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Court ruling keeps man from $5 million Peruvian bounty

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
  • A U.S. appeals court ruled that Peru is immune from lawsuits filed in the United States
  • The decision means that Peru may not have to pay a $5 million reward
  • Jose Guevara says he is owed the money
  • The case involves former Peruvian spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- In December 2000, Jose Guevara, a former Venezuelan intelligence agent, was introduced by his second cousin to an international fugitive, the target of an international manhunt.

Then, spurred in part by the allure of a $5 million reward, Guevara helped authorities capture the fugitive, former Peruvian spy master Vladimiro Montesinos.

Montesinos' capture was considered a success -- he had been convicted of an illegal arms trade, embezzlement and abuse of power, among others -- and arguably could not have been accomplished without Guevara's help.

Now, nearly 10 years later, Guevara has not seen a penny of the reward money, and is increasingly unlikely to ever reap his reward. A U.S. appeals court last week ruled that a lawsuit brought by Guevara against Peru is invalid, dashing his attempt to recoup the money.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday overturned a district court ruling that found Peru should cough up the cash.

The U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction over the case because Peru has sovereign immunity, the three-judge panel found, noting that the facts of the case "read like the latest spy thriller."

It all began in the second half of 2000, as the government of then-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori began to crumble. The autocratic leader had seen some cracks in his armor, but his government fell apart after videos of Montesinos, his powerful spy chief, were leaked, showing him bribing an opposition congressman. Other incriminating videos also emerged.

"Montesinos, seeing the writing on the wall, fled the country, first into Venezuela, then, it seemed, into thin air," the judges wrote.

In April 2001, Peru's interim president issued an emergency decree that provided a $5 million reward for information leading to Montesinos' capture. It was to be paid 24 hours after the arrest.

But before there was a reward, Guevara had a different relationship with Montesinos, as his protector in Venezuela.

Initially, Guevera's cousin introduced a man with bandages on his face as "Manuel Rodrigruez," and asked Guevara to give him a place to stay. According to the court document, it was shortly thereafter that Guevara understood that his guest was Montesinos, who had undergone facial cosmetic surgery in an attempt to evade arrest.

Guevara agreed to take the guest in, as well as to provide security for him, the judges' ruling states.

"For his part, Montesinos used Guevara as an intermediary to run personal errands and to arrange for the deposit of funds into Montesinos' accounts in U.S. banks," the document says.

One of his missions was to Miami to meet with banker Luis Alfredo Percovich, who handled a Montesinos account at Pacific Industrial Bank. Montesinos had requested a large transfer to another bank, which Percovich declined.

According to court documents, Montesinos responded by e-mail, threatening physical harm. He then sent Guevara with instructions to the banker.

They met at a Miami hotel, where Guevara handed over a letter demanding that Percovich hand over $700,000 in cash from Montesinos' account and transfer $3 million to another bank. As he was leaving the hotel, Guevara was detained by FBI agents. Percovich had tipped off the feds.

The FBI gave Guevara a choice: "If he gave the FBI Montesinos' address and telephone number in Caracas, he would be released, the charges against him dropped, and he would recieve the $5 million reward," the document states.

With both the carrot and stick in front of him, Guevara agreed to cooperate, and Montesinos was captured the following day. But Peru never paid him the reward that it indicated to the FBI it would.

So Guevara sued in the United States, and came close to winning his claim. Somewhere in there Percovich tried unsuccessfully to insert himself in the suit. After all, he argued in court, if he hadn't called the FBI, they wouldn't have gotten to Montesinos, and he wanted his share of the reward money. The district court ruled that Peru had broken it's part of the bargain and, even if Guevara wasn't wearing a white hat during this episode, was owed the $5 million plus interest.

By a thin 2-1 ruling in the Court of Appeals, Peru regained the upper hand.