He was known as the Peruvian Rasputin, the spymaster of one of the country’s most corrupt and brutal regimes.
Vladimiro Montesinos masterminded a network of political espionage, mining state coffers to control the military top brass, the courts, and the media – until he was brought down by one of his own videotapes which showed him bribing politicians.
Now Montesinos, the éminence grise of the jailed former president Alberto Fujimori, has re-emerged after nearly two decades of relative obscurity – this time amid an apparent bid to aid Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori, whose baseless claims of electoral fraud have plunged Peru into its most tumultuous weeks in recent history.
With all the ballots from the 6 June election counted, the leftwing candidate Pedro Castillo holds a razor-thin lead of about 44,000 votes out a total of more than 19m.
But Fujimori – aided by a largely partisan media and a slew of fake news – has demanded tens of thousands of votes be recounted or scrapped, particularly in rural areas, where Castillo had overwhelming support.
Montesinos is serving multiple sentences for human rights crimes, corruption, and arms and drugs trafficking in a maximum security naval base prison, yet he was somehow able to use a landline number to make 17 phone calls to Pedro Rejas, a retired military officer and formerly loyal Fujimori cohort who later revealed the recordings.
Peru’s defence ministry confirmed the security breach at the navy-run prison and said three guards and one officer had been relieved of their positions.
In one conversation, days after the election, Montesinos appears to suggest bribes be paid through an intermediary to three of the four members of an electoral tribunal to favour Fujimori in a recount.
“If we had done the job as we had proposed it we would not be in this shitty problem,” Montesinos, 76, complains at one point in the recording.
The recordings mark the latest twist in a tortuous post-election showdown – but also an unwelcome reminder of some of the country’s darkest recent history.
Jo Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said: “Keiko Fujimori has long tried to separate herself and her father from Montesinos.”
“We don’t know if she’s really taking his advice, or not,” added Burt, who was an observer at Alberto Fujimori’s trial which ended in 2009 with a 25-year jail sentence for human rights crimes and corruption.
Burt said Keiko Fujimori represented the continuation of her father’s political project – of which Montesinos was an integral part. “Their relationship was hand in glove. One can’t exist without the other,” she said.
Fujimori has called the Montesinos recording an attempt to distract the public from the election process.But there are signs Fujimori’s backers have begun to distance themselves from her. “Enough is enough,” said a weekend newspaper column in El Comercio, part of Peru’s biggest media group, which had previously backed the three-time presidential candidate.
“Today it is clear that what began with the use of legitimate legal resources to question the suitability of some ballots … has started to become an attempt to delay the process as much as possible,” the column read.
Castillo’s party Perú Libre has denied allegations of fraud while the US state department described the process as a “model of democracy”, and the EU called the elections “free and democratic”.
The emergence of the Montesinos audios ended an unsettling week, as one of the four judges on the electoral tribunal quit, leaving it without quorum, after clashing with the other officials over requests to nullify votes. He was replaced on Saturday by another judge, but both face separate probes for alleged corruption.
The electoral tribunal has until 28 July, Peru’s independence day, to declare a winner, if not new elections must be called under the country’s constitution.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are seeking to charge former generals and admirals – among them a former military dictator Francisco Morales Bérmudez prosecuted for the murder of Italian civilians in Operation Condor – with sedition and conspiracy for three open letters which called on the armed forces to reject Castillo’s presidential claim.
“What we are seeing is a slow-motion conspiracy to prevent Castillo from becoming president,” said Burt.