SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A once beloved leader who helped expand Peru’s economy and reduce its poverty rate could soon be extradited to his home country over a massive corruption scandal that has brought down dozens of politicians and business tycoons in Latin America.
Alejandro Toledo Manrique, who led Peru’s government from 2001 to 2006, has been detained in the San Francisco Bay Area on house arrest — and before the Covid-19 pandemic, in a jail cell — since his July 2019 arrest by U.S. marshals at the request of the Peruvian government.
After more than two years of legal battles, a hearing on the former head of state’s motion to deny extradition is scheduled for Sept. 24, in San Francisco, after which his fate will lie in the hands of a federal magistrate judge.
Toledo is one of four former Peruvian presidents implicated in a sweeping corruption probe involving the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. The company, which changed its name to Novonor last year, admitted to doling out $788 million in bribes for 100 government-funded projects in a dozen different Latin American countries, including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Peru. The company even had its own "bribery department" for paying kickbacks to politicians. Odebrecht and its affiliate Braskem agreed to pay $3.6 billion in criminal fines for the massive corruption scheme in 2016.
In 2019, former Peruvian President Alan García killed himself as police descended on his home to arrest him on corruption charges related to the Odebrecht scandal.
Toledo faces charges of bribery and money laundering. Prosecutors say he arranged for Odebrecht to pay him $35 million in exchange for a lucrative contract to construct two sections of the Interoceanic Highway, a $2 billion project completed in 2012 that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with a 1,600-mile road through Peru and Brazil.
The former president claims two key witnesses — an Israeli businessman and former Odebrecht executive — falsely testified against him so they could avoid prosecution themselves. He also says bank records showing transfers of more than $31 million through various accounts and shell corporations don’t prove the money was intended for his benefit.
The standard for deciding whether to extradite someone under U.S. law is based on probable cause, or whether there is enough evidence to sustain criminal charges against a defendant. After weighing arguments on both sides, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Hixson will decide if the 75-year-old former president should be sent back to face the music in a Peruvian court of law.
Rise to power
Born in the Andes mountains to indigenous Quechan farmers, Toledo was one of 16 children, eight of whom died at a young age due to poor sanitation and lack of public health services. He often touts his humble origins, noting that he used to work as a shoe-shine boy before getting a scholarship to attend college in San Francisco and eventually earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Stanford.
Toledo rose to power in 2001, becoming Peru’s first indigenous president in modern history. He cast himself as a champion of democracy after a bribery scandal brought down the country’s previous authoritarian leader of 10 years, Alberto Fujimori, who was later convicted of human rights abuses.
During Toledo’s five years in office, Peru’s economy expanded about 7% each year, the highest rate of growth in Latin America at the time. Extreme poverty was reduced by 25%, and Toledo struck trade agreements with the United States, Thailand, Singapore, Chile, and Mexico.
“Peru during that period was number one in Latin America,” George Washington University political science professor Cynthia McClintock said in an interview.
McClintock, who has been studying Peru since 1973, described Toledo as a centrist politician and credited him with maintaining freedoms and political rights in a country that has struggled with authoritarianism in the past. Toledo also presided over the country’s first meaningful decentralization effort, allowing more government decisions to be made at the local level, she said.