Rarely does a suicide letter make such a jarring read for an entire nation. Alan García, the domineering former president of Peru, had shot himself in the head rather than be taken into custody by police sent by José Domingo Pérez, the young prosecutor spearheading his country’s investigations into the Odebrecht mega-scandal.
Had he been captured alive, García would have faced three years in pretrial detention just for starters. Denying taking bribes, he wrote: “I have seen others parade in handcuffs, maintaining their miserable existences, but Alan García does not have to suffer these injustices and circuses.” The 69-year-old politician concluded his April farewell letter by declaring his “cadaver a sign of my contempt for my adversaries.”
Within weeks, the testimony that García must have feared went public. In a plea deal, executives from Odebrecht, the giant Brazilian construction firm, confirmed to Pérez that they had paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to two of García’s right-hand men, payments they believed were destined for him.
PÉREZ HAS ESTABLISHED AN INTERNATIONAL TEMPLATE FOR HOW TO PROSECUTE FORMER HEADS OF STATE ON GRAFT CHARGES.
The testimony proved yet another seminal moment for the 42-year-old bespectacled — some might say nerdy — prosecutor who has jolted cynical Peruvians out of their long-held assumption that the justice system turns a blind eye to powerful politicians committing flagrant acts of venality. By finally cornering García, regarded by some as the most brilliant orator and political strategist of his generation in Latin America, Pérez had all but completed a full sweep of Peru’s leading political figures.
Indeed, García was the third ex-president Pérez has targeted. García’s predecessor Alejandro Toledo is in California fighting extradition, while Peru’s most recent president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, is under house arrest. Both are accused of taking illegal payments from Odebrecht. With his implacable pursuit of the trio, the corruption-busting Pérez has established an international template for how to prosecute former heads of state on graft charges.
Odebrecht has admitted paying nearly $800 million in bribes to politicians from Argentina to Mexico to secure massive public contracts, sparking criminal probes in multiple jurisdictions. In the United States, where the money flowed through the banking system, Odebrecht settled with the Justice Department for at least $3.5 billion in 2016, thought to be a world record in a corruption case. In Peru, unlike in most other affected countries, Pérez waived criminal liability for Odebrecht executives to allow them to talk, while also obtaining lengthy spells of pretrial detention for public officials, squeezing them to spill the beans on the biggest fish.
No wonder then that Pérez has rock-star status in his Andean homeland. People chant his name in the streets and post Superman memes of him on social media. Otherwise sensible women declare on Facebook their wish to have his children. Throughout it all, Pérez has appeared unfazed, rarely giving interviews (he did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment) and insisting he is just doing his job. Nor should it be a surprise that he receives death threats and, for the first time in his 14-year career, requires round-the-clock police protection. “I sleep well at night because I am doing my job well, and I hope that society accepts and understands that this is a long process,” he recently told Peru’s Trome newspaper.
“When I see him on TV, nothing has changed,” says Artemio Vilcamazo, who worked closely with him a decade ago when Pérez was district attorney in Moquegua, in southern Peru. “He has no fear.” In those days, Pérez, who patrolled dangerous neighborhoods with police, pursued mayors and other public officials for corruption. “He wasn’t always successful, but just the fact that he even tried laid down a marker,” Vilcamazo says. “He does not seek the spotlight but is not afraid of controversy either.”
What little friends have revealed of Pérez’s private life includes the facts that he is a devout Catholic and a soccer nut who likes to play in attack and idolizes Melgar, his hometown club from Arequipa, Peru’s picturesque second city. In addition to his law degree, Pérez has two master’s degrees, one in public administration and another in constitutional law. He told Trome he likes to read Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, and mostly stays home with his wife and baby — though it’s unclear if the baby is the couple’s first, as Pérez has successfully managed to keep his family out of the headlines. He is also said to have binge-watched an entire season of The Mechanism, the Brazilian Netflix dramatization of the Odebrecht scandal.
Samuel Rotta, head of the Peruvian branch of anti-graft group Transparency International, says Pérez represents a generational change, with tech-savvy prosecutors coming of age and taking over from often politically compromised more senior attorneys. Nevertheless, Rotta does not regard the prosecutions of former presidents as inevitable. “It’s too early to say that this is the new normal. Being a prosecutor in Peru is still a sacrifice. There is no career security, and you can be moved off an investigation at any moment. That must change,” he says.
Some jurists remain concerned about Pérez’s liberal use of pretrial detention — which is granted by a judge based on the strength of the evidence, as well as the risk of flight or witness tampering. It’s especially questionable for the 80-year-old Kuczynski, who is ailing and whose case appears less black-and-white than those of García and Toledo. Heber Campos, a constitutional law professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru who credits the prosecutor with “changing the paradigm of impunity,” warns: “It is a very useful and sometimes necessary tool, but it is supposed to be used exceptionally. The risk is that you undermine the legitimacy of the fight against corruption.”
Yet that remains a minority view in Peru, where most citizens unreservedly cheer a prosecutor finally going after a political class long regarded as both deeply corrupt and untouchable.
DOMINGO PEREZ’S TARGETS
Alan García: President from 1985-1990 and 2006-2011, he is blamed by Peruvians for ending his first term amid hyperinflation and the bloodletting of the Maoist terrorists of the Shining Path, and his second term under the shadow of the “narco-pardons” scandal in which his aides issued presidential pardons to convicted drug traffickers in return for bribes. García was never prosecuted for that case, to the dismay of many.
Alejandro Toledo: President from 2001-2006 and once a visiting professor at Stanford University, he is fighting extradition from his Palo Alto, California, home on charges he took $20 million in bribes in return for awarding Odebrecht contracts to build the Interoceanic Highway that cuts through the Andes and the Amazon.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski: President from 2016-2018. Accused of taking “consulting” payments from Odebrecht during previous stints as economy minister and prime minister. He had his pretrial detention revised to house arrest after a heart scare saw him rushed to the hospital.
Keiko Fujimori: Political heir to her hard-right strongman father Alberto, who was president in the 1990s, she was the runner-up in the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections and leads the largest party in Peru’s Congress, arguably making her the most powerful person in the country given the unusual parliamentary-presidential hybrid system. She is serving three years of pretrial detention, accused of laundering campaign donations.
Pedro Chávarry: The attorney general who actually dismissed Pérez on New Year’s Eve in retaliation for his subordinate publicly launching an investigation of him for allegedly covering up corruption. The outcry was so ferocious that Pérez was almost immediately reinstated and Chávarry forced to step down.