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PERU: Distribution of Earthquake Aid Under Scrutiny

Ángel Páez

PISCO, Peru, Sep 4 2007 (IPS) - Mayor Juan Mendoza seems perfectly at home. “Juanito, I need a coffin,” “Juanito, we need tents in my barrio,” “Juanito, the food’s run out in my neighbourhood,” local residents clamour as they cluster around him.

Mayor Juan Mendoza Credit: Claudia Alva Linares

Mayor Juan Mendoza Credit: Claudia Alva Linares

The thunderous noise of rubble being removed, the dust infiltrating everywhere and strong winds are part of the scenery in this ghost town, frozen into immobility since Aug. 15, when it was shaken by the earthquake that reached magnitude 7 on the Richter scale.

Mendoza is the most powerful man in this devastated southern province of Pisco. He strolls through the streets, which are little more than long lines of rubble, taking in the scene of destruction. Obviously, he understands the leadership role that misfortune and disaster have thrust upon him.

“They’re always wanting something,” he told IPS while crossing the main square, which he has made his centre of operations because the national and international press have taken up their stations there. “Whenever you give them something, they come back asking for more,” he said.

He is the one who decides where the food parcels go, which families can move into the shelters, where to begin rebuilding, and who gets to the head of the line. He even decides what kinds of clothes go to one place or another.

This centralisation of decision-making is now under investigation. The allegations against the mayor for fraudulent handling of aid for the earthquake victims resulted in the comptroller general of the Republic, Genaro Matute, travelling to the disaster area with a team of investigators.

“We found that the mayor himself was personally distributing the aid, and that he concentrated so much power that it was preventing the food and clothing from reaching the people who were most in need,” Matute told IPS.

Vexed by the control exercised on his activities, the mayor sought support from President Alan García, arguing that the oversight and monitoring were slowing down aid distribution and reconstruction work.

García publicly undermined Matute’s investigation. “How dull and stupid of people to believe that the mayor would hand out food and clothes to his favourites, and make the rest of the population wait,” García said.

“Are they saying that I’m stealing the donations and giving them to my relatives and friends? Listen, my heart is not made of stone. I would have to be truly perverse to take food and clothes from the people. Besides, my sister died in the earthquake. I couldn’t steal from people who are suffering as I am,” Mendoza claimed in self-defence.

The mayor won the provincial elections in November 2006 with just 27 percent of the vote. In a province with a population of over 150,000, 18,000 people voted for him. But the disaster has conferred more power on him.

While he talked to IPS, some passersby called out to him, “Juanito, we’re hungry!” “Don’t take it all home with you!” “Leave something for the poor!” Mendoza just smiled.

“Why don’t you go to the shantytowns? People there are complaining that you are concentrating everything in the city of Pisco,” IPS asked him.

“There’s enough for everybody, but, please understand, the aid can’t reach everybody at once. Not even God can do that,” he answered.

According to Matute, the provincial authorities in Pisco did not plan the distribution of aid, which was counter to the interests of thousands of people living in the crowded shantytowns on the outskirts of the city.

“There was no distribution system, they handed out goods without recording who had received aid and without knowing who was still in need. Such chaotic disorganisation obviously hurts those who most need the aid,” Matute said. “Under these conditions, corruption could occur.”

Official statistics indicate that up until Aug. 30, the death toll from the earthquake was 519 people. Nearly 1,400 were injured and 45,000 lost everything. Material damages amounted to millions of dollars. Non-governmental organisations say that 40 people are still unaccounted for.

The earthquake epicentre was in the Pacific ocean, close to the shores of the provinces of Pisco, Ica and Chincha.

According to Matute, his investigators have discovered that “city councillors in the governments in Pisco and Cañete (in Lima province) have taken donated food home, or given it to people close to them, to the detriment of those who were hardest hit by the earthquake.”

Residents of Grocio Prado, a crowded district of Chincha which suffered 80 percent destruction in the earthquake, went to Lima to complain that their mayor, Carlos Torres, was helping himself to the aid donations.

In Grocio Prado, a collection of a dozen shantytowns housing 15,000 people, IPS listened to harsh criticism of Torres. “He never comes here,” said local residents in San Benito. “As far as we’re concerned, the mayor might as well be dead,” they said in Yataco.

“He only hands out the provisions to his relatives and cronies,” people said in El Porvenir, where all the houses were flattened.

The mayor was in the main square of Grocio Prado. “All the accusations against me are false. We have organised the people so that they elect coordinators, who collect and distribute the aid we receive,” Torres told IPS.

“The people who are protesting are those who haven’t organised themselves properly, and that’s why they’re not receiving the goods,” he said. As he was speaking, some local people drew near, shouting out “liar” and “fraud, don’t keep all the food and clothes,” while others clustered round and defended him.

“You can’t please everybody,” said the mayor, who was nattily dressed, with polished black shoes.

The civil defence forces have not arrived in Grocio Prado, where people are removing the rubble with their bare hands. The area is under military control, as are the other places in the south that were affected by the earthquake. Storage sites for water, food, tents, mattresses, and medicine are being guarded by the armed forces.

President García made it clear that the armed forces were there not only to prevent looting, but also to command the operations.

“An earthquake is like a war situation arising from a foreign invasion,” García said. “In situations like this we need a single chain of command, with less democracy and a more vertical command structure.”

Perhaps this was why he appointed businessman Julio Favre to head the Reconstruction Fund for the Southern Areas (FORSUR) without consulting any of the authorities in the regions affected by the earthquake.

Favre, a follower of ex President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) and formerly head of Peru’s largest business association, is on excellent terms with the military top brass and with sectors of the Catholic Church close to the conservative Opus Dei organisation. Until the appointment he was an unofficial adviser of García’s.

Rómulo Treviño, the governor of Ica region, which covers the majority of the earthquake damage zone, said that “FORSUR is a true image of complete centralisation.” In response, he established the Ica Corporation for Reconstruction and Development.

“To some politicians, capitalism is a perversion in which the few exploit the many, and the labour of the many enriches the few. Such a stupid idea might have had some merit a hundred years ago,” Favre wrote in an opinion column.

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