The campaigns leading up to Peru’s elections on October 5 have been mired in scandal — over three hundred candidates have been excluded due to their criminal records, with dozens linked to drug trafficking. InSight Crime takes a look at three candidates who have been caught in the fray.
August was not a good month for Peru’s political parties. Less than sixty days before the country’s regional and municipal elections, non-governmental organization (NGO) Transparencia published a list of 13 candidates who were running for office, despite prior convictions related to drug trafficking. Three days later, Interior Minister Daniel Urresti handed the national electoral authority (JNE) a list of over 100 aspirants with ties to drug trafficking cases. As if that weren’t enough, the day after receiving Urresti’s list the JNE revealed that 345 candidates had been convicted of some crime.
The number of candidates with criminal records sparked a national debate about the country’s electoral controls, with officials calling for legal reforms and urging political parties to create stricter screening mechanisms. The JNE banned candidates with active sentences from running for office, but faced the tricky question of what to do with those candidates who’d already served their time. Peruvian law considers individuals who have completed their sentences to be rehabilitated, meaning that they can technically run for office. Depending on the crime, however, these individuals can be a major liability for already embattled political parties, which in some cases have had to fight to get candidates removed from their lists.
Mauro Gomez Mendoza
One such candidate is Mauro Gomez Mendoza, who was convicted of drug trafficking in 1994 and spent eight years behind bars. Before his name appeared on Transparencia’s list, he was a mayoral candidate for Peru’s Aprista Party (PAP) in the province of Vilcas Huaman in Ayacucho, a major coca growing region.
In addition to serving time for drug trafficking charges, Gomez has also been convicted of embezzlement, for which he was sentenced to two years of probation, and has been prosecuted for failing to pay child support.
In spite of his extensive criminal record, however, Gomez did not withdraw his candidacy after Transparencia’s list was made public. He told La Republica that he would not resign, claiming he had been wrongly convicted of trafficking sulfuric acid — an ingredient used in cocaine production — for the illegal drug trade, when he had only transported the substance for use in dyes and handicrafts. As for the child support case, he told El Comercio that the situation had been “remedied.”
Meanwhile, Gomez’s political party stated that they had been unaware of his drug trafficking conviction, despite the fact that all PAP candidates are required to present a sworn declaration stating that they don’t have a criminal record. After Transparencia’s list came out, the party secretary told El Comercio that the PAP would do everything in its power to revoke Gomez’s candidacy. However, this proved much more difficult than simply deleting Gomez’s name from the list of candidates. PAP officials found themselves up against the regional electoral authority (JEE), whose president argued that Gomez had already done his time and could not be banned from running.
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In PAP’s letter to the JEE in Huamanga requesting the withdrawal of Gomez’s candidacy, the party cited both his drug trafficking and embezzlement convictions. The letter stated that while Gomez had already completed his sentence, this did not grant him the right to go into politics, “where today the scourge of drug trafficking is still a highly dangerous social problem requiring exhaustive treatment.” Gomez appealed the PAP’s decision to withdrawal his candidacy, and the JEE sided with the candidate.
In the end, the PAP managed to remove Gomez from the list of candidates, although a spokesman says it wasn’t technically due to Gomez’s criminal record. PAP’s legal representative Pedro Panta told InSight Crime that Gomez had been excluded for “disciplinary reasons” unrelated to his drug trafficking conviction.
Silvia Martha Mejia Leiva
Like Gomez, Silvia Martha Mejia Leiva was also convicted of drug trafficking. She spent over ten years behind bars before deciding to run for a council seat in the municipality of Chacayan, in Pasco department.
What makes her case especially noteworthy, however, is that former President Alan Garcia commuted her sentence in 2009 so that she could be released more than a year early. Garcia has been implicated in a pay-for-pardons scheme in which high-level officials allegedly accepted payments from convicted drug traffickers in exchange for reducing their sentences.
In an interview with Diario Correo, Mejia denied having formed part of the so-called “narco-pardons” scheme. She said she took advantage of the commutation benefits like any other prisoner.
The leader of her political party, the Pasco Dignity Regional Movement, told Radio Cumbre in an interview that the organization had been unaware of Mejia’s drug trafficking conviction — despite of the fact that she included it in her sworn declaration — and said he was considering the possibility of revoking her candidacy. The Pasco Dignity Regional Movement did not respond to InSight Crime’s requests for information on Mejia’s candidacy, but as of October 1 Mejia was still listed as a candidate in the JNE’s database, which the Pasco JEE told InSight Crime reflected the most up-to-date information.
The same year former President Garcia shortened Mejia’s sentence, he also granted a commutation to a convicted drug trafficker named Danilo Silva. Silva had been detained in 2001 in a drug lab in the city of Barranca with 65 kilos of cocaine, weapons, and over $24,000. He was supposed to spend 15 years behind bars — meaning he wouldn’t have been released until 2016 — but Garcia lopped five years off of his sentence.
On August 1, Silva was pulled over while driving a campaign truck plastered with electoral publicity that belonged to his brother-in-law, Barranca mayoral candidate Alberto Tapia. Inside the car, police discovered numerous packets of what they initially believed to be cocaine. The Minister of the Interior later said that police ended up seizing around 400 kilos of cocaine from both the vehicle and a property that was linked to the family. Later, however, it was revealed that police had only discovered 42 kilos of cocaine on the property and that the white material found in Tapia’s truck was actually plaster.
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Nevertheless, now that the ties between Tapia and Silva have been made public, Tapia’s candidacy has been called into question. Although it appears that none of the cocaine was discovered in Tapia’s vehicle, Silva is married to Tapia’s sister and used to work for a company Tapia owns. Tapia’s political party, Fuerza Popular, declined to speak on the record about the candidate, but as of October 1 Tapia was still listed as a candidate in the JNE’s database.
What is most concerning about Peru’s upcoming elections is that so many candidates with criminal convictions and ties to drug trafficking cases had no qualms about running for office. Peru is currently the world’s largest producer of coca and cocaine, which makes the country’s government especially vulnerable to criminal infiltration and necessitates extra vigilance when screening candidates.
Given the number of candidates with prior drug trafficking convictions, Peru’s political parties clearly lack the capacity — some critics might even say they lack the will — to properly vet those who run for office. Thirteen candidates with drug trafficking convictions reported their criminal records on their CVs, which the parties (theoretically) review and which are public information available on the JNE’s website. Theoretically, anyone with Internet access can search for a specific candidate in the JNE database and determine whether or not the candidate has reported their criminal record.
In an effort to hold political parties accountable, one member of Congress, Jose Leon Rivera, has proposed several legal reforms. Under his proposed amendments, parties that allow those linked to drug trafficking to either run for office or finance campaigns would be banned from participating in elections.
Peru could examine its current policy that allows individuals with criminal records to run for office. While it might be reasonable to allow those charged with minor infractions to run a political campaign, it is worth asking if those who have been convicted of more serious crimes — like drug trafficking — should be allowed to hold elected office, as they increase the government’s susceptibility to infiltration by criminal groups.
In the meantime — as long as political parties fail to screen their candidates and the JEE considers candidates with criminal convictions to be “rehabilitated” — individuals with criminal records will undoubtedly continue to run for office.