Protests in Peru: The death toll rises to 47
LIMA — A young medical student in his work uniform, desperate, his family says, to help injured protesters. A 22-year-old man who had finally saved enough to study mechanics. An ice cream vendor coming home from a long day at work.
None participated in the demonstrations that have consumed Peru for a month. But they all died Monday in the south of the country, victims of what became the deadliest day of clashes between protesters and government forces since the country erupted in violence last month.
In a matter of hours, at least 17 civilians and one police officer died in the chaos of the demonstrations, according to the country’s Ombudsman’s Office, a wave of extraordinary violence that complicated the new president’s attempt to stabilize the country.
The deaths, in the city of Juliaca, near the Bolivian border, sparked widespread repudiation of Peruvian security forces, who appear to be responsible for most of the deaths, and have been accused by protesters and human rights groups of use lethal force indiscriminately against civilians.
“He was in uniform, like all the doctors, so they would be recognized and not attacked,” said Milagros Samillan, 27, the sister of the dead medical resident, an aspiring neurosurgeon named Marco Samillan, 31. “But still the police have attacked them to kill.”
On Tuesday, Jennie Dador, executive secretary of Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, an accountability group, blamed the “indiscriminate use of force” by state security forces for Monday’s deaths.
“What happened yesterday was really a massacre,” he commented. “They were extrajudicial killings.”
Peru, the fifth most populous country in Latin America, has been the scene of violent demonstrations since mid-December, when the country’s then-leftist president, Pedro Castillo, who had vowed to address longstanding problems of poverty and inequality, tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. The move was widely condemned as an unconstitutional action, Castillo was arrested and his vice president was sworn in in his place.
Castillo’s supporters, many of them from deprived rural regions, quickly took to the streets to call for new general elections, several of them claiming that they had been stripped of their right to be governed by the man they had elected to serve for only one year. before.
The violence on Monday in the southern city of Juliaca marked the deadliest confrontation between civilians and armed actors in Peru in at least two decades, as the country emerged from a dictatorship and a protracted and brutal fight against a guerrilla group. violent, a conflict that left at least 70,000 people dead, many of them civilians.
The violent upheavals in Peru come at a time when South America faces significant threats in many of its democracies, and when polls show exceptionally low levels of trust in government institutions, politicians and the media.
On Sunday, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right former president, stormed Congress and other buildings in the capital, driven by the belief that the election Bolsonaro lost in October had been rigged. In neighboring Bolivia, protests broke out in Santa Cruz, the country’s economic center, after the arrest of the opposition governor, whose supporters say he is being persecuted by the ruling government.
Peru’s Interior Minister Víctor Rojas said the protests in Juliaca had started peacefully but turned violent around 3 p.m., when some 9,000 protesters tried to take control of the airport and people with improvised weapons and explosives attacked to the police.
Amid the riots, local television footage showed people destroying prosecutors’ offices and a supermarket in Juliaca and burning down the home of an opposition party legislator.
Rojas assured that the security forces had acted within the legal limits to defend themselves. It was “impossible to control the mob,” he said.
The clashes in Juliaca bring the number of deaths nationwide since Castillo’s removal to at least 47 people, according to Peru’s Ombudsman’s Office. Almost all the deaths have been civilians, the agency said: 39 people who died in the midst of the protests, along with a police officer and seven who died in traffic accidents related to the chaos or as a result of the protesters blockades.
Demonstrations began across the country shortly after Castillo was detained by authorities on December 7 on charges of rebellion. Some protests in the last month have been peaceful; In other cases, protesters have used slingshots to throw stones, blocked roads on crucial thoroughfares, burned government buildings and seized airports.
When the new president, Dina Boluarte, a former ally of Castillo, declared a state of emergency in December, the military took to the streets to maintain order.
Hundreds of police officers and civilians have been injured
The most recent bloodshed in Peru occurred in the Puno region, a predominantly indigenous part of the country, after thousands of people from remote Aymara communities poured into the city of Juliaca.
Many are demanding that Castillo return to the presidency, a claim that is politically unfeasible in the capital, Lima, and a move that would be illegal.
The main demand is for new general elections, which electoral authorities say could take place as soon as the end of this year. Congress, made up of many representatives reluctant to give up their seats, rejected such a tight deadline, but supported a proposal for an April 2024 vote.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Boluarte had yet to comment on the riots since confirming the death of the first civilian a day earlier, when she appeared exasperated with the protesters’ demands.
“The only thing that was in my power was the early elections, and we already proposed it,” Boluarte said Monday at an event. “In peace and order everything can be achieved, in the midst of violence and chaos it becomes more complicated, it becomes difficult.”
Prime Minister Alberto Otárola, at a press conference, blamed Castillo and his allies for the deaths of the protesters, stating that they had incited violent attacks aimed at destabilizing the Boluarte government.
“They are responsible,” he said, “and not our police officers.” Nor “the citizens who, terrified, see how these hordes of criminals intend to riot the rule of law.”
On Tuesday, Otárola said that the Puno region would be subject to a three-day curfew starting at 8 p.m.
In the aftermath of the violence, the United Nations, the British ambassador to Peru and other international actors issued statements explicitly calling on Peruvian security forces to respect human rights.
The United States, which has repeatedly expressed its support for the Boluarte government and last week announced new $8 million in funding for Peru to support anti-narcotics efforts, was less direct.
“It is urgent that measures are taken to stop this painful situation of violence and prevent the loss of more human lives,” wrote on Twitter the US ambassador to Peru, Lisa Kenna.
After the arrival of the first nine bodies at a Juliaca hospital on Monday afternoon, Enrique Sotomayor, a medical officer at the hospital, told local media that all of them had been shot by firearm projectiles powerful enough to severely damage internal organs.
Samillan, the aspiring neurosurgeon, hoped to one day open a hospital serving the poor, his sister said. He was doing his internship in a hospital in Juliaca and on Monday, along with other volunteers, he had taken to the streets to help the injured protesters.
Speaking by phone while standing in a courtyard outside the hospital morgue, Samillan said his brother had been shot twice.
“Everything was so fast, so bloody that until now I am not believing everything that is happening,” he said.
Samillan said that his brother was “a person who likes to help people, that many times he has been saying: ‘I am going to support people. It doesn’t matter if you lose your life.’ Unfortunately, that became real, didn’t it?
He asked for Boluarte’s resignation.
“The people don’t want it,” he said.
Roger Cayo, 22, always wanted to study mechanics but couldn’t afford it, said his only brother, Mauro Cayo. This year he had finally saved enough to do it. Those plans were cut short when he was shot in the head Monday while walking past the protests.
“All the mourners are here,” said Cayo, who was waiting to pick up his brother’s body. On the phone, the sound of crying could be heard in the background.
Gabriel Omar López, 35, was the first person killed by police on Monday. His wife told the newspaper La República that he had been shot in the middle of the chaos after a day selling ice cream on the street.
On Tuesday, police identified the dead petty officer as Jose Luis Soncoand the Home Office said he had died after protesters attacked a police vehicle, seized weapons and set the car on fire.
The protesters have assured that they will march to Lima in the coming days, while the government has promised to introduce new measures to restore order. Many Peruvians fear a new wave of violence.
The government has announced the sending of a delegation of senior officials to Puno to engage in dialogue. But it is not clear who they will talk to. On Monday, Interior Minister Rojas said he had not found anyone in Puno willing to talk to him.
“In the Executive we have all the desire to do things right, we want to amend mistakes,” but the protesters “closed the door” to dialogue, he said.
“There are dead compatriots, that is their objective. Create chaos upon chaos,” Rojas said.
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