Peruvian who inspired a continent now walks alone

Missing Persons No: 39; Alan Garcia

He was tall, dark, handsome and, at 36, one of the youngest men ever to be elected president anywhere. When Alan Garcia took office in 1985, a majority of Peruvians saw the elegantly dressed populist Social Democrat as the man who would take Peru out of the crippling spiral of ever-rising debt.

Such was his image that left-wingers from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego looked to him as a catalyst for breaking the stranglehold of the international banks and financial institutions throughout South America.

Mr Garcia had an idea which seemed a good one at the time, at least to poor Peruvians. To prevent drastic cutbacks in social welfare, his American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Apra) government would limit repayments on the foreign debt to 10 per cent of export earnings each year.

The idea backfired, inflation soared, lending institutions cut off their credit. By the end of Mr Garcia's term in 1990, inflation hit 2,700 per cent a year, Peru was on the verge of economic collapse and Marxist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas were striking at will. That's where a previously unknown agronomist of Japanese parentage, Alberto Fujimori, came in, winning the presidency as Mr Garcia left office with his image badly tarnished.

Mr Garcia remained in Peru, planning to run again in 1995. But after Mr Fujimori staged a "do-it-yourself" coup in 1992, dissolving Congress to strengthen his own hand, Mr Garcia apparently got wind of pending judicial action against him for alleged corruption during his term. He fled to Colombia, was granted political asylum and has been living in exile in Bogota since, with regular visits to Paris, where he has an apartment and his wife Pilar and children live.

After a congressional investigation in Peru, Mr Garcia was accused of taking bribes, "passive blackmail" and conflict of interest. He is accused of receiving $1m from the Italian Tralima construction company for getting it a contract for a new railway system in Lima, a project that was never completed. Mr Garcia has denied the charges, which carry a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment, saying they are based on statements by "two mafiosi" trying to get their own sentences reduced.

Mr Fujimori said his predecessor also was suspected of illegally re-selling 14 French Mirage fighter planes to an unnamed Arab country. If this were ever confirmed, Mr Garcia would be tried as a traitor - facing a life sentence - rather than as a common criminal.

Peru's Supreme Court has asked Colombia several times to extradite him. Francisco Tudela, the Foreign Minister, is reported to have pushed the request during a visit to Bogota last week. Colombia has refused so far, citing Mr Garcia's status as a political refugee, but its Supreme Court is studying Peru's latest request.

Mr Garcia used to travel almost monthly to Paris to visit his family and used to speak to visiting journalists in Bogota but recently he has kept a low profile. Last month, Peru said it had sent his photo and an arrest order, via Interpol, to 174 countries.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse in Bogota last week, Mr Garcia repeated what his lawyers have been saying: that Peruvian intelligence agents are stalking him in Colombia and may be trying to kidnap or kill him. The former president said: "I don't have bodyguards, I walk alone. If something happens to me, it will be the responsibility of Peru's assassins."

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