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LIMA, Peru – Alan Garcia granted hundreds of convicted drug traffickers early release the last time he was Peru's president, pursuing a clemency campaign believed unparralleled in the world that he said was giving the deserving a second chance while easing prison overcrowding.
Now the "narco pardons" are haunting Garcia as he seeks to return to the presidency for a third term, with the officials who arranged the releases on trial for allegedly running a get-out-of-jail-for-pay scheme.
Questioned about the commutations two years ago by a special congressional committee, Garcia insisted he carefully weighed each case, often staying up well past midnight to pore over thick files.
"I sought God's counsel in making each and every one of these concessions," he told the committee.
But witnesses testifying before a court at a maximum-security prison in Lima's dusty northern hills tell a different story, one of quick-turnaround commutations for convicts who paid thousands of dollars, dozens of releases sometimes arranged in a single day and a streamlined process that squeezed complicated cases into an eight-line questionnaire.
Fourteen Garcia loyalists who engineered the commutations, most as members of a presidential commission overseeing that job, have been on trial since August charged with criminal conspiracy and bribe-taking in connection with the pardons. If convicted, they face up to 17 years in prison.
In all, 1,167 people convicted of aggravated drug offenses, defined as trafficking in 10 kilograms of cocaine or more, or belonging to a drug gang, were freed by a stroke of Garcia's pen during his 2006-11 presidency.
"I've worked in 114 countries in all parts of the world since 1990, and I know of no other case on this scale," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a drug trafficking expert affiliated with Columbia University in New York.
As Garcia has repeatedly stressed, the releases were perfectly legal and permitted under presidential powers. The Associated Press sought through his press office to interview Garcia on the subject, but there was no response. The former officials on trial all maintain their innocence.
The congressional committee that studied the commutations — more than 5,000, including over 1,700 for armed robbery — determined last year that Garcia created an unconstitutional parallel legal system.
It spurred "corruption, violent crime, the alteration of the economy, money laundering — a spectrum of criminal acts that simply don't matter to (Garcia's) Aprista Party," said Yvan Montoya, a former anti-corruption prosecutor who teaches law at Lima's Catholic University.
Months after Garcia left office, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declared that Peru had overtaken Colombia as the world's No. 1 cocaine producer. During his five-year term not a single drug kingpin was captured or convicted, cocaine seizures averaged just 12.8 metric tons annually and the Apristas strengthened their control over Peru's notoriously corrupt criminal justice system and courts.
"There are Aprista judges and prosecutors. Until recently he had control of the Constitutional Court, so he feels protected, that no one can touch him," said Sergio Tejada, who headed the congressional committee.
That doesn't necessarily mean voters will be forgiving.
Revelations from the pardons trial only reinforce "the image of a corrupt politician that has long existed," said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist focusing on Latin America. Garcia is "a very skilled politician, but it's going to be very difficult recovering the trust necessary to win the presidency."
Garcia is running third in opinion polls with less than 10 percent, well behind front-runner Keiko Fujimori and economist and former prime minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
Fujimori, who finished second to current President Ollanta Humala in the 2011 election, is also tarnished: Her father, former strongman Alberto Fujimori, is in prison for corruption and human rights abuses during his 1990-2000 presidency.
Garcia first served as president in 1985-90, a time of runaway inflation and a worsening leftist insurgency.
When he ran again over a decade later, Garcia hired lawyer Miguel Facundo to fend off attempts by rights activists to keep him off the ballot. Facundo was later named to head the clemency commission and is now the lead defendant in the pardon case.
Prosecutors allege Facundo and a dozen subordinates scoured prisons for inmates who could pay, and relied on convicted traffickers as consultants. "There was a predilection" toward targeting narcotics offenders, prosecutor Walther Delgado Tovar argued.
In one typical case, a Slovak trafficker named Eugen Csorgo paid $15,000 to have his 15-year sentence commuted after serving six years, according to testimony by a man who was an inmate in Csorgo's cell block at the time and claims to have been involved in securing his release.
The witness, Marco Galvez, said he arranged Csorgo's pardon with then-Justice Minister Aurelio Pastor, and an assistant allegedly sent an inmate to Facundo's organization to negotiate part of the payoff. Evidence presented in court traced wire transfers from the Slovak city of Komarno to the Lima bank account of a friend of Galvez.
Pastor denies the accusation and says he has never met Galvez.
Facundo also insists he is innocent of the accusations against him, including that he accepted $30,000 for the release of Colombian convicted trafficker Ramiro Castro Mendoza in 2009. Castro was re-arrested three years later on trafficking charges.
Garcia has consistently defended his sentence reductions and recently likened them to U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to commute the sentences of 5,500 non-violent drug offenders.
Critics call the comparison specious.
Vanderbilt University political scientist Arturo Maldonado said there's no comparison between the U.S. clemencies, which must wend their way laboriously through judicial review panels, and Garcia's seemingly arbitrary "pardons by the pound."
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.