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Peru state a violent 'mini-dictatorship'

Sunday - 4/13/2014, 9:00am  ET

In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo, Ancash Gov. Cesar Alvarez talks on his cell phone in Lima, Peru. Alvarez ran a “mini-dictatorship” in a state plagued by political murder where the courts and prosecutor’s office were "taken over by criminals," Peru’s anti-corruption prosecutor alleges. A judge has barred him from leaving the country while more than 100 shelved corruption cases are revived. (AP Photo/Edwin Julca)

FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press

CHIMBOTE, Peru (AP) -- One by one, the senior officials from the capital took the microphone and apologized to an auditorium packed with angry people who had long been living in fear. The officials admitted they had failed to prevent a political murder foretold by its victim. Their integrity was in doubt.

Peru's chief prosecutor, comptroller and the head of Congress' investigations committee, which was now holding a public hearing, had all ignored evidence that Ezequiel Nolasco, now murdered, had thrust in their faces for months.

Having survived a 2010 assassination attempt after he denounced government corruption, Nolasco had repeatedly warned that his home state, Ancash, was run by a criminal syndicate that plundered the treasury, killed people it couldn't buy or intimidate, wiretapped foes and used police as spies and journalists as character assassins.

A lone gunman finished the job on March 14, pumping five bullets into the former construction union leader when he stopped for a beer heading from Lima to this coastal city that is home to nearly half of Ancash's 1.1 million people.

Ancash was living under the ironclad rule of a governor locals compared to U.S. mob legend Al Capone, his political machine allegedly greased by tens of millions in annual mining revenues that had made Ancash Peru's richest state.

"It's a mini-dictatorship," said Christian Salas, the public prosecutor dispatched from Lima to clean things up. He asked to have Gov. Cesar Alvarez jailed while more than 100 corruption cases involving his administration are revived, adding that the local prosecutors' office and courts were "taken over by criminals."

On Friday, a local judge barred Alvarez, his top press aide and four journalists from leaving the country for four months while they are investigated for conspiracy and embezzlement.

Corruption-impregnated personal fiefdoms aren't rare in Latin American democracies, but political scientists say Ancash is extraordinary in its sheer scope and brutality.

"This guy went too far," said Edward Gibson, a Northwestern University professor who calls the phenomenon "subnational authoritarianism."

Steven Levitsky of Harvard University said, "I don't know of any cases where there has been this much violence," save perhaps in southern Mexico.

It took Alvarez a few years after he first won election in 2006 to silence most rivals and allegedly purchase the near complete loyalty of local news media. Contract murders, meanwhile, became rampant, accounting for two in five of the state's more than 100 killings last year -- none of them solved, the country's interior minister told Congress this month.

In Nolasco's case, Alvarez induced judges to suppress evidence that one of his top allies organized the 2010 attempt on the ex-union leader's life, the slain man had alleged. Nolasco took two bullets, while his 24-year-old stepson perished trying to save him.

Nolasco, then a state lawmaker, had accused Alvarez of plans to skim tens of millions from public works project and was forced out of the leadership of the local construction union.

His daughter Fiorela, 20, said in an interview at the family home that further retribution followed the attempt on Nolasco's life.

"A bunch of gunmen took over the construction union's headquarters -- and armed police helped out," she said as newly assigned police bodyguards from Lima stood by, occasionally peering out onto the unlit, unpaved street.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press after announcing he would not run for a third term in October elections, Alvarez denied any responsibility for Nolasco's murder or any other crime.

"People look at me like I'm a murderer. But who is the loser here? The only loser with Mr. Nolasco's death is me," Alvarez said.

"I've lost everything," he added as bodyguards in street clothes, one with a battered pistol in his waistband, stood outside his modest home.

"If people keep getting killed, I'm going to be blamed," said Alvarez. He suggested a political rival could be "orchestrating everything here."

For his part, Salas is focusing on the clandestine former command post called "La Centralita" from which Alvarez allegedly ran a shadow underground state, with nearly $1 million a month in bribes doled out.

Four prosecutors who tried to search "La Centralita" in 2012 weren't just fired.

They were accused of abuse of authority by the man who was elected Peru's chief prosecutor on Wednesday, Carlos Ramos, when he headed the office's internal discipline unit.

Ramos' predecessor, Jose Pelaez, shelved a probe into the governor's finances last year, saying Alvarez did not own a single piece of property.

"I've always lived austerely," Alvarez told the AP. He said doesn't even own his home. His in-laws do.

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