In 1980, I was working for small weekly newspaper in my native Peru called Kausachum, a quechua word that means ‘Long life’. The editor was Augusto Zimmerman, an experienced journalist who had been the press chief of General Juan Velasco, former leader of an improbable left-wing military government from 1968 to 1975.
One day, Luis González Posadas, Velasco’s brother-in-law and a member of the APRA party (American Revolutionary Popular Alliance), the oldest political party in Peru, came to the magazine to talk to Zimmermann. He insisted that we should interview a young Apra deputy called Alan García, and called several times in the following days to ask when the interview would take place. We decided that it would be a good idea to speak to García. After all, the young politician had been an important member of the constituent assembly elected to write a new constitution for Peru, and was making waves in congress with his witty jibes at ministers and ruling party MPs.
García turned up accompanied by an entourage which included Hugo Otero. Otero was the CEO of the most successful publicity company in Peru and was García’s most trusted publicist and a very close friend.
During the interview, he would constantly look across at Otero, as if he wanted to make sure that his publicist approved his answers. When the photographer arrived, Otero panicked. García had turned up in an open-necked shirt and in no way was Otero going to allow the photographer to take a picture of García without a tie.
It was clear that this man was already being groomed to be an important star in the political firmament. Five years later, Alan García Pérez was elected president of Peru. He came topped the ballot in the first round but without enough votes to win outright. As it turned out, however, he didn’t have to face a run-off because his rival, former socialist mayor of Lima Alfonso Barrantes, realised that he stood to lose disastrously, and decided to withdraw.
García’s first government (1985 – 1990) was a breath of fresh air, as it seemed at the time. He won the election on a left-wing programme that seem to be a return to the progressive origins of his party, when Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, a students’ leader, founded APRA while in exile in Mexico in 1924 as an anti-imperialistic movement with continental pretensions. García challenged the International Monetary Fund and refused to pay Peru’s foreign debt. But when he demanded solidarity from other Latin American governments, they turned their back and left him isolated. Also, the need to generate cash in a faltering economy forced the Central Bank to print so much money that, when García left power, Peru was experiencing hyperinflation, the highest in the region. He also tried to nationalise the banking system but a right-wing movement and street protests led by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa prevented the move.
In 1990, an unknown engineer, Alberto Fujimori, was elected as García’s successor and unexpectedly defeated Mario Vargas Llosa in the 1990 general elections. In 1992, Fujimori closed parliament in a ‘self’ coup d’état (autogolpe) and imposed a dictatorial government. García went into exile in Colombia and later in France and only returned to Peru in 2001.
From radical to pragmatist
García was re-elected president for the period 2009 – 2011, but by this time he was an enthusiastic supporter of market economics. No longer the young left-wing president who wanted to defy the international financial institutions, but a ‘pragmatic’ politician who now believed in austerity, fiscal discipline and showed a total contempt for ‘lefty’ environmentalists who wanted to protect the rainforest. García believed in the ruthless exploitation of the Amazon and attacked indigenous people because “they should not think they have a crown on their heads” – a Peruvian euphemism to signify that indigenous people had no right to demand what García believed were privileges. All they wanted was to protect their land from ruthless developers, but García saw such a campaign as an attack on economic growth.
In his second term in office, García started to build the Lima Metro , an ambitious project to help the Peruvian capital deal with its serious traffic congestion. The project was handed over to Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant. At the same time, García took over from his predecessor Alejandro Toledo (himself a fugitive of justice, accused of the same type of corruption as García, who is currently resisting extradition from the United States) a project to build a road to link Peru with Brazil, the Transoceanic Highway. The latter project was also awarded to Odebrecht.
By the time García left power, he was extremely unpopular – the Metro had not been finished and numerous rumours were circulating of money changing hands for both the Metro and the Transoceanic Highway. García left the presidential palace by the back door… literally.
Despite his unpopularity, García stood as a presidential candidate for a record third time in 2016, but his coalition achieved barely 6 per cent of the votes. He immediately announced that he was leaving politics altogether. He was elected honorary president of his party and spent his time writing books, giving lectures and having public spats with the media, who had started to question his probity.
In the past five years or so, the Peruvian judiciary has been the subject of a ‘decontamination’ process, a serious attempt to get rid of corrupt judges and prosecutors, some of whom are now behind bars, and who had worked as the faithful allies of corrupt politicians. A new generation of magistrates has taken control of the investigations of corruption. It is in this context that, Lava Jato (‘car wash’ in Portuguese), the mammoth investigation into alleged cases of corruption (bribes and money laundering) perpetrated by Odebrecht, has reached Peru from Brazil.
Jorge Barata, the former head of Odebrecht in Peru, is being investigated by Peruvian magistrates and will be interrogated in Curitiba, Brazil, where he now lives. He has agreed to cooperate following an agreement reached between Odebrecht and the Peruvian judiciary. Barata has already implicated García, alleging that he took bribes from Odebrecht for the concession to build the Lima Metro and the Transoceanic Highway. He has also promised to send a dossier of 4,000 documents implicating former presidents, presidential candidates, the former mayor of Lima and other high-ranking politicians.
According to César Hildebrandt, one of the most respected journalists in Peru and whose brand of investigative journalism is aggressively accurate, the decision Alan García took to end his own life was the only way out for him. García knew that, this time, after many attempts to escape justice, the authorities had enough evidence to arrest him. His application for political asylum at the Embassy of Uruguay in Lima where he sought refuge in late November 2018, had been denied by the Uruguayan president, Tabaré Vázquez, who reasoned that García was not being prosecuted for political reasons. García was forced to leave the embassy and almost immediately a judge issued a warrant preventing him from leaving the country.
In his widely-read weekly magazine, Hildebrandt en sus Trece, Hildebrandt, claimed that vast amounts of money were transferred by Odebrecth to pawns of García, who later, allegedly, channelled the money to him. At the same time, as Barata told the Peruvian authorities, millions of dollars in bribes were paid for the concession to construct the Transoceanic Highway. Once again, the money was sent to envoys of García whose pseudonyms appeared in secret Odebrecht accounts. Information and documents handed over by Barata were sent to prosecutors in Peru. This enabled the anti-corruption magistrates to obtain an order of ‘preventive arrest’ for up to ten days against García, while they prepared formal charges against him.
Hildebrandt was not the first journalist to investigate alleged cases of corruption against Alan García. Gustavo Gorriti and his media organisation, IDL-Reporteros, was already pursuing García and other political leaders implicated in bribes and money laundering. Gorriti focused his early investigation on allegations of corruption perpetrated by Alan García and Alberto Fujimori, who is back in jail serving a sentence for corruption and crimes against humanity. Gorriti has been the subject of veiled threats by members of APRA and Fujimori’s party, Fuerza Popular, who blame him, the government and the judiciary, for García’s suicide. García himself had accused Gorriti of corruption for his relentless investigations. Now, the Committee to Protect Journalists has asked the Peruvian authorities to protect Gorriti and IDL-Reporteros because of serious threats against their lives.
Death of a salesman
A video has emerged of the raid by the prosecutors on García. He appears dressed in black, standing on the stairs leading to the first floor of his residence. He speaks to them in a calm way and then walks upstairs after telling them he needs to speak to his lawyer. For a second, the video shows him taking a gun from his right pocket. He enters his bedroom. A police officer follows him and stands outside the door. He knocks several times. García does not respond. A few seconds later (the video does not show this) a shot is heard. The police broke the door and found García, sitting by his desk bleeding from a wound to the head. He was taken to hospital where he later died.
When news of the suicide emerged, many believed that it had been an act of sudden anguish, a desperate measure in a moment of confusion. We now know that the whole event was carefully choreographed.
For a start, García’s family rejected the government’s offer of a state funeral to which he was entitled, as a former head of state. After the autopsy, his body was taken to the APRA headquarters in central Lima, known as ‘The People’s House’. There, one of his daughters read his suicide note:
“I have seen others paraded in handcuffs who choose to preserve their miserable existence, but Alan García does not have to suffer such injustices and circuses. For that reason, I bequeath to my children the dignity of my decision; and to my colleagues, a token of pride. And my body as a sign of my contempt for my adversaries, because I have already fulfilled the mission that I set myself.
May God, to whom I go with dignity, protect the good-hearted and the humblest”.
García’s private secretary confirmed later that he had been given the letter a few weeks earlier, that he was the only person who knew about it and that he had clear instructions as to when to hand it over to García’s family.
During the wake, hundreds of APRA followers queued to pay homage to their dead leader and wasted no time in blaming everybody but García for his fateful decision. ‘Vizcarra Murderer!’ they shouted, in reference to the current president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra. APRA’s top ranking politicians blamed the judiciary, the government (‘a nazi’ regime), the police (‘gestapo-like’ force) and the Uruguayan president Tabaré Vásquez. It was a highly politicised event, with leaders of APRA talking about the need to revive the fortunes of a party that has shrunk to levels never seen before in its history. One of García’s sons joined the group in front of his father’s coffin and the procession to the Huachipa cemetery, on the outskirts of Lima, where García’s remains were cremated. The event was more a political rally than a genuine expression of mourning for the passing of an important leader.
Meanwhile, investigations continue. The judiciary has made very clear that the death of García will not change their approach to the investigation of the charges, despite calls from APRA politicians to halt them. Indeed, while doctors were desperately trying to save García’s life, anti-corruption prosecutors remained at his residence, looking for any clues of collusion with Odebrecht. After all, the search warrant authorised the pursuit of material that could lead to other members of García’s close circle in what has been described by prosecutors as a ‘criminal enterprise’.
The pantheon of ‘martyrs’
Throughout its history, APRA has used ‘martyrdom’ as a political tool, as the basis of the mythical image of a party that has been attacked and persecuted for its attempts to revolutionise Peruvian politics. In 1932, during the bloody dictatorship of Colonel Luis Sánchez Cerro, APRA attempted to start an armed insurrection in Trujillo, a coastal city in the north of Peru, birthplace of Haya de la Torre and one of their strongholds. A group of army and police officers, who had been captured by the rebels during the insurrection, were taken out of their cells and killed in cold blood. The government bombarded the city and, after it took back control of the area, retaliated by executing captured APRA rebels in the pre-Inca site of Chan Chan.
The so-called ‘massacre of Trujillo’ has been a potent symbol in APRA’s history. Now, Alan García has joined the constellation of APRA rebels in the pantheon of its ‘martyrs’. Their leaders hope (and they have made no secret of this) that this will help them to take their party to power again, one day. And yet all the investigations so far suggest that García’s action had very little to do with a sincere desire to immolate himself in the name of his integrity and much more with his own role in a net of corruption that has engulfed Peru and many Latin American countries, and for which he would have spent many years behind bars.
The day García died, former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned in March 2018 because of accusations of alleged corruption, was given a three-year term of ‘preventive prison’. Prosecutors argue that these extreme measures are necessary to prevent suspects from absconding. They have a point. After all, former president Alejandro Toledo, another Odebrecht suspect, is a fugitive of justice currently living in the United States.
The death of Alan García has forced many Peruvians to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror, to question the kind of country they really want, and to recognize the overwhelming fact that corruption in Peru is rife and an everyday practice. A group of untainted magistrates seems to be determined to eradicate it once and for all, no matter how high they have to go to achieve that, and no matter the price that has to be paid.
At 36 years of age, Alan García was the youngest president in the history of Peru; he was the first APRA leader to become head of state, twice. And now he has given Peru another first: the first former president to take his own life. Alan García has, undoubtedly influenced Peru’s political life in the past 40 years.
The young, charming firebrand politician I met in 1980 became a caricature of himself, a very angry and frustrated, semi-retired politician who never came to terms with his disastrous election defeat in 2016, where many people let him know in no uncertain terms what they really thought of him every time he visited a large town or a rural village. Later, he tried to escape justice. ‘Prove it, idiots!’ he shouted once when he was asked about his role in the Lava Jato scandal. It is indeed the job of the prosecutors to prove that the evidence they have gathered and expect to obtain, will bear out the allegations. But García himself will no longer stand trial.
Some will remember him as a coward who ran away from justice by killing himself. Others will see him as the politician who bravely ended his life to avoid the indignity of a judicial ‘circus’. At the end of the day, Alan García is the leader who could have been and never was, a great head of state, an appalling waste of a life and a totally unnecessary tragedy.