Midterm elections in Peru have highlighted the growing influence of organized crime and drug money in the political sphere of the world's top cocaine producing country.
Hundreds of winners of Peru's October 5 elections are under investigation for drug trafficking, corruption, and even pedophelia, analysts and officials say, a sobering sign of the pervasiveness of narco-politics in the Andean nation. More than 21 million Peruvians voted to elect state governors, mayors, and local councils in races that were closely scrutinized due to the alleged criminal ties of many candidates.
One of the most high profile races occurred in Peru's eastern Uyacali state, where Manuel Gambini was running for governor. While acting as mayor of a small district, Gambini was able to amass two homes worth about $180,000, more than 10,000 hectares of land, and a professional soccer club pushing its way into Peru's first division — all on a mere of $2,000 a month in wages, the Associated Press reported.
Gambini's populist promises of improving roads and boosting agriculture went over well with the local population in the jungle region, and he won his election. But few people have been able to explain the origins of his fortune.
Once lauded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for promoting alternative crops to coca, Gambini is now the subject of drug probes and is among five other newly elected governors who — according to drug trafficking analyst Jaime Antezana — are "narco-governors."
"This is a tendency that began in 2006," Antezana told VICE News. "It is slowly reaching the levels of Colombia of the 1980s. Organized crime no longer wrestles to reach power, but only worries about getting its hand on the public funds its chosen candidate has at their disposal."
With 13 of Peru's 25 states going to a second round of elections, Antezana said four more narco-governors could win when secondary voting begins in late November.
'Organized crime no longer wrestles to reach power, but only worries about getting its hand on the public funds its chosen candidate has at their disposal.'
According to a study by Peru's Life Without Drugs Commission (DEVIDA), all five states that encircle the VRAEM, Peru's coca and cocaine epicenter, are either heading to a runoff or have already been won by figures that represent new, unknown regional political parties that have failed repeatedly to declare the origins of their earnings. Relatively little monitoring of such finances takes place in Peru.
Another controversial figure is Gilmer Horna Corrales, a restaurant and bus company impresario said to front a small heroin empire, and now the new governor of the northern state of Amazonas. On the district level, Wilmer Sanchez Paredes was elected for the third time as mayor of Moyobamba, in the La Libertad region in northern of Peru. Prosecutors have accused Sanchez Paredes of money laundering.
In Lima, a sprawling city of more than 9 million people, conservative former mayor Luis Castañeda (pictured above) made a comeback to receive more than 50 percent of the vote, winning despite facing serious allegations of corruption. Three of his most trusted aides remain under investigation for redirecting more than $7.2 million during his last term through a shadow company with ties to a condemned drug lord.
"He steals but completes infrastructure," is a common phrase that resonates with supporters who appear unfazed by Castañeda's previous dirty dealings. And it probably helps to have friends in high places: In December 2012, an order from the constitutional court excluded Castañeda from all investigations — at his request.
In order to battle these uncertainties, Peru's congress has announced the creation of a new anti-corruption commission. Drug trafficking investigator Ricardo Soberon is among the participants.
"The difference with Colombia and Mexico, where things are solved at gunpoint, is here things get solved with cash," Soberon told VICE News. He said the whole electoral process in Peru has become distorted, with state entities easily corrupted.
Three days after the election, President Humala himself proposed to change the way candidates are chosen, partly by barring people under judicial orders. Humala's calls for reform come as Gregorio Santos, currently facing a 14-month sentence on charges of corruption, was reelected with 49.9 percent of the vote in the northern state of Cajamarca. He allegedly received a string of kickbacks, favoring the same businessman with 11 public works projects.
"There is a relation of functionality, where the narco entrepreneur makes strategic contacts and is aided at different levels of government. The problems aren't the laws, it's the lack of enforcement," Soberon said.
Researcher Jimena Ledgard contributed to this report.