A set of secretly recorded phone conversations between high-court officials in Peru has revealed widespread corruption in the judicial system’s top ranks, sparking a flurry of dramatic resignations this past week.
The conversations feature five main officials — the chief justice of the Superior Court of Callao, a Supreme Court justice and three members of the National Magistrates Council. The men are overheard trading a host of favors including job positions, World Cup tickets and reduced sentences for convicts.
In one of the recordings, many of which have been broadcast on national television, a Supreme Court justice, César José Hinostroza, offers to adjust the sentencing for a person charged with raping an 11-year-old girl. “Yes, I'm going to look at the file,” he said, speaking to an unnamed person. “What is it they want, to get the sentence lowered or to be declared innocent?” It is unclear whether the suspect in the case was convicted.
In another recording, a former president of the Superior Court of Callao is heard soliciting a cash payment of "10 green ones” in exchange for helping secure the appointment of a new judge, the Peruvian Times reported.
“So, as a guarantee, I believe that he has to give some amount,” he is heard saying. “As a guarantee, if nothing happens, we give it back.”
All five of the officials featured most prominently in the recordings have resigned or been suspended. In the past week, the justice minister was also fired, and both the president of Peru’s Supreme Court and the president of the National Magistrates Council resigned. In anticipation of even more departures in the coming days, officials declared a three-month “state of emergency” for the country's judicial system.
Corruption is not foreign to the people of Peru, where numerous politicians, including several former presidents, have been forced from power following public allegations of bribery. But this most recent scandal represents something different, locals said.
“A week ago, all we were talking about was soccer. Now, this is always the first point of conversation,” Juan Antonio Castro, a 47-year-old legal counsel in Peru’s capital, Lima, said in a phone interview. “This is big … maybe one of the worst crises we have had in 15, 20 years.”
While suspicions about the integrity of the judicial system have simmered for a while, the recordings show a culture of profound corruption among the country’s top judicial representatives that many have found shocking, Castro said. Since the recordings were released, thousands have marched in cities across Peru wielding effigies of rats and demanding that the country’s corrupt officials be “kicked out,” Reuters reported.
The recordings are also unnerving Peruvians because they hint at a wider web of corruption that may involve lawmakers, other politicians and business executives, said Sandra Orihuela, a corporate attorney who splits her time between Lima and Miami. Rumors have already emerged of several politicians, including former presidential candidate and opposition leader Keiko Fujimori, being implicated in the tapes.
“I keep asking, 'Where does this end?' " Orihuela said. “I really don't know.”
A total of 47 recordings have been made public by the investigative news site IDL-Reporteros in the past two weeks, and Gustavo Gorriti, a reporter at IDL, has said that more will be released over time. Gorriti, who has declined to reveal his sources, said the recorded conversations are the result of a court-ordered surveillance effort commissioned in the region of Callao six months ago, the Peruvian Times reported. The original goal of the investigation was to weed out officials involved in drug trafficking and organized crime, but prosecutors on the case soon found evidence of an expansive system of corruption that spread from the courts of Callao to the country's top leaders.
When former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in March amid allegations that he had accepted nearly $700,000 in bribes from a Brazilian construction firm, Peruvians lost faith in the executive branch of the country's leadership, Orihuela said. Now, there is “close to no trust” in the country's judicial and legislative branches.
Peru's current president, Martín Vizcarra, has appointed an independent Judiciary Reform Commission to create a proposal for comprehensively reforming the judicial system and called on the country's legislature to remove all members of the National Magistrates Council. But some Peruvians, including Orihuela and Castro, are skeptical that this will be enough.
“This is not something you're going to fix just by replacing a few judges,” Orihuela said “It requires something much, much deeper and more integral.”