Protests in Peru: 50 dead and a challenge to democracy

JULIACA, Peru — Roads blocked with huge stones and broken glass. Entire cities shut down because of mass protests. Fifty mourning families mourning their dead. Calls to install a new president, a new constitution, a whole new system of government. Promises to take the fight to Lima, the capital. Authorities who warn that the country is heading towards anarchy.

A protest anthem is shouted in the streets: “This democracy is no longer democracy.”

Rather than fading away, the protests that began more than a month ago in rural Peru over the ouster of the former president have only grown in size and the breadth of protester demands, paralyzing entire swaths of the country and threatening the efforts of the new president, Dina Boluarte, to consolidate control.

The malaise is now broader than anger over who rules the country. Rather, it represents deep frustration with Peru’s young democracy, which protesters say has failed to address the gap between rich and poor and between Lima and the country’s rural areas.

Democracy, they say, has helped amass power and wealth for the most part to a small elite—the political class, the wealthy, corporate executives—and has provided little benefit to many other Peruvians.

More broadly, the crisis in Peru reflects the erosion of trust in democracies across Latin America, driven by states that “violate the rights of citizens, fail to provide security and quality public services, and fall prey to powerful interests.” ”, according to a new essay in the Journal of Democracy.

In Peru, former President Pedro Castillo, a leftist leader, had vowed to address the backlog of poverty and inequality, but was ousted and arrested in December after he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

His supporters, most of them in the country’s poor and rural regions, organized protests and at times burned public buildings, blocked key highways and occupied airports. The Peruvian government soon declared a state of emergency and sent security forces into the streets.

Boluarte, a native of the Apurímac region, a rural area located in the south-central part of the country, ran last year as Castillo’s running mate and was elected vice president. She but she rejected her former ally’s attempt to rule by decree as an authoritarian abuse of power. She then replaced Castillo and has since called for unity and, in response to the protesters’ demands, she asked legislators to move up the elections.

Congress, where many members are reluctant to cede power, has been slow to endorse that initiative and her critics now brand her a weak president working at the behest of a selfish and outdated legislature.

At first, the protesters mainly wanted Castillo to return to power, or for new elections to be organized as soon as possible. Now they are asking for something much bigger: a new constitution and even, as one poster said: “refounding a new homeland.”

Since Castillo was removed from office, at least 50 people have been killed, 49 of them civilians. Some were shot in the chest, back and head, leading human rights groups to accuse the army and police of using excessive force and firing indiscriminately at protesters.

These deaths have especially impacted the southern city of Juliaca, which is reached by a road full of bushes, snow-capped mountains and vicuñas. To visit this town you have to undertake a two-day trip by car from the capital.

At nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, only 40 percent of Juliaca’s population has running water, many roads are unpaved, and malnutrition is the main problem at the only public hospital.

Last week, 19 people died as a result of a single demonstration, in the deadliest day of clashes between civilians and armed actors in Peru in at least two decades. Eighteen of the dead were civilians who were shot, according to a local prosecutor. A police non-commissioned officer was found dead inside an official vehicle that was set on fire.

The country’s interior minister said officers had responded lawfully when thousands of protesters tried to occupy the local airport, some of them carrying improvised weapons and explosives.

The youngest of the deceased was Brayan Apaza, 15, whose mother, Asunta Jumpiri, 38, described him as an “innocent child” who died after he went out to buy food. His wake was held last week, on the other side of a highway blockade where tires were burning, supporters held black flags across their chests like someone clutching a battle weapon and promised to fight until Boluarte resigns.

“We declared ourselves an insurgency,” said Orlando Sanga, a protest leader outside a union hall being used for the vigil.

Nearby, Evangelina Mendoza, dressed in a skirt and sweater typical of the women of the region, said referring to Boluarte that “if he does not resign, all of the South will shed blood.”

But, in this century, few investigations into civil unrest and protests in Peru have produced convictions, and a new law that removed the requirement that police act proportionately in their response to civilians makes the prospect of a successful prosecution even brighter. difficult, said Carlos Rivera of the Legal Defense Institute, a Peruvian nonprofit group.

Peru, a country of 33 million people and the fifth most populous in Latin America, became a democracy again just two decades ago, after the authoritarian government of President Alberto Fujimori.

But the country’s current system, based on a Fujimorato-era constitution, is plagued by corruption, impunity and mismanagement, with even those in government denouncing a lack of oversight and a culture of perks.

At the same time, half the population does not have regular access to adequate nutrition, according to the United Nations, and the country continues to suffer from the pandemic, which in Peru caused the highest death rate per capita in the world.

The intense concentration of the media—which, mostly based in Lima, either ignores the protests or highlights accusations that the protesters are terrorists—has only exacerbated the sense that the urban elite have colluded with the rural poor.

Across Latin America, trust in democracy has plummeted over the past two decades, according to the AmericasBarometer, a regional survey conducted by Vanderbilt University. But there are few places where the issue is more acute than in Peru, where just 21 percent of the population say they are satisfied with democracy, a drop from 52 percent a decade ago. Only Haiti presents worse numbers.

Other countries with particularly low levels of satisfaction include Colombia and Chile, both of which have seen major government protests in recent years, as well as Brazil, where protesters who say last year’s presidential election was rigged invaded the capital this month. .

What is saving many Latin American democracies from “frank death,” said Steve Levistky, a leading expert on democracies at Harvard University, is that a viable alternative has not yet emerged, such as the authoritarian socialism of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

In Juliaca, dozens of people were injured last week during the confrontation with the police and the city’s public hospital is full of people recovering from their injuries. Inside, at the foot of many of the beds, there are little cardboard boxes that take collections to help with medical expenses.

“Punctured lung” says one box. “Bullet impact on the spine,” says another.

Some of the injured seemed afraid to say they had been protesting and a dozen men with gunshot wounds said they had walked past the protest when they were shot.

None of the injured said they had received a copy of their medical report, which would help to understand the cause and appropriate treatment of their injuries. Under Peruvian law, access to this information is a right, but several people said they believed they were being punished for participating in the protests.

In one of the beds lay Saúl Soncco, 22, who was shot in the back as he was walking home from his job as a carpenter.

His brother managed to get a photograph of some X-rays that showed a bullet lodged near his spine. However, the family said, hospital officials told them he had to go home.

The director of the hospital, Victor Candia, indicated that the patients were given the necessary care.

In a message to the nation on Friday, Boluarte offered her condolences to the families of those killed, describing the protesters as unnoticed pawns herded into the marches by handlers seeking to overthrow her.

“Some voices that come out of the violent, the radicals, ask for my resignation,” he said, “inciting the population to chaos, disorder and destruction. To this I tell you responsibly: I am not going to give up”.

Brayan, the 15-year-old boy, died from a gunshot wound to the head, according to the autopsy. At his funeral, hundreds of people gathered at the cemetery on the outskirts of the city, where César Huasaca, a protest leader, yelled a harangue about justice that directed his anger at Boluarte.

“And do you think our morale has lowered?” he thundered. “Not! We are stronger than ever.”

“We are 33 million,” he continued. “What are we going to do? That they respect our rights as such, neither left nor right, what we want is attention!

After a mass celebrated by a priest dressed simply in white, a gang followed the body to a plot of land. There, Jumpiri, Brayan’s mother, gave some last words before he was buried.

“Dina!” she yelled, referring to the president, clinging to Brayan’s coffin, her face contorted in pain. “I am willing to die for my son, I am going to fight, I want justice!”

And then he posed a challenge: “’Dina, kill me!’

mitra taj contributed reporting from Lima, Peru

Julie Turkewitz is the Andes bureau chief, covering Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Guyana. Before moving to South America, she was a national correspondent in the western United States. @julieturkewitz

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