LIMA, Peru (AP) – President Martin Vizcarra rushed back to Peru from a foreign trip Tuesday to confront the attorney general’s dismissal of a team investigating the sweeping Odebrecht corruption case, saying he would urge congress to declare the top prosecutor’s office in a state of emergency.
Addressing the nation on New Year’s Day after a night of protests over the dismissals, Vizcarra said Attorney General Pedro Chavarry’s actions jeopardize key investigations into allegations of bribery involving some of the country’s highest-ranking politicians, including several former presidents.
“The attorney general is profoundly damaging the interests of Peru and causing outrage among citizens,” Vizcarra said in a terse statement.
Vizcarra he would personally deliver legislation to congress Wednesday that would declare the Public Ministry in a state of emergency, a move that could pave the way for Chavarry’s removal. But the bill would have to be passed by congress, where a majority is held by the opposition led by former first daughter Keiko Fujimori, who is among those being investigated. Legislators have held up three formal complaints against the attorney general in recent months.
Chavarry sparked street protests in a half-dozen cities across Peru on New Year’s Eve by announcing that he was removing two prosecutors leading a probe into whether several former presidents accepted money from Odebrecht. The Brazilian construction giant has admitted in U.S. court filings that it paid $800 million in bribes to officials across Latin America, including $29 million in Peru, in exchange for lucrative contracts.
Prosecutors in Peru are often viewed as corrupt bureaucrats, but those heading the corruption investigation have drawn public favor for taking on the political elite.
Vizcarra hurried back home from Brazil, where he had planned to attend the New Year’s Day inauguration of President Jair Bolsonaro.
“Today more than ever we need a more vigilant citizenry,” he said. “I am convinced that, if we stay united and act for the good of Peru, we will be the winners of this fight.”
The South American nation has been battling against a scourge of deeply entrenched corruption allegedly involving every living former president as well as numerous judges, politicians and business leaders caught making backroom deals in recent years.
Vizcarra was sworn in as Peru’s president in March when Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned the presidency after opposition lawmakers revealed his private consulting company had received money from Odebrecht while he was government Cabinet minister.
The two prosecutors removed from their posts were also leading probes into three other former presidents – Alejandro Toledo, Ollanta Humala and Alan Garcia – on suspicion of having received money from Odebrecht. Keiko Fujimori, a two-time former presidential contender who leads the opposition party, has been jailed while she is investigated.
Her father, the former strongman Alberto Fujimori, was convicted of human rights abuses and corruption after his decade-long rule.
In early December, chief prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez and the team’s fiscal coordinator, Rafael Vela, reached an agreement with Odebrecht executives who said they would deliver documents exposing bribes made to officials. Prosecutors say the evidence is key to their cases against Fujimori and Garcia.
The agreement was due to be signed in early January.
Chavarry announced the prosecutor’s removal hours before midnight Monday and took no questions regarding the decision. He said he removed Perez for questioning his election as attorney general and Vela for supporting him. Chavarry also accused the prosecutors of blocking his request for information on the Odebrecht case, and he said Perez had made statements calling into doubt his objectivity.
Perez has accused Chavarry of taking steps to hinder the investigations into the Odebrecht links of Fujimori and Garcia, both political allies of the attorney general. Prosecutors also have publicly accused Chavarry of having ties with criminal organizations made up of magistrates and businessmen who bartered power for favors or money.
Chavarry’s decision sparked strong reaction from human rights groups.
Transparency International called the move “a huge step backward in the fight against impunity in Peru” and urged the attorney general to reverse his decision.
Protesters who interrupted their New Year’s Eve celebrations Monday evening took the streets shouting phrases like “Out with Chavarry” and waving Peruvian flags. Citizen groups are calling on Peruvians to take to the street again this week.