Lima mayor under siege

Susana Villarán faces a referendum challenge against her victory two years ago

Francisco Peregil
Susana Villarán, pictured with supporters in a Lima neighborhood in September 2010.
Susana Villarán, pictured with supporters in a Lima neighborhood in September 2010.MARIANA BAZO (REUTERS)

Since taking over as Lima's first woman mayor by a narrow margin in January 2011, Susana Villarán has fought hard to carry out one of her principal election pledges: to tackle corruption. Now "a murky coalition," as The Economist recently described it, has begun a counter-attack by gathering signatures in support of a referendum to have her ousted from office.

In October, opponents of Villarán, led by her City Hall predecessor, Luis Castañeda, submitted 1.2 million signatures to Peru's election authorities demanding an electoral rerun based on legislation introduced in the 1990s to facilitate the removal of corrupt mayors. The referendum will take place on March 17.

The mayor of Lima -- a city which generates around half of the country's GDP -- is one of Peru's most important political positions.

During her two years in office, Villarán has canceled consultancy contracts and reorganized the routes of private minibuses to complement a modern rapid-transit bus system that she plans to expand at a faster pace than Castañeda managed during his eight years in office, despite having to face down several disruptive strikes. She has also moved Lima's wholesale market from La Parada, an open-air ward of streets in the old part of the capital, to a large building, which has put her in a conflict with the criminal elements that operated there. In late October, as the move went ahead, four people were killed and dozens injured after hired thugs attacked police at the old market.

I don't put my name to things because it's not my money. The money is yours"

"We have been talking about moving La Parada for more than four decades," says Villarán. "But nobody had the courage to actually do it. It was in the center of the city, and there was an underworld of prostitution, organized crime, poverty, former convicts who provided protection for stall holders [...] Then one day, a woman turns up with her team and dares to take on La Parada.

"There was a huge amount of corruption there: a lot of money that went to politicians, to corrupt police officers, and a lot of other people. The money was used to hire the thugs who started the violence on October 25 in which four people died. We can't really talk about success when four people die, but we got the desired result, which was to move La Parada."

Villarán won the 2010 mayoral election, coming from behind to narrowly defeat conservative Lourdes Flores. A press campaign to vilify her, accusing her of being a leftwing Trojan Horse, began even before she took office. "Traditional politics is about deals, everything is negotiated, and everybody owes somebody else favors," she says.

"But I don't owe anybody any favors; what's more, I am a woman and left wing. Three days after taking office, the leading newspaper in the country was already saying 'Susana Villarán could be recalled.' They organized a campaign to discredit me. People may not read newspapers, but they see the headlines. But I had always said that I intended to implement big changes: they come at a cost, and the results are not immediate."

A press campaign to vilify Villarán began even before she took office

In the tradition of previous mayors, and of Castañeda himself when he was first elected, Villarán called for an audit of the previous administration when she took office in January 2011. She was critical of Castañeda's eight-year administration of the city and, after the audit, ordered a formal investigation into allegations of corruption.

Lima's deputy mayor, Eduardo Zegarra, said that supporters of Villarán are preparing a "hard fight" against the challenge. "The recall is going to fail," he said. "We are going to have not only a legitimate mayor, but one that is much better positioned to continue the work that all of Lima has assigned to her."

Villarán's eventual success with the move of the wholesale market has prompted a growing number of district mayors to come to her defense. The mayor of the wealthy La Molina neighborhood, Juan Carlos Zurek, said: "She has chosen not to be Miss Congeniality" and has confronted the city's problems head on. Several other mayors, including those of the lower-income districts of Villa El Salvador and Villa Maria del Triunfo, have also given her their support.

Meanwhile, Lourdes Flores, who fought a bitter battle against Villarán in the last mayoral race, said she will vote against the recall, as has the founder of her political party, Luis Bedoya Reyes.

Among the more visible faces among the conspiracy is that of Marco Tulio Gutiérrez, a lawyer that some journalists have accused of working for Castañeda. "If you ask people in Lima what Mrs Villarán has done, they wouldn't know what to say. She has spent her time finishing off projects started by her predecessor. Our campaign is about getting things done, about public works, not about promises. We want her recalled because she is inefficient," says Tulio Gutiérrez. Even Villarán's supporters say that she has largely failed to get her message across to the 8.5 million inhabitants of the capital. She accepts the criticism.

"I am a stubborn woman," she says. "Above all, stubborn in terms of the need for austerity. I have been overly austere when it comes to spending on public relations. The former mayor put his name on every step of a staircase he had built. Imagine that. It's not a criticism; it's a statement of fact. I suppose that he did it to fulfill some existential need. But when I do something, I don't put my name to it, instead the following words: 'Lima did this.' I tell people that the reason I don't put my name to things is because it's not my money. The money is yours, and I want people to know what it cost. I don't mind people knowing what I am doing: let them discuss it and how much it costs. But I don't want to be remembered for doing this or for that."

Before the campaign to unseat her, Villarán's popularity had been waning: at one point it sunk to 15 percent, but the most recent polls put it at double that. She says that she is not worried about the March 17 referendum.

"It would be terrible if Lima ground to a halt, because it is the engine of the country. We want to do something about the lack of infrastructure in the capital. I am constantly unveiling new projects to remedy this. And between now and March, I will make more of a song and dance and reach out to people. But I will not renounce my principle of austerity, and will continue to sign off projects with 'Lima did this'."

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