2 Chileans held in Peru for 'spying'

2012-02-03 10:45

Lima - A piece of advice for Chilean visitors to Peru: It's best not to pitch your tent next to a military base, especially if you're carrying a camera.

Two Chileans found themselves arrested this week and under investigation for possible espionage.

One is 34-year-old Maximilano Serain, a bicycle trekker who has apparently been roaming South America and set up camp near the perimeter fence of Peru's El Pato air base in the northern city of Talara.

The other, 19-year-old Nicholas Pizarro, was arrested in the border city of Tacna. Peruvian media said he was taking photographs of the Gregorio Albarracin military base.

It's not unusual for Chileans to draw suspicion or worse in Peru. Many Peruvians, especially in the military, can't forgive their southern neighbours for annexing a big chunk of Peru after winning a bitter border war in the late 19th century.

The nations are also locked in a legal battle before the International Court of Justice over their maritime border and the lucrative fishing rights it entails.

Sketches of the base

Serain was arrested on Tuesday in his tent 2m from the fence that circles El Pato, local police official Maximo Saavedra said.

Serain told authorities he was a former Chilean marine and had recently been deported from nearby Ecuador, Saavedra said. He had a digital camera and a piece of paper that apparently contained sketches of the base, the police officer said.

Peruvian television images showed the dreadlocked man, looking unhygienic, slouched on a couch while apparently being questioned.

The local prosecutor, Marcelo Latorre, said Serain was under investigation but didn't specify for what.

Peruvian-Chilean relations have been generally good of late and Peruvian officials including Defence Minister Luis Alberto Otarola avoided the word "espionage" when questioned by reporters about the arrests of Serain and Pizarro.

In fact, neither police nor military officials would even confirm to the AP the details of Pizarro's arrest. Local reporters in Tacna said the young Chilean was meeting on Thursday with his parents, the Chilean consul and Peruvian state security agents.

Arrests not surprising

Chile's foreign minister, Alfredo Moreno, said vaguely that his government's information indicated that Pizarro was not spying.

In Serain's case, Moreno was more precise.

"He didn't have a camera. He didn't have blueprints. He didn't have sketches. He is a painter, which has nothing to do with the base," Moreno told Chile's Radio Cooperativa.

Serain was simply "in a place where he shouldn't have been, in a restricted area", Moreno said.

Political analyst Ernesto Velit said this week's arrests are not surprising given the historical baggage of the two neighbouring countries and the pending maritime border case, which began when Peru filed suit in 2008 seeking a frontier perpendicular to the coastline rather than Chile's latitudinal claim.

The following year, Peru and Chile had a spy spat when Peruvian officials said an air force officer confessed to passing national security secrets to Chile.

Climate of suspense

Chile's then president, Michelle Bachelet, denied the allegations. But Peru's government said the officer confessed and officials had forensic computer evidence as well as incriminating records of money transfers to the airman from Chile.

"I think that until we have a definitive verdict from the [International] Court [of Justice] we will be living in this climate of suspense, tension and suspicion," Velit said.

Opinion polls in Peru show concern that Chile won't abide by a ruling if the Netherlands-based court decides against it.

Chile's recent arms buying has also fed suspicions. It spent $2.79bn in arms from 2005 to 2009, making it a top South American buyer, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says.