Peru has experienced some of the most turbulent episodes involving Operation Car Wash, the far-reaching corruption probe that began in Brazil but has roiled politics across Latin America. Four Peruvian presidents have been caught up in the scandal; one of them, Alan García, took his own life right before being arrested last April.
The investigation into graft involving lucrative public works contracts has centered on the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and implicated large-looming figures in business and politics in dozens of countries. But in Brazil, as The Intercept’s reporting on a trove of secret documents revealed, the prosecutors and judges tasked with cleaning up corruption made use of highly questionable and even illegal procedures to accomplish their goals. Now, revelations from Peru show that dubious methods were not limited to Brazil.
Peruvian prosecutors asked a defendant to doctor his reports about connections to other suspects under investigation in the Peruvian iteration of Operation Car Wash, according to audio files given to The Intercept by a source who requested to remain unidentified, which were jointly analyzed with the Peruvian investigative journalism site Ojo Público.
The prosecutors wanted help in investigations targeting former President Ollanta Humala and another local politician. The defendant, Martín Belaunde Lossio, a financier and political operative currently under pretrial detention on unrelated charges, hoped to cooperate in order to shorten his own prison sentence. Belaunde, who previously served as Humala’s campaign manager, is a central figure in a corruption case involving the former president, who was in office from 2011 to 2016.
The audio files reveal what the official record leaves out — that testimony was closely coordinated and, in some cases, suppressed.
The recordings capture conversations between Belaunde, his attorney, and prosecutors as the cooperating witness offered up information to negotiate a potential plea bargain. We confirmed the veracity of the audio files based on several pieces of evidence. Among them, the speakers identify themselves by first and last name and provide personal information that we have verified. In addition, a portion of Belaunde’s signed written statement corresponds with what was said in the recordings. The audio files reveal what the official record of these interviews leaves out — that testimony was closely coordinated and, in some cases, suppressed.
In the recordings, Belaunde claims that a prosecutor in the Peruvian Operation Car Wash investigation asked him to omit his statements about an alleged campaign donation from Odebrecht to Humala, because the director of Odebrecht’s Peru operation had denied the payment. Any mention on the money was, by agreement between Belaunde and the prosecutors, removed from the written record in order to avoid contradictions that could put the Car Wash case at risk.
The recordings also reveal that two prosecutors asked for adjustments to be made to Belaunde’s testimony as they prepared charges against César Alvarez, a former governor from the Peruvian region of Ancash. The prosecutors discussed how to avoid bringing Belaunde’s potential plea agreement before a judge who had overseen phases of earlier cases involving alleged Odebrecht payments to politicians. Instead, they set their sights on another judge who would presumably have a less detailed working knowledge of the Odebrecht scandals.
In Peru, the prosecutor’s role is to act as an impartial fact-finder. The move to omit Belaunde’s testimony is illegal, as Peruvian law prohibits giving false information to prosecutors when negotiating a plea bargain. Furthermore, if contradictions exist among the information compiled, those discrepancies should be presented to a judge — something the Peruvian prosecutors explicitly sought to avoid.
Taken together, the moves by the prosecutors in their discussions with Belaunde stand as the latest example of an investigation run amok — often thanks to overzealous and sometimes unethical prosecutorial behavior.
The Car Wash investigations have upended politics in dozens of countries. In Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was charged with corruption and imprisoned, therefore nullifying his bid to run for president again.
In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Odebrecht and its petrochemical arm Braskem had confessed to Brazilian, American, and Swiss authorities their complicity in bribery charges involving 12 countries, including Peru. The Peruvian public prosecutor’s office launched its own Car Wash investigation within a week, drawing on contacts within the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office for information. In May, Humala became the first former president to be formally charged with a crime in Peru’s Car Wash investigation.
Looming behind the massive investigations and indictments are a series of witnesses like Belaunde, prominent but ultimately middle-management figures who cooperated at various points with prosecutors. In the cases involving both Humala and Alvarez, however, discrepancies between Belaunde’s account and evidence already collected would present an obstacle that prosecutors were bent on circumventing. That much is clear at numerous points during the more than 12 hours of conversations recorded in the maximum-security Piedras Gordas penitentiary, where Belaunde is currently being held. He and his lawyer say in the recordings that they are willing to adjust their stories for the prosecutors.
“If it’s useful for you, we’ll say it,” Belaunde says in one of the conversations. “And if not, then it’s as if nothing happened.”
Prosecutors began their secret plea negotiations with Belaunde in March 2019. Over the next two months, five meetings took place between Belaunde, his lawyer, and the two prosecutors in charge of a regional investigation into organized corruption. The investigation, known as La Centralita, was not initially part of the sprawling Car Wash probe, but in 2017, it became entangled with suspected crimes by Odebrecht, the company that had featured in many of Brazil’s Car Wash cases.
The two prosecutors, Elmer Chirre and David Castillo, were not part of the team investigating Car Wash, but they had sealed plea-bargain deals with two former Odebrecht employees that year as part of their own investigations. Chirre was in charge, and Castillo, an assistant prosecutor, was a member of his team.
Yet there was a problem: Belaunde’s testimony did not match up with that of Jorge Barata, the former director of Odebrecht Peru and the main whistleblower in Peru’s Car Wash case. Belaunde’s and Barata’s stories contradicted each other in describing incidents involving Humala. And the discrepancies made prosecutors uneasy, according to the audio recordings obtained by The Intercept.
The prosecutors scrambled to hide the potential problems.
The prosecutors scrambled to hide the potential problems. “Whatever you tell us, it has to agree with the prosecution’s line,” Castillo told Belaunde and his attorney, Luis Fernando de la Cruz, in one of the leaked recordings.
Belaunde was speaking to the prosecutors as a candidate for a plea bargain, attempting to strike a deal as a means of lowering his prison sentence. The records of these meetings, which are not public — but which The Intercept and Ojo Público viewed — memorialize the testimony as if it strictly followed protocol. These documents, however, omit the unethical dealings between the prosecutors and witness revealed in the audio recordings obtained by The Intercept.
In the recordings, Castillo told Belaunde and his attorney that he was coordinating with the Car Wash team and mentioned fellow prosecutor Germán Juárez, a member of the Car Wash team responsible for the investigation into Humala.
Since the recordings were made, negotiations have not moved forward. Less than two months after the conversations, in May, the Peru Car Wash investigators made public the allegations against Humala and 12 other corporations and executives, including Belaunde. Part of what Belaunde said in his plea-bargain talks, however, was left out of the allegations — the parts that directly contravene what the Odebrecht whistleblowers said.
Castillo claimed that he does not recall the details of his meetings with Belaunde. He also refrained from commenting on having given instructions to the cooperating witness to avoid contradictory testimony. “I don’t even know what to say about this information, as I’m quite surprised by it,” he said. Belaunde’s defense declined to comment.
Belaunde was working as a corporate executive — he owned a political PR company — when he was invited to become campaign manager for Humala’s presidential bid in 2006. In the first round of voting, Humala was ahead, but his opponent, Alan García, turned the tables in the second runoff and narrowly won a majority.
Five years later, Humala ran a second time and again enlisted Belaunde as his campaign manager. This time, when the election again went to a second round, Humala faced off against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who is in prison for human rights violations, among other charges. Humala emerged victorious with a slim majority of the votes.
Soon, in May 2014, legal troubles arose for Belaunde. A warrant was put out for his arrest for suspected involvement in the Centralita case. Before he could be captured, however, Belaunde fled the country and went missing for several months. He was located in December 2014, in Bolivia, where he had requested political asylum. Belaunde was detained in Bolivian territory and eventually placed under house arrest in the residence of a cousin in La Paz.
In May 2015, Belaunde disappeared again and contacted a Bolivian TV program in secrecy to declare that he was not a fugitive; he said he had been kidnapped. Less than a week later, he was discovered in the north of the country and finally delivered to the Peruvian authorities the next day, in order to avoid any further escape attempts.
By 2019, Peruvian prosecutors seemed to have seen the utility of using Belaunde as a witness in the Car Wash case. Belaunde received his status as a candidate for a plea bargain and, on March 18, Castillo deposed him about his dealings with various suspects under investigation, including representatives of Odebrecht Peru. In a recording obtained by The Intercept, Castillo reads a list of names and asks Belaunde about his relationship to each person. Jorge Barata, the former director of Odebrecht in Peru, is among the names.
Castillo: Here, I’m going to ask you to provide me … or that you be a bit more precise because this is the first time that I’m going to ask you about this man, this — close the door, please — Jorge Simoes Barata.
Belaunde: What can I say, if Barata has said he doesn’t know me?
Castillo: Let’s see, how could we —
Belaunde: Barata has said he doesn’t know me, and Juárez told me to say that I don’t know him.
Castillo: Oh, I see, I see — meaning that in your case, you don’t know Barata.
Cruz: The thing is, because they don’t want the cooperating witnesses to —
Cruz and Castillo: — contradict each other.
Cruz: He doesn’t want a cooperating witness to say that he knows him, and Barata says that he doesn’t know him, so …
Belaunde, who had already given separate depositions to the Car Wash task force, breathlessly delivered his statements. He claimed that the Car Wash prosecutor, Juárez, had asked him to omit details about his relations with the former director of Odebrecht Peru.
This was far from the only detail of the exchange that should raise eyebrows. Belaunde’s version showed a far more drastic incompatibility: He said he had brokered a deal with Barata for a $400,000 kickback to be paid to Humala’s 2006 presidential campaign. Belaunde said that this statement was suppressed in his deposition to Car Wash investigators. “It’s simply that Barata has denied it all, so obviously Juárez has put it aside and it’s not part of my deposition,” Belaunde says in the recording.
The purported kickback scheme involving Odebrecht had never seen the light of day.
The purported kickback scheme involving Odebrecht had never seen the light of day. And in order to keep their witnesses’ stories straight, the national Peruvian prosecutors negotiating Belaunde’s plea agreement made sure to keep it that way.
The alleged scheme came up again, though, in Belaunde’s plea talks a week later. Belaunde’s lawyer said that Barata’s statements were the “Achilles’ heel” in the testimony his client was offering as part of the plea bargain:
Cruz: But here I think that the issue, the Achilles’ heel, is going to be what Barata hasn’t declared, right?
Castillo: Barata hasn’t declared, right? …
Castillo: Because I think that you [Belaunde], the last time we talked, were telling me that Barata was denying that there had been a meeting where he delivered $400,000.
Castillo: He won’t touch that subject.
Castillo: He won’t put it as a fact.
Cruz: He won’t touch it anymore because they talked to Barata before and Barata denied it, right?
Belaunde’s account of the purported $400,000 bribe was not only left out of the written record of his plea-bargain testimony, but also ignored when the prosecutors brought the case against Humala to court two months later.
Juárez denied having manipulated Belaunde’s statement about Barata. “When I interviewed Belaunde, I told him what Barata had stated and that therefore, his deposition had not been corroborated. But I never told him to state that he didn’t know Barata, I do not demand statements this way,” he said.
He also stated that he did not ask Belaunde to omit mention of the supposed bribe to Humala. “I can’t go around making extreme accusations when I don’t have information backing them up — if not, these facts won’t be corroborated. But this doesn’t mean that I told this cooperating witness to say that things didn’t take place, and otherwise it seems he has misinterpreted me.”
Although Belaunde sporadically mentions Humala in the recordings, the former president was not the main focus of his testimony. The prosecutors were more interested in Belaunde’s participation in the Centralita case, whose primary target was César Alvarez, the former governor of Ancash. Among the accusations against Alvarez was that he and his allies had demanded bribes from Odebrecht for two construction projects. Belaunde was involved in one of these cases.
Separate witness testimony that came to light a short time before the Belaunde recordings were made implicated him in a bid with Odebrecht, on behalf of Alvarez, to receive bribes in exchange for the contract of the Chinecas irrigation project in Acash. The deal, according to the accusations in this testimony, never came to fruition because the former governor demanded a kickback of 10 percent of the total value of the project, while the Odebrecht officials would only agree to pay 2.5 percent.
As soon as Castillo sat down to speak with Belaunde and his lawyer on March 18, before entering testimony into the official record, the prosecutor warned that any evidence Belaunde might hand over would have to be “in agreement with the public prosecutor’s version.” If it conflicted with what they had collected, the prosecutors simply couldn’t include it.
Castillo: This paperwork, if you want to submit it, it needs to specifically corroborate what you are going to tell us, and whatever you tell us, it has to agree with the prosecution’s line.
Belaunde was one of 60 people who had been indicted in the Centralita investigation over a year earlier. He was accused of being a member of the organized crime group led by Alvarez.
In the first few minutes of the recording, Belaunde points to a slip-up in his testimony: He was accused of participating in crimes dating back to 2008 but maintained that the meetings he had with Odebrecht representatives to broker kickbacks for the Ancash irrigation project had been in November 2007. Castillo does not waver: “Let’s see how to correct that, so that it matches the information that you have provided us.”
Cruz: The idea is to smooth —
Belaunde: That’s very clear to me. That’s why I was saying — because I’m telling you, the first clash we have is that they’re accusing me of being part of it since 2008. But if I’m part of it since 2008, and all the meetings were in November 2007 —
Castillo: All the meetings with the people from Odebrecht were in 2007.
Cruz: That’s why, he says, “No, we’re going to change that for you.”
Castillo: Let’s see how to correct that, so that it matches the information that you have provided us. Remember that this information that we’ve put forward as the prosecution’s theory has been based on all the information that we have collected from other people and other witnesses.
At the time of Belaunde’s plea-bargain testimony, the Centralita case had already been built upon various other agreements with witnesses. One of these was Jorge Burgos Guanilo, who directed Belaunde’s political marketing firm and was later identified as an Alvarez operative. In the recordings, Belaunde points out that much of the evidence he intends to offer would contravene the testimony offered by Burgos.
Chirre: What documents have you selected?
Belaunde: No, I have everything, the thing is that many contradict what Burgos says.
Castillo makes clear that anything that might contradict earlier statements by other witnesses should be left out. Belaunde immediately complies and offers to produce a list of all the information he has, so that the prosecutors can select item by item what should be kept out of his testimony.
Castillo: As long as it didn’t contradict anything, right? Our stance is that it must match, as long as it doesn’t contradict [unintelligible] … As long as it’s not contradictory.
Belaunde: I’m going to make a list of everything there is, and you tell me, “Take this out, take that out.”
Belaunde and the other defendants in the Centralita case continue to cooperate as part of the inquiry — no convictions or sentences have been handed down. Notably, the two cases involving Odebrecht within this investigation have taken completely different paths: The Chinecas case, in which Belaunde was involved, has not even reached a stage where charges have been levied. Meanwhile, the other case linked to Odebrecht — in which Belaunde is not involved and is offering evidence as part of a potential plea bargain — resulted in the first conviction for Odebrecht Peru last June.
In seeking to mask the contradictions between Belaunde’s potential plea-bargain testimony and depositions from other witnesses, Peruvian prosecutors were not merely concerned with hiding the inconsistencies from the general public. They wanted to ensure that his plea bargain would be accepted — and the evidence offered entered into record — which would mean hiding the discrepancies even from Peruvian judges.
The prosecutors were counting on the fact that if Belaunde’s plea bargain was accepted — which has not yet happened — it would be sent to Richard Concepción Carhuancho, an examining magistrate in Peru’s Car Wash investigation. The role of an examining magistrate in Peru is to handle the pretrial phase of cases — authorizing arrests and methods of investigation — but not to rule on the innocence, guilt, or sentence of the accused.
Carhuancho had presided over the early phases of the Centralita case, including the investigation into Alvarez, in which Belaunde served as a key witness. (Carhuancho has said that he is inspired by the “work ethic” of former Judge Sergio Moro, who previously presided over the Car Wash cases in the Brazilian state of Paraná and is currently minister of justice in President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government.)
But Carhuancho did not handle the examining magistrate’s duties in the later phases of the Centralita cases; instead, that fell to Maria de los Angeles Álvarez Camacho. She was responsible for reviewing the plea-bargain agreements made in connection with Odebrecht.
“If we go with a version perhaps a bit contradictory, dissimilar to what she has, she won’t approve it.”
Chirre and Castillo were worried that a potential plea-bargain agreement struck with Belaunde might be sent to Álvarez Camacho — and that she might spot any potential discrepancies between his accounts and what she had already seen. As a result, she might reject Belaunde’s plea bargain. “So, if we go with a version perhaps a bit contradictory, dissimilar to what she has, she won’t approve it,” Castillo says in the recordings obtained by The Intercept.
Carhuancho did not participate in any of the taped conversations with Belaunde in the Piedras Gordas prison, but both Castillo and Belaunde’s lawyer repeatedly comment that any plea-bargain deal they struck would only be approved if it went to Carhuancho. Before beginning the official questioning on March 18, Castillo lays out the problem:
Castillo: I believe this is with Juárez, I think he would approve it — he would approve it with Judge Carhuancho. I mean, Judge Álvarez Camacho won’t see this. I mean, we go through the information collection, the corroboration, and from there it goes to the other side.
Cruz: It accumulates and then it’s approved.
Castillo: Well, I understand that he’s going to have to ask Carhuancho if the information that Mr. Belaunde —
Cruz: A short report you have to do, I think, of the information, if it was useful.
Castillo: That way, we must consider that all that information must agree with what we have.
That Belaunde was of interest both to Car Wash investigators and Chirre’s Centralita team could end up provoking a judicial dispute over who should ratify the plea bargain. Would it be Carhuancho, who presided over the Car Wash proceedings in the first court of appeal? Or would the task fall to Álvarez Camacho, who reviewed all of the plea-bargain deals with Odebrecht employees? The prosecutors hoped that it would fall to Carhuancho:
Cruz: The most dangerous thing for a prosecutor is when there are two witnesses —
Cruz and Belaunde: — that contradict each other.
Cruz: Because that’s going to be used by the defense.
Castillo: The interesting thing here is that, like you told me, in a way, this plea bargain won’t be approved by our judge, I mean by Judge María de los Ángeles, because she already knows the facts, she knows the witnesses whom she questioned. So, if we go with a version that is perhaps a bit contradictory, dissimilar to what she has, she won’t approve it. So, how do you — but is it a sure thing that Judge Carhuancho will approve it?
Cruz: As well, prosecutor, we don’t want [that] either, that’s why I told you, we are interested in seeing the Burgos [depositions] to follow more or less that path [unintelligible].
Castillo: Of course, of course, because the prosecutor in charge is informing me and I’m trying to channel it to this side. And what I’m telling you is that —
Belaunde: We need to strengthen the —
Castillo: Of course, the idea is that Mr. Belaunde reinforces some theory. Whatever needs to be specified or corrected — because probably they will return the accusation to us, it always happens. This would already be part of the strategy. But there’s no problem on this side. But if this cooperating testimony, I think it is going to be approached by another judge, I think that would be Judge Carhuancho, wouldn’t it?
Cruz: Yes, within a stack of several cases. …
Castillo: Oh, I see, then if another judge is going to do it, all the better, because at least there won’t be this contradiction.
Belaunde: Of course, Judge Carhuancho knows the initial facts because Judge Carhuancho was the one who threw us in jail. Judge Carhuancho knows the initial facts. Nothing else.
Prosecutors, Belaunde, and his lawyers, then, did not prefer Carhuancho because the judge would collude with them, but simply because he would be more likely to ignore details of the case that are outside the scope of Car Wash. This is the outcome that Belaunde and the prosecutors are betting on to seal their plea bargain — in order to mask their deception by omission.
The Intercept asked Elmer Chirre and Richard Concepción Carhuancho to comment on the reporting. Neither replied.