Mayor of Lima Susana Villarán Fights for Law and Order - and Her Job

March 6, 2013
By By Dan Collyns
The Guardian (March 4, 2013)

Faced with a vote to remove her, the city's first woman leader vows to battle on

With her hippyish air, easy smile and penchant for
	flowing scarves, Susana Villarán might have looked to
	her opponents like a soft touch. But from the moment
	she became Lima's first female mayor two years ago, she
	has upset the status quo, taking on vested interests
	and shaking up a city that is home to one third of
	Peru's 30 million people.
	
	So robust has she been in taking on rackets and cartels
	that operate the much-maligned transport system and
	wholesale markets that she has made enough enemies to
	threaten her tenure: later this month, voters will be
	balloted on whether to remove the mayor halfway through
	her term.
	
	A charismatic career human rights activist, Villarán,
	63, has nonetheless failed to win over a sizeable
	portion of Lima residents. Current polls indicate that
	a slight majority favour removing her, although her
	backers include the former UN secretary general, Javier
	Pérez de Cuéllar, the Peruvian president, Ollanta
	Humala, intellectuals and even the political party of
	Lourdes Flores, the opponent she beat to the mayoral
	office.
	
	But the opposition was there from the beginning,
	Villarán says. She had barely sat in the mayoral seat
	before her political enemies were plotting her
	downfall: "I was not invited to the party, I was not
	the one who was supposed to be in the mayor's office,"
	she said.
	
	Fernando Tuesta, a politics professor at Lima's La
	Católica University, agrees. "She'd barely won when
	groups, political parties and sectors of the media
	began a campaign against her," he said. But he adds
	that Villarán, the leader of the tiny Fuerza Social
	(Social Force) party, "didn't build the necessary
	political alliances, leaving her very isolated".
	
	Villarán insists she didn't want to use her term as a
	"trampoline for the presidency. I didn't come into
	politics to behave like that." That is why, she says,
	she did not shy away from tackling the city's thorniest
	issues. The public transport network is dominated by
	ramshackle buses known as "combis", which weave across
	lanes of traffic belching black diesel fumes and
	stopping wherever they like. About 300,000 taxi cabs
	further clog up Lima's arteries.
	
	"It's really a necessity for Lima after three decades
	of absolute informality, disorder and chaos to impose
	some order," she said. She is trying to get bus drivers
	who work long hours with no benefits and are paid
	according to the number of passengers to accept fixed
	salaries. Taxi ranks will be installed to reduce
	congestion.
	
	Villarán also pushed ahead with a move that the city's
	mayors have shied away from for decades: relocating the
	Parada wholesale market, which resulted in deadly
	clashes with the police in October. Neither of these
	moves has made her popular with the estimated 70% of
	Peruvians who work in the unregulated, informal sector.
	There is also growing impatience to see infrastructure
	improvements, particularly in the city's poorer,
	outlying neighbourhoods.
	
	"Lima is paralysed, there are no concrete public works,
	no successful social programmes and crime is up," says
	Shadia Valdez, 24, a lawyer campaigning in the yellow
	colours of the campaign to remove Villarán.
	
	Marco Tulio Gutiérrez, a lawyer who has become the face
	of the anti-Villarán campaign, has capitalised on the
	perceived lack of construction: "The public disapproval
	for her mandate shows that people want physical public
	works. That's what a city like Lima needs. This lady
	has done absolutely nothing, just words, words, words,"
	he said.
	
	Villarán's supporters accuse Gutiérrez of being a
	frontman for her predecessor, Luis Castañeda, who left
	office with 85% approval after building joint public-
	private hospitals and hundreds of stairways in the
	city's poor outlying hillsides. Villarán insists she
	has invested more in infrastructure than Castañeda but
	admits "errors" in failing to publicise them.
	
	In the poor district of Villa María del Triunfo, where
	from a distance the homes look like multicoloured
	confetti scattered on an anthill, support for Villarán
	grows as walls and stairways are built. A park is also
	planned. "Neighbourhoods like ours have always been
	forgotten but Miss Susana is moving forward with the
	works," said resident Juana de la Sota, 67. "She's
	working out of love for the people, not out of love for
	her pocket! Let her finish the good works she's doing."
	
	In neighbouring Villa el Salvador, community leader
	Tony Palomino also supports Villarán. "This is a battle
	between honesty and corruption. It's that simple," he
	said.
	
	Coming into office, Villarán sought corruption charges
	against Castañeda. The former mayor is alleged to have
	diverted $10m in public funds into a phantom company.
	No charges have been brought.
	
	She has also enraged religious conservatives in the
	Catholic and evangelical churches by supporting gay
	rights and bringing in a bylaw prohibiting
	discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and
	transgender community (LGBTs).
	
	Faced with losing her job, Villarán realises she has
	stepped on a lot of political toes but, apart from
	having better communication, she says she would not
	have done anything differently.
	
	"I wanted to build a Lima that was more fair and just,"
	she reflects. "Perhaps it was too idealistic to want to
	be part of a process of transformation for the city."
	
	• This article was initially illustrated with an image
	of Villarán's rival, Lourdes Flores. This has been
	recitified.
	
	    © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its
	    affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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