The prodigal son returns
After having his citizenship restored, media mogul Baruch Ivcher returned to Peru. In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, he tells of his experiences under the Fujimori dictatorship, life with bodyguards and his feelings for Israel
Even the most imaginative Hollywood scriptwriter would be hard-pressed to come up with a story like that of Baruch Ivcher. Ivcher is an Israeli tycoon whose fortune is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Even today, after everything has been settled, Ivcher feels uneasy when he returns home to Peru. He travels only in armored cars, surrounded by bodyguards, and a phalanx of 36 security men keeps constant watch over his family. Walking the streets of Lima, he is constantly looking over his shoulder to see if anyone is following him.
Ivcher's battle against the corruption of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori and his chief of secret police, Vladimiro Montesinos, has long since come to an end. Seven years ago, Ivcher returned to Peru as a great victor, after three and a half years in exile. His Peruvian citizenship, stripped by Fujimori, was restored; the television station he owned is back in his hands and the corrupt officials are in prison. The current president, Alan Garcia, is a close friend of his and known for his dedication to the welfare of the Peruvian people.
"It's true that Fujimori and Montesinos are in jail. Nearly everyone who was in the government at that time is behind bars, although some have been released," says Ivcher. "What you need to understand is that these people planned to stay in power for 30 years, and we ruined things for them. In Peru, businessmen are kidnapped and their lives are threatened. It's no fun being ushered around by bodyguards, but when I'm out in the street, I feel the love of the Peruvian people and I love them back."
In an interview with MarkerWeek, Ivcher tells his amazing story. Still obsessed with the details, he remembers the exact date of every incident along the way: the first investigative report against the government, the realization that something shady was going on, the attempts to bribe him, his decision to leave Peru.
Ivcher grew up in Hadera, served in the Israel Defense Forces' signals corps and studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem together with Prof. Uriel Procaccia and Prof. Uriel Reichman. When Reichman established the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya 30 years later, Ivcher donated $1 million to build an auditorium that bears his name.
After graduation, Ivcher opened a law office in Hadera and planned to open branches in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The plan changed when his older brother, Menachem, who owned a mattress company in Venezuela, asked him to manage a small factory in Lima. Ivcher, 30, thought it might be nice to add some spice to his life and earn a little money. He accepted the offer, and in 1970 he moved to Peru with his wife, Neomy, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. "We went to Peru for two years," he says. "The idea of being called 'yordim' [a derogatory reference to Israelis who leave the country] haunted us. Those two years have dragged on until today."
Back then, says Ivcher, Peru was a fearsome dictatorship. But the mattress business was a success. Israelis hiking in Peru in the early 1980s will no doubt remember Beit Baruch, a hostel for backpackers Ivcher opened next to his factory. Some 15,000 Israelis spent the night there for free. But once it was discovered that drug parties were being held there, Beit Baruch shut its doors.
In 1984, Ivcher made a decision that changed his life - purchasing shares of the ailing Peruvian television station, Canal 2. In retrospect, Ivcher says that God punished him for going into the media. "I got into it pretty much by accident," he says. "At first I invested $210,000, in return for 11 percent ownership, because I thought I could help. When I wasn't happy and wanted to sell, I got many offers. But then, I decided to increase my holdings instead." Ivcher thus acquired 54 percent of the company, for a total investment of $720,000.
"I hired journalists to work for the station and told them they were on their own. I said I wouldn't intervene, but I had one request: Before they accused anyone, their own hands had to be clean. If they broke that rule, they had to go. I believe in democracy, and until today I don't interfere in reporting. The only thing I insist on is honesty," says Ivcher.
'Enemy of the people'
In 1990, Alberto Fujimori came to power and began to impose his will using blackmail, bribery and threats against the media, courts and politicians. Ivcher says he did not spend much time in Peru during the early days of the Fujimori administration because he was recuperating from injuries suffered in a car accident while vacationing in Israel. Upon his return, he realized that things had changed during his absence. "In 1995, we aired an investigative program on a religious sect whose leaders had been accused of theft and murder. It made banner headlines in all the newspapers," says Ivcher. "The story sounded fishy to me, so I started asking questions and the answers I got didn't add up. It turns out that Peru's national intelligence service was trying to take over these people's land, so they pressed false charges against them."
According to Ivcher, this incident aroused his suspicion, and he decided to replace the entire journalistic staff. Later, he discovered that the people working in Canal 2's investigations department were agents of the Peruvian secret service and their goal was to get Fujimori reelected. "At that stage, I realized someone had an agenda, but I still didn't understand what was going on. When I replaced the journalists, I triggered an earthquake, a revolution. But I didn't know anything yet."
Not everyone was pleased with the militant line adopted by Ivcher and his television station. The new investigative department Ivcher put together managed to infuriate the government. In June 1996, the station aired a story about drug smuggling aboard the presidential plane, which the government tried to suppress. That story was followed by an investigation of drug abuse in the navy. Every week, Canal 2 exposed new corruption scandals.
Instead of thanking Ivcher for his exposes, the government began to look for ways to stop him, and he was declared an "enemy of the people." At the beginning of 1997, emissaries of the chief of secret police, Vladimiro Montesinos, approached him with an offer: Hand over editorial control of your news program and we'll pay you $19 million. Ivcher refused. "If I hadn't," he says, "the bribery would have continued. I was the first to say no to them. We were the only television station that wouldn't dance to their tune."
A few months later, when Ivcher realized that he was under surveillance - his phone was wiretapped and he was being followed - he left Peru and moved his family to Miami, and later to Herzliya Pituah. The Peruvian authorities declared the family "fugitives" and revoked Ivcher's Peruvian citizenship. His partners, who remained in Peru, were forced to collaborate with the authorities.
Ivcher says that while he was in exile, Fujimori sent emissaries offering to buy the television station. "In August 1998, I was sitting in a restaurant in Miami when I was approached by someone representing a Venezuelan television station, who presented me with a bank guarantee for $72 million. I realized he had been sent by Fujimori and I turned him down."
Ivcher continued to fight Fujimori's corrupt regime even outside of Peru, through various international institutions. The Peruvian government continued to harass him, and even submitted a warrant for his arrest through Interpol. In 1999, while on a family trip to Crete, he was detained at the airport along with his daughter, Michal. "They held us in custody for 40 minutes. My daughter was in tears. She asked 'Why me, Daddy?' In the end they released us and didn't even check my passport."
So why weren't you bumped off?
Ivcher: "They marketed themselves as democratic, and if anything happened to me, the world would never forgive them. They thought that once I left, it would all be over. But they had me followed and there were assassination attempts. Fujimori's men hired people to trail me in Miami. After my return to Peru, I found out that the Russian mafia had been paid to get rid of me. It could be that they got to Israel when I was already gone, because they don't usually miss."
You present yourself as a crusader against corruption and Peru's voice of conscience. But could it be that you were fighting to save the assets you left behind?
"I didn't do it to save my property. I did it because I believe in democracy."
Why didn't you sell the television station when you had the opportunity to do so in Miami?
"At the time, the secretary of my mattress factory, who was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, was sitting in jail. I called her and told her to sign whatever documents they wanted, but she refused to incriminate me. She said she believed in God and wouldn't do it. I didn't sell the station because if I had taken the money, they would have finished her off, along with other employees of mine who were in their hands. I had my people to think of."
What do reforms in Peru have to do with you - Ivcher of Hadera?
"I don't want to be Peru's conscience, and I never wanted to be. Whatever happened to me happened by force of inertia. Until a certain stage, I didn't even know Fujimori and his buddies were manipulating my people. I don't call it idealism. I was caught in a web. I belong to a generation that hates corruption. I like to say that corruption was on sabbatical when I was born. Social injustice does something to me."
Do you think it could happen again?
"I do. It could happen again, and it could happen anywhere."
'Long live Ivcher'
In November 2000, Fujimori's regime was toppled by one of the biggest corruption scandals the country has ever witnessed, and Fujimori fled to Japan. At this point, it came to light that Fujimori and his associates had threatened politicians, collaborated in money laundering operations and pocketed huge sums. They had ordered assassinations and engaged in drug trafficking.
The Peruvian Congress passed a law that revoked the charges against Ivcher and his family, and he returned to Lima. The victory celebrations went on for three days, featuring street parades, media headlines and signs declaring "Long live Ivcher."
The partying was overshadowed by new troubles. "I left behind a profitable TV station and returned to a deficit of $52 million. When I left Peru, my partners, Samuel and Mendel Winter, cooperated with the government. They sat in jail for a few years, their shares were repossessed, and they don't set foot near the station today."
When he speaks of his return to Peru as "difficult" and "disappointing," his tense relationship with Eliane Karp- Toledo, the wife of former president Alejandro Toledo, who was elected in 2001, has a lot to do with it. The enmity dates back to a 2001 program which revealed that Toledo had an illegitimate daughter. "Karp-Toledo tried to keep us from airing the program, but I didn't listen. Since then, she's been after me, driven by lust for money and power, and a grudge against my reporters.
"On Israeli Independence Day in April 2004, when members of the Peruvian diplomatic community were attending a party at the residence of the Israeli ambassador, she started screaming at me and poking her finger in my face. She accused me of telling my journalists what to report. When I told her to stop pointing at me, she called me a 'son of a bitch' and threatened me," says Ivcher.
In 2006, when the current president, Alan Garcia, was elected, the Toledos went into voluntary exile in America's Silicon Valley. A commission of inquiry appointed by the Peruvian parliament to investigate Karp-Toledo's conduct while her husband was in office revealed that she had squandered huge sums of public money on clothing, shoes, dog food, flowers for the presidential mansion and alcohol.
Ivcher calls Toledo a "good man," but they are no longer in touch. "We became friends at the end of the 1970s, and I was with him when Eliane left him in the 1980s. We're no longer in touch because they're together again. After what happened at the embassy, he invited me to the presidential mansion and we sat and talked all night. He personally apologized, but since then we've each gone our separate ways."
1.3 million mattresses
Ivcher describes President Garcia, who has been in power for the last two years, as a longtime friend, before his election to Congress and the presidency. "He is doing a wonderful job, and hopes are high," says Ivcher, "but you can't wipe out poverty in a day. If he keeps it up, Peru will be a different country. Today it's a free country with a free media." Ivcher is more worried about Peru's unpopular neighbor, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. "Chavez is dangerous," he says. "His people are going hungry and he's handing out money all over South America so he can gain control over the whole region."
Since his return to Peru, Ivcher has rehabilitated his television station, which now employs 700 people - 220 of them journalists and their crews. "We were in trouble, but we're home free now. Canal 2 closed 2007 with a net profit of 7 million dollars," he boasts.
You have no plans to sell the station?
"One day I will sell my assets, to avoid problems for my heirs. I want to make sure my family stays together, and won't split up because of money issues. When I sell, I hope to spend much more of my time in Israel."
How much are your businesses worth?
"Canal 2 is worth between $100-150 million, and my mattress company is worth more than $200 million. When I first went into the business, my factory covered an area of 3,000 square meters. Today it's over 133,000 square meters. It's a profitable business. I sell 1.3 million foam rubber and spring mattresses a year."
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
"Yes. I'm no Don Quixote. When I lived in Miami, I thought about selling the station. Knowing what I do today, I would have sold and let the corrupt regime go on its merry way. People ask me how it was possible to make money, if it didn't come from drugs or gunrunning or bribes. I have it good, but I'm still not happy. I'm sick of fighting already. I need quiet. I like building and using my creative instincts."
Are your wars over?
"There are still some traces left. A well-known Swiss bank stole money from me and the matter is in the courts. I want to be my own master. I want time for myself, to enjoy the fruits of success. I want to write a book, but I don't have the patience or the time for it. I'm dying to travel around Israel. I'd dying to visit Morocco."
'Not looking for power'
Ivcher visits Israel three or four times a year ("I get homesick"), and his temporary home is the Hilton. Seven years ago, he bought two penthouses in Alfred Akirov's Migdalei Tzameret luxury project in Tel Aviv for $8 million, but four years later, he sold them to Israeli billionaire Sammy Ofer for $12 million. "I don't live here, so what do I need two apartments for?" Ivcher explains.
Do you see your future in Peru?
"I have good friends in Israel, but today I live in Peru. I have two married daughters in Peru, and two in Miami, and now my 94-year-old mother has moved in with us. The people of Peru are suffering, but they are a wonderful people. If they keep going in the same direction as they are now, Peru is going to be a different country."
You could live in any country you choose, but you live in Peru with bodyguards, armored cars and fear for your life. Why? Isn't it hard on your wife?
"We lived in Herzliya Pituah for almost four years before going back to Peru. We tried to settle down, but Neomy was really depressed. It was a very tough time. Today she's blooming. She does yoga and looks 20 years younger than other women her age."
Do you have investments in Israel?
"For the last five years, I've been partners with Dana Eden and David Tamir in Dana Productions, which produces television dramas. I'm also a partner in the Coffee Bean chain. I had investments in high tech, may they rest in peace, but being burned once is enough."
Did you ever think of investing in the Israeli media? Didn't anyone ever make you an offer?
"Yes, I've had plenty of offers - to buy Maariv, for example, and The Jerusalem Post. But I have no intention of going near the media. I'm not looking for power."
What have you learned from everything you've been through?
"A lot of things. I've learned that the further you are from the public eye, the better your chances of enjoying life. I've learned not to do things that will become the talk of the town or inspire jealousy. Oh, and something else important - the less contact you have with politicians the better."