The editor's corner

Peru: When corruption threatens justice

By Nick Rosen

Peruvians are more suspicious of their courts than almost anyone else in the world, and they are right to be.

Peru: When corruption threatens justice

Peru's Palace of Justice (Victoria Alexandra González Olaechea Yrigoyen/ Creative Commons 3.0)

Two cases this week have shown a spotlight on the perception of corruption in the Peruvian legal and penal systems.

In the first case, a television report alleged that during his presidency, Alan García had pardoned or reduced the sentences for 400 convicted drug traffickers. A local newspaper reported that a Congressional commission investigating García had received testimony that the past administration was charging inmates $10,000 for every year of prison time that was knocked off their sentences.

Yesterday, in a ruling that was widely condemned, a judge ordered that the La Parada market be reopened, months after the municipality had closed it. Prior to the ruling, Lima’s solicitor said that he had heard that businesspeople from the market had raised S/. 70,000 to pay for a favorable ruling. Press reports said that rumors circulating around the courts put the number at more like S/. 200,000.

Now, we don’t know if the rumors are true in either case. However, they do point to the deep mistrust with which Peruvians view their legal system.

In a 2007 Transparency International study of citizens in 62 countries, Peruvians were the second-most likely to consider their country’s legal system to be corrupt. More than 80% of Peruvians felt that there was corruption in the judiciary. That number surpassed the perception of corruption in countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia. The same study found that more than one-third of Peruvians who had interacted with the justice system in the previous twelve months had paid a bribe.

Corruption, in any form, is terrible. However, there is something uniquely horrifying about corruption in the legal system. The courts, after all, are supposed to be the final recourse for victims, the place where everyone, rich and poor alike, has the same rights. The courts are where fairness and truth are supposed to reign. And it is the legal system that is supposed to protect citizens from corruption and abuse.

A corrupt legal system prevents reforms that benefit the majority of citizens, makes it impossible to improve security on the country’s streets, and threatens investment. While there are plenty of honest judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials, their corrupt colleagues cast down on the legitimacy of the whole system.

The NGO Justicia Viva has proposed ten reforms to help combat judicial corruption. None of them requires a wholesale overhaul of the justice system, but the reforms would improve oversight, investigation of corruption allegations, and sanctions for corrupt practices. Similar reforms should be made to the system of pardons and clemency.

Hopefully, changes are made soon. The Peruvian people deserve a judicial system that favors the innocent and the righteous, not the highest bidder.