LIMA, Peru — Pedro Castillo began Wednesday as the beleaguered but still lawful president of Peru. By the day’s end, he was out of office and behind bars, ousted by furious legislators after he tried to dissolve the Congress of the Republic of Peru without the constitutional authority or the political support to succeed.
Castillo was arrested in Lima after lawmakers, including several erstwhile allies, voted overwhelmingly to remove him. Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn as Peru’s first female president.
Castillo’s dramatic ouster — and the sight of him in custody — came as a relief to Peruvians ground down by the continuous fire hose of his corruption scandals, verbal gaffes and ineptitude. But in his 17 months in office, analysts say, he caused deep and lasting damage to this South American nation’s economy and institutions.
The events Wednesday were the latest unexpected turn in a country buffeted by years of political chaos. Boluarte, 60, is the fifth president in a little more than two years; many of her recent predecessors have been accused or convicted of corruption.
After she was sworn in, the new president called for a “political truce” with and support in tackling the endemic graft that is undermining the country: “This cancer must be destroyed at the root.”
The legislature had been scheduled to debate Castillo’s removal on corruption charges Wednesday afternoon, and the president had said as recently as Tuesday that he would respect the process, amid widespread doubt over whether lawmakers could muster the two-thirds supermajority needed to remove him. They had tried to impeach him twice before and fallen short both times.
But after a slew of new revelations of the president’s alleged graft — including accusations that he had offered $1 million to some lawmakers to save him — Castillo took to the airwaves Wednesday morning for an unscheduled national address.
The 53-year campesino, a leftist former rural schoolteacher and labor leader holding his first public office, said he was sending congress home and would rule by decree until new elections for a constituent assembly could be held, a process he said would occur within nine months.
“In line with the citizens’ clamor throughout the country, we have made the decision to establish an emergency government oriented toward establishing rule of law and democracy,” Castillo said. He also announced a 10 p.m. curfew in an apparent attempt to preempt protests.
The declaration was quickly and widely denounced as an attempted coup, a desperate bid to evade impeachment and criminal prosecution.
Castillo’s ministers of justice, the economy, foreign relations, transportation and communication, labor and education resigned — as did his impeachment lawyer. “My democratic conviction is in the service of the defense of constitutional law,” attorney Benji Espinoza tweeted.
Crucially, Peru’s military leadership also rejected the move. The Joint Command of the Armed Forces described it as “contrary to the established constitutional order” and said it would be met with “nonacceptance by the Armed Forces and the Police.”
Ed Malaga-Trillo, the independent lawmaker who initiated the latest impeachment attempt, compared the power grab to former president Donald Trump’s call this month to suspend the U.S. Constitution and return him to the White House.
“Stupidity doesn’t have an ideology,” Malaga-Trillo told The Washington Post. “It doesn’t belong exclusively to the left or the right. Castillo’s address was completely disconnected from reality.”
The U.S. Embassy in Lima also condemned the move. “The United States emphatically urges President Castillo to reverse his attempt to close the Congress and permit Peru’s democratic institutions to function according to the constitution,” the embassy said in a statement.
Within two hours of Castillo’s declaration, Malaga-Trillo and his colleagues voted 101-6 to impeach Castillo for “moral incapacity” and declared the presidency vacant.
Castillo was eventually arrested near the presidential palace. Peruvian media showed photos and video of the former president looking bemused in custody at a police station.
Boluarte had distanced herself from Castillo in recent weeks, including refusing to serve as a minister in his cabinet.
“I reject Pedro Castillo’s decision to break with the constitutional order by closing congress,” she tweeted after his declaration. “This is a coup d’etat that deepens the political and institutional crisis, and Peruvian society will have to overcome the crisis strictly following the law.”
In her inaugural address, Boluarte emphasized her humble background in a family that suffered economic “precariousness.” She said she was “committed to fighting so that the nobodies, the excluded and the others can have the opportunities and access that have historically been denied them.”
Castillo, who rose to national prominence leading a wildcat strike in 2017, ran for president last year sounding similar notes. Running with the Marxist-Leninist Free Peru party, he took advantage of voters’ dissatisfaction with Peru’s political establishment to win a surprise election victory over polarizing right-wing politician Keiko Fujimori. (She faces the prospect of a lengthy jail sentence in her own looming corruption trial.)
But Castillo’s administration was marred by chaos, accusations of incompetence and allegations of self-dealing. Before his announcement Wednesday, he had a disapproval rating in the high 60s.
He is accused of taking bribes and selling jobs in the public bureaucracy. In October, prosecutors filed a 376-page criminal complaint against him based on the word of dozens of witnesses and an extensive evidentiary trail.
Castillo is the second Peruvian president impeached and removed from office in a little more than two years. Martín Vizcarra was ousted in November 2020 after clashing with lawmakers, ushering in a period in which the country had three presidents in fewer than 10 days.
Paula Tavara, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said Castillo had left Peruvian democracy in tatters, and its citizens — especially the most vulnerable — “poorer and more defenseless.”
Duran reported from Bogotá, Colombia.