Peru’s entire judicial apparatus is in chaos following the leak of audio recordings that appear to show powerful officials engaged in various influence peddling and corruption schemes.
The recordings were made during the course of a drug trafficking investigation focusing on the Pacific port city of Callao, an important launching point for international drug shipments.
Last year, prosecutors got warrants to wiretap several telephone numbers that investigators had linked to a local drug trafficking group called the “Castañuelas de Rich Port.” But authorities reportedly did not know who owned those numbers until they started listening to their conversations.
One number belonged to Walter Ríos, the chief justice of Callao’s Superior Court, who was recently put in pretrial detention while prosecutors mount a corruption case against him. Another belonged César José Hinostroza, a justice on the national Supreme Court, who was suspended following the publication of the tapes.
The recordings feature members of Congress, business elites and members of the National Judiciary Council (Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura), an independent arm of the government in charge of naming and overseeing important judicial officials.
Although a number of officials have resigned, been suspended or are being investigated, virtually all of the individuals mentioned in the tapes have denied engaging in illegal or unethical behavior.
What’s In the Recordings?
Despite the fact that the wiretaps came as part of a drug investigation, few of the recordings leaked so far have directly implicated judicial officials with ties to traffickers.
Indeed, the only outlet that has published tapes related to drug trafficking was a television program called Panorama, which aired a segment on July 22 that included conversations featuring jailed Callao crime boss Gerson Aldair Gálvez Calle, alias “Caracol.”
In the recordings, Caracol, who was arrested and extradited from Colombia in May 2016, can be heard complaining about the expense of bribes being demanded by judicial officials from whom he was seeking favors.
“Do you know how much money I spend?” the jailed gang leader says.
Other leaked tapes contain strong indications of apparent criminal behavior by judicial officials.
One recording published by IDL-Reporteros came from an April phone call wherein Supreme Court justice Hinostroza appears to discuss rigging a case involving a defendant accused of raping a child.
“What is it that they want? That he lowers the sentence or that they declare him innocent?” the judge asks.
La República published conversations indicating that Ríos, the judge on Callao’s Superior Court, took bribes in the form of cash and gifts in exchange for influencing the actions of the court.
Many of the conversations don’t necessarily point to outright criminal behavior, but rather suggest that favor-trading and influence peddling is rife in Peru’s justice system.
For example, an article from IDL-Reporteros describes several apparent instances of influence peddling.
In a conversation recorded in January, Ríos lobbies one of his colleagues to promote an employee recommended by a powerful member of the judiciary council.
“Now in this little world called the judicial branch … the word ‘power’ isn’t for the innocent,” Ríos tells his interlocutor. “In some ways in this system, we respond to … certain friends who ask us for certain things.”
Another recording features a different member of the judiciary council asking Ríos to enter into a contract with a university where the council member’s wife works as the dean of the law and social sciences school.
In a March conversation, Ríos appears to manipulate a written exam given to members of the judiciary council. He tells one of his clerks to come up with easy questions in order to “support our friends.”
Yet another article in IDL-Reporteros series centers on a call from Hinostroza to Camayo asking the entrepreneur to help a congressman’s daughter get a job at a law firm that handled legal aspects of Camayo’s business.
The recordings have dominated media in Peru for weeks, in part due to the flood of investigations, resignations, and appeals for judicial reform that their release has unleashed.
A slew of politicians and others have called for a major overhaul of the justice system in the wake of the scandal.
Within days of the release of the first recordings, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra said his administration would create a commission that would offer recommendations for creating an “effective, timely, transparent, efficient and incorruptible” judiciary.
On July 20, Congress dismissed all the members of the National Judiciary Council who had not already resigned after being implicated in the tapes, and on July 23 the legislature declared a nine-month state of emergency to allow for reforms to the body.
Police have also made several arrests and seized more than $25,000 worth of cash from individuals they accuse of forming part of Ríos’ influence network in Callao, which authorities have dubbed the “White Collars of the Port” (“Cuellos Blancos del Puerto”).
However, not all the actions taken in response to the crisis have been aimed at reform. The Organization of American States and the Committee to Protect Journalists both criticized moves by the judiciary and Congress seeking to force journalists who broke the stories to turn over their source material.
Days after the first article came out, police raided IDL-Reporteros’ offices and attempted to seize the news outlet’s materials. Later, IDL-Reporteros director Gustavo Gorriti and Panorama head Rosana Cueva were hauled in front of Congress and threatened with criminal charges if they did not give up their sources.
Gorriti has said that there are more tapes, and more revelations to come. As the leaks continue, it’s likely that calls for reform will only grow louder.
In a recent speech, President Vizcarra laid out six proposed legal changes and one constitutional reform proposal that he said would help combat judicial corruption.
The proposed legal changes include creating a body to oversee the judiciary, modifying the way the Attorney General’s Office participates in corruption cases, increasing public access to information about the judiciary, instituting penalties for lawyers who behave unethically, developing special prosecutorial units dedicated to public corruption cases, and forming a presidential judicial reform council.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Judicial Reform
The president also proposed modifying the constitution to change the way members of the National Judiciary Council are selected. Currently, the council members are elected by the Attorney General’s Office, the judicial branch, the bar association and accredited law schools. It’s unclear what entity or entities would take over the process under Vizcarra’s proposal, but the president said the system should be based on the candidates’ merits.
The president also said the country would hold a referendum to allow citizens to vote on the proposed judicial reforms, as well as potential changes to the political system like barring reelection for members of congress, excluding private funding from political campaigns and changing Peru’s legislature from a unicameral system to a bicameral one.