Jorge Passalacqua, a Canadian graduate student from Montreal, has spent the past seven months in a decrepit Peruvian jail on dubious charges of laundering money for a Lima drug cartel. Police admit there is no evidence against him. The government’s only witness is jailed on fraud charges. Even alleged members of the cartel have testified on his behalf. Nonetheless, Passalacqua, 31, remains in custody. “I’m a hostage of Peruvian justice,” he says. “I made the mistake of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
While President Alberto Fujimori’s personal attention has ensured economic progress and a successful war against Shining Path guerrillas, he has not had the same success in his stated aim of reforming Peru’s notoriously inefficient judicial system. Underpaid judges demand bribes for favorable rulings. Overworked prosecutors have a backlog of some 250,000 cases.
And as Passalacqua’s journey from the hallowed halls of McGill University to the fetid cells of Lima’s Lurigancho prison illustrates, Latin America’s traditional vices of bureaucratic corruption and legal uncertainty continue to plague Peru.
Passalacqua, a naturalized Canadian citizen who moved to Montreal with his family 16 years ago, arrived in Lima last April to finish a master’s thesis in Spanish studies and marry his Peruvian fiancé, Patricia Loli. In June, he temporarily took over Tamiami Travel, a travel agency and courier service owned by his father. It was there that Passalacqua met Lucio Tijero, a regular customer who was arrested last August for heading a major cocaine ring. Anti-drug police summoned Passalacqua to their headquarters after finding the travel agency’s phone number in Tijero’s address book. Other Tamiami personnel simply ignored summonses to appear. But Passalacqua, admittedly naïve about Peru’s judicial system, presented himself to police, ostensibly to answer questions about small commercial transactions Tijero conducted at Tamiami. To his astonishment, he was arrested and sent to Lurigancho.
Today, Passalacqua’s life is a struggle to avoid the drug traffickers and murderers who rule the prison’s anarchic courtyards and miserable cell blocks, Peru’s worst. His efforts have not been entirely successful: a drug-crazed inmate recently stabbed Passalacqua in the right shoulder with a nail. A job in the prison hospital provides some respite, but has brought on the new danger of infectious prisoners carrying
everything from leprosy to tuberculosis, typhoid fever and AIDS.
On April 5, a judge in Lima is set to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for Passalacqua’s case to go to trial. But because the police themselves have conceded in a report to judicial authorities that there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the Canadian’s part, defence attorney Carlos Muente says that he is hopeful his client’s ordeal may soon come to an end. Such is not the case for as many as 4,000 of Lurigancho’s 5,000 prisoners still awaiting trial. “Peruvian law technically includes the presumption of innocence, but the reality is different,” said Muente. “Our judges aren’t independent enough to release anyone without being told to do so.”
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