In many ways, Peru’s interior minister uses social media like many other politicians. On Facebook and Twitter, he discusses successful police operations, highlights meetings with municipal authorities and posts photos of himself comforting regular folks concerned about growing insecurity in Lima and other cities.
But Daniel Urresti, a 58-year-old retired army general, has distinguished himself from other Peruvian politicians through his incessant online attacks against his political foes and critics, especially on Twitter.
No one is off limits.
His attacks can be offensive. In several Tweets, Urresti has urged Keiko Fujimori, the leader of Peru’s biggest opposition party, to intern her younger brother Kenji, a congressman, in a mental health hospital.
His attacks can be personal. He regularly takes on former President Alan Garcia by pointing out his womanizing and extramarital affairs, referring to the ex-president as “Mr. Ego” and “Mr. Pardons,” in reference to Garcia’s controversial decision to let out of jail hundreds of drug traffickers during his second administration.
The attacks can also be crude. On Saturday, he called Peru’s most influential newspaper “El Chuchimercio,” playing on the daily’s actual name, El Comercio, and a vulgar slang in Peru for a woman’s genitalia. Urresti’s attack on El Comercio came after the newspaper ran an editorial questioning the government’s efforts to capture a former ally who is wanted on corruption charges.
“This isn’t politics, this is at the level of the alleyway,” Mauricio Mulder, a Congressman with Garcia’s Apra party, said in reference to Urresti’s Twitter outbursts.
Mulder, who Urresti often refers to as a dog on Twitter, said the interior minister has “a pathological personality.”
“What is a shame is that he is the Minister of Interior and the government supports him,” Mulder said, according to daily Peru.21. “I don’t know how we are going to maintain a level of dialogue given the environment that has been created.”
In terms of personal publicity, Urresti’s controversial use of social media has been very successful. Pollster GfK said last week that Urresti’s influence on Twitter was the biggest of any minister. In less than a year since signing up for Twitter, for example, he has over 28,000 followers. In the past three months, the minister’s tweets have reached about 431,000 accounts, thanks in good part to retweeting by his followers.
“The head of the Interior portfolio has fewer followers than other members of cabinet, but he reaches a lot more people, probably due to the reaction that his comments have in the media,” GfK manager Hernan Chaparro said.
Urresti rose to political prominence in 2013 when President Ollanta Humala appointed him to lead a government office to eradicate illegal gold mining, a major environmental and social problem in the Andean nation.
Urresti took a hardline approach against illegal miners. He often invited local and foreign media to film operations in Peru’s south-eastern jungle where police would blow up equipment and river dredges used by illegal miners.
In June 2014, Urresti was appointed Interior Minister, replacing Walter Alban, a soft-spoken and prominent human rights lawyer who had been Peru’s ambassador to the Organization of American States and headed the country’s national ombudsman, known as the Defensoria del Pueblo.
Shortly after his appointment to the cabinet, local media reported that Urresti was under investigation for allegedly taking part in the murder of a journalist almost 30 years ago while he was an army intelligence officer in the region of Ayacucho, which was ravaged at the time by a violent leftist insurgency.
Press freedom groups and human rights organizations called for Urresti’s resignation. But the minister, who denies a role in the murder of journalist Hugo Bustios, refused to step down. A few months later he was enjoying the highest approval rating of any cabinet member with almost 55% support, according to a November survey by pollster CPI.
Political analysts say support for Urresti is due to the impression that he is actively tackling crime, the main concern among many Peruvians. But his political opponents say that the minister has done little to reduce crime and is instead putting on a political show.
“His technique is simple and efficient: He is almost exclusively dedicated to promoting himself in the media by using his position,” Fernando Rospigliosi, a former Interior minister and critic of Humala’s government, said in a December column in El Comercio.
Rospigliosi said that part of Urresti’s media campaign includes attacking anyone who questions him, as well as those who criticize Humala and Nadine Heredia, the powerful first lady. He also charges that Urresti has falsified data to make police operations appear more impressive than they actually are.
“He is attacking the problems of perception but he is not solving any problems of substance,” according to Cesar Bazarn, coordinator on Citizen Safety at the Legal Defense Institute, IDL.
Urresti says that he is simply defending himself when he takes personal jabs at political opponents on Twitter. “There are those that think that they can give an opinion and insult a minister as they like, but if he responds, they are shocked,” he said in a Tweet.
Many critics don’t think Urresti will go away anytime soon. In fact, his quick rise to prominence in the government could result in a run for the presidency in 2016, these people say, since Humala is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection.
“In 2015, Urresti will be more of a candidate in formation than a minister,” security expert and political analyst Carlos Basombrio said in a column in Semana Economica last month.
For Basombrio, who served as Rospigliosi’s deputy minister in the Toledo administration, that isn’t a good thing. “It is unfortunate for the country that an adventurer, authoritarian, and improviser is a key player in Peruvian politics again,” he said.