By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - Peru's former president Alan Garcia shot himself in the head on Wednesday to avoid arrest in connection with alleged bribes from Brazilian builder Odebrecht, taking his own life, in the most dramatic turn yet in Latin America's largest graft scandal.
Garcia, a towering and charismatic figure who played a central role in Peruvian politics for more than three decades, died in a hospital at age 69 after shooting himself at his house in Lima when police arrived with a warrant for his arrest.
Garcia's death shocked the Andean country that had watched his transition from a fiery leftist who was elected president at age 36 to a free-market crusader who won a second term in 2006.
A pugnacious politician considered one of Latin America's best orators, Garcia had long been dogged by graft allegations that he brushed off as baseless political smears.
But prosecutors investigating Odebrecht gathered enough evidence to secure a judicial order this week to hold Garcia in pre-trial detention while they prepared charges against him, arguing that he might flee or obstruct their work.
Odebrecht, a family-owned construction conglomerate, spurred probes across Latin America after it admitted publicly in late 2016 that it had secured lucrative contracts in the region by bribing politicians. Former Odebrecht executives are now cooperating with prosecutors as informants.
The investigation in Peru had picked up speed in recent months, with a judge ordering another former president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, to jail before trial in connection with the company last week.
The scandal had already touched the highest levels of Peru's ruling political class. Ex-President Alejandro Toledo is fighting extradition from the United States after a Peruvian judge ordered him jailed in 2017, while another former leader, Ollanta Humala, spent nine months in pre-trial detention before he was released last year on appeal.
"Others might sell out, not me," Garcia told a local broadcaster in some of his last public comments on Tuesday, repeating a phrase he used frequently as his political rivals became ensnared in the scandal in recent years.
He said in the interview that he was not afraid of the investigation because "I believe in life after death."
A CLOSED DOOR, A SHOT HEARD
After police arrived at Garcia's house to arrest him early on Wednesday, Garcia told them he had to call his attorney, Interior Minister Carlos Moran said.
"He entered a room and closed the door behind him," Moran told a news conference shortly before Garcia's death was confirmed. "Within a few minutes, a shot from a firearm was heard and police forcibly entered and found Mr. Garcia sitting with a wound in his head."
Garcia's supporters prepared for a wake at the headquarters of his once-powerful party APRA as condolences poured in from regional leaders, including Chile's conservative Sebastian Pinera and Bolivia's leftist Evo Morales.
"APRA never dies!" his supporters chanted to news cameras.
Garcia's death will likely throw cold water on the Odebrecht probe in Peru. It may also deepen the divide between centrist President Martin Vizcarra and the rightwing opposition that controls Congress, where Garcia had influential allies.
Late last year, Garcia asked Uruguay for political asylum after he was banned from leaving the country while under investigation, calling Vizcarra a "dictator." Uruguay rejected the request.
Some of Garcia's supporters called his suicide a heroic act.
"Garcia made a decision as a free man. It was a decision of dignity and honour," Mauricio Mulder, an APRA lawmaker, said in broadcast comments.
Vizcarra took office a year ago to replace Kuczynski after he resigned in a graft scandal, and has made fighting graft the centerpiece of his government. He has said he does not interfere in the constitutionally independent prosecutors' office.
But criticism of the use of pre-trial detention in the Odebrecht probe has grown following several high-profile arrests in recent years.
In Peru, criminal suspects can be held in jail without trial for up to three years if prosecutors can show they have evidence that would likely lead to a conviction and the suspects would likely flee or obstruct their work if free.
The attorney general's office announced an internal probe into lead prosecutors on the Odebrecht probe on Wednesday after Garcia's supporters accused them of irregularities.
Vizcarra ordered flags flown at half staff and declared a three-day national period of mourning for Garcia. Garcia's family members opted to break with protocol and not have Vizcarra or a government representative preside over his funeral, local media said.
(Reporting by Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino; editing by Daniel Flynn, Marguerita Choyand Leslie Adler)