LIMA, Peru — It’s impossible to know why Alan García killed himself this past week.
The charismatic politician, once hailed as Latin America’s JFK, shot himself Wednesday after police showed up at his home in Lima to arrest him in the largest corruption scandal in the region’s history.
Had he not killed himself, García, 69, would have faced up to three years in pretrial detention, potentially without actually being indicted — a term unthinkable in many democracies, even for suspects facing overwhelming evidence of the most heinous crimes.
“It is increasingly difficult to justify,” said Ignazio de Ferrari, a political scientist at Lima’s University of the Pacific.
But it’s the fate confronting more of Peru’s most prominent politicians as they’re swept up in the sprawling Odebrecht investigation by a new generation of aggressive prosecutors determined to stamp out the systemic graft that has long slowed economic development and corroded faith in public institutions here.
Other suspects who have been ordered to pretrial detention in the scandal include former presidents Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who is 80, and Ollanta Humala, who has three young children. Humala’s wife, the children’s mother, was also jailed.
Critics question the courts’ acceptance of the often limited arguments presented by prosecutors for locking up high-profile suspects before they have been indicted. They warn that the tactic could threaten the legitimacy of Peru’s landmark investigation.
Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest construction company, has admitted to paying nearly $1 billion in bribes across the region to secure public contracts. The international probe into the Brazilian giant has ensnared officials from Mexico to Argentina.
Arguably no country outside Brazil has been affected as badly as Peru. Four of the country’s previous presidents, including García, have been implicated. The freeze on Odebrecht’s extensive operations here, meanwhile, is thought to have slashed GDP growth by as much as 1.5 percent.
The case has crystallized Peruvians’ fury at entrenched graft, leaving many unconcerned about observing the niceties of due process for those suspected of benefiting from the company’s criminal largesse.
De Ferrari didn’t wish to defend García, but he called the use of pretrial detention “excessive.” Diego García Sayán, a former justice minister and judge on the inter-American Court of Human Rights, wants to see prosecutors adopt a “more selective criterion” for requesting detention.
García Sayán warns that the practice provides rhetorical ammunition to those who want to block the anticorruption offensive. An example came last week when Mauricio Mulder, a lawmaker from García’s APRA party, described the probe into the former president as a “fascist persecution.”
“These claims that the prosecutions are politically motivated are very dangerous,” García Sayán said. “There is an institutionalized practice in the Peruvian legal system of using pretrial detention in this way. Half of Peru’s prison population has not been convicted.”
If García Sayán is overstating the numbers, it’s not by much. More than 39 percent of the Peruvian prison population is being held in pretrial detention or remand, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in London. That’s nearly double the U.S. rate.
Peru does have a long tradition of politicians going on the lam to avoid justice.
Recent examples include García, who sought asylum in the Uruguayan Embassy in Lima earlier this year, and a supreme court judge who fled to Spain after being accused of taking bribes. Alejandro Toledo, president from 2001 to 2006, is fighting extradition from the United States over allegations he received $20 million from Odebrecht.
Pretrial detention “is an aggressive strategy but also an effective one,” said Samuel Rotta, head of the Peruvian chapter of the anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International. “It is precisely what has broken the pact of secrecy among these high-level suspects.
“You also have to see this in the context of the absolute certainty of many Peruvians that these politicians have been up to their necks in corruption.”
In describing the attempt to arrest García on Wednesday, Interior Minister Carlos Morán told reporters that he wanted to “stress that the intervention by the national police strictly followed the established protocols, supported by a judicial order written by a judge in [this] emblematic case.”
One person serving three years of pretrial detention is Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori and herself the runner-up in the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections. She is suspected of laundering illegal campaign donations from Odebrecht; she faces up to 13 years in prison if convicted.
Fujimori is the mother of children ages 10 and 12. She has yet to be indicted.
Humala, president from 2011 to 2016, and his wife, Nadine Heredia, spent nearly a year in pretrial detention without an indictment. They were released a year ago by Peru’s constitutional court pending a trial. Prosecutors have confiscated the family home, a move that even some of the couple’s critics found abusive.
Kuczynski, Peru’s president from 2016 to 2018, was arrested this month in the Odebrecht case. He was initially ordered to pretrial detention, but after he suffered heart problems, prosecutors agreed to move him to house arrest.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the court that ordered Ollanta Humala and Nadine Heredia released from pretrial detention. It was the Constitutional Court.