The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Latin America’s mega-corruption scandal just claimed its two biggest names

A supporter holds a banner featuring Peru's former president, Ollanta Humala, and his wife, Nadine Heredia, outside the Palace of Justice in Lima Friday. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

LIMA — The corruption mega-scandal rumbling across Latin America just keeps getting bigger. This week it claimed its two biggest victims, Peru’s former president Ollanta Humala and his erstwhile Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Yet prosecutors in many countries have barely started delving into the labyrinthine details of nearly $1 billion in kickbacks paid by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to politicians from Argentina to Mexico over the years.

Humala and his wife, Nadine Heredia, turned themselves in to authorities Thursday night, hours after a judge ordered that they serve up to 18 months of pretrial detention as they are investigated on money-laundering and conspiracy charges. The 55-year-old former army officer, who has insisted on his innocence, became the first former head-of-state detained in connection with the Odebrecht case. The ruling was prompted by fears that the couple would attempt to meddle with witnesses or evidence if they remained free.

It came just one day after a Sao Paulo court sentenced Lula, a former leftist ally of Humala, to nearly 10 years behind bars on similar charges. Lula, who has called the charges politically motivated, remains at liberty while he appeals the decision. Unlike Humala, he remains wildly popular in his home country and had been leading in early polls for next year's presidential election.

The developments may mark the start of a series of high-profile arrests and convictions across Latin America, says José Ugaz, a Peruvian attorney who heads Transparency International, the world’s leading anti-graft nonprofit. “The Odebrecht case may not have even reached the halfway stage,” he told The Washington Post. “This will be a long investigation. It will likely continue for years.”

Humala, 55, who stepped down from office just under a year ago, is accused of taking $3 million in under-the-table campaign contributions from Odebrecht during his successful 2011 presidential bid plus an undisclosed sum from Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez in 2006, when he was runner up.

The judge ruled he and Heredia should be detained after it recently was alleged that Humala may have bought off witnesses in a separate investigation, in which he had been accused of overseeing extrajudicial killings during his time as an army captain at a remote jungle base in the 1990s. Humala denies wrongdoing in that case. Heredia is also alleged to have falsified a handwriting sample required by prosecutors.

Before driving under heavy escort to turn himself in, Humala had claimed that the prosecutor had been “poisoned” against him and highlighted how he and his wife had handed in their passports. Another former Peruvian president, economist and occasional Stanford lecturer Alejandro Toledo, who served from 2001 to 2006, is fighting extradition to Peru from his home in Palo Alto, Calif., on charges that he took $20 million in kickbacks from Odebrecht. He has said he is innocent.

Yet the charges against Toledo and Humala may just be the start of a series of legal maneuvers in Peru and a dozen other regional countries where Odebrecht, the region’s largest engineering firm, won numerous multibillion-dollar public infrastructure contracts stretching back decades.

According to reported testimony from Marcelo Odebrecht, the jailed former CEO of the engineering firm, he gave clandestine donations to Alan Garcia, who was president of Peru from 2006 to 2011, and Keiko Fujimori, the presidential runner-up in 2011 and 2016 and leader of the current majority party in Peru’s congress. That testimony is also thought to include the names of many other Latin American political big shots. The politicians have denied the charges.

Ugaz dismissed widespread criticism that Peruvian prosecutors have proven partial by failing to go after García and Fujimori with the same vigor as Humala and Toledo. “The prosecutors have a huge workload. There was a lot of documentary evidence regarding Humala. In the cases of Fujimori and García, the prosecutors are just getting started and will have to question them first.”

“I am optimistic,” he adds. “There is a long way to go but we should not forget how far we have come. A few years ago, this might never have happened.”