Death perches at Devil’s Curve, no matter which one.
At least 48 people were killed Tuesday when a bus collided with a tractor-trailer and plunged from the sliver of highway running along Peru’s coastline. Helicopters buzzed overhead to pluck six survivors from the wreckage and recover bodies strewn across the rocky beach about 262 feet below the highway. There were also three people missing from the 57 total passengers, the Associated Press reported.
The bus was destroyed in the collision in Pasamayo, about 43 miles north of Lima, with photographs showing massive damage to the front and a destroyed back end, presumably from the tumble down the cliff.
Locals christened the stretch of highway “The Devil’s Curve” because of its proximity to the cliff and regular blankets of fog complicating navigation along its tight turns, where tractor-trailers roar to and from the capital. Numerous accidents have occurred at the site, the AP reported. Peru’s roadways combine with unforgiving terrain to form a deadly mix; at least 37 people died in a three-bus accident involving a truck in 2015 farther north along the coastal highway, and 51 Quechua indigenous people were killed when their bus fell off a cliff into a river in 2013.
The roadways are so perilous that the U.S. State Department prohibits diplomatic staff from traveling by motor vehicle outside Lima at night, especially as bus passengers, because of threats of armed bandits and poor road conditions.
Yet that deadly stretch of road is not the only infamous Devil’s Curve in Peru. In the far north, near Ecuador, where the jungle and jagged Andes peaks collide, indigenous protesters in 2009 clashed with federal police over government plans to deepen oil drilling and natural resource mining in the Amazon. Spurred by foreign investment and plans to compete economically with South American neighbors such as Chile and Brazil, then-President Alan García allowed its state oil company to drill on protected lands.
A coalition of indigenous people, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, responded with civil disobedience protests, culminating in the Battle of Devil’s Curve in June. And like the other Devil’s Curve, the harsh terrain played a central role in a tragedy.
Peru is roughly the size of Texas, California and Oklahoma combined, with at least 20 mountains eclipsing 19,000 feet in elevation. Enormous sprawl and high elevation puts a premium on roadways snaking from Lima that taper off in the jungle, which covers 60 percent of the country in dense rain forest. In the northwest Amazon basin, the 5N highway terminates near a protected reserve — one way in for oil transport, and one way out to the highways leading to ports on the northern coast.
Thousands of indigenous people led by activist Alberto Pizango Chota made their stand at Bagua, a jungle town on highway 5N. The road is carved from steep terrain running through two rivers in a series of sharp turns coined “the Devil’s Curve.” Demonstrators blockaded the roadway with logs and rocks and set up makeshift tents with plastic sheets in a two-month showdown with the government.
On June 5, García dispatched 500 police officers to put down the protest and open the road. In a predawn raid, police fired tear gas into the crowd, and protesters alleged helicopters raked them with gunfire.
“The number of people injured is unimaginable,” reported Carlos Flores, a journalist for Radio La Voz de Bagua, according to Emily Schmall’s recount of the incident for World Journal in 2011. “They’re strewn all over the highway. Sympathetic townspeople aided the protests, Schmall wrote, and razed a police station.
At least 34 people were killed by gunfire, including 23 police officers, the government alleged, though the numbers were disputed by both indigenous groups and the government, each accusing each other of inflating the body count for their side. BBC initially reported 22 demonstrators and nine police officers were killed, and Amnesty International later said 80 of the 200 injured demonstrators had gunshot wounds. Journalists reported seeing the police dump bodies in the nearby Utcubamba River, Schmall wrote, in what other groups alleged was to obscure the true number of dead protesters.
Violence escalated. Protesters captured 11 police officers and killed them the following day in Imacita, to the north, Amnesty International said, with other clashes in the country to come.
Prime Minister Yehude Simon resigned following the incident and Peru's Congress repealed at least one drilling authorization that led to the protests. Protesters charged with violence at Bagua were acquitted in 2016.
The incident is known at Baguazo, a modification of the town’s name meaning ‘big’ to signify the importance of what occurred there. Locals might make the same grim change to mark what happened at Devil’s Curve in Pasamayo, nine years later.