As prosecutors and police officers explained they had an arrest warrant, the former president excused himself to go call his lawyer. He stepped into his bedroom. A single gunshot rang out. Hours later, after an unsuccessful operation to try to save him, he was pronounced dead.
Alan García, the two-time president of Peru (1985-1990; 2006-2011), explained in a suicide note that he preferred to take his own life rather than face the humiliation of an arrest on corruption charges. (If you hadn’t heard of it, it’s because his suicide coincided with the publication of the Mueller report, burying the story in U.S. media.)
García’s death marks the high (or, rather, low) watermark for a massive corruption scandal that has rocked Peru’s political system to its foundation, and has seen nearly all its living ex-presidents under investigation for corruption.
This makes Peru sound like a basket case of corruption, but, paradoxically, the opposite may be true.
There’s reason to think Peru isn’t any more corrupt than any of its neighbors. The difference is that Peruvian prosecutors and courts have proved to be more aggressive and independent in investigating corruption.
We know this is the case because, as it turns out, much of the corruption roiling countries such as Peru isn’t homegrown. Instead, it’s imported from Brazil, where a giant engineering and construction firm, Odebrecht, built an empire by paying bribes to the tune of $800 million to a genuinely frightening array of political leaders all around the region.
Though some level of bribery has long been common in the world of big-ticket infrastructure project licensing, Odebrecht took matters to an entirely new scale. It employed an entire corporate department to, in effect, optimize the company’s bribe-paying. Dozens of employees dealt with nothing else. Odebrecht did to bribery what Henry Ford did to car manufacturing: It disrupted what had been an organic practice and blew it up to industrial scale.
When Brazilian investigators began to look into Odebrecht in earnest, they soon realized the company had bribed nearly everyone who was anyone, not just in Brazilian politics but also around the region. Yet while Odebrecht’s bribery knew no borders, the scandals that followed look very different from one jurisdiction to the next.
The true legacy of the Odebrecht scandals is a paradoxical mismatch between the optics and the reality: The more decisively a country moves to root out corruption, the more sordid stories it uncovers, and the more corrupt it looks. While countries that are moving decisively to root out a culture of corruption see their politics roiled by scandal after scandal, countries that protect the corrupt are untouched by this kind of instability.
In Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia — where bribery is a way of life — the officials theoretically in charge of investigating corruption either are under the thumb of corrupt regimes or are corrupt themselves. In reality, where investigators are powerless, or compromised, corruption scandals can’t erupt.
None of this is exactly surprising. The late economics Nobel laureate Douglass C. North argued that all developing countries — including today’s developed countries back when they were developing — are affected by pervasive corruption, and that it’s only as they meet certain development thresholds that they’re able to rewrite the rules and denormalize corruption.
Today, Latin Americans are finding out how destabilizing that transition can be: It involves jettisoning a whole host of old ideas, norms and attitudes about the proper relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and none of that happens easily, or quickly. Peru’s ex-presidents found themselves caught up in this transition, as the old unspoken norms about corruption give way to new ones that they weren’t brought up with and find strange and unfamiliar.
It strikes me that there’s a neat parallel here with the #MeToo moment: As the Odebrecht scandal has unfolded, powerful men — and they are usually men — have found themselves disoriented by a sudden, tectonic shift in norms where actions that were once tolerated come to be strictly out-of-bounds.
Many find this transition bewildering, and many appear bitterly affronted by what feels like a change in the rules coming midgame. And you can just about understand their surprise as they face real consequences for behavior that, not so long ago, everybody took for granted.
In his note, García complains bitterly about the humiliation of the perp walk being prepared for him and declares his determination to deny his enemies that satisfaction, leaving them a corpse instead. He portrays his suicide as a final, desperate gambit to protect his injured pride. The new norms he was being held to plainly made no sense to him. To a new generation of Peruvians, hopefully they will seem entirely unexceptional.
Francisco Toro is Chief Content Officer of the Group of 50 and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.