LIMA, Peru (AP) — The retired army general blew kisses to supporters and promised an iron fist against criminals in Peru's massive capital city, delivering one of the trademark bombastic law-and-order speeches that have made him a leading candidate to be Lima's next mayor.
"I'll eat bad guys for breakfast," Daniel Urresti told the cheering crowd in the hardscrabble Tahuantinsuyo district in Lima, a city obsessed with crime. "And I'll have the mafia for lunch."
But Urresti himself might wind up behind bars as investigators probe his military past. On Thursday, a panel of judges will decide if the 62-year-old ex-general is guilty of killing a journalist who was murdered while covering the bloody conflict between the Peruvian state and Shining Path guerrillas more than a quarter century ago.
Urresti denies that he had anything to do with the 1988 slaying of Hugo Bustios, who wrote for the Peruvian newsmagazine Caretas. But he knows that his campaign to lead one of South America's largest cities will be over if he is found guilty.
"They will put handcuffs on me and take me away," he said, before continuing to tour a dusty suburb on Lima's outskirts.
Peruvian prosecutors started to investigate Urresti in 2013, after two fellow officers from his barracks in the remote region of Huanta said Urresti participated in Bustios' killing along with them. They accused the journalist of working for the Maoist rebels, who at the time dominated large swathes of Peru's Andean highlands and jungle.
The allegations didn't stop Urresti from serving as Peru's interior minister between 2014 and 2015. During that time he became known for attacking critics on social media and fighting accusations that police used excessive force against protesters in rural areas.
Soon after Urresti resigned as minister he was put on trial for the murder of Bustios.
The journalist was killed on Nov. 24, 1988, when a group of soldiers shot at his motorcycle on a remote mountain road and then blew it up with explosives. Prosecutors allege Urresti — who was a captain at the time — shot at the motorcycle. He is also accused of later intimidating and raping a female witness — a charge he also denies.
Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Despite the accusations, the ex-general remains popular with many people who support his hardline stance and yearn for a tough hand against crime in Lima, a city where rich neighborhoods have 10 times as many police officers as poor suburbs.
"We want someone who has personality, and has the courage to fight delinquents," said Bruno Chapiana, a 65-year-old Urresti supporter.
With his support in opinion polls hovering around 17 percent, Urresti leads a cluttered field of 20 candidates that includes several middle-class lawyers who are barely known by the public, and a former TV host who has blamed Venezuelan immigrants for the city's problems.
Analysts say that besides being one of the more charismatic candidates, Urresti has tapped in to an almost-permanent feeling of anxiety over security among residents of Peru's capital. Although Lima has one of the lowest murder rates among major Latin American cities, with seven murders per 100,000 inhabitants, opinion polls consistently show that security is the prime concern among its population.
"Peruvians have always looked for a democracy with an iron fist, where the president or whoever else is in charge takes a strong stance on certain issues," said Urpi Torrado, director of local polling company Datum International. "Urresti's personality fits this desire."
Urresti has said that street crime is one of the main problems Lima faces, especially robberies of cellphones that end up in street markets dedicated to selling stolen goods.
"Authorities are not shutting down these markets because they are bigger crooks than those who sell stolen goods, or because they are honest and are afraid to take on the mafia," Urresti told The Associated Press.
Urresti has only a 2 percentage point lead over Jorge Munoz, a business-friendly lawyer who is currently the mayor of Miraflores, one of Lima's wealthiest districts.
Torrado said that even if Urresti is absolved of the murder charges, the elections could still have an "unexpected outcome."
"Many voters still haven't made up their minds," Torrado said. "Anything, even the way (Urresti's) sentence is read, could have an impact."