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Peru has had five presidents in seven years. Is Castillo next to go?

LIMA, Peru – For Peruvians, the news was as familiar as it was discouraging – the country’s chief prosecutor filed a 376-page complaint, based on an extensive documentary trail and the testimony of multiple witnesses, in which he chairman of taking kickbacks for infrastructure contracts and selling jobs in the public bureaucracy.

Chief Prosecutor Patricia Benavides is asking the Peruvian Congress to waive Pedro Castillo’s presidential immunity just 14 months after he took office, to pave the way for his criminal charges and possible impeachment.

The publication of the complaint came Tuesday just hours after the arrests of three of Castillo’s advisers and three businessmen accused last year of secretly financing his campaign.

The ball is now in Congress’ court. Castillo, a left-wing populist turned outsider president, survived a removal vote in May when lawmakers failed to secure the required two-thirds majority. But now that they are moving into uncharted constitutional territory, they can respond to the complaint in a number of ways, including removing Castillo from office or removing him entirely by a simple majority.

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In its relentless political crisis, this South American nation may have already set a world record by bringing former presidents to justice. But so far it has maintained a democratic standard that incumbent leaders cannot be prosecuted.

A former president is serving a long prison term for leading death squads, another is fighting extradition from the United States to answer bribe charges, and two others are awaiting trial of their corruption cases. A fifth shot himself dead in 2019 when police entered his home to arrest him on bribery charges.

Castillo’s short, chaotic tenure was dominated by allegations of corruption and incompetence. Since taking office in July 2021, he has burned through his political capital; its approval rating has dropped to the low 20s.

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The former rural schoolteacher and wildcat leader, a longtime candidate for the Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party, has based his entire political identity on his humble background and alleged affinity for the poor. But critics say he betrayed Peru’s most marginalized citizens, including by failing to address widespread hunger.

Half of Peru’s 33 million people face food insecurity, double its pre-pandemic levels, and are expected to continue to rise as fertilizers normally imported from Ukraine and Russia are not replaced. Castillo’s response was to insist that the Incas could live without modern fertilizers and that only the “lazy” people would suffer.

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Benavides announced the constitutional complaint on live TV, flanked by a dozen other law enforcement officers, including Harvey Colchado, the police colonel who is leading the investigation into the president’s inner circle and who has tried to fire Castillo.

Benavides said her team had discovered a “criminal organization embedded in the government with the aim of capturing, controlling and directing contract processes at various levels of the state to obtain illegal profits.”

Castillo responded with a private televised press conference – exclusively for foreign media, excluding Peruvian reporters – in which he accused his opponents of launching a “coup d’état.” He is now demanding a court order to suspend Benavides’ action.

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Article 117 of the Peruvian Constitution allows constitutional complaints against presidents for committing treason, disrupting elections, or illegally dissolving Congress.

It differs from Article 113, which allows the removal of a president for “moral incompetence,” a 19th-century term written to cover weaknesses but has been used twice in recent years to force two presidents out of office.

Peru is also a signatory to the UN Convention on Corruption. Some jurists say it obliges the Andean nation to crack down on blatant presidential corruption, reinterpreting Article 117 as the best means of filling the void in Peruvian jurisprudence.

Article 117 requires only a simple majority in Congress to impeach Castillo. Article 113 requires the two-thirds supermajority.

“You cannot have a president who is at the head of a criminal organization but is allowed to fulfill his mandate. That would be crazy,” said Luciano López, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and one of the scientists who first proposed testing the limits of the UN treaty within the Peruvian system.

The majority of Congress is ultra-conservative and viscerally hostile to Castillo. But with many lawmakers eager for their terms, which end in 2026, to expire, it’s unclear whether they’ll pass the constitutional complaint and risk the possibility of snap elections.

Many analysts say firing the president without holding parliamentary elections in addition to a vote to fill a presidential vacancy would be politically unfeasible and could lead to mass protests. Going through its own endless stream of ethics and corruption scandals, Congress is even less popular than Castillo, with around 13 percent approval.

The most glaring example of misconduct allegations is the alleged rape of an aide by Congresswoman Freddy Díaz in July. His colleagues have suspended Díaz for drinking alcohol inside the legislative buildings, but have refused to address the rape charge, which could lead to his removal from office. Díaz denies wrongdoing.

Depending on how Congress responds to the new complaint, Castillo or Benavides could appeal to Peru’s constitutional court. That court has a conservative majority and is unlikely to rule in Castillo’s favor.

Alexandra Ames, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Lima, acknowledged that leaving a potentially criminal president in office would further damage Peru’s ailing democracy. But she warned that evicting him using an untested and perhaps illegitimate mechanism could open the door for a more extreme — and enduring — demagogue.

“The country is increasingly degraded. There is a context of extreme polarization where neither the left nor the right offers real solutions,” she said. “Everyone looks at politics, but no one looks at the crisis of institutions and government policies.”

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