News
Under Shadow of Corruption, Peru’s Congress Fuels Crisis
27 Nov 2020

Peruvian politician Humberto Acuña was convicted of bribery committed while he was governor of a northern Peruvian state from 2011 to 2018, and still faces several other charges, including abuse of authority and criminal conspiracy.

Still, the burly 54-year-old engineer is a powerful congressman for the Alliance for Progress Party, whose 22 members were instrumental in this month’s impeachment of then-President Martín Vizcarra. Mr. Acunã is one of a number of legislators who have a criminal record or are being investigated by prosecutors.

Peru’s new president, Francisco Sagasti, has the task of leading a country hobbled by a pandemic and economic crisis, and saddled with a Congress where nearly 70 of its 130 members are under investigation for bribery, money laundering and other crimes.

Peruvian prosecutors allege that lawmakers use Congress to enrich themselves by pressing for the government budget to include projects in their home states in exchange for kickbacks, or by passing laws to benefit politically connected companies.

They also claim that politicians see Congress as a shield from investigation as they have immunity while in the legislature. Many investigations stem from alleged crimes committed before lawmakers were elected to Congress; they can serve as legislators even though their cases remain open.

“A lot of people who go to Congress do so for two reasons. The first is to get rich and the second is to protect themselves with immunity,” said Juan Carrasco, a prosecutor who heads the organized crime unit in the coastal Lambayeque state, where Mr. Acuña was a two-term governor. He has led investigations into Mr. Acuña.

Mr. Acuña didn’t respond to requests for comment, but he has publicly denied accusations of wrongdoing. His lawyer said he is appealing his 2019 conviction for bribing an anticorruption police officer.

Peru’s Congress has thrown the country into its worst political crisis in two decades, just five months before presidential elections in April and amid a pandemic that led Peru to have the world’s second-highest number of deaths per capita after Belgium, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Lawmakers ousted Mr. Vizcarra this month citing allegations that he took $640,000 in bribes from construction companies while a governor. Mr. Vizcarra denies the allegations and has said the real motivation was to stem his anticorruption drive.

Mr. Vizcarra repeatedly clashed with Congress after he took office in 2018 to replace his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned when lawmakers planned to impeach him. Mr. Vizcarra said his anticorruption reforms would clean up the legislature. After accusing the chamber of blocking his efforts, he shut Congress in 2019 and, as required by law, called new elections.

Rather than wait for the results of an investigation into the allegations against Mr. Vizcarra, or new elections in which he said he wouldn’t run, Congress ousted him and installed lawmaker Manuel Merino as head of state.

Many ordinary Peruvians saw the move as a naked power grab and took to the streets. Mr. Merino resigned six days later and Congress installed Mr. Sagasti, a respected academic and Peru’s fourth president in three years.

While the political upheaval has died down, investors worry it will return after Peruvians elect a new president and Congress next year, hurting efforts to turn around a once-highflying economy that the International Monetary Fund expects to contract 14% this year.

“We are going to have new actors, but the plot is going to be exactly the same,” said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University who closely tracks Peru. “It is impossible to control politicians if they have no intention to stick around, build party brands, or develop loyalty with their voters.”

By Ryan Dube, Wall Street Journal, 25 November 2020

Read more at the Wall Street Journal (behind paywall)

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