Do Latin America’s Top Prosecutors Have Too Much Power?

Dec. 1, 2023

By Will Freeman
November 30, 2023

Recent cases illustrate how some top prosecutors throughout the region may be misusing their considerable powers.

“For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.” When Brazilian President Getulio Vargas first spoke the phrase in the 1940s, it didn’t need to be specified who was doing the protecting or the punishing. Heads of governments—civilian and military—used prosecutors as weapons to settle political scores.

Thankfully, that’s not how the region works today. Except in a few authoritarian enclaves, like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, top prosecutors no longer blindly do presidents’ bidding. Instead, they are largely independent and powerful. They might be influenced by political power, but they are rarely beholden to it.

But making prosecutors independent doesn’t guarantee they will be responsible, responsive or even law-abiding. Several Latin American countries are currently witnessing that stark reality firsthand.   

Take Peru. On November 27, prosecutors accused Attorney General Patricia Benavides of leading an alleged criminal network engaged in influence peddling with Congress. The allegations, which have led to the arrest of Benavides’ top adviser, have deeply shaken Peruvian politics, as Benavides appeared to react by announcing an investigation into President Dina Boluarte for the deadly repression of street protests earlier this year. (All parties have denied wrongdoing.) 

In Guatemala, Attorney General Consuelo Porras has practically led the campaign to stop President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, who was democratically elected by a large majority in August, from taking office.

Peru and Guatemala are extreme cases, but they are not alone. Recent developments have intensified concerns that several top prosecutors throughout Latin America are using their considerable powers to protect their friends and pursue their enemies—sometimes in league with presidents or congress, but often on their own accord. Entrusted with upholding the rule of law, some instead may be eroding it.