Peru’s president accused of amassing $500k in jewelry on $50k salary

LIMA, Peru — Even given the low expectations Peruvians have for their leaders, Dina Boluarte was unpopular. For nearly all of her 16-month presidency, her approval ratings have languished in the single digits. She’s widely blamed for the deaths of nearly 50 people killed by security forces while they were protesting her predecessor’s ouster, and accused of standing by while lawmakers dismantle Peru’s democracy.

Her transformation from running mate and vice president of the far-left president Pedro Castillo to a supposedly business-friendly, center-right head of state has left critics calling her a shameless opportunist with blood on her hands.

Still, Boluarte, 61, a mid-level civil servant who became Peru’s first female president, had managed to avoid accusations of being personally corrupt. Until now.

Her government has been rocked by reporting that in the last year she has amassed a personal jewelry collection worth $500,000 on a monthly presidential salary of around $4,200. Highlights allegedly include a $50,000 Cartier bracelet and a $19,000 Rolex watch.

The bombshell revelations come from La Encerrona, a popular news podcast here, which analyzed images of the president on her official Flickr account. That prompted prosecutors to launch an investigation for “illicit enrichment.”

The accusations extend Peru’s apparent world record streak of presidents to come under serious criminal investigation to eight. Every leader of this Andean nation since 1985 (with the exception of two briefly serving, unelected interims) has been the target of at least one criminal probe. Most have been based on apparently solid evidence.

Among prosecutors’ tasks will be to establish whether and how Boluarte bought the jewelry herself or received it as gifts. Either way, critics say, she appears to have breached anti-corruption rules as well as requirements that she declare her assets.

Boluarte claimed initially that she had bought the Rolex before being elected to public office. In a televised address to the nation, she promised to explain herself to investigators, only to skip their scheduled meeting, saying she was too busy.

Prosecutors and police, exasperated, smashed their way into her private home in Lima on Saturday. Items seized, they said, include documentation indicating the Rolex was in fact bought last summer.

Boluarte then gave another national address to accuse prosecutors of “unconstitutional, arbitrary, disproportionate and abusive” actions and suggest that she had been targeted because she was a woman. Surrounded by her cabinet, she vowed not to resign.

Her protests have convinced few here. “She lost the opportunity to give a clear, satisfactory explanation right at the start,” says Samuel Rotta, executive director of the Peruvian branch of the anti-corruption group Transparency International.

“Then she came out with this old saw of this being a personal vendetta against her. It’s just very difficult to reconcile this ostentation with her modest lifestyle before she became president.”

Boluarte now appears set to join the long list of Peruvian leaders whose legacies have been defined by their legal travails.

Castillo and Alejandro Toledo are in pretrial detention, the former accused of corruption and an attempted coup, the latter, of taking a $25 million bribe from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.

Three others — Ollanta Humala, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Martín Vizcarra — face trial on similar charges. A sixth, Alan García, shot himself dead in his home in 2019 as officers attempted to arrest him for allegedly accepting kickbacks.

The seventh and perhaps best known, 85-year-old Alberto Fujimori — credited by many here with defeating the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency — was released from prison last year after Peru’s highest court upheld a controversial 2017 pardon on humanitarian grounds. He had been serving a 25-year sentence for directing death squads as president in the 1990s.

The pardon came despite warnings from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, among others, that he was not eligible for such clemency.

Critics say Boluarte, apparently wary of confronting the far-right congress and provoking her own impeachment, has failed to use her powers to stop it from weakening Peru’s democratic institutions. The body’s approval ratings are also in the single digits; half of its members have themselves been under criminal investigation for alleged crimes ranging from corruption to rape.

The speaker, Alejandro Soto, is emblematic. Convicted of fraud, he recently dodged a prison sentence of nearly nine years after voting in congress for a law that shortened the statute of limitations on that type of crime.

Lawmakers have effectively rewritten the constitution with little public debate to consolidate their own power. They’ve sought to take control of key independent institutions, including the electoral authorities and the panel that hires and fires judges and prosecutors. And they’ve hobbled the fight against corruption by gutting plea deal legislation and undoing reforms against activities including drug trafficking and illegal logging.

Mirtha Vásquez, an environmental lawyer who served as Castillo’s prime minister in an unsuccessful attempt to impose some legality on his chaotic administration, described the contrast between Boluarte’s expensive lifestyle and the poverty experienced by most Peruvians as “shocking.”

“She appears not to understand the reality that ordinary citizens are experiencing,” Vásquez said. She pointed to rising hunger and anemia since the coronavirus pandemic and a record-shattering dengue epidemic fueled by climate change.

“We have soup kitchens that are completely overwhelmed, just as [Boluarte’s] ministry of social inclusion is failing to give them the budget they need to feed the most vulnerable,” Vásquez said. “These acts of corruption have become normalized. Before, you would have had to resign.”

For Rotta, however, the surprise is how Peru’s presidents — and many other public officials — flunk Peruvian history 101: For many, their first stop after leaving office will be the justice system.

“The truth always comes out in the end,” he said. “They just don’t learn.”

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