Peru: Political Storm Tarnishes Anti-Corruption Image of President Alejandro Toledo

Article excerpt

By Barbara J. Fraser [The author is a free-lance journalist in Lima, Peru]

Although his country's economy is among the most robust in Latin America, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo's approval rating has plunged to below 20% amid questions about his credibility and fallout from the corruption cases that brought down the government of former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).

The political storm centered on the Congressional Oversight Commission, which on April 29 voted to ask the Public Ministry to investigate Jose Ugaz, the former special prosecutor for corruption cases, and shelved a case in which Toledo was accused of pressuring a television station to give his administration more favorable coverage.

Fujimori appointed Ugaz in October 2000 after opposition politicians publicized secret videotapes of public figures receiving bribes from Vladimiro Montesinos, the president's shadowy national security chief. Shortly after the appointment, a presidential aide delivered to Ugaz's office an envelope containing US$29,000 to cover operating expenses for the special prosecutor's office.

Ugaz deposited the money in a bank account and entered it into the office's books. The case was investigated by the Justice Ministry during the administration of President Valentin Paniagua (2000-2001), and it was determined that Ugaz had committed no wrongdoing.

The congressional commission, however, asked the Public Ministry to investigate Ugaz for the crime of receiving money from an illicit source, on the grounds that the US$29,000 could have come from kickbacks or other illegal activities of the Fujimori administration.

At first, the commission's vote appeared to be a reprisal by committee member Jorge Mufarech, a member of Toledo's Peru Posible party who was once Fujimori's minister of labor, and whom Ugaz accused of tax evasion and other irregularities. But Ugaz and his successor, Special Prosecutor Luis Vargas Valdivia--whose name was also on the bank account, and who has said he expects to be the next target of investigation--said that the revival of the case is part of a campaign to discredit their work and hinted that Montesinos, who is currently in prison, is behind the effort.

Francisco Soberon, executive secretary of the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDDHH), a national umbrella group of human rights organizations, said the effort could be aimed at reducing the charges pending against scores of public figures who were videotaped receiving bribes from Montesinos. The reduction of charges from corruption to simply receiving money from an illicit source would result in far lighter sanctions, he said.

"It's an effort to confuse the issue and evade responsibility," he said. "The argument is that in a world in which anyone might be corrupt, why should these people be the subject of investigation. They are attempting to discredit the work of the prosecutors and the judges who are investigating the cases."

The congressional commission's vote split Toledo's Peru Posible party. On May 4, the party reprimanded Mufarech and expelled Victor Valdez, another party member who was an outspoken advocate of sending the Ugaz case to the Public Ministry for further investigation.

Charges of media manipulation taint Toledo government

The Oversight Commission's action in the Ugaz case contrasted sharply with its decision on the same day to throw out a case that implicated Toledo. Pedro Arbulu, former president of the board of directors of Panamericana Television, had testified before the commission about conversations in December and January in which he claimed that Toledo pressured him to be more supportive of the government and even offered to buy the channel.

Telephone records leaked to the press show a series of phone calls between the Presidential Palace and Panamericana Television in December and January. …