One of the topics I return to most on this blog is probably corruption and specifically, corruption in the president’s office. The last number of years has witnessed a veritable landslide of corruption cases by those occupying the highest political office across Latin America. Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. Another former Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, is currently in Matamoros prison in Guatemala City, serving a sentence for receiving bribes from importers. In El Salvador, evidence emerged linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, has appeared in court to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in. In Mexico, Angélica Rivera, the wife of president Enrqiue Peña Nieto, has become embroiled in a scandal concerning a mansion she purchased in 2012, and Grupo Higa, a government contractor. In Peru, questions have been raised about the manner in which former president, Ollanta Humala, funded his presidential election campaigns in 2006 and 2011. And of course most famously, only last year, Dilma Rousseff, the embattled former President of Brazil was forced out of office partly as a consequence of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal which engulfed the Brazilian political establishment, which has also involved allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Well now it seems the fallout from that crisis is spreading. Apparently, Odebrecht’s chief executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for granting them the contract to build a large road and infrastructure project. Toledo has been under investigation in Peru since 2013, after his mother-in-law supposedly bought a number of expensive houses via offshore companies that seemed to extend significantly beyond the family’s means.
Somewhat ironically, Toledo came to power in 2001 in the tumultuous aftermath of the resignation of Alberto Fujimori, partly by railing against the corruption scandal engulfing Peru at that time following the discovery of videos of Peru’s head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing TV network executives. Toledo was in France when this news broke and is now thought to be in California, where he currently holds a visiting professorship at Stanford University. Peru has now offered a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to his arrest and current Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has asked Donald Trump to arrest and extradite Toledo back to Peru.
But this scandal looks set to explode to other presidencies. Apparently, Obebrecht had a designated department to bribe governments across the world in return for state building contracts. The presidency of Alan García (2006-2011) is now also falling under suspicion, given that Odebrecht won a record number of contracts in Peru during his tenure and allegations have also surfaced that Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, received illegal campaign donations from Obebrecht.
But why such persistent and prevalent cases of corruption in the very highest political offices? Explanations range from the historical development of the state and Guillermo O’Donnell’s infamous ‘brown areas’, to the lack of transparency during the economic reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, to the combination of presidentialism and the PR electoral system, a variant of which most Latin American countries employ. Of course, while this type of graft is a problem in most other regions of the world, what makes the Latin American case particularly interesting is the often very public judicial and legislative battles to bring this wrongdoing to heel. It seems likely that the Obebrecht case is only going to inspire more of these.
 See For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.