LIMA – Peru is wrapping up a year rocked by political turmoil rooted in the huge corruption scandal that started in 2017 and whose slow unwinding left 2019 marked by death, falls from grace and tales of abuse of power by officeholders.
Efforts by judicial officials to clear up what happened and prosecute the guilty have been marked by mistakes, stumbles and slow going, but they point to much yet to be resolved.
“The progress made in the anti-corruption fight does not have any precedents in the history of Peru, but it’s advances that are inherently fragile, the fruit of the work of small groups, the investigative press, a few judges and prosecutors, and a president of the republic who got there by accident,” Gustavo Gorriti, a journalist and expert on the Lava Jato (Car Wash) case, told EFE.
The case started in Brazil, where authorities discovered that several engineering and construction firms, most notably Odebrecht, paid bribes to officials at state-controlled oil company Petrobras in exchange for inflated contracts.
Extra money from the scheme was allegedly paid out to politicians who provided cover for the graft.
An aggressive investigation that started in 2014 resulted in prison terms for dozens of executives and politicians involved in the $2 billion bribes-for-inflated-contracts scheme in Brazil.
Authorities in several other Latin American countries, including Peru, launched investigations of Odebrecht after the construction giant and its petrochemical unit, Braskem, reached a settlement in December 2016 with the US Department of Justice in which they pleaded guilty to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to government officials around the world.
On the morning of April 17, police arrived at the home of former President Alan Garcia, who governed Peru from 1985 to 1990 and again from 2006 to 2011, to serve an arrest warrant.
The 69-year-old Garcia, who was a leading figure in Peruvian politics since the early 1980s, had accused prosecutors for weeks of harassment and unsuccessfully sought political asylum in Uruguay.
Garcia eluded the officers sent to arrest him, went up to his room and shot himself in the head.
The increasingly unpopular former president committed suicide after reports came out that Jorge Barata, Odebrecht’s former top executive in Peru, had given $4 million to Garcia’s secretary, Luis Nava, to pave the way for the company to get the contract to build Line 1 of the Lima Metro.
A few months later, Nava cut a deal with prosecutors, telling investigators that Garcia received cash from Odebrecht in suitcases and lunch boxes.
Miguel Atala, who also allegedly acted as a front man for Garcia, told investigators that the $1.3 million he had in a bank account in Andorra actually belonged to the former president and came from Odebrecht.
Keiko Fujimori, leader of the opposition Popular Force party and daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, was jailed in October 2018 for allegedly trying to work through political allies to block a money laundering investigation targeting her and spent most of this year trying to regain her freedom.
In November, the Constitutional Court ordered her release in a controversial ruling, but prosecutors Jose Domingo Perez and Rafael Vela are working to put her back behind bars.
Barata told investigators in Brazil that he gave millions of dollars to Fujimori for her 2011 and 2016 presidential campaigns.
Dionisio Romero, chairman of Credicorp and one of Peru’s richest people, said in November that he gave $3.65 million to Fujimori for her political campaigns.
The Odebrecht case also shined the spotlight on several lesser political actors, such as Congressman Cesar Villanueva, leading to their eventual downfall.
Villanueva, who helped bring down President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in 2018, started this year as prime minister under President Martin Vizcarra, crusading against corruption, only to end 2019 in jail after Odebrecht documents revealed that he was paid bribes while governor of the Amazonian region of San Martin.
Police later learned that Villanueva had tried to penetrate the team of prosecutors investigating him and bribe several of them in exchange for information about the case.
In 2020, many of the corruption cases in Peru could be wrapped up, such as those of former President Ollanta Humala, who was in office from 2011 to 2016, and his wife, Nadine Heredia, who face more than 20 years in prison on corruption charges.
The trial of Keiko Fujimori is also expected to officially start in February or March, Vela recently told reporters.
During 2020, prosecutors hope to make progress on the extradition request for Alejandro Toledo, who governed Peru from 2001 to 2006 and is sitting in a US jail, and to move forward on the case of Kuczynski, who is under house arrest while investigators gather evidence against him.
“When Toledo is extradited, he won’t have many choices ... In the case of Keiko, the investigation into money laundering and hiding assets, and obstruction of justice is completely proven ... As far as Alan Garcia goes, there is no criminal investigation, but what happened has to be cleared up and the search for assets to be seized will continue,” Gorriti said.