CHIMBOTE, Peru (AP) — One by one, the senior officials from the capital took the microphone and apologized to an auditorium packed with angry people who had long been living in fear. The officials admitted they had failed to prevent a political murder foretold by its victim. Their integrity was in doubt.
Peru's chief prosecutor, comptroller and the head of Congress' investigations committee, which was now holding a public hearing, had all ignored evidence that Ezequiel Nolasco, now murdered, had thrust in their faces for months.
Having survived a 2010 assassination attempt after he denounced government corruption, Nolasco had repeatedly warned that his home state, Ancash, was run by a criminal syndicate that plundered the treasury, killed people it couldn't buy or intimidate, wiretapped foes and used police as spies and journalists as character assassins.
A gunman finished the job on March 14, pumping five bullets into the former construction union leader when he stopped for a beer heading home from Lima to this coastal city that is home to nearly half of Ancash's 1.1 million people.
Ancash was living under the ironclad rule of a governor locals compared to U.S. mob legend Al Capone, his political machine allegedly greased by tens of millions in annual mining revenues that had made Ancash Peru's richest state.
"It's a mini-dictatorship," said Christian Salas, the public prosecutor dispatched from Lima to clean things up. He asked to have Gov. Cesar Alvarez jailed while more than 100 corruption cases involving his administration are revived, adding that the local prosecutors' office and courts were "taken over by criminals."
On Friday, a local judge barred Alvarez, his top press aide and four journalists from leaving the country for four months while they are investigated for conspiracy and embezzlement.
Corruption-impregnated personal fiefdoms aren't rare in Latin American democracies, but political scientists say Ancash is extraordinary in its sheer scope and brutality.
"This guy went too far," said Edward Gibson, a Northwestern University professor who calls the phenomenon "subnational authoritarianism."
Steven Levitsky of Harvard University said, "I don't know of any cases where there has been this much violence," save perhaps in southern Mexico.
It took Alvarez a few years after he first won election in 2006 to silence most rivals and allegedly purchase the near complete loyalty of local news media. Contract murders, meanwhile, became rampant, accounting for two in five of the state's more than 100 killings last year — none of them solved, the country's interior minister told Congress this month.
In Nolasco's case, Alvarez induced judges to suppress evidence that one of his top allies organized the 2010 attempt on the ex-union leader's life, the slain man had alleged. Nolasco took two bullets, while his 24-year-old stepson perished trying to save him.
Nolasco, then a state lawmaker, had accused Alvarez of plans to skim tens of millions from public works project.
His daughter Fiorela, 20, said in an interview at the family home that, following the attempt on Nolasco's life, he was forced out of the leadership of the local construction union by Alvarez loyalists.
"A bunch of gunmen took over the construction union's headquarters — and armed police helped out," she said as newly assigned police bodyguards from Lima stood by, occasionally peering out onto the unlit, unpaved street.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press after announcing he would not run for a third term in October elections, Alvarez denied any responsibility for Nolasco's murder or any other crime.
"People look at me like I'm a murderer. But who is the loser here? The only loser with Mr. Nolasco's death is me," Alvarez said.
"I've lost everything," he added as bodyguards in street clothes, one with a battered pistol in his waistband, stood outside his modest home.
"If people keep getting killed, I'm going to be blamed," said Alvarez. He suggested a political rival could be "orchestrating everything here."
For his part, Salas is focusing on the clandestine former command post called "La Centralita" from which Alvarez allegedly ran a shadow underground state, with nearly $1 million a month in bribes doled out.
Four prosecutors who tried to search "La Centralita" in 2012 weren't just fired.
They were accused of abuse of authority by the man who was elected Peru's chief prosecutor on Wednesday, Carlos Ramos, when he headed the office's internal discipline unit.
Ramos' predecessor, Jose Pelaez, shelved a probe into the governor's finances last year, saying Alvarez did not own a single piece of property.
"I've always lived austerely," Alvarez told the AP. He said doesn't even own his home. His in-laws do.
Nolasco's lone political ally in Lima, highlands congressman Modesto Julca, clamored last July for a state of emergency to be called in Ancash. He counted nearly a dozen political murders — including that of a mayor, a former mayor, a prosecutor, a journalist and the key witness in the Nolasco case.
"I told each and every minister, 'Listen, people are getting death threats. People are getting killed,'" he said. "But nobody paid any attention."
That month, a 9-year-old boy handed local anti-corruption prosecutor Nancy Moreno a manila envelope with a bullet inside. "Knock it off," the accompanying note read. "Nobody touches me."
One of a handful of public officials who has refused to bow to Alvarez, Moreno has been a prisoner in her own home ever since.
Constantly accompanied by bodyguards, she has been advised not to spend more than an hour in any one place.
"She takes pills so she can sleep," said her husband, Ismael Garcia.
Moreno's fearlessness has won her admiration, and she was celebrated with chants of "Nancy! Nancy!" at Monday's congressional hearing, which was held a block from the harbor where Chimbote's fishing fleet anchors.
She sat in the auditorium with the very congressional committee that voted in July not to investigate Alvarez.
The Rev. Luis Palmino, former mayor of the highlands town of Yungay, was among the more than 130 witnesses who told the panel of contract murders, judges obstructing justice, police thuggery and local media submission.
Thugs beat him and broke some teeth in 2010, he said, and three gunmen later tried to kill him. He's since gone into hiding.
"I am constantly on the move," he said. "I am followed and my phone is tapped."
Palomino didn't go to police, he said, because the local police chief was in Alvarez's pocket.
Like others, he had been emboldened to speak after the media spectacle unleashed by Nolasco's murder.
"My father always said, 'The day I die, the mafia falls,'" Fiorela Nolasco told the AP.
The president of the local economists association, Luis Luna, said the toll from all the corruption has been devastating. Ancash has only just $5 million in its treasury after an orgy of public works spending that included phantom and unfinished projects.
Among the latter is Chimbote's $11 million sports coliseum.
Construction was halted more than two years ago for reasons that have not been explained to Moreno's satisfaction.
The project is now a solitary wasteland of partially poured concrete and rusting rebar, rising spindly out of the sand like a sickly Stonehenge.
Franklin Briceno in Lima contributed to this report.
Frank Bajak on Twitter: @fbajak
- Crime & Justice
- Society & Culture