This article is adapted from our 1st print issue of 2016. For an overview of our Top 5 Corruption Busters, click here.
José Ugaz was just a few years out of law school in his native Peru when a client came to him with an unusual request: A judge was demanding $1,000 to settle a routine trespassing dispute, and the client wanted help paying him off.
Ugaz responded by orchestrating a police sting that jailed the judge. “We photocopied the bills and went to his office at 10 in the morning. I gave him the $1,000 and signaled for police to go in,” Ugaz, 56, recalled with a chuckle. “That’s how it all started.”
“It,” in this case, is a corruption-fighting career that has toppled a number of high-ranking officials on the take, including Peru’s former president, Alberto Fujimori. Ugaz was asked by Fujimori to oversee some of the country’s biggest corruption cases in the 1990s. But his investigation of spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos eventually led to Fujimori himself. The then-president fled to Japan — where he resigned the presidency via fax. Ugaz and his team opened some 200 cases against more than 1,500 people, and eventually put both Fujimori and Montesinos behind bars.
But Ugaz, whose powerful physique underlines his pit bull reputation, would rather focus on the battles ahead than tell war stories about past victories. His election last year to chair the anticorruption organization Transparency International means Ugaz will have a chance to test his mettle on the global stage. He has no intention of treading lightly.
Ugaz says a close look at the sources of wealth for the world’s 85 richest people would likely reveal that as many as 60 percent have built their fortunes with illegal or, at best, questionable practices. “So they’ve essentially stolen from the 3.5 billion living in extreme poverty.”
Such confrontational talk might once have unsettled Transparency International, which launched its Corruption Perceptions Index in 1995 to grade individual countries’ comparative levels of corruption based on surveys of businesses. But founder Peter Eigen, who also serves as chair of the group’s advisory council, said Ugaz’s election reflected a decision to take a “more forceful” approach to corporate and government wrongdoing.
Eigen said Ugaz’s “powerhouse” reputation, along with his practical experience in the global South, will be critical to the organization, which now has chapters in over 100 countries. “He knows how to make sure people go to jail,” Eigen added.
But back in Peru, and despite the promises of Fujimori’s successors to uproot corruption, there has been little progress. Ugaz believes that a never-ending series of scandals among the political elite has left most Peruvians too jaded to push for reforms.
“The big corruption cases raise awareness and provide lessons for the future, but the problem in Peru is that the lessons haven’t been learned,” Ugaz said. “The worst part is that the victims of corruption aren’t even aware they’re victims.”
He recalled watching a TV interview with a poor woman who said corruption doesn’t affect her because she doesn’t pay taxes.
“She didn’t know that her poverty is a consequence of corruption, that she lacks education, health care and housing because someone ran off with the money that should have been distributed to her,” Ugaz said. “In countries like mine, corruption has turned into a way of life.”
Taj is a reporter for Reuters based in Lima.