In arguably the most polarizing election Peru has seen in its history, voters have selected, by a razor-thin margin, a leftist rural school teacher over the daughter of a former dictator to be the Andean nation’s next president, a position that will come with a series of pressing security issues.
Pedro Castillo of the Peru Libre party appears to have won with just over 50 percent of the June 6 runoff vote to beat out the right-wing candidate and former congresswoman Keiko Fujimori, according to official data from the National Electoral Office (Oficina Nacional de Procesos Electorales - ONPE).
With sharp regional divides, a seemingly steady stream of political scandals and poverty rising as Peru emerges as the country hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a number of immediate obstacles to overcome.
Below, InSight Crime looks at some of the core security challenges facing President-elect Castillo.
Elites, Organized Crime and Anti-Graft Efforts
Peru’s justice system has frequently been put to the test in recent years, investigating political elites for everything from alleged illegal campaign financing related to the sweeping Odebrecht corruption scandal, to money laundering and other electoral crimes tied to drug proceeds.
Corruption is by far the primary concern of Peruvian citizens, according to data from the country’s statistics institute, and battling high-level graft will continue to be an uphill battle for Castillo. The country ranked 94 out of 180 countries worldwide in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, as it faced “structural corruption, impunity and political instability.”
One of Castillo’s first big tests will come with Fujimori herself. Prosecutors accused the daughter of Alberto Fujimori - the former dictator now jailed for human rights abuses and corruption charges who oversaw the sterilization of hundreds of thousands of primarily rural, Indigenous women - of corruption, money laundering and organized crime in March 2021. If convicted, she could face up to 30 years in prison.
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Fujimori is also alleged to have received millions in bribes from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to help fund her failed bid for the presidency in 2011. She denies all the charges against her.
Castillo has presented an anti-corruption action plan, called the “Government Plan for Peru’s Bicentennial Without Corruption,” which, among other things, urges citizens to “commit to collaborate in monitoring and controlling any vestige that prevents transparency and the correct way of doing things.”
But the president-elect will also have to look inward and confront alleged corruption within his own Peru Libre party. A number of open investigations into party members for suspected collusion, embezzlement and other crimes are ongoing. What’s more, the party’s founder, Vladimir Cerrón, is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for corruption, while another investigation into alleged money laundering against him is active.
Corruption is “widespread” and “eroding faith in Peru’s institutions,” according to the US State Department’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), and addressing that to restore confidence in state institutions will be one of Castillo’s biggest challenges.
Coca and Guerrilla Remnants in the VRAEM
In the heart of Peru’s Amazon, the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro - VRAEM) serves as the focal point for coca cultivation and the operations of a splinter faction of the infamous Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas, known as the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (Militarizado Partido Comunista del Perú - MPCP).
Peru is the world’s second-largest producer of both cocaine and coca behind Colombia, and a significant amount of the almost 55,000 hectares of coca crops are located in the VRAEM, according to Peru’s anti-drug agency. Other international observers, however, such as the United States government, believe coca cultivation and cocaine production are much higher.
Castillo and his party have voiced support for moving away from a heavy focus on the forced eradication of drug crops and instead bolstering the country's legal coca market for small producers to supply domestic demand for the leaf’s nutritional and medicinal purposes, similar to that of neighboring Bolivia. However, Peru's legal coca sector is small, and difficulties with demand and implementation make it so a portion of this production inevitably leaks into the illegal drug trade, aiding crime groups profiting from cocaine trafficking.
To be sure, while the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas are little more than a shadow of its former self, the MPCP has drifted further away from its ideological roots and towards shoring up its criminal operations, including taxing coca growers and providing armed security for cocaine shipments passing through the VRAEM.
Indeed, the group lost its last true leader in March 2021 with the death of Jorge Quispe Palomino, alias “Raúl,” the MPCP’s second-in-command. He had been trying to reinvent the group and turn a new page with the rural farming communities previously victimized by the Shining Path. But in his absence, protecting criminal rackets has become more of a priority.
The brazen late-May massacre of at least 16 individuals in a small hamlet within the VRAEM, for example, showed just how desperate the MPCP had become to protect its criminal livelihood. Police sources told InSight Crime the killings were likely a stern message to locals not to cooperate with security forces working to eradicate both coca and the group from the region.
Remnants of the Shining Path and the armed forces have long clashed in the VRAEM. In recent months, authorities have dismantled several coca processing labs and seized tons of coca leaves with the help of informants, in addition to other related arrests.
However, security forces have yet to force the MPCP out of this isolated jungle region where they exert substantial control. Despite an overwhelming military presence, the years-long stalemate between the two sides has shown no signs of breaking as drug production continues apace.
As one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, Peru has long faced illegal gold extraction and deforestation in wildlife reserves and Indigenous lands, among other forms of environmental destruction. The southeastern Madre de Dios region has historically been a hotspot for environmental crime, prompting the Special Prosecutor for Environmental Matters (Fiscalía Especializada en Materia Ambiental - FEMA) to make repeated attempts to terminate all illegal mining operations and halt deforestation.
In February 2019, the Peruvian government launched the unprecedented Operation Mercury in Madre de Dios’s Tambopata National Reserve after multiple reports of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, indentured servitude, contract killings and environmental crime related to illegal mining emerged.
While the operation reduced deforestation and environmental destruction by 92 percent in the reserve, FEMA prosecutor Carlos Chirre believes that displaced miners simply moved from the Tambopata National Reserve to the Pariamanu River to continue exploiting Peru’s precious metals.
In March this year, for example, FEMA partnered with the Coast Guard and National Police to shut down a handful of illegal gold mining camps near the Pariamanu River that had already begun to wreak havoc on the forests and impede on Boca Pariamanu Native Community land.
This operation followed a series of initiatives last year in which 51 mining camps were destroyed along with thousands of dollars worth of mining equipment and temporary housing structures in the Pariamanu region. A shocking 204 hectares of land have already been destroyed by illegal gold and mercury mining along the Pariamanu River between 2017 and May 2021, according to data from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (Monitoreo de la Amazonía Andina - MAAP).
In an effort to quell this futile game of whack-a-mole, Castillo has proposed "formalizing" the mining sector, which he argues will reduce the "ecological damage" the industry generates, while also attacking related human trafficking and smuggling.
Castillo will also be challenged by continued overfishing, especially from massive Chinese fishing fleets just outside of Peru’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Such fishing causes some $500 million in annual losses, according to Oceana, an ocean advocacy group. In 2020, over 300 Chinese-owned or Chinese-flagged vessels prompted international outcry after they were spotted trawling near the Galapagos Islands with disabled GPS systems before moving towards Peru’s EEZ, staying within the region for a 73,000 hour-long fishing expedition.