CARACAS – President Pedro Castillo’s surprise election brought hopes for change in Peru’s unstable and corrupt political system, but the impoverished rural teacher and political neophyte has found himself so engulfed in impeachment votes and corruption allegations that his presidency has become an exercise in political survival.
Chances the leftist leader could accomplish a signature policy such as improving education or health care were slim to begin with, given his lack of support in Congress, and have evaporated as he focuses on staying in office and his family’s freedom.
In just over one year as president, Castillo has survived two congressional votes to oust him, named more than 60 ministers to the 19 agencies that make up his cabinet and confronted six criminal investigations into accusations ranging from influence peddling to plagiarism, one that recently saw a close relative imprisoned. The probes are in their initial stages and no formal charges have been filed.
Castillo says he has not had a “single minute of truce” since taking office and blames it on Peru’s political elite wanting him gone.
“I don’t speak like them, I don’t sit at those opulent tables like them,” he told people gathered at a remote desert community. Later, he told a group of mothers outside a recently restored school that he comes from the lower class and that the accusations will not “break” him.
But Castillo’s tribulations follow a pattern in Peru, which recently had three different presidents in a single week after one was impeached by Congress and protests forced his successor to resign. Almost all former Peruvian presidents who governed since 1985 have been ensnared in corruption allegations, some imprisoned or arrested in their mansions. One died by suicide before police could arrest him. Castillo defeated the daughter of one of those presidents, Alberto Fujimori, during last year’s elections.
The preliminary investigations by prosecutors against Castillo are a first for a sitting president in Peru, as is the preventative detention of his sister-in-law stemming from money laundering allegations.
Peru’s constitution does not specifically say whether a sitting president can be investigated for crimes, and in the last two decades, attorneys general had proposed initiating initial investigations of three acting presidents. One against then-president Martín Vizcarra was opened in October 2020, but the attorney general immediately froze it until the end of the presidential term.
Now, however, there is a new attorney general, Patricia Benavides, who has promised to go “after the investigation of any criminal act, whether it be by the most powerful or any ordinary citizen.”
When he assumed power, Castillo not only faced a fragmented Congress and his own political inexperience, but a distrustful elite upset with controversial campaign promises that included nationalizing key industries.
Castillo was a rural schoolteacher in Peru’s third poorest district before he moved into the presidential palace. His only leadership experience before becoming president was as the head of a teachers’ strike in 2017.
That inexperience makes some doubt whether he is the “ringleader” of corruption scheme, as critics allege.
“That said, you can’t look at Castillo’s record and say, ‘Hey, this guy is honest.’ So, how do we put those together?” said Cynthia McClintock, a political science professor at George Washington University who has studied Peru extensively. "My sense of it is that part of him doesn’t quite understand how careful he should be. Whether he just sort of thought this was the way you do business? It’s unclear at this point.”
Five of the probes against Castillo are linked to what prosecutors describe as a criminal network led by the president, involving influence peddling and other crimes. A sixth investigation accuses him and his wife of plagiarizing their master’s degree theses a decade ago.
One case involves a contract won by a group of businessmen in 2021 to build a bridge. Authorities say an informant claims former Transportation Minister Juan Silva told him late last year that Castillo was “happy” when he received $12,900 after the contract was awarded. Silva is considered a fugitive.
In another case, prosecutors allege that Castillo, his former personal secretary and a former minister of defense requested the promotion of several military or police officers because those moves would net them money. Authorities say they have statements from the ex-head of the Army, José Vizcarra, claiming he was pressured to promote military personnel close to the government.
Authorities also suspect Castillo of obstructing justice for removing an interior minister who had set up a team to capture Silva and one of the president’s nephews, who is also linked to the bridge contract investigation.
“Ideally, the president would resign,” Lady Camones, head of Peru's Congress, said last month. “He has been asked to do so... It would be the ideal scenario. But let’s hope in any case that the evaluation is made by the president.”
In a separate preliminary investigation, agents of the prosecutor’s office last month entered the presidential palace in Lima to arrest Yenifer Paredes, Castillo's sister-in-law, whom he raised and considers a daughter. They searched under Castillo’s bed and in the closets of the presidential bedroom, according to a search report obtained by The Associated Press.
Paredes turned herself in a day later. A judge then ruled she can be detained until February 2025 while authorities investigate her alleged involvement in money laundering.
“They don’t mind breaking the family. They don’t mind leaving our children orphaned, a situation has been designed with the purpose of breaking us,” Castillo said.
Paredes’ attorney, José Dionicio, said prosecutors have no evidence against his client.
Historian Charles Walker, director of the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas at the University of California, Davis, said Castillo’s position is a reflection of the ingrained corruption surrounding government and an implacable opposition that feels it is losing power.
“It’s a perfectly wretched storm,” Walker said. “It does seem that, around him, there is a circle of people getting contracts, doing shoddy work — I mean classic, almost traditional corruption.
"But on the other hand, you have this right wing that feels like it’s besieged Vietnam, that the ultra-left has taken over ... and there’s this incredible paranoia. I think this almost needs psychological explanation because most of their benefits are still intact; the elite economy is doing quite well.”