Organized crime has made its presence felt in the run-up to Peru’s presidential and congressional elections on Sunday, with a wave of allegations linking candidates to drug money, and warnings that the coca-growing country could become a “narco-state.”

Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed ex-President Alberto Fujimori, is the candidate taking the brunt of the recent accusations. A 2006 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks in February reported claims that a candidate from Fujmori’s party, Rofilio Neyra, was using money from the traffickers to finance “a campaign of lavish giveaways” in the state of Ayacucho. Neyra is standing as a congressional candidate for the party this year.

This coincided with revelations in the Peruvian press that Fujimori had herself accepted $10,000 in 2006 from the family of a businessman convicted of links to the drug trade. The controversial politician is singled out in a La Republica report as a candidate who, when declaring her income to the electoral authorities, attributed much of it to untraceable fund-raising parties and raffles. The newspaper said that this has generated “suspicion.”

Left-wing candidate Ollanta Humala, who has pulled into the lead in recent weeks, has also faced accusations of links with drug money. In 2009 a former adviser to his party was caught with 140 kilos of cocaine, while a congresswoman for his party, Nancy Obregon, is accused of plotting to disrupt anti-narcotics operations. Another representative was revealed to have previously been a member of drug-trafficking guerrilla group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso).

The ruling APRA party of President Alan Garcia, who is constitutionally barred from standing for re-election this year, has faced various allegations of drug connections over the years. WikiLeaks recently released a diplomatic cable, written in 2008, which notes claims from various sources that APRA had close ties to a prominent family accused of laundering drug money. In February Garcia announced that all donations made by the Sanchez Paredes clan would be returned.

Former President Alejandro Toledo, who is standing for election again this year, was accused of links with the same controversial dynasty, after photos emerged apparently showing him having lunch with Manuel Sanchez Paredes while in power.

Toledo also faced heavy criticism after pitching plans to liberalize the country’s drug laws by decriminalizing the possession of larger quantities of illegal substances.

The squabbling moved up a notch when Fujimori called on all candidates to undergo drug tests to prove they did not consume illegal substances. One candidate said that if Toledo did not submit to such a test, as he said he would not, it would show that he was “part of the entire chain of drug trafficking.”

Allegations of narco-links have been levelled at most of the major presidential candidates, across the whole political spectrum. This seems to be a product of the general penetration of drug money in Peruvian politics and business, rather than indicating the particular corruption of any one party.

Drug money is not a new feature of Peruvian politics. Vladimiro Montesinos, Alberto Fujimori’s close aide and intelligence chief, who is now in jail, was revealed to have been accepting protection money from drug traffickers throughout the 1990s.

The influence of traffickers and their money in Peru has, by most accounts, been growing in the last decade. Toldeo warned in January that the country was in danger of becoming a narco-state, saying that the police and judiciary must be reformed to prevent this. He made these comments to foreign press, suggesting that Washington, supplier of anti-drug funds, was the intended audience.

Days before the elections Garcia also referred to the possibility of the country becoming a narco-state, which he blamed on a lack of government attention to the issue.

There are indications that the scope of traffickers’ ambitions in politics is growing. Drug policy expert Jaime Antezana said in the lead-up to last year’s local elections that criminal interests in the country no longer limit themselves to backing candidates, but now seek direct political representation. In order to gain real political power they are selecting and put forward candidates who will protect their interests, he said.

This expansion of aims is linked to higher-level foreign drug traffickers moving into Peru, and seeking to extend their control over territory in order to protect their business interests. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel reportedly have an increasing presence in the country, leading President Alan Garcia to say last year that he feared that Mexican cartels wanted to make Peru “an extension of their battlefield.”

Production has also gone up; the UN Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report 2010 says that coca cultivation increased 38 percent in Peru between 2000 and 2009.

Critics say that the failure of the government to implement tough policies against drugs, as well as actual corruption, are to blame for the rise in Peru’s drug production. However, a large part of the influx of foreign criminal groups is due to factors outside the government’s control, as massive U.S. spending on anti-narcotics programs in Colombia in the last decade has forced cultivation back over the border into Peru.

The encroachment of Mexico’s cartels is also, to a large extent, out of the Peruvian government’s hands. The Mexican groups are growing in power and scope and extending their networks into countries across the region, and even into some parts of Africa. One example is Colombia, where the government has warned that Mexican drug trafficking organizations may try to influence the outcome of the October local elections.

Peru’s politics is not the only arena infected by drug links. The military have long been said to have ties to the narcotics trade, as InSight has documented, and there are reports of police working with drug traffickers, particularly in the Apurimac and Ene river valleys (Valle de los Rios Apurimac y Ene – VRAE).

In Peru the public’s perception of the drug money issue could be the deciding factor in an unusually open election, where analysts say all five main candidates have a good chance of getting into a second round run-off.

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