Tales of corruption in Peru’s judicial system
By Lorenzo Pinasco
Content Warning: This article contains mentions of child abuse and rape.
Judge Hinostroza: Because the little girl is underage, surely. How old is she? Ten years? Eleven years?
Unknown Interlocutor: [Indistinct]
Judge Hinostroza: But she lost her virginity?
Unknown Interlocutor: [Indistinct]
Judge Hinostroza: OK. But who did this to her?
Unknown Interlocutor: [Indistinct]
Judge Hinostroza: OK. I will…I will ask for the file so I can look at it OK? OK. What do you want? Do you want me to lower his sentence or do you want him to be declared innocent?
* * *
And so begins a wretched story. As of July 26, 2018, 46 leaked tapes have incriminated a number of high-ranking judges in Peru. More are coming.
So far, Peru has heard a judge negotiate the sentence of an accused child rapist. We have heard judges’ backroom negotiations to influence the appointment of our newly inaugurated chief prosecutor Pedro Chávarry. We have heard judges ask for “10 verdecitos” or “10 little green ones” (presumably equivalent to $10,000) in order to influence the appointment of a prosecutor. The list goes on. Judge Hinostroza and Judge Ríos, another high-ranking judge, are the two most implicated figures, but many other judges, magistrates, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen are involved as well.
This controversy transcends specific figures and specific cases. It even transcends the justice system. The scandal’s slimy tentacles are slowly undressing the facade of indignation other branches of government put up whenever they sniff corruption in their political enemies.
Journalists are beginning to map out the severity of the collusion between different branches of government. No one quite knows how far the scandal will reach.
The National Council of Magistrates (CNM by its initials in Spanish) appoints, regulates, and dismisses judges. In theory, there should be a Great Wall between the CNM and the judges they regulate. Yet many of its magistrates are implicated in the scandal, and Congress has disabled it by declaring it in a state of emergency. Some of the leaks suggest that various high-ranking judges were illegally involved in the selection process for magistrates. This not only shows how grave the scandal is, but how, without public awareness, corruption can perpetuate itself indefinitely. Not only are the judges venal, but the institution tasked with regulating them is itself involved in the corruption. The problem is structural: it is difficult for magistrates to reach the council without support from crony judges. It is difficult for judges to reach powerful courts without support from crony magistrates. It is not that power corrupts those at the top. Rather, judges and magistrates must engage in corruption in order to get to the top in the first place. As Judge Ríos shamelessly explains in one of the tapes, “Those who get here are not the best—they are the best friends.”
Potentially, the structure of the our justice system could change. The judge selection process could become more stringent and transparent. The CNM could be revamped to prevent collusion by including outsiders in the selection process for magistrates. Perhaps other institutions could be charged with regulating the CNM. The legislative and executive branches could do their job and pass widespread justice system reform to clean up this mess. This is unlikely: the people who could potentially reform the judiciary—congresspeople, and, to a lesser degree, members of the executive—are themselves dependent on the crookedness of our courts.
Connections to various high-ranking politicians are emerging. Mauricio Mulder is the spokesperson for APRA, a party that, despite only having five (out of 130) congressional seats, is still one of the most important in the country. He has been caught asking Judge Hinostroza for a meeting in a “private location.” Coincidentally, he is facing legal difficulties concerning the electoral registration of his party.
The executive is also involved in the widespread corruption. Salvador Heresi, the former minister of justice, recently resigned after a phone call between him and Judge Hinostroza was leaked. The prime minister and the president are both mentioned in the tapes.
Peru’s most powerful party, Fuerza Popular, is even more heavily implicated. Their leader, Keiko Fujimori, is the daughter of former strongman Alberto Fujimori. She and her party are widely suspected of corruption in a variety of scandals. Fuerza Popular is known for its vicious politicking, its ties to narcotrafficking, and its attachment to the memory of Alberto Fujimori who, despite egregious human rights violations, is still fondly remembered by much of the population. Fuerza Popular’s leadership has faced only minor investigation into their obscure dealings. Many Peruvians wonder how this party gets away with so much infamy. This scandal unearths what we long suspected: our courts are packed with their cronies.
Keiko Fujimori’s right hand man, Joaquín Ramírez, is widely suspected of narcotrafficking and has family connections to one of the country’s major cartels. He served as a congressman from 2011-2016 and provided millions of dollars for Fuerza Popular campaigns. In August 2017, Judge Hinostroza controversially acquitted Ramírez of money laundering. In one of the leaks, Judge Hinostroza can be heard arranging to meet with “Señora K” (Mrs. K) of the “Fuerza número uno” (the number one force). The logo of Fuerza Popular is a white K on an orange background because Keiko Fujimori’s name begins, of course, with a K. Fuerza Popular is the number one political force in the country and, of course, the word “fuerza” is in the party’s name. Journalistic skepticism would demand that we withhold judgement and feign ignorance concerning this mystical “Señora K.” Common sense says otherwise: Fuerza Popular’s orange footprints are all over this scandal. Keiko Fujimori is Mrs. K.
Other high-ranking party leaders, such as Héctor Becerril and Luz Salgado, are also implicated in the leaks. The former tried to influence internal CNM elections and Judge Hinostroza called the latter a “friend” and claimed to have met with her.
Keiko Fujimori’s response to the crisis can best be described as cowardly. As a top political figure in Peru, one would expect her to harshly denounce this disgusting corruption. Instead, she has barely made public statements since the leaks. The essence of what she has said is that she and her party have nothing to do with the scandal, that she is not “Señora K,” and, shockingly, that corruption is bad. Her party has been harder on the reporters that leaked the tapes than on the judges involved.
Luis Galarreta, a member of Fuerza Popular and then-president of congress, tried to force Gustavo Gorriti, the main journalist responsible for the leaks, to testify in Congress. Salgado criticized IDL (Instituto de Defensa Legal, or Institute of Legal Defense), the journalist group responsible for the leaks, and suggested that the CNM should self-regulate. Fuerza Popular is stalling tentative reform presented by the president. When referencing the scandal, they have emphasized the importance of “due process” and of respecting the judges’ rights to privacy. They say we should give implicated judges the benefit of the doubt and withhold judgment. (For those concerned with the legality of the leaks, it is worth mentioning that they have a legal origin, as they were leaked by public prosecutors who were afraid their investigation would be shut down).
This is shameful nonsense. Such arguments might make sense if the evidence was ambiguous. It is not. The tapes are uninterrupted. We have recordings of judges explicitly negotiating the sentence of an accused child rapist. We have recordings of judges explicitly asking for bribes. We have unearthed an entire scheme of collusion in which a court in the province of Callao regularly let vicious gangsters off the hook. Yet only one judge, Judge Ríos, is facing criminal charges thus far. The electorate’s indignation is palpable. This is the time for politicians to condemn outright corruption and reform the judicial system. Instead, we hear banal defenses of those we know to be guilty.
To add insult to injury, Pedro Chávarry was inaugurated as our new chief prosecutor in the middle of the scandal even though his selection was influenced by various incriminated judges. Pedro Chávarry has already lied, falsely denying that he met with Judge Hinostroza and a number of “friendly” journalists.
Peruvians have long been aware of the perversity in our courts. No one trusts the justice system now, but no one did before the scandal either. The scandal is not notable because it made us aware of the depth of the corruption in our judiciary. Rather, the scandal is scary for one simple reason: it shows how inept Peru’s political system is at dealing with obvious, crude, and naked corruption. If Peru’s institutions cannot clean up this PR disaster, they cannot clean anything up.
The perversity of incentives that explains the ineptitude is clear. Though political violence has been sparse in recent years, mafias can still coerce and intimidate politicians. Taking on a justice system that fosters organized crime means pitting yourself against monsters.
More importantly, high-ranking politicians want the justice system to remain perverse. They want judges who can be bought off with favors, fancy dinners, and the occasional surreptitious pile of little green ones. Why? Because this degenerate state of affairs allows them to get away with anything. The impunity faced by dirty politicians in Peru is astonishing. Widespread evidence suggests that multiple former presidents received bribes from Odebrecht, the disgraced Brazilian construction giant. Major parties are suspected of receiving dirty money to finance their campaign. Politicians are regularly accused of stealing state funds. Fuerza Popular seems to be most guilty. But only rarely do politicians go to prison or face appropriate punishment. So, when the judges who perpetuate the injustice of their freedom are in hot water, dirty politicians rush to defend their cronies, doing anything they can to distract from the corruption that is the heart of the issue. They criticize journalists and those proposing structural reform and barely spare a breath to recognize the guilt of the judges perpetuating corruption. This collusion matters because it transcends the people who happen to be in the judiciary—even if some dirty judges resign, the underlying corruption will remain because powerful politicians need crooked judges in order to avoid incarceration. This is not the type of legislature that can reform a justice system. The scandal goes full circle. All institutions that could potentially solve the problem are poisoned. The chain is locked. And Keiko Fujimori threw away the key.
How do we unlock it? What can be done about this mess?
The question is troubling. The slogan of many recent protests has been “que se vayan todos” (“all of them should leave”), implying that all implicated judges should resign but also all congresspeople and even the president. Many have suggested that the president should dissolve congress, call for new elections, and even rewrite the constitution. This would, of course, be unconstitutional. But would it be wrong? If respecting the law permits the perpetuation of lawlessness, is it acceptable to disrespect it? If the prescriptions of constitutionality are failing, can the constitution be circumvented? This option is enticing for all those frustrated by the impunity of those in power. Yet it is important to remain level-headed. Peru has a troubling history of authoritarianism. Our current 18-year flirtation with democracy is the exception, not the norm. The institutions—and the political culture—of the country are likely too young and too fragile to withstand such a shock and remain democratic in the foreseeable future.
The truth is simple: there is no straightforward solution. The president recently proposed a referendum on judicial reform, but congressional approval is required in order to hold it, and Congress is stalling. The politicians involved want this scandal to be just another episode of instability in a country that, in the last few years, has become perpetually unstable. Peru’s electorate carries some of the guilt—we are too quick to forget and forgive corruption. We complain about it but continually elect politicians mired in scandals. If nothing else comes from this, the current generation of crooked politicians should never be elected again. If future governments see that we are serious about refusing to support all those involved in corruption then perhaps they will have the guts to take on the system. As long as we fail to punish corruption, so will they. The next national election is scheduled for 2021. My fear is that, by then, too many of us will have forgotten.
Lorenzo Pinasco is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.