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Lima's reformist mayor battles to stay in office

Wednesday - 2/20/2013, 2:29pm  ET

In this Feb. 12, 2013 photo, a sign supporting Lima's Mayor Susana Villaran, showing WBA Super Featherweight Champion Kina Malpartida and the words "I say NO to to the lack of opportunities" stands near a shanty town in Lima, Peru. Villaran, a 63-year-old career human rights defender and the first woman ever elected to manage Peru’s capital, will face a recall election on March 17. 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 the recall, along with President Ollanta Humala and leading intellectuals, actors, artists and athletes. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- 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.

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