Lima (AFP) - A giant statue of Jesus Christ that looms over Lima is causing controversy in Peru because of its financing by the graft-tainted Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and late ex-president Alan Garcia.
The 37-meter (121-foot) acrylic and concrete structure, which cost $800,000, is viewed by some as a symbol of corruption, giving rise to a local nickname 'Christ of Theft.' Thousands are demanding its removal.
A few weeks ago, the Es Momento (It's Time) non-governmental organization began a campaign to have the statue, which sits on the Chorrillos mountain to Lima's south, taken down.
"It's impossible for this to remain as part of the city's public space," said Cristhian Rojas, the Es Momento leader.
The statue, whose official name is 'Christ of the Pacific,' was given by company chief Marcelo Odebrecht to Garcia and unveiled in 2011, right at the end of his second five-year term as president. He had previously held the presidency from 1985-90.
Odebrecht has admitted to paying $29 million in bribes in Peru between 2005 and 2014.
Prosecutors say a former top Garcia official has confessed to acting as a frontman, receiving money from Odebrecht to pass on to the ex-president.
Garcia, who committed suicide in April when police arrived at his home to arrest him for money laundering, was one of four Peruvian ex-presidents embroiled in various corruption scandals, along with Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Ollanta Humala and Alejandro Toledo.
Odebrecht has admitted to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in a dozen Latin American countries and has agreed to pay even more in reparations in various deals with individual governments.
But the company's association with corruption means the Christ statue has become a pebble in the shoe of Peru's government.
- 'A blessing for Peru' -
Garcia, who contributed $30,000 to the statue's cost while Odebrecht covered most of the rest, said at the time that it would be similar to the world-renowned figure that overlooks Rio de Janeiro from the Corcovado hill.
"I have gathered a group of friends and companies" to build the statue "and also put in some of my savings, because maybe it will be a blessing for Peru," Garcia said.
When it was inaugurated, a month before Garcia's term ended, Odebrecht was almost ready to unveil the Lima Metro, for which it had paid a bribe of seven million dollars to win the tender.
Es Momento sent its removal petition, containing 4,700 signatures, to the government a month after Garcia's death.
President Martin Vizcarra's government says it doesn't have a budget to do so.
Unlike the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio, this statue attracts few visitors.
It also appears neglected and dirty, in stark contrast to two military monuments to heroes of the 1879-83 war with Chile located just 200 meters (yards) away.
- 'Object of pilgrimage' -
Rojas says the NGO has nothing against the statue itself -- they don't want to upset sensibilities in a country that is majority Catholic and conservative -- but rather what it represents.
"We don't want to demolish it or attack the religious aspect of the monument, but rather attack the symbolism of corruption," stressed Rojas.
"Alan Garcia used a religious image to clean a symbol of corruption."
When the statue was erected, then-pope Benedict sent a message of congratulations while the ultra-conservative Peruvian bishop Juan Luis Cipriani urged the faithful to turn the monument into "an object of pilgrimage."
Peru's Episcopal Conference thanked Odebrecht and Garcia "for this gift to our Catholicism."
Now, though, the bishops have remained silent amid Es Momento's petition.
"It's a delicate subject," an Episcopal Conference source told AFP.
But not everyone wants it taken down.
"I think it should stay because since they put up this statue, many families come, especially in summer, to spend time enjoying the view," taxi driver Elio Olazabal told AFP.