Foto: El Universal.

The authorities, for their part, say they will not allow the country to become a «second Ecuador».

Karla Velezmoro


Photography: Víctor Mallqui

When Carlos saw the criminals shooting at the door of his shop, he realized they were serious. He understood that more than fifteen years of hard work had come to an end, at least for a while.

Carlos, as he will be called to protect his identity, is a Peruvian entrepreneur in the textile industry who was forced to close his business and leave the capital, Lima, due to threats from an extortionist gang.

«All this situation started in the early hours of November 24, 2023, when some individuals on a motorcycle got off and shot directly at my shop. Since I was not willing to negotiate with criminals, I filed my complaint with the Police. Then, on November 30, they attacked again and left a note saying that you have to pay protection money and if you don’t pay, we will kill you,» he recalled.

Carlos is one of over 19,000 Peruvians who reported being victims of extortion in 2023. An alarming figure considering that reports have surged from 4,119 in 2021 to 19,401 in 2023, meaning a fivefold increase in just two years.

«I thought the police would act immediately against the extortionists, but they didn’t. My employees didn’t want to come to work; they were afraid. I couldn’t put them at risk, so I had to close the business and find a way to survive,» lamented Carlos.

The case of this medium-sized entrepreneur is in the hands of the Prosecutor’s Office, but investigations are progressing slowly. According to Carlos, telecommunications companies have recently been asked to identify the owner of the phone number from which he received threatening messages. «It’s been four months, and they haven’t done anything. I feel abandoned. I had to leave the city. More than fear for myself, I fear for my family’s life,» he commented.

Read: In the midst of a political crisis, Peru fights against citizen insecurity that keeps the population in anxiety

And it’s because citizen insecurity in Peru doesn’t cease. Just a few days ago, a businessman in the transportation sector was murdered in broad daylight while trying to escape from his captors. All the details of the Machiavelli Laura Lume’s murder were captured by surveillance cameras. «Unfortunately, the family has been constant victims of robberies, assaults, and extortion payments by foreign extortionists. My uncle was killed, and the authorities cannot provide us with enough support. We fear for our lives,» said a relative of the victim, who at the time of giving statements kept their face hidden with sunglasses and a mask for fear of reprisals.

Not even the declarations of emergencies in different areas of Peru seem to intimidate the extortionists, who threatened the Peruvian football idol, Paolo Guerrero, as soon as he signed the contract with the northern sports club, Universidad César Vallejo. «At 9 o’clock at night, my mom calls me very worried. She says, Paolo, look at the messages they sent me, and she sends them to me,» he stated. In response to Paolo Guerrero’s public complaint, the Peruvian Minister of the Interior, Víctor Torres, had to come out and ensure that the police provide «the necessary security so that Paolo and the entire population can carry out their activities normally.»

However, Peruvians feel increasingly threatened by criminal organizations. According to the polling firm DATUM, 56% of the population believes that crime will increase in 2024, and 94% think that the state of emergency does not work.

«We don’t even have toner»

Faced with the growing concern of Peruvians about the increase in crime, politicians waste no time in presenting proposals, some of which are difficult to implement or have been previously questioned for their compatibility with human rights. One of these proposals is the legislative project of Congressman Juan Burgos, which seeks to reinstate courts of judges without faces.

Congressman Burgos’s initiative has sparked controversy in Peru because during Alberto Fujimori’s first government, faceless courts were established to judge terrorist organizations and drug trafficking. Years later, upon the return of democracy, the convictions were overturned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and new trials had to be conducted.

Jorge Chávez Cotrina, Coordinator of the Prosecutors’ Offices against organized crime and Terrorism in Peru, described the parliamentarian’s project as «pure populism.» «I believe that in Peru, we have not reached the level to have faceless judges and prosecutors because the terrorist crime we faced with Shining Path is completely different from the crime we are facing now,» he opined.

Coordinator of the Prosecutors’ Offices against Organized Crime and Terrorism in Peru, Jorge Chávez Cotrina.

For the magistrate, what must be done is to provide greater resources to the Police, the Public Ministry, and the Judiciary and strengthen these institutions. «If there is no real state policy, which involves having strong institutions, no matter how much effort the police and prosecutors make with the meager resources we have, crime will win over us. In one or two years, it will win over us because you cannot expect to confront organized crime with a broken justice administration system, the justice system is in crisis, bankrupt, we don’t even have toner here, we have to chip in for the toner,» he explained.

The situation in the Peruvian Public Ministry is so serious that they don’t have resources to hire experts, which hampers the work of prosecutors fighting against criminal organizations. «We don’t have experts. Prosecutors have to go to the judicial body to present an accusation with scientific evidence, but there isn’t any because acoustic tests haven’t been conducted. You can’t go with a phone and tell the judge: listen, Your Honor, to the messages from the phone. What will the criminal say, that’s not my voice. One must go with the scientific evidence in which the expert says that it is their voice, but we don’t have that technology. And so, we practically go to trials at a disadvantage, and of course, the public says, how is it possible that they are being acquitted. They are acquitted because we don’t have scientific elements to face trials, that’s the reality in our country.»

However, despite the harsh reality, they manage to continue fighting crime. «With scarce resources, prosecutors are making every effort to combat organized crime. But imagine, if last year we dismantled five lines of the Aragua Train with the minimum resources that the Public Ministry and the National Police have. Can you imagine what our National Police, our Prosecutor’s Office, would do with resources and cutting-edge technology? Instead of dismantling five, we would destroy fifty. But we don’t have resources. Yes, here to send an operation, we have to beg for money for expenses. The same happens with the National Police, there is no money to take them.»

The Peruvian Public Ministry faces severe limitations in fulfilling its functions due to the shortage of financial resources. Currently, it only has 21% of the necessary budget to operate effectively, which hinders its ability to provide the quality service that citizens require and deserve. These concerns were expressed by the former Attorney General, Patricia Benavides, during her appearance before the Congress of the Republic to justify the budget request for the year 2024. Benavides requested a total of S/ 14.089 billion, a significantly higher figure compared to the current budget of only S/ 3.044 billion.

We will not be the next Ecuador

In the face of the crisis unleashed in Ecuador, Peruvian President Dina Boluarte publicly declared that the border between the two countries was protected.

However, among Peruvians, fear arose that a similar situation might repeat itself in their own country. And although crime in this country is on the rise, there are authorities like the Coordinator of the Prosecutors’ Offices against Organized Crime and Terrorism, Prosecutor Jorge Chávez Cotrina, and the President of the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (INPE), Javier Llaque, who believe that this would not happen.

«We cannot alarm the population,» said Chávez Cotrina when asked if Peru is on track to experience a crisis like its neighbor Ecuador. «The Ecuadorian criminal phenomenon is different; it is based on the presence of drug trafficking in recent years. And why is this? Because drug traffickers have seen that in Ecuador there is a much more viable outlet for their illegal merchandise towards the north and Europe. Furthermore, something must be taken into account: the explosion of violence suffered by Ecuador originates from the prisons, as a consequence of the government’s hard line in the prisons, the criminal organizations that dominate the prisons have taken violent actions. That does not happen in Peru,» he explained.

In Peru, prisons house 95,000 inmates, significantly exceeding their designated capacity of 41,000 prisoners, resulting in overcrowding that exceeds 130%. Despite this situation, the prison system has implemented measures to provide spaces dedicated to study and work.

«We have emphatically stated that it is impossible for Peru to experience what unfortunately happened to our neighboring country, Ecuador. Ecuador neglected its prisons a lot, Peru did not. Peru has always maintained the principle of authority in its prisons, unlike Ecuador, which allowed the prisons to be self-managed, and then anything can happen there,» affirmed Javier Llaque from the INPE.

Javier Llaque
Javier Llaque, President of the National Penitentiary Institute of Peru (INPE).

The president of the Peruvian prison system also assured that, unlike in other countries, there are no prisons or wings in Peru where the prison authority cannot enter. «We conduct searches. We maintain control of the prisons. Here, the focus is on rehabilitation; inmates can study and work to support their families. Inmates respect the authorities because they know that if they attack an officer, there are consequences, and they are the ones who lose the most,» he pointed out.

The truth is that Peruvian inmates are well aware that failing to comply with the rules can lead them to be transferred to the prison facility none of them want to go to: Challapalca prison. This prison houses the most dangerous criminals in Peru. It is a closed regime prison where inmates do not have access to workshops or education. Located in the Peruvian highlands at over 4,000 meters above sea level, the temperature can drop to -20°C during frosty weather. Héctor Prieto Materano, alias Mamut, who was considered the leader of the Aragua Train in Peru, is incarcerated in this prison.

Prisons have always been accused of being the operational hub for extortion gangs. However, Llaque assures that mass extortion calls are not made from prisons. «We do not deny that some may occur,» he noted.

It is worth remembering that in September of last year, following the declaration of a state of emergency in the districts of San Juan de Lurigancho, San Martín de Porres, and the province of Sullana, located in the Piura region, a joint operation was carried out between the National Penitentiary Institute (INPE) and the Ministry of Defense inside the Miguel Castro Castro prison. As a result of this operation, a record of phone numbers suspected of being used for extortion activities was found.

Bukele is not a role model for anything

Llaque announced the upcoming expansion and construction of penitentiary centers in the country and indicated that these new infrastructures will be executed under current legal frameworks and following the highest international standards in terms of security and human rights.

The president of INPE distanced himself from the prisons built by the Salvadoran government. «I challenge anyone to go to that prison and ask to enter all the wings to see if they will be allowed, I am sure they will not. In our country, anyone who wants to visit any wing can do so. Secondly, they are not betting on rehabilitation, but we are because for us, an expense of that nature must become an investment,» he stated.

But that wasn’t the only thing he said about the Salvadoran president: «We do not admire dictators, for me, he is a dictator. Why? Because he has changed the laws in such a way that now there are trials of 500, of 900. That is no guarantee of anything. So such an attitude cannot be an example for anything for a country. We are betting on the prison, which should be the Peruvian model prison, and not on the prison, which should not be Bukele’s prison.»

Llaque also emphasized transparency. «We are going to build two prisons. You can see how much it costs, how much the investment is. He has reserved the information for security reasons (…) I cannot call a company and tell them, build as I want and I’m not accountable to anyone, that is not possible in our country because it lends itself to corruption and we will not do that in this institution,» he added.

After conducting this interview, Peru’s Minister of Justice, Eduardo Arana, traveled to El Salvador to learn about the prison logistics. According to Peruvian newspapers, the head of the sector, to which INPE belongs, «highlighted the use of artificial intelligence in prison control in El Salvador, gathering significant contributions for its implementation in Peru.»


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