Peru: populist governor re-elected from prison

Gregorio Santos, the populist president of Peru's Cajamarca region, was comfortably re-elected Oct. 5—despite being imprisoned as corruption charges are pending against him. The biggest issue in the race by far was the unpopular Conga gold mine project, majority-owned by US-based Newmont Mining. Peru's central government said it would recognize the victory, while his supporters marched in Lima to demand his freedom. Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal called for a "political dialogue with all the actors" to resolve the crisis in Cajamarca. But Jorge Vergara Quiroz, president of the Cajamarca Chamber of Commerce, said that Santos' re-election created a climate of "uncertainty" that would discourage investment, and called on him not to take office. Segundo Mendoza, spokesman for Santos' Social Affirmation Movement (MAS), responded that the party respects private investment. He called on authorities to free Santos, saying he posed no flight risk.

While the charges against Santos are not drug-related—and seem politically motivated—hundreds of candidates suspected of ties to narco-trafficking were on the ballot in what authorities called Peru's most violent campaign since the end of the Shining Path war in 2000. Another victor included Manuel Gambini, a former coca grower in Ucayali department also now under investigation. As mayor of Irazola district, Gambini won praise from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2012 as a "dynamic new partner" in promoting alternatives to coca leaf cultivation. But an Aug. 29 judicial order opening an investigation of Gambini claims he amassed a fortune and extensive land holdings with a modest mayor's salary. Gambini calls the allegations lies spread by his political foes, and insists he will take office as departmental president of Ucayali.

Also victorious was Gilmer Horna in Amazonas department. The owner of a chain of chicken restaurants, he is under investigation for possible money laundering. Peru's special prosecutor for drug enforcement, Sona Medina, said her office had identified 700 candidates in local and departmental elections who were formally under investigation. More than 1,300 candidates formerly convicted of crimes were on also the ballot—having been officially rehabilitated by court order.

Electoral authorities reported more than 100 incidents of election-day violence and irregularities—including destruction of ballot boxes, seizures of polling stations, threats to election officials and destruction of vehicles. "We haven't had situations of this magnitude in Peru for some time," said Gerardo Tavara of the citizen watchdog group Transparencia. "Hitmen are being hired to assassinate candidates."

Two mayoral candidates were slain during the campaign. Líder Villasana Flores, mayoral candidate in San Martín de Pangoa, Junín, was assassinated by unknown gunmen Sept. 27. On Aug. 14, Marzony Puskas Vásquez Ramón, the mayor of Amarilis, Huánuco, then runnig for re-election, was similarly killed. Another candidate in Amarilis, Sergio Martínez, was the target of an attempted assassination when gunmen fired on his car Oct. 2.

In violence seemingly unrelated to the elections, two National Police officers were killed in an ambush Oct. 3 in Ayna-San Francisco district, La Mar province, Ayacucho, in the coca-growing jungle region known as the VRAE. The VRAE (for Apurímac-Ene River Valley) is one of the last Shining Path strongholds in Peru, and the ambush was said to have been led by the guerilla leader known as "Comrade Dino."

Peru's capital saw a defeat for the left in the elections, as former two-time mayor Luis Castañeda easily defeated the populist incumbent, Susana Villaran, who finished third. (RPP, Gestión, Oct. 7; AP, APLa Mula, Prensa Latina, Oct. 6; La Republica, Oct. 4; RPP, Oct. 2; El Comercio, Sept. 27; La Prensa, Aug. 15)