LIMA, Peru – Pope Francis strongly condemned corruption in Latin America as a "social virus" infecting all aspects of life in stern remarks Friday to Peru's president and high-ranking political leaders, several of whom are embroiled in the region's biggest graft scandal.
Hours after decrying the destruction of Peru's Amazon, the pontiff warned President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and other leaders gathered that another, more subtle form of environmental degradation is also pervading society: corruption.
"How much evil is done to our Latin American people and the democracies of this content by this social virus," the pope said. "Everything being done to combat this social scourge deserves our utmost attention."
The remarks come less than a month after Kuczynski narrowly avoided impeachment over $782,000 in payments Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht made to his private consulting firm over a decade ago when he served as a minister. Odebrecht has admitted to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to officials throughout Latin America in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.
The bribery scandal has ended the careers of some of Latin America's most prominent politicians and in Peru two former presidents stand accused of accepting money from Odebrecht while a third is under investigation.
Peru has been jolted in recent weeks into a new period of uncertainty following Kuczynski's near ouster and the subsequent pardon of former strongman Alberto Fujimori from a 25-year prison sentence. The pardon sent thousands of Peruvians into the streets in protest and reopened wounds from a bloody chapter in Peru's history.
While some Peruvians credit Fujimori with stabilizing the nation's economy and defeating Maoist guerrillas in the 1990s others condemn him for having permitted grave human rights abuses. Fujimori was convicted for his role in the deaths of 25 Peruvians in addition to having sanctioned the use of military death squads.
In the weeks since his release angry Peruvians have staged multiple protests and scrawled graffiti with phrases like "Fujimori never again" on buildings around the capital city.
Kuczynski told the pope he hoped his visit would serve as "a push toward peace and dialogue."
The president dodged impeachment after Fujimori's lawmaker son, Kenji Fujimori, and a small group of lawmakers from his party surprisingly abstained from voting in what many Peruvians believe was a quid pro quo to release the former president from jail. Both Kenji Fujimori and his sister Keiko Fujimori, a two-time presidential candidate, were on hand for the pope's remarks Friday.
Keiko Fujimori has been under investigation into whether she received money from Odebrecht during her campaign.
Francis called for a greater culture of transparency between the public and private sectors and society in his speech, saying that, "No one can be excluded from this process."