A number of whistleblowers in the Odebrecht corruption scandal have died under mysterious circumstances, and now a prosecutor in Peru says that a witness who reported a million-dollar bribe to a former president has received death threats.
Peruvian prosecutor José Domingo Pérez alleges that investigators and witnesses are facing threats from a “radical group” dubbed the “Fuerza de Choque,” or “Shock Force,” within the South American nation’s American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Partido Aprista Peruano -- APRA) political party, EFE reported.
“It’s a radical group looking to frighten and intimidate those who can testify in favor of the Attorney General’s Office," said Pérez, adding that authorities cannot continue the investigation until members of this supposed group are identified, according to EFE.
SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profile
Peruvian businessman Miguel Atala Herrera was the alleged target of the threats. He had reportedly testified about a million-dollar bribe that former Peru President Alan García -- an APRA leader for decades -- allegedly accepted from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction conglomerate at the heart of the investigation, according to El Comercio. Authorities have since opened an investigation into the matter.
The alleged threats come weeks after García shot and killed himself just as authorities were prepared to arrest him in connection to the extensive bribery investigation. Odebrecht allegedly paid corrupt officials in Peru about $29 million in relation to more than 20 public works projects.
Fall out from the corruption case has rocked Peru’s political class.
In March 2018, former Peru President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski became the first serving Latin American head of state to resign due to the wave of accusations linked to the case. Keiko Fujimori, founder and president of the right-wing Popular Force (Fuerza Popular – FP) political party, is also accused of receiving illicit campaign funds from Odebrecht. Former President Alejandro Toledo is also wanted for allegedly accepting some $20 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction giant.
InSight Crime Analysis
As the corruption scandal has swept across Latin America, a number of investigators, government officials and key witnesses working on the case have found themselves in a precarious position: either stay silent and let the wheels of corruption keep on turning, or take the risks that come with exposing the misdeeds of some of the region’s most powerful people.
In Colombia, at least four individuals key to the Odebrecht investigation have either died mysteriously or been seriously injured.
Jorge Arango, one of three arbitrators working to resolve issues with a contract between Odebrecht and Colombia’s National Infrastructure Agency (Agencia Nacional de Infraestructura -- ANI), died of a heart attack in August 2018. This contract was reportedly the cornerstone of Odebrecht-related investigations against public officials in Colombia, according to El Tiempo.
Arango isn’t the only individual connected to Odebrecht to suddenly die from health problems.
Auditor Jorge Enrique Pizano was a critical witness for Colombian prosecutors. He had reportedly uncovered suspicious payments regarding a highway project involving Colombia’s largest banking group and Odebrecht. Pizano also recorded discussions of contract irregularities with Colombia Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez, who was an attorney for a small partner company of Odebrecht at the time. Pizano, who was suffering from cancer and ultimately died of a heart attack, provided the recordings to a news station on the condition that they would only be broadcast in the event of his death.
Days after Pizano’s death, his son, Alejandro Pizano Ponce de León, traveled to Bogotá from Spain for his funeral. At the family home where his dad died, the younger Pizano took a drink from a bottle of water sitting on his father’s desk. He soon turned intensely ill and died en route to the hospital from what later turned out to be cyanide poisoning.
Later in December of that same year, another key witness, Rafael Merchán, turned up dead from an alleged suicide. It was later discovered that he too had traces of cyanide in his system. Merchán was to testify in favor of* former ANI President Luis Fernando Andrade to help clear up alleged irregularities in contracts signed with Odebrecht, according to El Espectador.
In another suspicious incident last year, Amparo Cerón Ojeda, Colombia’s lead prosecutor on the case, was gravely injured in a serious car accident in Chile. Prior to the accident, Cerón Ojeda had charged several officials and was investigating members of Congress in connection to the bribery scheme.
While nobody has yet to be accused or convicted of any crimes in connection to these curious deaths and bizarre incidents, controversy and speculation has swirled around them. At the very least, being a witness or investigator in this case seems hazardous to your health.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Merchán was going to testify against ANI President Luis Fernando Andrade.