'Superman' Meets Shining Path: Story of a CIA Success
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
At 8:45 p.m. on Sept. 12, 1992, a special Peruvian police undercover
unit captured Abimael Guzman, leader of the fanatical Maoist guerrilla
group known as Shining
Path, in his hideout on a quiet, middle-class street in Lima.
The fall of one of the 20th century's most elusive terrorists made headlines
around the world and proved decisive in a war that had cost 25,000 lives
Path launched it in 1980. Many more might have died if Shining Path ever took power.
It was an astonishing achievement for Peru's police. "Superman" helped too.
"Superman" was the cops' nickname for a tall, dark-haired American who,
they thought, resembled actor Christopher Reeve, and who served as their
main contact in
the Central Intelligence Agency.
For months, Superman and personnel brought to Peru by the CIA had trained,
equipped, financed and coached the detectives. When the cops needed cars,
paid for them; when they found a Shining Path document in English, Superman translated.
And when police radioed headquarters with word of Guzman's arrest, Superman
was there to hear the news and join the celebration. Indeed, the U.S. government
found out before Peru's then-president, Alberto Fujimori, or his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, did.
"They were very close to us," Benedicto Jimenez, who commanded the special
police unit, said of the CIA, adding: "I think that without that support,
it would have
been a bit difficult to get where we got."
Reluctant as ever to discuss its relationships with foreign services,
the CIA has permitted mention of its role only in one sentence of a 1996
report on intelligence
reform. The agency declined comment for this article, which is based on interviews with current and former U.S. and Peruvian officials who, for the most part, spoke
on the condition that they not be identified.
Helping catch Guzman, these sources concurred, was a CIA triumph. But
the episode also sheds light on the agency's murky relationship with Montesinos,
alleged corruption and human rights abuses triggered a political crisis in Peru this year that forced both him and Fujimori from power.
Montesinos knew of the CIA's role in Guzman's capture. One former U.S.
official said, "It could not have happened without his support." Yet others
familiar with the
operation said Montesinos was a marginal--or disruptive--factor.
He backed a separate, secret Peruvian army intelligence unit tasked
with killing the same Shining Path leaders the police were trying to arrest,
according to U.S. and
Publicly, Fujimori praised the CIA-trained police who caught Guzman. Behind the scenes, Montesinos saw them as disloyal and later purged them.
Nevertheless, the CIA kept up its ties to Montesinos, whom it regarded as the rising power in the Fujimori government.
Troubled today, Peru was near chaos in 1990. The symptoms were corruption,
hyperinflation and panic emigration, but at its root was the war with Shining
Founded by Guzman, a former professor whose followers worshiped him as "Presidente Gonzalo," the group shattered Peru's infrastructure and massacred villages.
It controlled large parts of the countryside, including cocaine-producing regions, and was moving on Lima.
Brutality by Peru's army against civilians considered sympathetic to the guerrillas created almost as much terror as Shining Path itself.
Peru's National Police set up an anti-terrorism agency known by its Spanish initials, DINCOTE. But DINCOTE's efforts too were brutal and self-defeating.
"Torture consisted of beatings, shock, dunking people in cold water,"
recalled one U.S. official who served in Lima. "Nothing real high-tech.
Nothing real useful
Some DINCOTE agents even posed as terrorists and kidnapped civilians for ransom, according to former DINCOTE officials.
The situation disgusted an idealist in DINCOTE ranks, Maj. Benedicto
Jimenez. The son of an Afro Peruvian father and a Greek immigrant mother,
he had trained
not only as a detective but also as an army commando.
For two years in the late 1980s, he had worked on joint operations with
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He read Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu.
In March 1990, Jimenez asked to form a unit whose goal would be to capture
the leaders of Shining Path. Jimenez proposed to accomplish this seemingly
task the old-fashioned way: tailing suspects, cultivating informants, poring over captured documents. Torture would be eschewed on both principled and pragmatic
"Sun Tzu used to say that you have to capture the enemy alive, because he's no good to you dead," Jimenez said.
Jimenez was given four agents, a tiny office and almost no budget. Most at DINCOTE were hostile or derisive.
When he briefed the Peruvian armed forces high command on his project,
Jimenez recalled, an officer demanded to know why he didn't kill the suspects
"Maybe you don't have the courage," the military man scoffed.
The CIA was skeptical too. One of Jimenez's first moves was to ask for
help from the Lima station, which had liaison relationships with Peru's
intelligence agency and National Intelligence Service, known by the initials SIN.
The station demurred. Jimenez concluded that the CIA men, with enough Latin American scandals on the agency's record, didn't want to deal with DINCOTE.
Undaunted, he went to work. In June 1990, Jimenez rolled up a major
Shining Path safehouse in Lima. "That's when we first caught [the CIA's]
eye and they were
convinced that we were working well, with appropriate methods," Jimenez recalled. As a sign of approval, he said, the Lima station gave him a video camera to use
By early 1991, senior officials in the Bush administration were fretting
that Peru might succumb to the guerrillas. Among U.S. intelligence analysts,
said one former
official, "it was essentially a competition game as to when Shining Path would be taking over. Some said three years, some said five."
One of those most alarmed was Bernard Aronson, the Bush administration's
assistant secretary of state for Latin America. On a visit to Lima in May
1991, he read a
U.S. Embassy report about a Shining Path attack on a highland village. Hundreds of peasants had been forced to watch as a teenage female guerrilla put a bullet in an
Australian nun's neck. Other guerrillas gouged out the eyes of a village leader.
To Aronson, this was a Latin American Khmer Rouge. Upon returning from
Peru, he contacted the CIA's clandestine division and urged it to help
stop Shining Path.
"If this concern has been a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10," he told his CIA counterpart, "make it a 12."
Officials involved saw no need for a presidential "finding" authorizing
covert action because the CIA's purpose would not be to influence or change
the government in
Peru, but to help it.
Knowledge of the program was closely held; even Aronson was briefed
on its details only after Guzman had been captured. There does not appear
to have been a
prior briefing to Congress, though it also does not seem likely that many members would have objected.
When Guzman fell, "I remember thinking, 'This is terrific,' " said former
representative Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), who served on the House intelligence
at the time.
Essentially free to chart its own course, the CIA turned to Jimenez's
group. Still short on resources, the group had made episodic progress,
scoring its biggest success
on Jan. 31, 1991, when it seized Shining Path documents, including proof that Guzman was still alive--a video of the guerrilla chief dancing at a party.
Jimenez's group also identified Shining Path's logistics and financial chief for Lima. Tailed by the cops, he unwittingly led them to other cadres.
By this time, the Peruvians needed help not only gaining information
but also making sense of the data they had. To address both issues, the
CIA set up what the
police called an "academy" in DINCOTE headquarters.
CIA officers showed the detectives how to analyze, cross reference and
classify documents. Together with an expert from Britain's Scotland Yard,
also taught the detectives how to conduct surveillance in disguise.
The agency hired Peruvian actors to help undercover officers play the
part of, say, a street vendor or homeless schizophrenic. The CIA gave Jimenez's
gear: telephoto cameras, listening devices, night-vision goggles and a video camera that could be concealed in a briefcase. And the agency rented cars so police
could follow suspects from a variety of vehicles.
Occasionally, CIA officers stood behind two-way mirrors watching the
police question suspects, then advised the Peruvians on their techniques,
according to a
former senior Peruvian police official.
Jimenez, believing more could be gained by interviewing suspects than
by beating them, wanted an interrogation room where they might feel at
ease. At his request,
the CIA furnished it with living room furniture, Jimenez said.
Police videotape of the interrogation of Guzman and other Shining Path
leaders shows them sitting at a round, wooden table; they chat with detectives
white sweat shirts and blue jeans who politely serve coffee and cigarettes.
The CIA provided cash to buy meals for undersalaried detectives who
frequently worked 12- or 15-hour shifts. By the time of the Guzman raid,
the agency was
supplying about $5,000 per month, according to former Peruvian police officials. With such support, the police unit expanded to 82 members by the time of the
The CIA also kept Montesinos informed of its aid to the police.
For example, the agency delivered cash to DINCOTE in Montesinos's presence, according to a former senior Peruvian police official who witnessed this.
Montesinos was well known to the CIA. In the 1970s, as a captain on
the staff of Peru's leftist prime minister, he had been recruited to sell
the agency military
Found out by his Peruvian bosses, Montesinos was cashiered and jailed.
In the 1980s, he resurfaced as a lawyer for drug traffickers and police
officials accused of
In 1990, he attached himself to Fujimori, helping the then-presidential
candidate fix a tax evasion case. Fujimori installed Montesinos as de facto
chief of Peru's
Montesinos quickly reestablished contact with the CIA. In May 1991,
about the time Aronson was urging the CIA to help catch Guzman, the agency
Montesinos at its Langley headquarters.
The CIA began training, funding and supplying an anti-narcotics unit
inside the SIN. Peruvian opposition members would later accuse Montesinos
of using this unit to
In 1996, a captured Peruvian drug trafficker testified that he had been
making $50,000 monthly protection payments to Montesinos since May 1991.
recanted in a second court appearance at which he appeared haggard and confused.
Yet even before the CIA stepped up its separate assistance to the hunt for Guzman in 1991, Montesinos knew what Jimenez's cops were up to.
In February of that year, Jimenez had asked for aid, letting Montesinos
see the video of Guzman partying and other juicy intelligence. Montesinos
agreed to give
Jimenez's unit $500 a month, two video cameras and two cars if Jimenez hired four analysts from military intelligence.
Jimenez's group soon found out the "analysts" were reporting back to
Montesinos, according to U.S. and Peruvian sources. They were fired, and
withdrew his aid.
No one in DINCOTE realized it at the time, but the infiltrators were part of an army intelligence death squad, the Colina Group.
The Colina Group was the antithesis of Jimenez's unit. The group was heavily funded and amply equipped, and its purpose was to kill Shining Path leaders.
It never managed to do that. But it did commit assassinations, including
the massacre of 15 civilians in a Lima neighborhood in November 1991 and
the slaying of
nine students and a professor at La Cantuta University in July 1992.
In 1993, Peruvian opposition leaders and the media alleged, based on
leaks from inside the armed forces, that Montesinos had been fully aware
of the Colina Group.
Thanks to his control over Peru's judiciary, however, Montesinos escaped prosecution.
The attempt to infiltrate Jimenez's unit was aimed at selecting targets for the death squad, U.S. and Peruvian sources said.
It was risky for Jimenez's unit to clash with Montesinos. But, said a former senior police official, the unit's link to the CIA gave it a certain autonomy.
"It would have been harder without the support of the CIA to break with the SIN," the official said.
Montesinos also made subtler attempts to penetrate DINCOTE. In early
1991, he appointed Gen. Antonio Ketin Vidal, then working for him at the
SIN, as the No.
2 official at the anti-terrorist police. Later that year, Montesinos promoted Vidal to the top spot.
The CIA supported Vidal's ascent, says a former U.S. Embassy official,
because the agency had been persuaded both that he was competent and that
DINCOTE chief, Gen. Hector Jhon Caro, was to blame for cash missing from the police payroll.
Caro denies the charge. He and other former DINCOTE officials insist
the purported corruption case was manufactured by Montesinos so that Vidal,
school classmate of Montesinos, could be the intelligence chief's eyes and ears atop DINCOTE.
On April 5, 1992, Fujimori seized nearly absolute power in a military-backed "self-coup" planned by Montesinos.
While popular among Peruvians desperate for order, the move undermined
Peru's legitimacy abroad and permitted Shining Path to recast its war as
a fight against
The Bush administration cut off overt U.S. aid to Peru. Nevertheless,
Washington continued the covert CIA effort. Aronson was acutely aware that
the alternatives to
Fujimori might be even worse. In just the month of February 1992, Shining Path had bombed the U.S. ambassador's residence in Lima, killing three police officers,
and assassinated a popular left-wing mayor.
After the self-coup, a dozen more car bombs went off in Lima, including a blast in the upscale seaside district of Miraflores that killed 22 people and injured 400.
Amid the deepening chaos, pressure on Jimenez's unit increased. On June
22, 1992, Jimenez decided to arrest the Shining Path logistics and financial
Confronted in the CIA-furnished interrogation room with surveillance photos and videotapes, the man gave police a detailed confession, including two key facts: He
had recently seen Guzman in Lima, and he knew of a house just rented for Shining Path leaders.
CIA trainers had urged their Peruvian charges to sift for clues. With
the newly identified safehouse under surveillance, police officers disguised
as sanitation workers
began picking up the garbage left outside.
A male architect and female dance instructor were the home's only visible occupants. The trash, though, told a different story.
The first clue was five different kinds of discarded hair. Further investigation produced evidence that Guzman himself might be in the house.
One day's trash yielded a medicine package Superman helped identify as a Swedish ointment for psoriasis, from which Guzman was known to suffer.
Also, Superman identified a part of a label from a bottle of Absolut vodka, known to be Guzman's brand.
Then came empty cartons of Winston Lights, Guzman's favorite smokes,
and fish bones, evidence that someone in the house ate a low-fat diet like
the one Guzman
followed, notwithstanding his taste for tobacco and alcohol.
This fortified Jimenez's belief that, when he finally ordered a raid, his men would find Guzman.
Yet when the moment came, neither he nor the CIA knew for sure. In fact,
as Jimenez tells it, the Americans were surprised to learn he had ordered
the raid. Vidal
had assured them it was still two weeks away.
When Superman and another American confronted him, Jimenez explained his decision with a line from Emerson: "Trust thyself."
And once Guzman was in custody, all was forgiven. The CIA station chief
in Lima, who previously had left contact with the police up to Superman,
DINCOTE headquarters with two celebratory bottles of whiskey.
Today, Jimenez says he kept the agency--and his own Peruvian superiors--in
the dark to avoid "interference." As U.S. officials recall it, DINCOTE
feared that, if
Montesinos found out before the public that Guzman had been captured, then either his SIN or the army would try to snatch the prisoner and kill him.
Everyone realized a political windfall would accrue to whoever could
claim credit for getting Guzman. Money was at stake too: the government
posted a $1 million
reward for Guzman, "dead or alive."
The U.S. Embassy feared a murder would make a martyr of "Presidente Gonzalo." It could also have besmirched the CIA.
In the end, U.S. officials say, it was Vidal who thwarted a possible
"disappearance." Showing "real courage," one U.S. official said, Vidal
declined to play the role of
Montesinos's man, and instead got word to the Peruvian media that Guzman had been captured alive.
Vidal resisted pressure to hand the Shining Path chief to the Montesinos-controlled army. Today, Guzman remains jailed for life on a Peruvian naval base.
In police videotape of the Guzman arrest, the small, bespectacled Vidal
appears serenely advising the Shining Path boss of his legal rights. Jimenez,
reasons, stayed out of camera range.
When those images hit Peruvian TV, Vidal became a national hero. To this day, Jimenez and other members of the unit contend he has gotten undue credit.
And Montesinos was enraged. After Vidal and Jimenez's men had split
the $1 million reward, Montesinos set to work destroying their careers.
Vidal was kicked
upstairs to a series of police posts where Montesinos denied him real authority. (Since Fujimori's recent resignation, Vidal has been named interior minister in a
Jimenez wound up at the Peruvian Embassy in Panama as a police attache.
Another key figure in the unit was shipped to Bolivia. Jimenez says one
of his best
CIA-trained agents now works as a jail guard.
By the end of 1993, the group that captured Guzman was dissolved.
By that time too an argument had broken out inside the U.S. Embassy
over how to approach a Peruvian government that had just defeated a totalitarian
which itself was far from democratic. A key issue was Montesinos and the Colina Group.
State Department officials favored keeping a distance from a figure
they believed to be involved in human rights violations. Despite Montesinos's
purge of the CIA's
proteges, the agency wanted to maintain ties with him. "Those were conflictive years in Peru with the agency," recalled a State Department official.
The Colina Group "was Montesinos' baby," said another former U.S. diplomat.
"Courageous Peruvians were telling us about it, and the CIA was constantly
down any suggestion that Montesinos was responsible for it."
Some former embassy officials say that, with Shining Path defeated,
the chief U.S. interest in Peru became the war on drugs, and the CIA found
Montesinos useful in
"The CIA looked at the weather vane and saw Montesinos rising and they
didn't fight it," said a former U.S. diplomat. "They saw the advantages
of playing ball with