Ex-Peru leader kills himself ahead of arrest

Alan García twice ruled Peru - in the 1980s and more than two decades later. Photo: AP
Alan García twice ruled Peru - in the 1980s and more than two decades later. Photo: AP
Former Peruvian President Alan Garcia has killed himself as police waited to arrest him over a massive corruption probe.

Authorities broke through a door at Garcia's mansion in a leafy, upscale neighbourhood of the Peruvian capital, Lima, to find him critically injured.

The 69-year-old former head of state was rushed to a hospital on Wednesday, where a team of doctors performed emergency surgery but could not save him.

"The president, upset over this situation, knowing his absolute innocence had this terrible accident," said his lawyer, Erasmo Reyna.

It was a shocking end for a man who twice ruled Peru - once in the 1980s and then again more than two decades later. In more recent years, he became ensnared in Latin America's biggest corruption scandal, a sweeping investigation of politicians' dealings with the Brazilian construction giant known as Odebrecht.

The inquiry has put the country's most prominent politicians behind bars.

No country outside Brazil has gone as far in prosecuting politicians tied to Odebrecht, which admitted in a 2016 plea agreement that it paid nearly $US800 million ($NZ1.18 billion) throughout Latin America in exchange for lucrative public-works contracts.

In Peru, politicians have described the accusations as a political witch hunt. Prosecutors and anti-corruption advocates insist the arrests show the South American nation is finally holding leaders accountable.

Several leaders called on Peruvians to set aside politics as the nation mourns Garcia, a one-time populist firebrand whose second presidency helped usher in a commodities-led investment boom.

"It doesn't matter your political hue, Peru is in mourning," politician Gilbert Violeta wrote on Twitter. "This is a tragedy for our country."

Condolences poured in from throughout Latin America as leaders recalled a man who at his peak was called the John F. Kennedy of Latin America.

"With virtues and imperfections, he realized great changes that allowed Peru's economy to become one of the fastest-growing in Latin America and in the world," former Mexican President Felipe Calderon said.

Garcia was born into a middle-class family in the capital, the child of a politician father whose party became Garcia's own. He went on to a career marked by epic triumphs and devastating setbacks, a rollercoaster of a political life fueled by his charisma and capacity for reinvention.

Ultimately, though, the former president was an increasingly isolated figure whose claims of political persecution failed to resonate with the public. As investigators closed in, he argued that he was the victim of false testimony about taking bribes from Odebrecht during the construction of Lima's metro. He had not been charged when he died.

In December, Garcia sought asylum in Uruguay's embassy, staying there for a little more than two weeks before his request was denied. Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez said there was no evidence to support Garcia's contention he was being political targeted.

After he returned home, he was barred from leaving the country and vowed to cooperate with any investigation.

"When I am called to testify, I will do so promptly, as I already have been doing, and hoping that rumors of my arbitrary detention are false," he said.

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