Chile-Peru relations turn sour over Andean espionage scandal
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Chile-Peru relations turn sour over Andean espionage scandal

Relations between Chile and Peru, already tense due to a long-running territorial dispute, have been strained further by a spying scandal — lacking in 007-style glamor, but heavy in intrigue.

The story broke in late February, when a local TV channel revealed that three junior officers in the Peruvian Navy were under investigation for allegedly passing confidential information to Chilean officials for cash between 2005 and 2012.

Suspicions were aroused when the sailors were seen taking multiple trips abroad — to Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile — out of line with their pay level. The trio — an intelligence analyst, a communications officer, and a technician — initially claimed they’d been hired by an Italian businessman to give information on Peru’s fishing fleet.

However, one of them later confessed to meeting a Lieutenant Commander in the Chilean Navy in La Paz, Bolivia. The Peruvian government subsequently sent multiple letters of complaint to its neighbour to the south, and withdrew its ambassador from Santiago for “consultations”.

The sailors face charges of treason of the fatherland, disloyalty, and disobeying orders — which, taken together, are likely to carry a jail term of at least 35 years. President Ollanta Humala, meanwhile, has been vocal in demanding “satisfaction” from Chile.

Shaken and stirred

“We’re waiting for an official answer from the Chilean government, because not answering is an answer in itself… why are we waiting? We have the proof, and we’ve identified the people who took part,” he told press outside Lima’s Government Palace.

The Chilean position has been to deny everything. “We need to be perfectly clear,” government spokesperson Alvaro Elizalde said in Santiago in early March. “Chile neither accepts nor promotes activities of espionage, in other states nor in our territory.”

But this isn’t the first time Chile has allegedly tested the loyalties of Peruvian military personnel. In 2010, a Peruvian military court sentenced an Air Force officer to 35 years in prison for sending secret information across the border. Similar cases of Chilean espionage in Peru surfaced in the late 1970s under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Nevertheless, the President of Chile’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jorge Tarud, has hit back at the bluster coming from Lima, accusing Humala of fanning the flames of controversy for political gain.

“We’re seeing every day that he’s escalating things into an absolutely artificial conflict. Accusing us of espionage, saying that he’s going to respond to our letter in an energetic way, is him seeking to create tensions with our country, we think for reasons of internal politics,” he said.

Licence to shill

Tarud also recalled previous instances of Peruvian espionage — including spies photographing Chilean Air Force bases, and tapping the Chilean ambassador’s phone. These were met with protests, but not the uproar currently led by Humala, which has included multiple emergency meetings with former presidents and government committees.

While Humala rattles the saber, his own Foreign Ministry is taking a markedly cooler approach: Minister Gonzalo Gutiérrez wants Peru to keep a “mature relationship” with Chile, and ruled out demanding the extradition of the implicated Chilean naval officer.

Humala, himself a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Peruvian Army, has ample motivation to talk tough. While he’s barred from running for a second term in 2016’s presidential race, his wife Nadine Heredia, co-founder of the Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP), is widely tipped as a candidate.

If she runs, she’ll face a stiff challenge from Keiko Fujimori (daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, currently jailed for corruption) who narrowly lost to Humala in 2011’s elections. The PNP is also facing internal challenges, with members of the governing coalition calling for Peru to sever all political and commercial ties with Chile.

Earlier in February, Humala pulled the plug on Peru’s own Intelligence Service amid damaging allegations that he used it to spy on political opponents, including his own vice president. His wife, meanwhile, is facing money-laundering charges.

Humala’s public outrage is paying off, slightly. An Ipsos opinion poll published March 15 shows his approval rating rising by three points — to 25 percent. Sixty-two percent of respondents, however, thought the government had brought the case into the public eye to create a “smokescreen” for other issues.

On the other hand, maybe the cynics just need to follow the advice given by Congressman Daniel Abugattás to local daily El Comercio after it made the same allegations: “put on a team Peru shirt.”