The editor's corner

A murder mystery: three public figures killed in Áncash

By Nick Rosen

The murder of a mayor, a former mayor and a district attorney raise troubling questions about what is happening along one stretch of coast.

A murder mystery: three public figures killed in Áncash

José Montalván's casket in Casma (Abigail Dias/Peru21)

The small cities of Huarmey, Casma and Nuevo Chimbote sit along an 80-mile stretch of the Panamericana Highway in Áncash. It’s a tiny portion of the more than 3,000 miles of Peruvian coastline, but this stretch holds a rather dubious distinction: three high-profile killings of political figures occurred there this year.


In March, the former mayor of Huarmey, Pedro Tapia, was gunned down while he attended to patients in his medical clinic. He had narrowly lost re-election and was financing a recall campaign against the mayor at the time of his death.


In April, the District Attorney for Casma, Luis Sánchez Colona was shot and killed as he exited his home in Nuevo Chimbote. At the time, Sánchez was investigating Tapia’s murder and several significant drug cases.


On Sunday, Casma mayor José Antonio Montalván was killed by masked gunmen who intercepted his car in a shantytown. After shooting the mayor, the killers drove off on motorcycles. The mayor’s brother and widow report having received threats.


It’s rather remarkable that three such killings would occur within one region. Despite the rising levels of violent crime in the country, the killing of political figures is exceedingly rare in Peru. In fact, in 2012, the only high-profile murders of political or government figures were those of Tapia, Sánchez and Montalván.


A navy seaman, Victorino Castro García, was arrested for Tapia’s murder, with prosecutors alleging that the former mayor was romantically linked to the mother of Castro’s child. Police found a similar motive for the Sánchez killing: the D.A. had allegedly been engaged in an affair with the wife of a businessman named Jack Castillo Castillo.


Coincidences do happen. Maybe the three killings really are unrelated to one another and to the victims’ work. Still, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to find a link between the killings.


First, there is the statistical improbability of it all: there are thousands of politicians around Peru. It’s highly unlikely that of those thousands, the three who were killed all lived in the same region.

It could be explained away if there was something about the society and culture in Áncash that made the killings more likely, but at first glance, that does not seem to be the case. It is hard to imagine that politicians in Áncash are more inclined to commit adultery than are those elsewhere in Peru, nor does the region have a higher rate of crime than its neighbors do (Lima, La Libertad and Lambayeque all surpass it).


Secondly, the investigations into Tapia and Sánchez’s murders have left several loose strings. For years, Tapia had apparently been receiving threatening messages telling him to get out of politics. In one event, his car was smashed and someone tried to run him off the road.


Sánchez also apparently felt frightened by the investigations he was engaged in and the information he was uncovering. Furthermore, no one is being held in the Sánchez case. Castillo, the alleged mastermind, is in hiding, and his wife denies even knowing Sánchez. One of the supposed hit men in the killing was arrested and later released. An alleged triggerman was found dead inside a car, the victim of either murder or suicide.


Finally, politics in Áncash has long been considered a dirty game. Congress is currently investigating alleged acts of corruption in the regional government. A local mayor has been investigated for the murder of a journalist who accused him of malfeasance. When President Ollanta Humala visited the region earlier this year, he said that, “In Áncash, it isn’t just corruption, it’s armed robbery.”


There really might not be a connection between the three cases, and the killings might have had nothing to do with the victims’ professions. Still, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to start thinking that something is fishy in Áncash.


The government needs to investigate the killings thoroughly, and given the level of corruption in the region, it might be wise to bring in some outside help. Every murder is an outrage, but when it involves a public figure, it threatens the underpinnings of democracy. The authorities must get to the bottom of these killings in Áncash.