attacks against Peru's southern long-time rival, Chile, then ruled by dictator Augusto Pinochet, an ally of the U.S. The operation, to be backed by the Cuban military, had the objective of recovering the territory Peru had lost after the War of the Pacific.
In February 1978, Montesinos was freed after two years in jail. He was given work by his cousin Sergio Cardenal Montesinos, a lawyer who persuaded him to pursue a degree in law. In April of the same year, Montesinos applied to the National University of San Marcos in Lima. He received his law diploma only three months later, through fraudulent means. Book No. 24 of the University of San Marcos Office of Records, where Montesinos' graduation would be noted, has disappeared from the Office. Montesinos' undergraduate thesis and other materials related to his academic record have never been produced.
On August 15, 1978, Montesinos used his degree to register as a lawyer with the Superior Court of Lima. Ten days later, on August 25, 1978, he became a member of the Lima bar association. He became notorious for representing a number of Colombian and Peruvian members of the illegal drug trade, as well as police officers accused of being involved in drug trafficking. Between 1978 and 1979, he represented Colombian drug lords Evaristo "Papá Doc" Porras Ardila and Jaime Tamayo. In addition, he acted as guarantor on Tamayo's lease of several offices and warehouses used to manufacture cocaine.
Between 1980 and 1983, Montesinos revealed sensitive information related to military wiretapping and assassinations to the newspaper Kausachum, run by Augusto Zimmerman, ex-spokesperson of deposed president Juan Velasco Alvarado. General Carlos Briceño, the Commander of the Peruvian Army, re-opened the investigation into Montesinos' alleged treason.
Montesinos fled to Ecuador, where in 1984 he revealed information to the Ecuadorian Army about Peru's military weapons purchases. The investigation was closed that year in order to "protect institutional image", and Montesinos was allowed to return to Peru.
Montesinos came to public notice again in 1990 when he defended Alberto Fujimori against accusations of fraudulent real estate dealings, during the presidential campaign, in which Fujimori was an obscure candidate. The paperwork in the case disappeared and the charges were dropped. After Fujimori won the 1990 general elections, on July 28 of Montesinos became his chief advisor and the effective head of the National Intelligence Service(its acronym in Spanish is SIN).
Through his position, he gained virtually unlimited power within Peru. By promoting his former classmates into top positions, Montesinos obtained control of the Peruvian Armed Forces. During the course of the decade, he established a network of corruption that permeated media, business, political parties, and government. Toward the end of the Fujimori years, it was reported that Montesinos' tax records indicated he was making $600,000 a year, even though his official salary was $18,000.
Montesinos is widely accused of threatening or harassing Fujimori's political opponents. Evidence proves that he supervised a death squad known as the Grupo Colina, part of the National Intelligence Service, which was thought to have been responsible for the Barrios Altos massacre and the La Cantuta massacre, actions intended to repress the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), the major communist insurgency movement that had been operating since the 1980s.
Four officers who were tortured during interrogation after plotting a coup d'état against Fujimori in November 1992 later stated that Montesinos took an active part in torturing them. On March 16, 1998, former Peruvian Army Intelligence Agent Luisa Zanatta accused Montesinos of ordering illegal wiretaps of leading politicians and journalists. Zanatta also said that army intelligence agents had killed fellow agent Mariella Barreto Riofano because she gave a magazine information about human rights violations, as well as the location of bodies from the La Cantuta massacre. Zanatta said that in early 1997, Barreto had told her that she was part of the Grupo Colina death squad responsible for the La Cantuta massacre. Barreto's dismembered body was found by a roadside on March 29, 1997 and showed evidence of torture before death and mutilation.
During the Fujimori years, Montesinos gained extensive control over the Peruvian media by bribing television channel executives. Bribes ranged from approximately US$500,000 per month to Channels 2 and 5 to $1.5 million per month to Channel 4. In total, Montesinos paid more than US$3 million per month in bribes to Peruvian television channels.
Montesinos funneled additional funds to the television channels through government advertising. From 1997 to 1999, the Peruvian government increased their advertising budget by 52%, becoming Peru’s largest advertiser. Ultimately, Montesinos held editorial control over TV Channels 2, 4, 5, 9, and 13.
To maintain this control he structured bribe payments in monthly installments, limiting the risk of defection by the TV channel owners. He also ensured continued cooperation through blackmail, utilizing video evidence of sexual indiscretions by bribe recipients. To keep track of the numerous bribes and gain further evidence of the owners’ complicity, which could also be used as blackmail, Montesinos filmed monetary exchanges and forced channel executives to sign contracts stipulating the extent of influence he expected in return for the stated monetary bribe.
The Fujimori government also controlled the content of Channel 7, Televisión Nacional Peruana, which was explicitly state owned. Channel N, remained the only independent television channel, funded entirely by monthly service fees. Montesinos did not bribe Channel N because of their low viewership, numbering in the tens of thousands, which was a result of the unaffordability of the monthly fees for most Peruvians. Channel N first aired the Kouri videotape, which exposed the extent of Montesinos’s corruption.
In April 1997, Baruch Ivcher's Frecuencia Latina, Channel 2, broadcast allegations by Peruvian Army Intelligence agent Leonor La Rosa that she was tortured by intelligence agents. (Her testimony was later brought into question.)
On July 14, 1997, the government legally stripped Ivcher, a native Israeli, of his Peruvian nationality for supposed offenses against the government. In September, control of Channel 2 was given to minority shareholders more sympathetic to the government. In response, former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar said, "Peru is no longer a democracy. We are now a country headed by an authoritarian regime."
The 2000 presidential elections, which followed years of political violence, was controversial. A journalist claimed to have a videotape of Montesinos bribing election officials to fix the vote. He claimed to have been kidnapped by secret police agents, who sawed his arm to the bone to get him to give up the tape. In view of such tactics, the Clinton administration threatened briefly not to recognize Fujimori's victory. It backed off from this threat, and pressured Fujimori's government to take action to root out abuses, including ousting Montesinos.
US policy was aimed at preserving the achievements of the Fujimori regime, while ending its excesses. Continuing political unrest in Peru would have represented a serious problem as US operations against the FARC in Colombia got under way. Peru was needed as a base of operations and a defensive backstop against guerrillas based in Colombia's south, not far from the Peruvian border.
Allegations circulated that Montesinos and General Nicolás Hermoza Ríos, the chairman of Peru's joint chiefs of staff, were taking protection money from drug traffickers. Documents that were later declassified by the US government showed that by 1996 the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was aware of the allegations. Despite evidence that Montesinos was in business with Colombian narco-traffickers, the CIA paid Montesinos's intelligence organization $1 million a year for 10 years to fight drug trafficking.
One of the most notorious scandals during this period was the 11 May 1996 seizure of 169–176 kg of cocaine (the quantity depends on the source) aboard a Peruvian Air Force Douglas DC-8 (frequently confused in the media as the presidential Boeing 737 as it had operated on this role until the acquisition of the Boeing) that was about to depart on a mission to Russia (with stopovers at the Canary Islands and Bordeaux), carrying military aviation equipment for maintenance. The scandal remains a mystery to this day because the drug's origin and destiny were never determined and the investigations were compromised by Fujimori's corrupt government and possibly Montesinos himself. A 2011 investigation revealed that some four drug shipments were made abroad, with Miami listed as a destination, in air force planes during 1993-1994. Only the material authors (several low-ranking officers) were processed, acquitted and publicly defended by Fujimori in late 1997 (amongst them Fujimori's aide-de-camp who was part of the plane's crew).
Demetrio Chávez Peñaherrera, known as "El Vaticano", testified that Montesinos was a protector of drug traffickers. In a drug trafficking trial on August 16, 1996, Chávez Peñaherrera stated that he had bribed members of the Peruvian Armed Forces and Montesinos, as the effective chief of the Peruvian Intelligence Service (SIN), to be able to operate freely in Campanilla, a jungle area of the Huallaga region. Recordings of radio communications presented during the trial showed that members of the army had let Chávez's organization operate freely in the Huallaga region in exchange for bribes. During certain appearances in the court, Chávez appeared drugged and maybe tortured. After sentencing, while in prison, Chávez talked to the press and revealed that Montesinos said to him at one point that he "did some work" with Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín Cartel.
Montesinos was paid US$50,000 a month during 1991 and 1992. As proof, the government presented recordings during Chávez's trial of radio communications between his drug traffickers and members of the Armed Forces attesting to bribery of Montesinos. In addition, Chávez said that retired general Nicolás de Bari Hermoza, the former chief of the Armed Forces Joint Command, and Fujimori had both complete knowledge of the illicit acts of Montesinos.
Frequently, Montesinos secretly videotaped himself bribing individuals in his office, incriminating politicians, officials and military officers. His downfall appears to have been precipitated by the discovery of a major illegal arms shipment. Arranged by guerrilla leader Tomás Medina Caracas, the arms were airlifted from Jordan via Peru, to the FARC insurgent guerrillas in southern Colombia.
Montesinos claimed the credit for uncovering the arms smuggling, which involved upwards of 10,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. Jordan rejected the Peruvian version of events, insisting the shipments were legitimate government-to-government deals. Evidence emerged which pointed to Montesinos having orchestrated the gun-running operation rather than dismantling it. A senior Peruvian general was found to have participated in the deal, and another principal participant was a government contractor. He had signed at least eleven deals with the Fujimori regime, most of them to provide supplies to the Peruvian military.
According to one report, a group of military officers angered by Montesinos's apparent role in the arms deal broke into his offices and stole the video that was subsequently broadcast. Because of the arms deal, Montesinos lost the support of the US, which attached high strategic importance to crushing the FARC.
On 14 September 2000, Peruvian television broadcast a video of Montesinos bribing an opposition congressman, Alberto Kouri, to support Perú 2000, Fujimori's party. The video caused Fujimori's remaining support to collapse. He accepted the resignation of Montesinos and thanked him for his services. He then announced the dissolution of the National Intelligence Service (SIN) and new elections, in which he would not run. Shortly thereafter, Montesinos sought political asylum in Panama.
In following months, some of the most infamous "Vladi-videos" were released. One showed the owners of Channel 2 being offered US$500,000 a month to ban appearances of the political opposition on their channel. Another showed Channel 4 owners getting $1.5 million a month for similar cooperation. Others show Montesinos counting out $350,000 in cash to Channel 5's proprietor, and the owner of Channel 9 receiving $50,000 to cancel an investigative series called SIN censura (Uncensored). In June 2001, through the assistance of the U.S. Government, Montesinos was turned over to the Venezuelan government in Caracas and extradited back to Peru. Then his trial began.
Montesinos was convicted of embezzlement, illegal assumption of his post as intelligence chief, abuse of power, influence peddling and bribery. Those charges carried sentences of between five and fifteen years each, but Peruvian prison sentences are served concurrently, so prosecutors continued to pursue him on additional charges. He was acquitted of two specific charges of corruption and conspiracy related to the mayor of Callao, whom he was alleged to have helped evade drug-trafficking charges.
Montesinos is currently imprisoned at the maximum security naval base prison in Callao (which was built under his orders during the 1990s) and is serving 15 years of prison, but he will have to face at least 8 more trials in the next years. In total he was accused of sixty-three crimes that range from drug trafficking to murder.
In August 2004, U.S. officials returned to Peru $20 million in funds embezzled by Montesinos; it had been deposited in U.S. banks by two men working for him. Prime Minister Carlos Ferrero and other prosecutors believed that the total amount embezzled by Montesinos during his tenure at the National Intelligence Service surpassed one billion dollars, most of which was deposited in foreign banks.
In October 2004 Wilmer Yarleque Ordinola, 44, was apprehended in Virginia in the US and convicted of immigration fraud. He had been working as a construction laborer without papers. The Peruvian government sought his extradition as an alleged member of Montesino's Grupo Colina and responsible for 26-35 of the 7,260 deaths or "disappearances" which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Peru) attributed to the group. In October 2004 Yarleque was being held by the U.S. Marshals in Alexandria, Virginia. The suspect was initially granted a writ of habeas corpus, as he argued that he could not be extradited for political offenses committed for the government, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed that decision in 2005, opening the way for his extradition.
Montesinos was sentenced in September 2006 to a 20-year prison term for his direct involvement in an illegal arms deal to provide 10,000 assault weapons to Colombian rebels. Tribunal judges made their ruling based on evidence that placed Montesinos at the center of an intricate web of negotiations designed to transport assault rifles from Jordan to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC.
In 2007 Montesinos was on trial for allegedly ordering the extra-judicial killings of the MRTA hostage-takers during the 1997 Japanese embassy hostage crisis. The former chief of the armed forces, Nicolas de Bari Hermoza, and retired Colonel Roberto Huaman are also charged with ordering the extrajudicial execution of the 14 rebels. This action followed the government's commando raid in April to free the more than 70 diplomats who had been held hostage for more than four months in the Japanese embassy. The Peruvian special forces’ recapture resulted in the deaths of one hostage, two commandos and all of the MRTA rebels. The former Japanese political attaché Hidetaka Ogura, one of the hostages freed from the Embassy, stated that he saw at least three of the MRTA rebels captured alive. If convicted, Montesinos and the two former military officers face up to 20 years in prison.
In August 2012 Montesinos and the former chief of the Peruvian Air Force, Waldo Richter, were acquitted of drug trafficking for the 1996 Air Force plane case. He had been involved by a number of drug traffickers.