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South America’s Narco-Candidates

Multimillionaire campaign donors crowd the political arena in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Limited access to information about these donors raises significant concerns, as these donations take place in the world’s top cocaine producers.

In early June, former frontrunner Keiko Fujimori lost the Peruvian presidential ballotage against Pedro Pablo Kuczynski by a historically narrow margin. Among the reasons for her loss was a media scandal that alleged a relationship between Fujimori’s main advisor, donor, and former secretary general, Joaquín Ramírez, and a continental drug trafficking network. The robust debate that ensued on drug trafficking networks that operate in and influence Peruvian legislators and policymakers eventually sunk Fujimori’s candidacy. Despite efforts to eradicate drug trafficking and especially cocaine production in Latin America, there seem to have been no significant advances in the dismantling of high profile trafficking networks in the region. These networks are well positioned to put entire governments at their disposal, to the detriment of sounder policies against narcotics in Latin America. The lack of access to reliable information on public figures and their relationships to these renegade networks limits the extent to which candidates can be held accountable, weakening public trust in the very institutions charged with running countries wracked by decades of drug smuggling.

The scandal is not necessarily surprising, having taken place in one of the world’s main suppliers of cocaine and several other narcotics. Latin America continues to be among the world’s top narcotics suppliers, and Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia represent the top cocaine producers in the world. While the benefits of using politics as a tool to empower drug lords and their illegal networks are not news — Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar comes to mind — it is worrisome, to say the least, the degree to which these connections are currently maintained and go unpunished in the region.

Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has maintained a constant presence in Colombia and Peru, Bolivia expelled the U.S. government agency after accusing it of meddling in issues of national sovereignty. Consequently, the joint efforts of the three countries affected by illicit cocaine trade and the United States have been dashed. With limited pressure from authorities, these criminal organizations invest their resources in companies that range from airlines to minor businesses. Peruvian government officials reported that money laundering transactions linked to drug trafficking totaled $250 million in 2015. In search of political influence, drug traffickers seek to fund electoral campaigns and exert significant political influence, as a Peruvian congressional report stated. The infiltration of drug trafficking into these countries’ political systems deters further attempts to articulate a more robust strategy against the illegal business behind it, creating a feedback loop that frustrates attempts at real reforms.

Ramírez, then, is a case that depicts what has become a stereotype of those suspected of money laundering: entrepreneurs with an extraordinarily successful business story who get involved in politics and fund multimillion dollar campaigns. In countries such as the United States, it would be typical to find individuals with this profile without raising concerns over the origin of their wealth. Yet, in countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia — which lack the same “big-donor culture” — these concerns have become the norm. For instance, Peru’s former presidential candidate César Acuña has also been under investigation for money laundering. Acuña, owner of the Cesar Vallejo Corporation, has amassed a fortune through his investment portfolio, which includes businesses mainly in the educational sector. Recently, he has been questioned due to the existence of “phantom campaign donors”, according to local newspapers.

In this environment, the public needs reliable information on the candidates and their potential links to illicit groups that pose a threat to citizens’ security. The alleged relationship between Ramírez and drug trafficking networks was confirmed through intelligence published in Peruvian newspapers. While encouraging, the lack of greater information available to the public on candidates can be detrimental to these countries’ fight against drug trafficking.

The situation portends a complex situation for the future of anti-narcotic policies in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. The greater the extent to which narco-dollars finance political campaigns, the less likely these campaigns will be able to successfully promote an anti-narcotic agenda. Success in the fight against drug smugglers is necessary to stop the high levels of crime that often entails this illicit business and the challenges to the rule of law that threatens to bring down the growing democracies in the region. In the absence of valuable information available to civil society, the conditions are ripe for an increase in criminal activity that will undermine these countries’ internal security and challenge the region’s democratic development.


Alvaro Zapatel holds a BA in Economics from Boston College, and currently works as a Specialist in Project Monitoring and Evaluation at the Peruvian Ministry of Education. He is also a Professor in the Department of Economics and Communications at the University of Lima. Alvaro is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Image Credit: Images Money/Flickr

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.


Alvaro Zapatel

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1 Comment

  1. Ernesto Garcia on July 10, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    The influence of these narco organizations on candidates in Latin America is no different than that of corporations and lobby groups on candidates in the US. Unfortunately this is the reality in the world – money talks, especially in politics.

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