IRAZOLA, Peru – The two-term mayor of this poor farming district in a cocaine-producing region where the Andes meet the Amazon is one of hundreds of candidates in Sunday's local and state elections suspected of being bankrolled by drug traffickers.
Manuel 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.
Cocaine cash is threatening to hijack democracy in this nation that in 2012 became the world's top cocaine producer. The infiltration has become so brazen and widespread as to draw comparisons with 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.
One of 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.
In his run for governor of the rough jungle state of Ucayali, Gambini has sought to milk his praise from the U.S. Agency for International Development for promoting the cocoa bean over the coca leaf.
Yet he may have been enriching himself along with relatives and associates "closely tied to drug trafficking," according to an eight-page order for a money laundering probe issued Aug. 29 and obtained by The Associated Press. It says he transformed "simple farmers into economic potentates" after becoming mayor in 2007.
One associate, a convicted cocaine trafficker, is running for mayor on Gambini's ticket. The man was named district treasurer in 2009.
Supporting documents say Gambini personally acquired more than 38 square miles (10,000 hectares) of land, some of which "may have coca fields," and has two homes worth $180,000. As mayor, he earns less than $2,000 a month.
At a political rally that featured free beer on ice, Gambini denied the accusations, calling them fabrications by political foes. He said that his land holdings amount to half-a-square mile (130 hectares) and that he owned a saw mill before being elected mayor. He stopped growing coca in 2003, he said, at the encouragement of USAID.
Critics say Peru's lawmakers have made its political system fertile ground for dirty money through inaction or intentional legal loopholes.
Gambini, for example, does not mention his earnings or holdings in the official biography he submitted to the National Electoral Commission. It is not required.
Of the roughly 126,000 candidates this election, only 11 percent filed such disclosures, says the independent watchdog group Transparencia. It partnered with the news website Utero.pe to compare official bios with various public databases. They discovered 1,395 convicted criminals, including 13 drug traffickers.
In Peru, convicted criminals can run for public office as long as they've been "rehabilitated" by court order.
Another loophole comes in campaign finance law: The penalty for failing to report a campaign donation is the loss of public financing. But Peru has no public financing.
A decade after USAID approached Gambini and other local farmers about abandoning coca leaf, Irazola is a top cacao producer and Gambini has gotten much of the credit. In 2008, the U.S. government agency paid his way to Miami for a conference.
In March 2011, Gambini attended a meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador Rose Likins and the Ucayali governor as USAID renewed a commitment to a region where it had invested more than $50 million over 15 years.
A year later, a USAID report called Gambini "a dynamic new partner."
The U.S. Embassy in Lima said in a written response to AP questions said no U.S. funds had gone directly to Gambini.
Local activists have filed legal complaints against Gambini accusing him of awarding contracts to cronies for projects that were never finished or poorly executed.
In one case, he allegedly plowed $4 million in public money into electricity, water and sewers for a 400-family community, then helped engineer sale of the land to a close associate. The associate then began trying to sell people the parcels beneath their homes at inflated prices, said former community leader Eugenio Longa. Gambini denies responsibility.
Longa said drug trafficking has not diminished on Gambini's watch.
In March, police seized 28 kilograms (about 62 pounds) of unrefined cocaine in a moto-taxi, but the local prosecutor did nothing, Longa said. Locals immediately filed a complaint in Pucallpa, the regional capital, where prosecutors say the matter remains under investigation.
Asked about the drug seizure, Gambini said he didn't know anything about it. "That's not the responsibility of the mayor."
A mayor shouldn't be aware of cocaine seizures in his district? "No, no," he said. "When there's that kind of investigation, a seizure, the police do it discreetly, and the mayor doesn't know."
Investigative researcher Carlos Neyra contributed to this report.