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Peru: Busted

Vladimiro Montesinos

Vladimiro Montesinos appears in a Peruvian courtroom. He faces more than 70 criminal charges against him.

Those of you who have watched our story "The Curse of Inca Gold" or read our online investigation "Montesinos's Web" are well acquainted with Peru's notorious spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos and the infamous "Vladivideos," his secret videotape recordings of his backroom deals. When the Vladivideos became public in 2000, they caused the downfall of Peru's President Fujimori, who fled to Japan, where he remains in exile. Montesinos also fled, but was finally captured in Venezuela and returned to Peru to face more than 70 criminal charges.

The inside story of the FBI's role in the arrest of Montesinos -- at the time the most wanted fugitive in Latin America -- has never been told. Now, based on the first in depth interviews with the FBI special agents who were involved, our FRONTLINE/World reporter describes what happened.

* * *

The story begins in Miami -- a city famous for its history of mob crime -- in November 2000. FBI special agents Waldo Longa and Bob Jones were in their office when the phone rang. It was Tom Moran, from the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force (SFMLSF). Citibank had just filed two suspicious activity reports concerning an individual named Victor Alberto Venero Garrido, who had scheduled to withdraw nearly $10 million from Citibank accounts, then close the accounts. Moran soon learned that Venero-Garrido was a wanted fugitive, suspected of coordinating and delivering funds to Vladimiro Montesinos, the former de facto head of Peru's National Intelligence Services (SIN) who had been on the lam since September.

Between January and May 2001, bank accounts around the world were identified holding more than $200 million of Montesinos's money, six or seven of those accounts in the United States.

Peru was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to Montesinos's arrest. The FBI agents immediately called Kevin Currier, the U.S. legal attache in Lima, Peru, who confirmed that Venero-Garrido was in the United States and that he was indeed closely connected to Montesinos. They quickly assumed that the money being withdrawn from Citibank was destined for the fugitive Montesinos.

Longa and Jones wasted no time. They called the Citibank branch manager in Miami, who connected them with the private banker handling Venero-Garrido's account. With the cooperation of Citibank and the private banker, they set up a sting. They knew Venero-Garrido would try to enter the bank at 9 a.m. on the day in question, but they also knew they could not detain him without a signed provisional arrest warrant.

When the time came, FBI and SFMLSF agents, still waiting for the signed warrant, surrounded the bank, ready to move. Venero-Garrido entered the building. Still no warrant. Longa and Jones would later learn that the judge who was to sign that warrant was on a plane flying back from Los Angeles when the sting was going down. With Longa, Jones and the entire SFMLSF strike force on his tail, Venero-Garrido walked out of the bank and drove away.

Venero-Garrido sped to a gated community in southwestern Dade County, where he owned a home under his wife's name. At 11:20 p.m., a call came in from then U.S. Attorney Curt Miner authorizing the arrest. Guns drawn, the agents surrounded the house, arrested Venero-Garrido and brought him into custody.

Venero-Garrido's house was full of documents that would aid the FBI in identifying Montesinos's financial holdings. Between January and May 2001, Longa and Jones, with the help of financial analyst Chris Mangiaracina, identified bank accounts around the world holding more than $200 million of Montesinos's money, six or seven of those accounts in the United States.

Miami Vice

But it was the discovery of a bank account holding $46 million that marked the turning point in the investigation. Longa and Jones contacted the bank officer at Pacific Industrial Bank (PIB), which has since been shut down, and were told that the PIB branch in Lima had been in contact with Montesinos.

"The manager there was doing something he wasn't supposed to," said Jones. "He was helping Montesinos deposit money, through Garrido, in duffle bags. It was like Miami in the '80s."

According to Longa and Jones, someone representing Montesinos had recently walked into PIB's Miami office with an extortion letter. The threatening letter said that PIB was holding $56 million worth of Montesinos's funds and demanded that those funds be liquidated. Attached to this was an AutoTrack report that contained the home address of the bank's president and personal information about his children.

Montesinos walks handcuffed.

Vladimiro Montesinos was arrrested in Caracas, Venezuela, and extradicted to Peru the day after his capture.

The letter had specific written instructions for further correspondence, including an email address that was to be the only means of communication between Montesinos and the bank. This email address would be Montesinos's biggest mistake.

The FBI quickly took over the email exchanges by posing as an assistant to the PIB banker in an attempt to flush Montesinos out. But Montesinos was no fool. He had run Peru's intelligence services for a decade. He demanded to know who this "assistant" was and why he should be trusted. He also demanded that the money be sent to Venezuela, rather than his sending someone to retrieve it in Miami.

Based on these email exchanges and other clues, Longa and Jones were able to trace the exact origin of these emails to a small Internet cafe in Caracas, Venezuela. Montesinos, they figured, had to be nearby.

In a stroke of luck for the FBI, Montesinos backed off on his demand that the money be sent to Venezuela and agreed to send a representative to Miami to withdraw the funds from PIB. On Friday, June 22, 2001, a man named Jose Guevarra was to meet the bank's vice president on behalf of Montesinos at the Intercontinental Hotel. Guevarra entered the lobby with a small entourage of intelligence agents posing as ordinary citizens. The agents began snapping photographs of other individuals in the lobby, drawing attention to themselves.

"It was a comedy of errors," said Longa. "They were very poorly trained."

Meanwhile, SFMLSF and FBI agents had the building surrounded. Once Guevarra and his people had fully entered the Intercontinental, Longa and his agents arrested Guevarra and brought him into custody.

"Initially, he wasn't going to say anything," said Longa. "But once we explained to him that he was facing 10 years in prison for extortion, it all came out."

It turned out that Guevarra was a former Venezuelan intelligence agent, as were the two cohorts in Caracas -- one of whom was a cousin of Guevarra -- who were presently hiding Montesinos. It was Guevarra himself who had been typing the emails from the Internet cafe.

"Initially, he wasn't going to say anything," said Longa. "But once we explained to him that he was facing 10 years in prison for extortion, it all came out."

Take Him for a Ride

Longa and Jones cut a deal with Guevarra -- they would drop his charges and set him free if he could deliver Montesinos to the Peruvians. Guevarra, shocked and afraid, agreed.

The next day, Saturday, at 6 p.m., Guevarra called his cousin at the safe house in Caracas and relayed the FBI's offer. In order to save Guevarra from jail, his cousin played along with the plan, telling Montesinos,"We have a problem, and we have to move you immediately."

Montesinos was ushered into a car where he was laid down in the back and wrapped in a blanket, unable to move or see. He thought he was being escorted to safety.

The car sped off into the night on its way to the Peruvian ambassador's house, where Peruvian authorities were waiting to apprehend him. Shortly thereafter, the driver called Miami to say he had dropped off Montesinos. Longa and Jones, relieved that the plan had worked, returned to their respective homes and went to sleep. Then, at 1 a.m., Longa awoke to an unwelcome phone ring. Reaching across his wife, he picked up the receiver.

"Hello?" he said.

It was Currier, the U.S. legal attache to Peru. "Waldo, there's been a mix up. I've got the Interior Minister of Peru on the line. I'm putting him through."

The voice of Antonio Ketin Vidal boomed into the phone. "Where is he?" he demanded. "What happened to him? Where is Montesinos?"

"I have no idea," said Longa, and after a fruitless conversation, feeling most confused, he hung up the phone.

The next morning, Longa and Jones headed to the jail where Guevarra was being held to tell him that his cousin had failed to deliver Montesinos as agreed. Just as they were arriving at the detention facility, however, Currier called again.

"Turn on CNN!" he said.

Hugo Chavez, Crime Fighter

Longa and Jones rushed to the nearest television. Flipping through the channels, they finally landed on CNN. There, to their surprise, being broadcast to the world, was Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, in all his revolutionary splendor, praising Venezuelan authorities for capturing the most wanted man in Latin America.

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

The truth, according to the FBI agents involved, is that the Venezuelans had no idea that FBI and Peruvian intelligence agents were performing a covert operation to arrest Montesinos right under their noses. Instead of the Venezuelans "capturing" Latin America's No. 1 fugitive, the reality was that Guevarra's cousin, the driver of the car carrying Montesinos, had gotten cold feet on his way to the Peruvian embassy and decided to deliver Montesinos to a Venezuelan army base instead.

Jones speculates that at the last minute, the driver, fearing that he'd be arrested if he delivered Montesinos to the Peruvians, decided to cover himself by turning over Montesinos -- an old ally of Chavez -- to the Venezuelans.

In any case, the next day, Montesinos was deported to Peru and jailed and has been incarcerated ever since. He is being held in a maximum-security prison and is shuttled in and out of courtrooms under heavy guard.

Both Jones and Longa consider the Montesinos case to be the crowning achievement of their careers.

"Everything worked well technically," said Longa. "The agents worked well together, it didn't drag on for years, there was support on every level. And when Peru found out that the FBI had found Montesinos, it really bolstered the credibility of the [U.S.] ambassador there. This case was No.1 in my book."

Aaron Selverston is a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.


Peter Mickelsen - Bend, Oregon
I am stunned that this in-depth look at law enforcement as well as elements of banking and the people they intertwine with. Interesting the amount of hard work, luck and by-the-skin-of-their-teeth timing was involved. Excellent piece. Thank you.

Scott Sandburg - Carlsbad, California
You'd think Montesinos would know better, but he took the bait like a fish! I guess he was a fool after all... Excellent story, well told.