LIMA, Peru — Violent protests spread across Peru on Tuesday as an international dispute broke out over the dramatic ouster and arrest of former president Pedro Castillo last week by a congress he attempted to dissolve.
Seven demonstrators, all teenagers, are reported to have died and 15 police injured in fierce clashes, mainly in poverty-wracked mountain regions that voted heavily for the 53-year-old former rural teacher and union leader in last year’s presidential contest.
Protesters blockaded the Pan-American highway south of the capital, setting tires ablaze, and the airport in the tourist hub of Cusco, forcing flight cancellations. They attempted to reach the congress building in downtown Lima.
Human rights groups accused police of using “excessive force” against protesters. The National Association of Journalists reported 28 attacks on media workers, the great majority of them committed by supporters of Castillo, who routinely launched verbal assaults on the free press during his scandal-wracked 17 months in power.
The fury led new President Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice president, to propose bringing general elections forward from 2026 to 2024. But many Peruvians, fed up with both Castillo and the ethically challenged, want elections immediately.
The joint communique issued by Castillo’s international allies added to the tensions. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Argentine President Alberto Fernández, Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Bolivian President Luis Arce called on Peruvian authorities to “abstain from reverting the people’s will expressed in free suffrage.” In other words: release Castillo and let him resume his presidency.
They emphasized the fact that many of the conservative lawmakers who voted to remove Castillo had refused to accept the legitimacy of Castillo’s electoral triumph last year in the first place.
Juanita Goebertus, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, described the communique as “incredibly worrying.”
“Of course, there are different ideological visions in the region, but there has to be a shared basic commitment to democracy and the rule of law,” she said. “Pedro Castillo attempted a coup. He tried to close congress and rule by decree. You can’t get away from that.”
The backing for Castillo was no surprise from Bolivia’s increasingly autocratic Arce or Mexico’s populist López Obrador. López Obrador has been one of Castillo’s staunchest international allies while sharing his enthusiasm for rhetorical attacks on individual journalists, in a society where media workers frequently pay for their vocation with their lives, and attempting to dismantle Mexico’s respected electoral agency.
But the communique appeared to be a Rubicon for Colombia’s Petro. The former guerrilla, the first leftist president of the United States’ closest ally in South America, found it necessary to assuage doubts over his democratic credentials during his victory speech in June: Petro stressed that “there will never be political persecution” under his administration; “there will only be respect and dialogue.”
Brazil’s leftist president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, took a different approach. The former union leader swiftly recognized Castillo’s impeachment last week as “constitutional.” The government of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s progressive millennial president, described Castillo’s attempt to dissolve congress as a “rupture of the constitutional order” and wished Boluarte well in her challenging new job.
Yet Boluarte’s task might have become only tougher after the repressive response of security forces some members of her government to protesters with a spectrum of legitimate grievances.
Those grievances range from widespread hunger, exacerbated by a drought in the highlands and a shortfall of fertilizer normally imported from Ukraine and Russia — a crisis that neither Castillo nor lawmakers addressed — to the disillusionment of those who believed Castillo’s often improbable promises to reverse Peru’s deep-seated inequality with policies ranging from a ban on imports of products already made in Peru to abolishing the constitutional court.
Prime Minister Pedro Angulo, a center-right former anticorruption prosecutor who has himself been linked to entrenched judicial graft, says his ministers will be fanning out across Peru to engage in “dialogue” with the demonstrators.
But he also claimed that the protests are being exacerbated by paid “agitators” linked to Movadef, a banned organization that advocates for an amnesty for convicted members of the Shining Path, the armed Maoist insurgents who once killed thousands of Peruvians, mainly in impoverished rural communities.
Zuliana Lainez, president of the National Association of Journalists, joined calls for police to de-escalate. She said the order by Víctor Zanabria, Lima’s police commander, that police use rubber bullets had left her in a “stupor.”
“It’s completely disproportionate,” she said. She blamed Castillo for his supporters’ attacks on the media. “This is the result of all that stigmatization. It is mainly the Lima media that is being targeted, their correspondents in the regions. All this discourse about the media being trash and coup-mongers is coming home to roost.”
Castillo, who now faces the prospect of decades behind bars, appeared unable to assimilate his vertiginous fall from office. From his jail cell, Castillo tweeted that he remained president of Peru, despite being “humiliated, [held] incommunicado, mistreated and kidnapped.”