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Peru's special jail for ex-leaders is all full up

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If Donald Trump were to be convicted for mishandling classified documents, he could become the first-ever former U.S. president to go to prison. Elsewhere in the world, ex-leaders commonly face prosecution and incarceration. In fact, Peru has a special penitentiary for erstwhile presidents. As John Otis reports, it is full.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The Barbadillo prison is located in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima. It used to be a police academy. But so many of Peru's leaders have had trouble with the law that it was converted into a prison for ex-presidents. One of its three cells holds Alberto Fujimori. He became the first presidential inmate after he was convicted of human rights abuses stemming from his time in office in the 1990s. In another cell sits Pedro Castillo, who was arrested in December after he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. The newest inmate is Alejandro Toledo.

ALEJANDRO TOLEDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That's Toledo speaking to a Lima judge overseeing his trial on corruption charges dating back to his presidency in the early 2000s. After the hearing, Toledo was transferred to the Barbadillo prison aboard a police helicopter, a spectacle broadcast live on Peruvian TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: A fourth former president, Ollanta Humala, also did time at Barbadillo for alleged money laundering. Peruvians are of two minds about what must surely be a world record for the most ex-leaders behind bars at one time.

ROSA MARIA PALACIOS: In Latin America, people envy us. Many people abroad said, at least you get them in jail.

OTIS: That's Rosa Maria Palacios, a Peruvian lawyer and political commentator. While it's a good thing that the powerful are held to account, she says the presidential prison is a troubling symbol of Peru's endemic corruption and political instability. Indeed, so many presidents have resigned, been impeached, or tossed in jail that the current one, Dina Boluarte, is Peru's seventh president in the past six years.

ANTONIO ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Antonio Zapata, a Peruvian historian, lays much of the blame on Peru's ambiguous 1993 constitution. It makes it easy for a president to close Congress, but it also makes it easy for Congress to impeach the president.

ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "So it becomes a fight to the death between the different branches of power with no clear rules," Zapata says. One president on the losing end of this equation was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. He was elected in 2016, but was forced out of office 19 months later by the opposition-controlled Congress.

PEDRO PABLO KUCZYNSKI: I was impeached for permanent moral incapacity, but nobody specified what the moral incapacity was.

OTIS: His ouster was related to a corruption scandal, but the allegations date back to when Kuczynski was Peru's finance minister two decades ago.

KUCZYNSKI: I was ordered to go to prison without a trial. I spent three years under house arrest. And I'm still defending myself. Now, the important point, more than what happened to me, is what happened to Peru.

OTIS: Indeed, the ouster of Kuczynski sparked years of turmoil. His successor as president, Martin Vizcarra, was forced to resign, reinstated, then forced out again. A subsequent president served less than a week. Another lasted a single day. The end result has been political paralysis, making it harder for the country to deal with challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, a surge in poverty, and rising inflation.

ANGELO RIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Angelo Rios, an accountant on his lunch break in Lima, says so much instability has caused economic upheaval and business closures. It really hurts us, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Back at Barbadillo prison, I meet a few die-hard supporters at the front gate who are demanding freedom for Castillo, the ex-president who tried to seize dictatorial powers last December.

There's a group of about a dozen protesters. They've put up a Peruvian flag except it's black and white instead of the official red-and-white colors.

But it's not like Castillo and the other ex-presidents are in solitary confinement. Their cells are more like small apartments, and they receive lots of visitors. They even have outdoor terraces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In fact, this Peruvian TV report shows Castillo, who once donned the presidential sash, in a T-shirt and shorts, watering his garden, and planting corn and sweet potatoes. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Lima, Peru. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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