The clumsy, kleptomaniac corruption that blooms so frequently in warm climates is to politics what alliteration is to prose — childish, and all too often lucrative. Take Peru, where fresh scandals have made telenovelas of the news in recent weeks.
We begin with José E. Crousillat. The Conrad Black-ish former owner of a prominent television station made his first star turn ten years ago, when he was busted taking bribes from Vladimiro Montesinos (the diabolical power behind the throne during the Fujimori regime) in exchange for providing upbeat coverage of government policy. Crousillat received an eight-year sentence in 2005 and joined both Montesinos and Fujimori in jail. But last December, current president Alan García (who had fled Peru on corruption charges after his first term ended in 1990) pardoned Crousillat on humanitarian grounds: his doctors had claimed he was nearly dead from a heart condition, prompting an appeal to spend his last days with his family.
Public sympathy, never high to begin with, evaporated altogether when, a few weeks ago, Crousillat was spotted sipping cocktails on a beach. He disappeared before he could be reeled in for a fresh medical, and continues to elude the police. No one knows where he’s soothing his valves now.
The Crousillat uproar was quickly overwhelmed by a second case involving not only past and present presidents, but potential future leaders as well. This one revolves around a private firm, Business Track, which specializes in spying on just about everyone who matters in Peru. The story began two years ago, when a series of tapes known as the “petroaudios” exposed Big Oil executives bribing senior government ministers for oil contracts. Nothing much came of the petroaudios until a few weeks ago, when Business Track released a treasure trove of even juicier dialogues. (The firm is now being investigated for espionage even as the fruit of its labours is used as evidence.) These new conversations revealed further players in the Petrogate scandal, as well as several unrelated bribings in other industries and ministries.
The Justice Department received the recordings on a single USB drive, but before the police could finish their analysis, or even duplicate the files, this nuclear piece of evidence was erased by an unknown hand within the Justice Department itself. Patchy, scintillating details have been emerging ever since, leaked from the snippets police did manage to peruse. One of the biggest emerging culprits is Jorge Del Castillo, secretary general of the ruling Apra party and heir apparent to President García in the 2011 election; Castillo is reported to have put in a few words tying him to Petrogate in no uncertain terms. On the other end of the political spectrum, Ollanta Humala, the far-left runner-up in the last election and Castillo’s strongest competitor in the next, was taped accepting money from Hugo Chavez via the Venezuelan embassy in Lima. Humala interprets this as evidence that García paid Business Track to spy on him during the 2006 campaign, lending fresh momentum to his longstanding claim that the president won the poll through fraud.
Dios mio. What we have here — or had — is evidence linking the highest politicians in the land to bribery and influence peddling, erased by the lone check on their power. The only solid proof is of acts without actors, creating an atmosphere in which everyone can accuse anyone of anything. When everyone’s guilty, all are innocent.
To tie the latter opera into a less weighty but more personal note, yet another Business Track target was an NGO called Grufides. Based in the central highland city of Cajamarca, Grufides has for the past decade been a David fighting the Goliath that is Yanacocha, the world’s biggest open-pit gold mine. This is where the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, tried to buy his life from Francisco Pizarro with a room full of gold, only to be executed after payment was delivered. The main difference today is that where Pizarro sent whatever gold he didn’t pocket home to Spain, Yanacocha sends the proceeds to its American owner, Newmont. I happened to be in Cajamarca last week, and spent a morning chatting with Grufides’ director.
Mirtha Velasquez, who is thirty-four and gently humoured, has a bodyguard who accompanies her around the clock because of threats she’s received (by phone, email, or simply scrawled on the walls of her house and office) to rape or disembowel or shoot her in the head, to feed her to dogs, or throw her body in the river if she doesn’t stop her anti-mining activism. “You get used to it,” she told me. It was no surprise to her to learn she’s being spied upon. She showed me photos of surveillance equipment in the building across the street, which she said Yanacocha had rented for that purpose.
Yanacocha gained international infamy in 2005, when thousands of campesinos blocked its access road to protest a proposed expansion. Newmont wanted to level Mt. Quilish, a mountain sacred in both religious and ecological terms, a critical watershed for the entire region. The breaches of law unearthed by subsequent investigations into Yanacocha’s modus operandi merit a Google search if you have the time. Suffice to say management was shamed into apologizing and withdrew its proposal to expand — it went so far as to ask the government to revoke its license to the expansion.
A pretty piece of sophistry. Far from losing its license to Quilish, Newmont held on and has today fenced off the private property until it can wear down opposition and do what it does best. Furthermore, as soon as the strikes ended Yanacocha applied for a license to expand to two other neighbouring sites. The plan got the green light from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which employs all of four people — administrators, not scientists — to review every environmental impact assessment in the country.
“We had a look at both assessments,” Velasquez said. “The two documents were exactly the same with just a few of the place-names changed. It was like a high school student handing in a paper he’d downloaded off the internet.”
In the end, these stories are very much like gold for the journalists who mine them: shiny, irresistible nuggets that pull our attention away from all the things a country should be doing and focus it instead on everything it shouldn’t.
In the March 2010 issue of The Walrus, Arno Kopecky’s article “Law of the Jungle” took a hard look at Canada’s recent free trade deal with Peru. Kopecky recently flew back into Lima, Peru’s capital, en route to the country’s northern jungle. He’s now “piping up semi-regularly” from the region with notes on local effects of the Canadian government’s so-called Americas Strategy. This is the third post of his blog series.