Carolina Lizárraga on Serving as an Anti-Corruption Judge, and What It Will Take to Prevent Corruption

On International Anti-Corruption Day, we spoke with VVEngage fellow Carolina Lizárraga, who served as a Superior Anticorruption Judge in Peru’s Superior Court of Lima and in the II and VI Anticorruption Tribunals of the Court of Lima. Carolina is an experienced lawyer and judge who also served as a member of the Executive Committee of political party Partido Morado. In this conversation, she shares insights from her experience as an anti-corruption judge, and gives her perspective on what’s needed to effectively fight corruption.

On becoming an anticorruption judge

I entered the judiciary in 2002 as a judge in the criminal court. And in my first year, the Chief of the Court of Lima asked me to be part of the judicial anticorruption system, which was created due to the fall of the authoritarian regime in Peru during the 90s. This regiment revealed a corruption network that had been acting systematically, involving officials of the highest rank — there were Congressmen of the Republic, state ministers, armed forces, police forces, generals, magistrates of the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, former Presidents of the Republic, and businessmen — all of them were prosecuted in the anticorruption system. It was very difficult. You have to have a strong vocation to be a judge.

Most of the lawyers in criminal law in Peru are men. But most of the anticorruption judges were women. The judges that were above me were two women, and I appreciated very much their help because I learned a lot from them — not only things that have to do with knowledge, but also they showed me how to handle these cases, emotionally. We were a great group of women.

On facing intimidation

I have been subject to all kinds of pressure. They used to harass, threaten and smear my reputation in the media. In these occasions, I felt completely alone. And even more so when, in certain times, despite acting correctly, I did not receive the support of my own organization. It is in moments like those when I needed to be brave to avoid intimidation, brave to dismiss any sort of passion that may cloud my impartiality, a key element in the trying of a conflict. And also, I needed to be perseverant to be able to continue to be loyal to my convictions, performing my duties with the highest equanimity and optimism, even when all my ideals seemed to be crumbling.

On whether corruption is worsening globally

In my opinion, there is the same level of corruption which we have always seen, but it is more creative, more sophisticated, and more aggressive in terms of the sums of money that they handle, because officials know that the possibility of getting caught are greater than before so they try to cover their tracks with banking schemes that tend to complicate investigations.

There are many instruments we have as a society today, that we didn’t enjoy in the past — technology, social media, the press, and the new benchmarks for transparency that governments should use to show people how they are handling public funds. But I also think that corruption always, unfortunately, has its ways of adapting to new realities — it goes faster than the institutions — and corruption finds dark places to continue to make damage.

On what’s needed to combat corruption

I am completely convinced that only a strong, organized, aware society may help the fight against corruption in our countries. For that, we should guarantee all citizens access to public information, suppressing a culture of secrecy that still remains in many institutions in our country. Corruption doesn’t want transparency — for corrupt officials, it’s like a monster.

I think the active participation of the media is also important in the fight against corruption, overseeing its independence and strengthening the role of ethical values. For me, this implies a proactive attitude that commits the media to a crusade against corruption and a transparent relationship with society. It’s also very important to try to simplify and facilitate the relationship between the state and citizens. This means access to information, the permanent simplification of procedures at all levels, and improvement of services to citizens. Media, citizens and the state all have to work together against corruption. If not, it’s not going to be possible. It’s a long term process.

On cultural shifts in support of anticorruption

There need to be modifications of cultural patterns to make us citizens realize that the fight against corruption is only an obligation of the state, but also involves the responsibility of us as a society, as a whole. I think that it has been changing and young people have been taking responsibility with these efforts — and also with the media — I see a lot of participation now.

On finding purpose through difficult work

I remember when I applied to be selected as a criminal judge, in the personal interview stage the chairman of the council that elected the judges asked me if I was sure that I want to be a judge, if I was willing to fulfill my duties, even under the worst conditions. I remember he said would I be able to decide and rule from an empty cave, sitting on a rock, with the most rudimentary elements. And at that moment, very naive, I said yes.

But I never imagined that days later, after working in an elegant office in one of the most well-known private sector law firms in Peru, I would have to go up four floors, 8 months pregnant at the time, carrying buckets of water to fill the female judges toilet water tanks because there was no water. I never imagined that I would be sitting at a desk with 1,400 cases, and I didn’t imagine the number of enemies that I would automatically make for the mere reason of trying to resolve the cases assigned to me in the best, impartial way. But to my surprise, what I never imagined was that I could be the happiest person while being a judge, not wanting to trade this position for another. All those years enabled me to help find solutions to conflict between human beings, and that has brought me a priceless satisfaction.

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