Peru’s most wanted man, Rómulo “the rat” León, in custody

After eluding the police for 38 days, Peru’s most sought after man, Rómulo León Alegría, was delivered to the San Jorge minimum security prison on Friday. León turned himself in Thursday afternoon to anti-corruption officials, who are investigating his alleged involvement in Peru’s recent oil kickback scandal, locally known as “Petrogate.”

Dropped off by a cab and accompanied by his lawyer, Eduardo Roy Freyre, a full-bearded and sunglasses-clad León turned himself in to Judge Jorge Barreto Herrera, who is to preside over the case.

“I’m not a person who could live in hiding,” said León. “I felt bad this whole time… my first intention was to turn myself in, because I haven’t committed any crime. I am sure that truth will be my best ally.”

In October, the Sunday night investigative TV news program Cuarto Poder broadcast audio recordings purportedly of Perupetro Vice President Alberto Quimper and Romulo León Alegría, a prominent member of Garcia’s ruling Aprista party, discussing under-the-table payments conditioned on Norwegian Discover Petroleum obtaining oil exploration concessions.

When the audio recording was broadcast, headlines showed an indignant President García describing the two men as “rats”, an epithet that quickly stuck to León, considered to be the chief rat.

According to the recordings, Quimper, Leon and Ernesto Arias-Schreiber, the legal representative of Discover in Peru, were to receive $10,000 monthly in exchange for steering lucrative oil contracts to explore the offshore oil blocks and gas field.

The scandal led the government to suspend five joint exploration and development contracts recently awarded to state-owned oil company Petroperu and Discover Petroleum of Norway. The minister of Energy and Mines, Juan Valdivia, immediately handed in his resignation and only days later, the whole cabinet and cabinet chief Jorge del Castillo resigned. Quimper was taken into custody shortly after he sought refuge in a private medical clinic.

Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister during President Alejandro Toledo’s 2001-2006 government and a longtime opponent of Garcia, said an anonymous person had left him the audio CD, which he later delivered to Cuarto Poder’s TV studio.

A week after the first tapes were released to the press, new tapes surfaced in which Leon allegedly told Discover representative, Dominican businessman and lobbyist Fortunato Canaán, that then Cabinet Chief del Castillo would provide favors in a plan to rig the oil block auction.

León, 62, was minister of Fisheries and a congressman during García’s corruption-riddled first term in 1985-1990. Following accusations of corruption at the time, Leon was expelled from the Aprista party in 1991, but was reinstated as a member in 1998.

León is considered the prime suspect in the “Petrogate” scandal and could face up to eight years in prison if convicted. He says, however, that his conversations with Quimper were “stupid,” but not “criminal.”

“(The conversations) are despicable and grotesque,” added León. “It’s just like the President has said and I admit that, yes, it was stupid.”

“He turned himself in because he has decided to clear up the facts around the accusation,” said Roy Freyre. “He does not believe that he has committed a crime.”

According to Minister of Interior Remigio Hernani, León turned himself in “because he knew (the police) were breathing down his neck,” but Rospigliosi begs to differ.

“(León) has been negotiating during this time with people who have the power to apply pressure on the Judiciary, which in Peru can be pressured by political power,” said Rospigliosi.

This doesn’t mean that tomorrow he’ll be a free man, according to Rospigliosi. “They’ll reduce the charges, or give him parole. He probably negotiated something like that.”

But, according to Leonardo Caparrós, director of Peru’s National Penitentiary Institute, or INPE, León will not be getting “a guilded cage”.

Audio conversation extract published in daily El Comercio:
– León: “Your fees should be deposited in your account.”
– Quimper: “Have yours arrived?”
– L: “Not yet. They won’t pay me until the contract with Petroperu is approved.”
– Q: “And the fat man (this person has yet to be identified)? Why are they going to pay him?”
– L: “Because his has no conditions attached. I think baiting the fat guy is going to be very difficult.”
– Q: “We have to get the fat guy to sign up, and in your case we don’t need any more information.”

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