Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Cocaine cash threatens to hijack Peruvian politics

AP, IRAZOLA, Peru

The two-term mayor of the poor farming district of Irazola in a cocaine-producing region of Peru is one of hundreds of candidates running in local and state elections set for today who are suspected of being bankrolled by drug traffickers.

Irazola Mayor Manuel Gambini, a 43-year-old former coca farmer, is among at least seven gubernatorial candidates in one-quarter of Peru’s 24 states under investigation for drug trafficking or related crimes.

Cocaine cash is threatening to hijack democracy in a nation that in 2012 became the world’s top cocaine producer. The infiltration has become so brazen and widespread as to draw comparisons with conditions in Colombia and Mexico.

“We are now a despicable reflection of what Colombia was — and what Mexico is today,” said Sonia Medina, Peru’s public prosecutor for drug enforcement.

Peru is far less violent than Mexico, but drug-related murders have been on the rise.

One of three Peruvian voters lives in a region with candidates under investigation, on trial or previously convicted of drug-related crimes. Medina said her office has identified 700 such candidates.

In his run for governor of the rough jungle region of Ucayali, Gambini has sought to milk praise from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for promoting the cocoa bean over the coca leaf.

Yet he may have been enriching himself, along with relatives and associates “closely tied to drug trafficking,” according to an eight-page order for a money laundering probe issued on Aug. 29 and obtained by media.

The order says he transformed “simple farmers into economic potentates” after becoming mayor in 2007. One associate, a convicted cocaine trafficker, is running for mayor on Gambini’s ticket. The man was named district treasurer in 2009.

Supporting documents say Gambini acquired more than 10,000 hectares of land, some of which “may have coca fields,” and has two homes worth US$180,000. As mayor, he earns less than US$2,000 a month.

At a political rally that featured free beer on ice, Gambini denied the accusations, calling them fabrications by political foes. He said that his land holdings amount to 130 hectares and that he owned a saw mill before being elected mayor. He stopped growing coca in 2003, he said, at the encouragement of USAID.

Critics say Peru’s lawmakers have made its political system fertile ground for dirty money through inaction or intentional legal loopholes.

Gambini, for example, does not mention his earnings or holdings in the official biography he submitted to the Peruvian National Electoral Commission as this is not required.

Of the approximately 126,000 candidates in this election, only 11 percent filed such disclosures, independent watchdog Transparencia said. It partnered with news Web site Utero.pe to compare official bios with various public databases. They discovered 1,395 convicted criminals, including 13 drug traffickers.

In Peru, convicted criminals can run for public office as long as they have been “rehabilitated” by court order.

Another loophole comes in campaign finance law: The penalty for failing to report a campaign donation is the loss of public financing, but Peru has no public financing.

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