Investigative journalism in Peru: a pillar in fighting corruption

For the first time since the beginning of its Investigate programmes, CiFAR organised an investigative journalism training in Latin America in Autumn 2023. With the support of GIZ, we gathered 15 early to mid-career journalists in Lima, Peru, for 4 intensive training days around asset recovery, illicit financial flows, and cross-border corruption. To mark the occasion, we wanted to take a look back at the major scandals that have marked Peruvian political life, and the importance of preserving investigative journalism for greater transparency and accountability.

Systemic corruption and political instability

Latin America, and Peru in particular, has been affected by a succession of corrupt officials in power, which has weakened the public sector, infrastructure, justice and citizens’ trust.

Peru has long been plagued by corruption at the highest stages of power, and still struggles to reach principles of transparency, accountability and justice in its politics. In 2022, Transparency International scored the country 36 out of 100 in its Corruption Perception Index, a score of 0 meaning that the country is perceived of as highly corrupt and 100 as very clean.

The most unpopularly famous case of governmental corruption happened under Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru from 1990 and 2000. He and his associate Vladimiro Montesinos orchestrated large bribery schemes used to suppress opposition. Fujimori was convicted of bribery and abuse of power, as well as crimes against humanity and severe violations of human rights and served a 25 years jail sentence. Montesinos was charged for crimes against the government and abuse of power, and is thought to have removed around USD 2 billion of illicitly acquired money out of the country. Since 2002, more than 140 million USD has been recovered from Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Fujimori and Montesinos are far from being the only Peruvian officials to be involved in corruption. The Lava Jato investigation, which started in 2014, exposed many more public figures involved in transnational bribery, money-laundering and corruption related to the expansion of Odebrecht S.A activities, a Brazilian giant construction company. Peru is one of the Latin American countries that have been the most affected by this case, which reinforced political mistrust and popular anger. Following years of procedure, five former Peruvians presidents have been investigated or detained for their involvement in this scandal, one committed suicide when police came to arrest him in 2019, and one is now incarcerated before his trial.

The country is also facing years of political instability, that resulted in weeks of violence and demonstrations after the removal of its sixth president of the last seven years, in December 2022. Pedro Castillo was incarcerated for illegally trying to dissolve parliament. Since the nomination of Dina Boluarte, his successor, at the head of the country, repression has become more violent. Between December 2022 and February 2023, 49 civilians died in clashes with the police. In this climate, journalists have also been targeted, with 11 reporting that they had been attacked by the police while covering the demonstrations.

Press under threat

Press freedom is guaranteed by law in Peru, but the recent years have seen a rise in attacks on journalists. The country has fallen from 77th place in 2022 to 110th place in 2023 in the Reporters Without Borders Index, out of 180 countries. Since the change of the government, in 2022, the police and military have used strategies to silence journalists covering the protests or those not aligned with the government, such as physical force, harassment and disinformation.

Pluralism and truth are also on the edge, as more and more mainstream media have been proved to publish disinformation on several occurrences, including to support the governments in power at the time. One of the latest developments in the Lava Jato scandal, for example, involved two media outlets which accused publicly the directors of IDL-Reporteros and La Republica, both investigating the case, of having close connections with Odebrecht.

As Elena Miranda, a Peruvian journalist from Convoca, phrases it in an GIJN article:

“Investigations into corruption, mismanagement of public funds, and human rights violations in Peru have made journalists and independent media outlets the target of attacks. Reporters have been assaulted while covering protests, and been on the receiving end of legal proceedings, smear campaigns, and attacks by extremist groups”.

As a result, investigative journalism is slowly disappearing from commercial media and is only conducted by a handful of online non-profit news organisations, leaving them with a titanic task.

The trust of Peruvians in their government, institutions and media is fragile, weakened by the recent violences, latent instability and regular waves of financial scandals brought to light in part by the vital work of investigative journalists.

Investigative journalists as sentinels against corruption

Journalists play an increasingly important role in exposing large corruption schemes and pressuring governments and prosecutors to act on such cases, both in the countries of origin and destination of assets. In the political turmoil that Peru is facing in recent years, independent online journalism organisations have taken over investigations and formed alliances to defend truth and accountability, outside of usual media channels.

The main players are Convoca, IDL-Reporteros, Ojo-Publico and Salud con Lupa. Most took part in the major international investigations that shook the world, such as the Panama and Pandora Papers. In Latin America, the independent newsroom Convoca coordinated a big investigation into the Oderbrecht case, called “Investigate Lava Jato” and included 20 journalists from 11 countries, which has followed the case since 2017 and is key to understanding the extend of its consequences.

In 2019, the ICIJ reactivated the investigation under the name “The Bribery Division” and revealed 13,000 leaked documents from Odebrecht’s records, showing even bigger corrupt schemes than the company had admitted. In this new set of revelations, seventeen payments appeared to have reached different recipients, amongst them a company owned by a Peruvian politician, to secure the construction of a gas pipeline in Peru. The Odebrecht company created a unit dedicated to managing the bribes, which inspired the name of the investigation: the Division of Structured Operations. It is said to have paid more than 780 million USD in bribes to government officials between 2001 and 2016, for benefits totalling 3.34 billion USD. This large-scale investigation grouped 50 reporters from across the Americas and contributed to bringing the world’s attention to the complexity of the shadow economy and its ties to power.

As the website of IDL-Reporteros – one of the Peruvian partners on the “Bribery Division” – shows, the twists and turns in these cases never stop.

More recently, Vigila la Pandemia , a cross-border initiative of 17 Latin American journalists, reported on the misuse of public funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the continent particularly hard.

This is one of many. To read more collective investigations carried on in Peru and across Latin-America, we encourage you to go on these independent newsrooms’ website. They operate as watchdogs against corruption and mismanagement in Peruvian politics, often at the price of their security.

Blog by Clara Czuppon / CiFAR.