It started with four mysterious notebooks heavily blotted from the rain and meticulously detailing the flow of thousands of dollars. In total, the cash adds up to more than $3 million.
Last August, Peru’s money-laundering prosecutor Julia Príncipe recommended that first lady Nadine Heredia, who is also president of the ruling Nationalist Party, undergo handwriting tests to see if she penned the sums. This week the prosecutor was sacked after six years in the job during which she had earned widespread praise for her investigations into organized crime.
“This government has lost legitimacy,” Príncipe told reporters after her dismissal on Tuesday. “The decision makes me stronger to continue the fight against corruption, even without being a public official.”
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Príncipe’s dismissal appears to have already backfired politically for President Ollanta Humala whose lame duck administration has been lurching from crisis to crisis in the lead up to next April’s elections. Consecutive terms are banned in Peru.
Peru’s splintered opposition parties immediately condemned the firing of Príncipe on what many believe was a trumped up excuse of her talking to the press about the case without authorization.
Luis Iberico, the speaker of the single-chamber congress who sometimes votes with the government, warned: “Terminating Principe, who has acted with much determination and courage, is a blow to the fight against corruption.”
Peru’s official human rights watchdog, the Defensoría del Pueblo, also questioned the decision and called on the government to provide bodyguards for the former prosecutor and her family.
La República, one of Peru’s leading newspapers, described the sacking as “abusive” and a “backwards step” in the process of rebuilding democratic checks and balances since the authoritarian 1990s regime of President Alberto Fujimori.
The firing was also criticized by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the hard-right former president who is now serving a 25-year jail term for ransacking public coffers, directing death squads and systematically bribing corrupt journalists into attacking his opponents. She has a double-digit lead in polls ahead of the April presidential vote.
“Humala should remove Nadine Heredia from her post [as first lady] for disturbing order in the country,” Keiko Fujimori said. “She should answer before the courts.”
The rising pressure forced Peru’s justice minister, Gustavo Adrianzen, to quit his post hours after he had booted out Príncipe. He was widely expected to lose a congressional confidence vote on Thursday for allegedly bullying the prosecutor, though the minister claimed he was falling on his sword for the sake of Peru’s “stability”.
President Humala has claimed in the past that the accusations against his wife, who is widely reputed to be the power behind his presidency hiring and firing ministers at will, are a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Meanwhile, the first lady initially complained that the notebooks had been stolen from her before suggesting they had been fabricated. “There are false amounts that seek to validate the information in the prosecutor’s file,” she said.
On Tuesday, Peru’s constitutional court struck down a habeas corpus ruling by a lower court that had briefly blocked Príncipe from investigating the notebooks.
President Humala, a former army officer, initially ran as a hard-left sympathizer of Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, before moving to the political center to narrowly win elections in 2011.
His aloof style, and Heredia’s domineering reputation, have helped ensure that the government has alienated allies and gifted opportunities to opponents. Twenty one members of the governing Nationalist Party’s 49 members of congress have quit the group denouncing high-handed treatment by the first couple and alleging that the president is caving in to big business.
Heredia is suspected of raising illegal campaign funds since 2006. Several former allies have now claimed that the first lady regularly said the party lacked the money for grassroots organizing and other political costs — raising rumors that she and her husband pocketed the cash.
Former anti-corruption prosecutor Julio Arbizu told VICE News said that while the sacking of Príncipe was obviously worrying, he was even more concerned about the political posturing in its aftermath.
“One of the most dreadful aspects of this is that it is allowing members of a grouping that once did so much to damage freedom of expression in Peru to now pose as defenders of it,” he said, highlighting the potential advantages it could bring to Keiko Fujimori’s campaign.