Letter from Lima — From the February 2012 issue

All Politics Is Local

Election night in Peru’s largest prison

( 5 of 11 )

Richard’s Chicken brought a singular innovation to Lurigancho’s restaurant scene: delivery. Before the economic crisis, Richard sold up to 120 roast chickens a week, working only on visiting days, taking orders from all over the prison complex. Those were the heady times, when Lurigancho was flush with money, full to bursting; when every visiting day was a carnival. They could hardly keep up with the business. Now Richard’s sold half as many chickens.

Still, he was so identified with his restaurant that some of List #2’s campaign material spelled his name with a gratuitous ’s. Richard was, at heart, an entrepreneur. Previous delegates had lobbied for his support, but until 2010, when his co-conspirators had been released, making his own liberty suddenly seem possible, he’d always refused to participate in politics. “Now I want to leave something behind,” Richard told me. “I have this business, this chicken restaurant. I live well. My daughters go to a good school, but I want to leave my mark here.”

The same entrepreneurial spirit Richard brought to the campaign was what had landed him in Lurigancho to begin with. He came of age in Tocache, a rural town pivotal in Peru’s drug trade, at a time when the business was just getting under way. Coca grows easily in that region: three harvests a year, and, according to the traffickers I spoke with, you scarcely have to tend to the plants. There was lots of money to be made for a smart young man like Richard. He didn’t think of himself as a criminal — everyone in Tocache was a part of the trade. “It was normal,” he told me. Richard harvested and processed his own crop, which he sold to Colombians; in addition, he owned a disco and three diners in town. On the day of Richard’s arrest, a well-known papaya seller had been robbed in Tocache. Police searched for the thief, inspecting every passing vehicle. It so happened that Richard’s truck was holding thirty-five kilos of cocaine.

Pepe had been arrested in Lima in November 2006, after working for years as a pilot flying processed cocaine into Colombia. Tall, broad-shouldered, and charming, he was suited to the occupation. I found it easy to imagine Pepe flying placidly over the endless Amazon Basin. The main thing, he told me, was calculating your fuel: enough to get you there, but not a drop more. Every available inch of the plane must be filled with product. Now Pepe was four years into a twelve-year sentence. Like Richard, he shared his tale without pride, bitterness, or shame. Neither was the sort to indulge in the prisoner’s lament, that long, nostalgic list of all that had been lost — women, cars, houses, money, freedom. Both were grounded in the here and now, in Block Seven, their home, and they were determined to win the election.

Pepe was at the top of the ticket, but in truth he and Richard were running as a duo. All over the block, posters carried both their names, and the slogan on their official platform read: if we succeed, it’s because we’re a team!!!!

Pepe defended his plan to do away with exemptions. Everyone was going to have to pay. Referring to the dilapidated state of the block, he said that the poorer residents, whom he called “refugees,” could live like this because they were used to it. “This is how they live outside,” he said. But not him: men in his position were accustomed to better.

As for their chances, Richard answered for the both of them: “I’m one-hundred-percent confident we’re going to win.”

is the author of two story collections, a graphic novel, and Lost City Radio, winner of the 2009 International Literature Prize. He is also executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast.

More from Daniel Alarcón:

Commentary January 23, 2012, 3:24 pm

Rigoberto

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