Peru & the Post-Fujimori Future : THE CROOKS ARE GONE. NOW THE COUNTRY HAS TO FIGURE OUT A COMMON AGENDA

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Lima

As five Peruvian lawmakers stood wide-eyed on the ground at a military airport north of here in early March, a MIG-29 fighter jet crashed in a blazing ball of flame. The plane was being given a test flight as part of an investigation into whether a fleet of Russian-built MIGs bought in the 1990s from Belarus were defective and thus an elaborate ploy by the recently collapsed government of Alberto Fujimori to skim off millions of dollars in kickbacks. The plumes of black smoke rising from the debris confirmed the congressional committee's worst fears.

The pilot of the plane escaped unhurt. But with presidential elections set for April 8, just how Peru itself will survive the wreckage of the past decade of Fujimori's authoritarian rule remains an open question.

Whatever government arises from the vote, at least it won't have to face the onerous tasks that have plagued postdictatorial administrations in Chile and Argentina. Peruvians won't have to navigate through official walls of silence, nor will they have to sift through unmarked graves to unearth the record of the past ten years. They'll be saved those tedious labors because as Fujimori was absconding to Japan last November, his regime was thoughtful enough to leave behind a full video record of the calamities it visited upon the 26 million people who live in Peru. "Every night now is a special night on Peruvian TV," says Marco Zileri, editor of the weekly Caretas. "The Vladi videos are the new form of national entertainment, national fascination--and national shame."

Indeed, the "Vladi videos," some 2,400 of them, are mostly the handiwork of now-fugitive Vladimiro Montesinos, not only the CIA's main liaison in Peru but also Fujimori's Rasputin-like intelligence chief and closest adviser. With at least three cameras hidden in his office inside Peru's "Pentagonito," Montesinos obsessively taped one meeting after another as he bullied and bribed his way into a position of absolute power.

Move over, Dick Nixon! The tapes first came to light last September, when national TV showed a leaked tape of Montesinos handing $15,000 to an opposition congressman. There's open speculation in Peru that the leak was facilitated by the CIA after Montesinos was implicated in the sale of 10,000 automatic rifles to Colombian guerrillas. "For years the US turned a blind eye to Montesinos, even when he was involved in drugs," says analyst Hugo Cabieses of the Peruvian Center for Social Studies. "But with the huge investment the United States is making now in Colombia, Montesinos broke the camel's back when he sold those guns."

Soon Montesinos was on the lam. Investigators estimated that he might have taken as much as $1 billion with him. As popular anger mounted, Fujimori was next to go, abandoning the presidency and Peru itself. With his departure, the entire strong-arm regime he and Montesinos had built with a decade's worth of American support crumbled overnight.

As the videos played on, and the staggering losses to the national treasury were tallied, a dozen separate investigations got under way. Hundreds have been arrested, including dozens of military officers and former ranking generals. Three Supreme Court justices have been unseated, along with a former interior minister. A vast telephone spying network is being slowly dismantled, and a courageous justice minister is struggling to free hundreds, maybe thousands, of wrongfully jailed citizens. The Peruvian government is now moving to indict and extradite Fujimori on charges ranging from treason to murder. "After the collapse of Fujimori, here's the balance of the decade he spent in power," says editor Zileri. "In 1990, 50 percent of Peruvians lived below the poverty line. And today 50 percent still live below the poverty line and make less than a dollar a day. The only difference is that today there are 5 million more Peruvians."

With national elections now only days away, most Peruvians still can't get past scratching their heads over the recently concluded past. …