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Anti-Corruption

The Growing List of Imprisoned Latin American Presidents

A breakdown of current and former heads of state in prison or awaiting trial in Latin America.
EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty

This article has been updated

Brazil’s former President Michel Temer, 78, turned himself over to authorities on May 9 to face bribery charges tied to the construction of a nuclear power plant. Temer spent four days in jail in March on the same charges before being allowed to go home. Since then the former president has seen a handful of separate corruption cases filed against him and the court order that allowed his release overturned. Prosecutors accuse Temer of heading a criminal organization that, over the past four decades, has embezzled around $470 million.

Latin America’s anti-corruption wave has made the region’s presidents more vulnerable to criminal prosecution than ever before. The crackdown in one case had tragic consequences, when, faced with possible prison time, Peru’s former President Alan García committed suicide in April.

Many other leaders have either been convicted and are in prison, or have been charged and are awaiting trial. Below, a breakdown of cases; unless otherwise noted, the list does not include presidents who are simply under investigation, nor does it include those who have been convicted and served out their sentences – or secured release through other means.

Convicted and Serving Sentence

Alberto Fujimori (Peru)– Fujimori is often credited with pacifying Peru and stabilizing its economy amid the Shining Path rebellion of the 1980s and 90s. But his methods left a lasting black mark on Peruvian society – and saw the former strongman charged with everything from embezzlement to crimes against humanity. In 2009, already serving a six-year sentence for illegally searching the home of his former intelligence chief, Vladimir Montesinos, Fujimori was convicted in a landmark human rights case for murder, kidnapping and other atrocities commited under his watch. Now 80, Fujimori has 13 years left on his 25-year sentence, the maximum allowed by Peruvian law. 

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil) – Lula topped polls ahead of last year’s presidential election even after he was convicted of corruption, a testament to “the Bearded One’s” enduring importance in Brazilian political life. But after losing his appeal, an arrest warrant was issued in April 2018, putting an end to his presidential bid. A second conviction killed any hopes of a comeback and Lula now faces up to 21 years in prison, pending appeal. His convictions, for accepting an apartment and a second-home remodeling in exchange for construction contracts, both came under the auspices of the years-long Car Wash investigations that have wrapped up dozens of businessmen and public officials, including Temer. Some see Lula’s crimes as tame by comparison, while he and his supporters say his prosecution was politically motivated. 

Antonio Saca (El Salvador)– Saca was arrested in 2016 and convicted two years later after he pled guilty to embezzling and laundering $300 million in public funds – of which he was ordered to repay $260 million. Saca’s confession, in which he admitting to pilfering state coffers from the very beginning of his presidency, helped win him a reduced 10-year sentence. He’s the only Salvadoran president serving time for corruption, but not the only one to have been accused: His predecessor, Francisco Flores, died while awaiting trial for diverting millions of dollars in aid following a 2001 earthquake. Mauricio Funes, Saca’s successor, is living in exile in Nicaragua, accused of embezzling $351 million – charges he denies.

Charged and Awaiting Trial

Otto Pérez Molina (Guatemala) – The prize catch of Guatemala’s UN-backed anti-corruption body, the CICIG, Pérez Molina resigned and was arrested in 2015 after Congress stripped him of his presidential immunity. Investigators presented evidence he and several other administration officials were involved in what became known as the “La Línea” scheme, a bribery and embezzlement ring at the national customs agency. The case helped raise the CICIG’s international profile, as massive street protests pushed Congress to strip Pérez Molina of his immunity and remove him from office. Four years later, he’s still awaiting trial as lawyers prepare evidence and witnesses to prosecute the case. 

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina) – Prosecutors allege the former president and current senator was a key player in a number of corruption scandals, including the “notebooks” scandal – a decade-long corruption scheme revealed in 2018 thanks to pages of meticulous notes taken by a driver with ties to officials in Fernández’s administration. The notes detail kickbacks, often made in the form of bags of cash, given to dozens of Argentine public officials and business leaders from 2003-2015, while Fernández and her late husband were in office. Even though as a senator Fernández has immunity and can’t be put in jail, she has been indicted multiple times. Her first trial, in a case over irregular public works contracts before and during her presidency, is scheduled to begin this month – just ahead of presidential elections in October in which her name may well be on the ballot. (Argentina’s former President Carlos Menem, who has been convicted of corruption charges, also enjoys legislative immunity.) 

Ricardo Martinelli (Panama) – The billionaire bussinesman and former president of Panama was arrested in Miami in 2017 and extradited a year later on charges he illegally wiretapped dozens of journalists, politicians and business leaders in the time he was in office from 2009 to 2014. Martinelli fled the country in 2015, just days before corruption investigations against him were set to begin. Prosecutors are seeking a 21-year sentence for the former president, but Martinelli remains a powerful political figure – until he was blocked by a court in April, he even tried to run for mayor of Panama City this year despite pending legal questions (and a criminal trial) hanging over his candidacy.  

Álvaro Colom (Guatemala) – Colom defeated Pérez Molina to the presidency in 2007, and avoided his successor’s legal troubles until last February, when he was arrested on corruption charges related to purchases for a public transport system. Colom claims the purchases were made above board, and that he’s confident he’ll be exonerated. His arrest was the result of CICIG investigations in what increasingly looks to be a coda on the UN-backed body’s activities in Guatemala: President Jimmy Morales, facing his own corruption accusations, has decided not to renew CICIG’s mandate, and in January expelled its chief from the country. 

Alejandro Toledo (Peru) – Currently living in California, the former president is accused of taking $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht while he was president from 2001 to 2006. Toledo fled Peru to avoid pre-trial detention while the claims against him were investigated – officials there have now requested his extradition and consider him a fugitive. Toledo is one of four consecutive Peruvian presidents to come under investigation for corruption: Toledo’s successor, García, shot and killed himself in April as police sought his arrest over bribery allegations. Ollanta Humala spent nine months in pre-trial detention while being investigated for money laundering and was indicted on May 7 for accepting bribes from Odebrecht. Pedro Pablo Kuczsynki’s 10-day preventive prison sentence was extended to three years in March while his own ties to Odebrecht are investigated. 

Gonzalo Goni” Sánchez de Lozada (Bolivia) – The subject of the 2005 political documentary Our Brand Is Crisis was charged in Bolivia for human rights crimes committed in 2003, when he deployed military forces to put down popular protests over the sale of gas reserves, resulting in more than 50 civilian deaths and dozens of injuries. The U.S. has refused multiple requests for extradition, but in 2018 a civil court in Florida found Goni responsible for civilian deaths under the Torture Victim Protection Act, awarding $10 million for some of the victim’s families. The legal battle continued, however, after a judge overturned the verdict citing lack of evidence.  

Mauricio Funes (El Salvador) – Funes was charged in 2016 with money laundering and illicit enrichment during his time as president from 2009 to 2014. Along with Saca, he is included in a State Department “blacklist” of corrupt officials in the Northern Triangle. In 2017 he was convicted of embezzlement in a civil court and ordered to repay $206 million; in February El Salvador’s attorney general opened a new investigation into Funes for allegedly trying to buy support in Congress, and in March the country’s Supreme Court confirmed a request for his extradition.

Several additional Latin American ex-presidents face legal trouble of their own. Among the most prominent cases, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, accused of orchestrating the brief kidnapping of an opposition lawmaker in 2012, is in exile in Belgium and would face trial if arrested. Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating former President Álvaro Uribe for witness tampering, while a corruption case against Costa Rica’s Óscar Arias was suspended but may still move forward. And the Lava Jato investigations in Brazil may yet bring down another former president or two (Fernando Collor, president from 1990-1992 and currently a senator, awaits a Supreme Court decision on whether to try him). Whatever their fate, the list of former Latin American presidents facing the prospect of jail time isn’t likely to get much shorter in the weeks and months ahead.

This article was updated to include additional investigations into former presidents in the region.

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Russell is a senior editor and correspondent in Mexico City for AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: anti-corruption, ex-presidents, Prison, Michel Temer, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Alberto Fujimori

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