Prosecutors in Peru probe mayor for discrimination against Venezuelans

LIMA (Reuters) - Prosecutors in Peru have opened a preliminary probe into the mayor of an Andean city who promised to “free” his city of Venezuelan immigrants and force companies to hire more locals, the attorney general’s office said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants queue to get temporary residency permits outside the immigration office in Lima, Peru October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo/File Photo

The investigation will seek to determine if Henry Lopez, the mayor of Huancayo - a commercial hub of about 500,000 people in Peru’s central highlands - committed discrimination and incitement to discrimination, the office said on Twitter.

Peru’s constitution bans discrimination on the basis of origin, race, sex, language, religion, opinion or economic status.

Lopez was not immediately available for comment but one of his advisors said by telephone that prosecutors cannot start an investigation for comments that were “taken out of context.”

In a statement published by his office on Wednesday, Lopez blamed Venezuelans for what he claimed was a spike in crime and street hawking in Huancayo, and promised to pass a municipal ordinance requiring companies to ensure locals made up at least 80 percent of their workforce.

He also suggested a Venezuelan immigrant who had been working as a security guard plotted to kill a local man whose death is still under investigation.

“I was elected to bring order to the city. They’ll call me xenophobic but I don’t mind,” Lopez said in the statement. “Today I declare ‘Huancayo free of Venezuelans.’”

Lopez’ comments are part of a recent flare-up in xenophobia in South America since a flood of poor and desperate Venezuelan migrants entered the region in recent years, fleeing an acute economic and political crisis under President Nicolas Maduro.

Peru has been one of the most welcoming countries for Venezuelan immigrants, granting them special residency cards that allow them to work and access public healthcare as well as education services.

The Andean nation is now home to 700,000 Venezuelans, the largest population of Venezuelan immigrants outside of Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela.

But the government of President Martin Vizcarra tightened entry requirements for Venezuelans last year.

Earlier on Monday, Peru Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio said the government was now evaluating whether to require Venezuelans to obtain a “humanitarian visa” from its consulate in Caracas before migrating, similar to a measure Chile implemented that has made it harder for Venezuelans to enter the country legally.

“Venezuelan migration has impacted the labor market and our health and education systems. It’s a reality that our country’s capabilities are overwhelmed,” Popolizio told lawmakers in televised comments.

Still, Lopez’ comments triggered a wave of criticism in Peru last week, including condemnation from the culture ministry, which deemed them “unacceptable in a democratic state that respects fundamental rights.”

Supporters of Lopez’ position say Peru, where about 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, should help its poorer citizens before Venezuelan migrants.

Last year, a candidate for mayor of Lima, Ricardo Belmont, stoked fears that Venezuelans were a threat to Peruvians’ jobs and to public order. Belmont lost the election, coming in sixth.

Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj; Editing by Sandra Maler