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Peru police arrest 18 in crackdown on arms trafficking, probing candidate's murder

LIMA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Peruvian police officers raided dozens of properties around the country on Wednesday, arresting 18 people as part of an investigation into illegal arms trafficking and its role in the murder of an Ecuadorian presidential candidate last year.

In the "mega-operation," some 700 officers raided houses and offices in four districts of the capital Lima and in the Tumbes, Cajamarca and Piura regions on Peru's border with Ecuador, said Jorge Chavez, who heads the Peru prosecutor's office against organized crime.

Chavez said the operation, with support from the U.S. embassy, targeted companies that allegedly imported weapons, mainly from the U.S. and Turkey, and later paid low-income individuals to acquire licenses and purchase the guns.

The weapons later ended up in the hands of criminal gangs, Chavez said, including those responsible for the murder of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

Chavez's office has intelligence that "one of the weapons that came from these companies was likely used in the assassination of the former presidential candidate," he said in remarks shared on America Television.

Villavicencio, a vocal critic of corruption and organized crime, was gunned down in August after a campaign rally in Quito, just 11 days before the country's presidential election.

Images broadcast on local television showed police on Wednesday seizing handguns, hunting and sports weapons, and long-range rifles, in additional to cell phones, computers and documents.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino; Editing by Toby Chopra)