When Peru's President Comes Knocking, It's Not to Get Out the Vote

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When a president goes knocking on the doors of his citizens, it's usually a campaign stunt. But not in Peru. President Alberto Fujimori on Thursday raced around Lima with an escort of special forces troops, leading a house-to-house search for his disgraced former intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. Montesinos had earlier this week flown home following a failed bid for political asylum in Panama. The release last month of a videotape showing him bribing an opposition legislator to support President Fujimori had precipitated a political crisis that forced the strongman president to call new elections early next year in which he promised not to run.

It may be a lot more than pique that's prompting Fujimori to seek a word with Montesinos. Throughout the recent constitutional crisis, there has been a fear that the former intelligence chief could lead a coup d'etat by calling in favors from the military's top commanders who are, for the most part, his personal appointees. Coup rumors have been rife since the return of Montesinos, and Fujimori claims to be trying to get his former enforcer to "contact the authorities" to lay such rumors to rest. The president did, for good measure, order the military confined to barracks while he goes knocking on doors.

Fujimori has been conducting a purge of Montesinos supporters in the military since the intelligence chief's departure, but many Peruvians still fear that the intelligence chief — who has also been accused of involvement in running guns to Colombian rebels and of maintaining other underworld links — may yet command sufficient loyalty to attempt a coup. If Montesinos is indeed looking to make a comeback, his window of opportunity is narrowing. The government and opposition on Thursday announced an agreement to hold new elections next April, at which time the Fujimori regime, which first elevated Montesinos to power, is expected to be shown the door. Of course, the primary beneficiary of Montesinos's political dirty tricks has been President Fujimori himself, which makes Montesinos a potential treasure trove of damning information about the current regime. And that may add to the president's motivation to personally supervise his capture.