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LIMA, Peru – After becoming the first woman ever elected to run Peru's capital, Susana Villaran did what no modern predecessor had dared: She tried to bring order and transparency to a metropolis plagued by widespread corruption and a chaotic, patronage-thick transit system swollen with aging, smog-belching taxis and buses.
The 63-year-old career human rights defender didn't flinch. She wrestled with powerful rackets to relocate the city's unsanitary, crime-hounded wholesale market. And her campaign to clean up public transit is beginning to show results, with bus drivers starting to heed designated stops and traffic moving more smoothly in much of the city center as buses stick to designated lanes.
Shaking up the status quo, however, has come at a cost. Villaran could lose her job in a March 17 recall election that she says is organized by the very players she disenfranchised.
After taking office in early 2011, Villaran alienated powerful constituencies by eschewing political horse-trading and cutting out longtime power brokers. Her approval ratings sank below 30 percent as discontent trickled down to the very people Villaran claimed to be trying to help, people who live off the informal economy and saw their livelihoods threatened by change.
The latest poll by the Ipsos-Apoyo firm shows 50 percent of Lima voters backing Villaran's ouster, though that's down 10 percentage points from December. Villaran is clawing back, helped by a broad coalition of supporters including the conservative she defeated to win office.
Detractors portray Villaran as an elitist who has done little to improve public works in the 9-million person city she oversees, and she has irritated religious conservatives by promoting gay rights.
In the teeming moonscape of the district of San Juan de Lurigancho, 58-year-old street vendor Santiaga Montes said it took the recall to spur Villaran into action.
"She doesn't do anything," Montes said. "In my neighborhood everything is soil. Everything is rock. We can barely walk. No one builds streets or sidewalks. So why would I want this kind of mayor?"
Villaran insists she has invested more in infrastructure than her predecessor, Luis Castaneda. Construction is under way on a major inner-city artery along the Rimac River while ridership on an expanding, dedicated-lane bus system has doubled on her watch. Out in the hilly poor districts, where many get their water in tank trucks and nearly everyone works in the informal economy, Villaran is installing retaining walls and breaking ground for parks.
Villaran says her big mistake was initially failing to tout her "concrete and steel" works while freezing projects launched by her predecessor that she considered questionable.
Trumpeting the projects, she thought at the time, would be seen as "advertising Susana Villaran, rather than understanding publicity as a citizen's right to know what the authorities are doing with his money."
Yes, she's guilty of political miscalculations, she said in an interview in her City Hall office. But she said none merit being smeared in tabloids and social media as "Lady Vaga," translating as "Indolent Lady" — an inept high-society snob.
Behind the recall campaign, said Villaran, are people who want to use "the city government as a trampoline to regain privileges, to keep things informal (and) to get rich."
She says they include Castaneda, who has denied the accusation. He declined through a spokesman to talk to The Associated Press.
Another political blunder may have been to seek corruption charges against Castaneda over the alleged diversion of $10 million in public funds to a phantom corporation. To date, no charges have been brought.
The public face of the recall, lawyer Marco Tulio Gutierrez, is widely seen as Castaneda's front man but insists the recall had nothing to do with politics.
"This isn't about two candidates facing off," Gutierrez told the AP. "This is about an official's record being judged."
Yet audio recordings also emerged, first reported by the respected journalist Rosa Maria Palacios, indicating Gutierrez may have had a personal interest in gathering 1 million signatures in the petition drive that led to the recall vote.
"Lucho (Castaneda) will return to the mayor's office and I'll go back to be a 74,000-soles (nearly $29,000) consultant. Perhaps more," he is heard to say.
Gutierrez says the recordings were doctored, but has been evasive about the recall campaign's funding.
Pressed by reporters, he finally released a list of the 34 donors. Mostly unknowns, some are in debt and one is listed as deceased in public records. Another was allegedly contracted for dirty tricks by former President Alberto Fujimori's intelligence agents.
Villaran calls herself a democratic leftist in the mold of former Chilean President Michele Bachelet, whom she counts as a friend. Shorty and plucky, she is affectionate with staff and supporters, freely dispensing hugs.
She fiercely criticized Fujimori during his corruption-tainted 1990-2000 presidency and served as women's minister in a transitional government after his downfall. She later defended abused women in Colombia, Guatemala and Nicaragua as an investigator for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
With her November 2010 election, the left returned to Lima's City Hall for the first time in 23 years. The conservative she defeated, Lourdes Flores, opposes Villaran's recall, as do President Ollanta Humala, former U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and leading intellectuals, actors, artists and athletes.
Villaran's troubles highlight the importance of minding political sensitivities even if deep reform is on your agenda, said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist.
As Peru's second most powerful elected official, Villaran holds a highly coveted job that has traditionally been a golden goose for crooked contractors.
Castaneda left office with an 80 percent approval rating after building hundreds of concrete staircases in the precarious, hilly shantytowns that ring the capital and setting up neighborhood health clinics.
Unfortunately, said Levitsky, Villaran and her small group of technocrats initially paid little attention to "the politics of governing" and alienated major political stakeholders.
"The key is to sell your project politically so that you get credit for what you are doing," Levitsky said, something she was very slow to do.
He said her government has not done much to compensate "those who stand to lose out under the new rules."
That has made Villaran especially unpopular among the stevedores and street merchants who worked at the La Parada wholesale market that she shut down in October, prompting rioting that claimed four lives as racketeers who demanded payoffs from everyone from stall owners to truck drivers hired thugs to resist.
Another hard sell are the drivers she wants to put on fixed salaries so she can renew and reorganize Lima's unruly bus and taxi fleets. Currently, they work 16-hour days without benefits and are paid based on passengers carried.
Villaran also faces strong opposition from conservative evangelicals.
The Coalicion Profamilia Internacional, led by the Rev. Jose Linares, hasn't forgiven her for marching in a 2011 gay pride parade and, as he tweeted, "trying to impose her gay ideology on the family."
Her fate now sits in the hands of Peruvians such as motorcycle taxi driver Marabelo Alania, who said she resents Villaran for imposing rules to ease traffic jams that have meant more tickets for violators.
"It's not fair to us who are just trying to make a living," Alania said.
Villaran acknowledges the political downside of all the social upheaval involved in trying to find stable jobs for people who have toiled all their lives in a chaotic, informal economy.
"Change will have an extraordinary effect on their lives. Their quality of life will change for the better. They just don't see it that way at the moment."
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak