The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peru has had five presidents in seven years. Is Castillo next to go?

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo in Lima on Tuesday. (Paolo Aguilar/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

LIMA, Peru — For Peruvians, the news was as familiar as it was disheartening — the country’s chief prosecutor filing a 376-page complaint, based on an extensive documentary trail and the testimony of multiple witnesses, accusing the president of taking kickbacks for infrastructure contracts and selling jobs in the public bureaucracy.

Chief prosecutor Patricia Benavides is asking Peru’s Congress to lift Pedro Castillo’s presidential immunity just 14 months after he took office, clearing the way for his criminal prosecution and potential ouster.

The release of the complaint Tuesday came just hours after the arrests of three of Castillo’s advisers and three business executives accused of secretly funding his campaign last year.

The ball is now in Congress’s court. Castillo, a leftist populist turned outsider president, survived a removal vote in May, when lawmakers failed to muster the required two-thirds supermajority. But now, as they step into uncharted constitutional territory, they could act on the complaint in a variety of ways, including to suspend Castillo from office or oust him altogether with a simple majority.

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In its unrelenting political crisis, this South American nation might already have set a world record for bringing former presidents to justice. Yet until now, it has maintained a democratic norm that sitting leaders cannot be prosecuted.

One former president is serving a lengthy jail sentence for directing death squads, another is fighting extradition from the United States to answer accusations of taking kickbacks and two more are waiting for their corruption cases to be heard. A fifth shot himself dead in 2019 as police entered his home to arrest him on bribery charges.

Castillo’s brief, chaotic tenure has been dominated by allegations of graft and incompetence. Since taking office in July 2021, he has burned through his political capital; his approval rating has fallen to the low 20s.

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The former rural schoolteacher and wildcat strike leader, who ran as the long-shot nominee of the Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party, has based his entire political identity on his humble background and supposed affinity with the poor. But critics say he has betrayed Peru’s most marginal citizens, including by not addressing widespread hunger.

Half of Peru’s 33 million people are experiencing food insecurity, double the pre-pandemic level and expected to keep rising as fertilizer normally imported from Ukraine and Russia is not replaced. Castillo’s response has been to insist that the Incas got by without modern fertilizers and that only the “lazy” will suffer.

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Benavides announced the constitutional complaint on live TV, flanked by a dozen other law enforcement officials, including Harvey Colchado, the police colonel who is leading the probe of the president’s inner circle and whom Castillo has attempted to fire.

Benavides said her team had discovered a “criminal organization embedded in the government with the purpose of capturing, controlling and directing the contracting processes at different levels of the state to obtain illicit profits.”

Castillo responded with a televised news conference of his own — exclusively for foreign media, with Peruvian reporters locked out — accusing his opponents of launching a “coup.” He is now seeking a court injunction to stay Benavides’s action.

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Article 117 of Peru’s constitution allows constitutional complaints against presidents for committing treason, interfering with elections or dissolving Congress illegally.

It is distinct from Article 113, which permits a president’s removal for “moral incapacity,” a 19th-century term that was written to cover infirmity but has been used twice in recent years to force two presidents from office.

Peru is also a signatory of the U.N. Convention on Corruption. Some jurists say that obliges the Andean nation to crack down on flagrant presidential graft, with a reinterpretation of Article 117 the best vehicle to fill the void in Peruvian jurisprudence.

Article 117 requires only a simple majority in Congress to oust Castillo. Article 113 requires the two-thirds supermajority.

“You can’t have a president who is heading a criminal organization but is allowed to complete his mandate. That would be crazy,” said Luciano López, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and one of the scholars who first proposed testing the limits of the U.N. treaty within the Peruvian system.

The majority of Congress is ultraconservative and viscerally hostile to Castillo. But with many lawmakers keen to see out their terms, due to end in 2026, it is unclear whether they will approve the constitutional complaint and risk the possibility of early elections.

Many analysts say firing the president without holding legislative elections alongside a vote to fill a presidential vacancy would be politically unviable and could spark mass protests. Congress, enduring its own never-ending stream of ethics and corruption scandals, is even less popular than Castillo, with approval around 13 percent.

The most glaring example of misconduct accusations is the alleged rape in July by congressman Freddy Díaz of an aide. His colleagues have suspended Díaz for drinking alcohol within the legislative premises but have declined to address the rape charge, which could lead to his expulsion from office. Díaz denies wrongdoing.

Depending on how Congress responds to the new complaint, Castillo or Benavides could appeal to Peru’s constitutional court. That court has a conservative majority and is seen as unlikely to rule in Castillo’s favor.

Alexandra Ames, a political scientist at Lima’s University of the Pacific, acknowledged that leaving a potentially criminal president in office would further damage Peru’s ailing democracy. But she warned that ousting him using an untested and perhaps illegitimate mechanism could open the door for a more extreme — and durable — demagogue.

“The country is being degraded more and more. There is a context of extreme polarization in which neither the left nor the right is offering real solutions,” she said. “Everyone is looking at the politics, but no one is looking at the crisis of institutions and public policies.”