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Cocaine cash fuels Peru

SHERRYLYN CLARKE, [email protected]

Cocaine cash fuels Peru

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IRAZOLA, Peru (AP) – In his run for governor of a rough Peruvian jungle state, Manuel Gambini has repeatedly cited his plaudits from the United States government for promoting the cultivation of cocoa beans over coca leaves in this cocaine-producing hotspot.

But the man the U.S. Agency for International Development held up as recently as 2012 as a “dynamic new partner” is now under investigation for money laundering, having amassed a curious-sized fortune despite a small mayoral salary.

Gambini is among hundreds of candidates in tomorrow’s local and state elections suspected of being bankrolled by drug trafficking, a phenomena that threatens to hijack democracy in a country that became the world’s top cocaine producer two years ago.

The infiltration of drug money in Peru’s politics has become so brazen and widespread as to draw comparisons with the conditions in Colombia and Mexico that preceded major political bloodletting.

“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, but drug-related murders have been on the rise since the mid-2000s, when Colombian and Mexican traffickers began arriving in greater numbers.

One of every 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.

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

A separate “narco candidate” list compiled by the interior minister names 124 electoral hopefuls, including two current governors.

Of note is an incumbent mayor, Silvia Cloud, whose husband is a fugitive drug boss in the Upper Huallaga Valley, cradle of the global cocaine trade.

In Irazola, one of Gambini’s associates, a convicted cocaine trafficker, is running for mayor. He has been the district’s treasurer since 2009.

And in the state of Huanuco, Luis Picon is running for re-election even though he faces probes for money laundering, drug trafficking, embezzlement, tax evasion and illegal enrichment. A report by financial investigators details questionable deposits of $4 million – mostly in cash – made to companies he and two of his brothers own.

Picon, who hails from the heart of coca country, denied Medina’s claim that his companies don’t make a profit and are propped up by illicit income.