Can Peru Rid its Election of Narco-Influence?

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

The evidence suggests that Peru’s upcoming local elections will be strongly influenced by drug trafficking, a phenomenon with a troubling historical precedent — but one which the authorities seem to be trying to combat.

In late September, mayoral candidate Lider Villasana Flores was murdered by an assassin on a motorcycle, according to reports. He had been considered the favorite to win the election for mayor of San Martin de Pangoa, Junin.

The following day Edgar Zevallos, another mayoral candidate in Junin, said he had received death threats, and suggested that they were linked to drug interests.

“This responds to dark interests of people who want to be in power … There are a lot of rumors. There is talk of mafias, of drug trafficking,” he told Canal N.

These events are just the latest evidence of criminal influence on Peru’s October 5 local elections, in which 25 regional presidents (similar to governors), 195 provincial mayors, and 1,647 district mayors will be chosen for four-year terms, along with numerous councilors.

In August, the national electoral authority (JNE) reported it had received a list of 2,131 candidates with criminal records, and later announced that they were excluding 345 of them from the elections.

Around the same time, Interior Minister Daniel Urresti handed a list of 124 candidates with suspected drug ties or drug trafficking sentences to the electoral authority (though he later said one of these candidates had been included by mistake).

Of the people named on the list, 12 currently face judicial processes, 16 have been sentenced, and two banned from leaving the country. Others are under investigation. Seven candidates for regional president are included on the list: two from Huanuco, and one each from Amazonas, Apurimac, Ayacucho, Pasco and Puno. 

Many of the 124 candidates are concentrated in and around the country’s principal coca-growing regions (see map below): the Upper Huallaga Valley, Pichis Palcazu and the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM).

In keeping with this, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Peru and Ecuador recently reported that just three national political parties had a major presence in coca growing regions in this year’s elections (many candidates belong to regional movements). Two of these parties — Alianza por el Progreso and Fuerza Popular — also have the highest numbers of candidates on the list of those with suspected drug ties (13 and nine, respectively).

Following these reports, the head of Peru’s anti-drug agency (DEVIDA), Alberto Otarola, reiterated his warnings about the drug trafficking influence among candidates, and called on election authorities to release a full list of candidates with drug ties.

Peruvian Candidates Suspected or Convicted of Drug Trafficking

Source: Peruvian Interior Ministry via La Republica

Red: Investigated candidates

Purple: Candidates with past convictions

Blue: Candidates with standing convictions

InSight Crime Analysis

There is plenty of reason for Peruvian authorities to be worried about candidates with ties to the drug trade winning this year’s elections, particularly in places like the VRAEM region — a rising hub for drug flights, and the place where over half of the country’s coca is produced. The question now is whether the authorities will take the necessary steps to combat this influence.

After experiencing a huge drop in coca production in the late 1990s, Peru has regained the place of the world’s top cocaine producer. The evidence suggests that some local and regional politicians play a role in organized crime. Last month, a mayor in the VRAEM was found dead in a vehicle that was carrying 23 packets of coca base and had been driven into a river. The former governor of Ancash, Cesar Alvarez, has been investigated for drug trafficking and was arrested in May for allegedly leading a criminal group involved in bribery and contract killings.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Several of this year’s candidates who have previously held political posts have been caught in compromising situations. In 2010, the nephew of then-mayor and current candidate Edgar Gutierrez was arrested in connection with a 387 kilo coca base seizure. In 2008, while serving as mayor in the Huanuco region, Luis Valdez — who is banned from leaving the country — was arrested on suspicions of running a criminal network involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Mayoral candidate Pablo Maldonado Quispe, who has held this post twice in Kimbiri, Cusco, was arrested last year during an operation directed against financial operators of the Shining Path guerrillas. And when Guillermo Torres Palomino — long accused of drug ties — was serving as mayor of Kimbiri in 2010, police seized 400 kilos of cocaine from a convoy of trucks, one of which apparently belonged to the municipal government.

Peru has for years struggled with a drug trafficking influence in politics, with accusations reaching the highest levels. Vladimiro Montesinos, the right-hand man of former President Alberto Fujimori, is suspected of having helped dictate the terms of Peru’s drug trade during the 1990s. Former President Alan Garcia has been caught up in an investigation regarding the issuing of presidential pardons to drug traffickers during his time in office. Current President Ollanta Humala has himself faced accusations of links to drug money.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles

The elections also follow a recent scandal involving congressman Jose Leon, who appeared in a video with an alleged Mexican cartel operator tied to a 7.5 ton cocaine shipment recently discovered in Trujillo, on Peru’s coast. An audio recording was later released that may link the congressman to a candidate investigated for drug trafficking.

The fact that both national authorities and international bodies like the UNODC are paying attention to the problem is a good sign. However, the persistence in politics of candidates accused of drug ties could suggest that all of these accusations in the lead-up to the elections will not amount to much in the end. Even if authorities make a serious effort to root out this influence, determining the true depth of narco-infiltration into local governments in remote, coca-producing areas may be a nearly impossible task.

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+