Peruvian President Ollanta Humala chose the Vatican as the place to reveal the capture of a high-profile fugitive to the foreign press on Thursday.
Rodolfo Orellana, the alleged kingpin of a criminal web that reached into Peru’s judiciary and police, was detained in the city of Cali, in southwestern Colombia, on Wednesday night.
After 45 days of monitoring the 50-year old lawyer, a joint operation by Peruvian, Colombian and U.S. anti-drug agents snagged Orellana in a house he owned, still in his pajamas. He stands accused of masterminding a criminal network that gained $100 million through money laundering and extortion, including conning the state out of $20 million worth of unfulfilled contracts for public works projects.
Orellana’s five months at large, together with the saga of another striking fugitive – Victor Belaunde, Humala’s press manager during his failed 2006 presidential run – had amped up pressure on the president and his interior minister, Daniel Urresti, to get results.
Those failures have gnawed at Humala’s authority, with almost half of those surveyed in a recent poll saying the president didn’t want to capture Orellana.
After state visits to Russia, China, and now Italy to visit Pope Francis, critics have also cast suspicion on the timing of the President’s announcement. In an interview, opposition congressman Hector Becerril told radio station RPP the capture was a “smokescreen” to divert attention from the Belaunde case.
Belaunde, who from hiding has called to be allowed to present his side to Congress, had the government “cornered,” Becerril said. His past proximity to Humala, including providing more than $45,000 for his 2006 bid, has caused headaches for the president, who was ultimately elected in 2011. Belaunde fled the countryafter being sentenced to 18 months in prison on corruption charges.
The businessman had also used his influence to help a Spanish firm win public contracts worth 150 million soles ($51 million), reported the Cuarto Poder television program.
“It’s unquestionable that [Orellana’s capture] is going to create calm,” said Ricardo Soberón, Peru’s former drug czar. “It will serve to weaken the Belaunde case for the government.”
Yet another recent scandal has also clouded the environment facing Humala, as corruption cases continue to dominate headlines.
Oscar López, the partner of jailed spy chief Vladimir Montesinos during the administration of Alberto Fujimori, received illegal house protection from police without Humala’s knowledge. The President and First Lady are also accused of meeting with López three months before information about the police security detail was revealed in November 2013.
“We distance ourselves totally from the rubbish, with this criminal,” Humala told local media at the time.
López has since claimed he was closer to Peru’s power couple, saying he has several photos of their meeting.
Orellana’s capture cuts some slack for the embattled president. But consecutive scandals continue to undermine Humala, complicating the outlook for his government, whose power to pass legislation remains curbed in absence of a congressional majority.