The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Discontent, death toll rise as Peru’s poor demand change

People surround empty coffins outside a hospital in Juliaca, Peru, on Tuesday while waiting for the bodies of protesters and bystanders killed in clashes with security forces to be delivered. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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LIMA, Peru — The mourners, thousands of them, stood by the coffins of 17 people killed by security forces in the remote region of Puno, staring down riot police and chanting, “Dina, murderer.”

The underdeveloped, largely Indigenous region around Lake Titicaca has been shaken by protests since Peru’s deeply unpopular Congress removed the incompetent and allegedly corrupt president Pedro Castillo last month. Castillo, a former rural schoolteacher and union leader, had won office in 2021 on promises to lift up the country’s poor. The people of Puno do not have the same faith in his successor, former vice president Dina Boluarte.

The protesters and bystanders were killed in clashes with security forces during a single 24-hour period this week, the latest chapter in Peru’s unremitting political crisis, prompting accusations of brutality motivated by official racism. They brought the death toll since Castillo’s ouster Dec. 7 to 47. The number includes seven who have died in road crashes or ambulance delays caused by protests.

The most intense fighting came Monday, as protesters, throwing rocks and some apparently using homemade firearms, stormed the local airport. They also torched the home of a member of Congress and looted several supermarkets. A helicopter showered them with tear gas while police fired live rounds.

The dead also included a street vendor, a doctor who was tending to an injured demonstrator and a 17-year-old girl heading to an animal shelter where she volunteered. The remains of a police officer were found in a burned-out patrol car.

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Peruvians are now debating whether the police have been responding appropriately to protester violence or are instead gratuitously escalating the conflict. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the killings this week. Amnesty International accused security forces of the “unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against the civilian population.”

The protesters are demanding Boluarte’s resignation. But analysts say the visceral discontent with the government here is rooted in decades of racism and marginalization by decision-makers in Lima, who have long ignored the people of the Andes and the Amazon — people who believed that in Castillo they had finally found a president who would stand up for them.

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“This shows that deaths in the provinces are not worth the same as those in Lima,” said Rolando Rojas, a historian at the Institute of Peruvian Studies. Puno is Peru’s poorest and most Indigenous region, he noted, and “racism runs through everything. The people of Puno have not been recognized as citizens or interlocutors. The response to their protests has been purely repressive.”

Lawyer Mirtha Vásquez served as Castillo’s prime minister for four months in an unsuccessful attempt to impose some order and legality on his chaotic administration. “Indigenous people in Peru are treated as second-class citizens,” she said. “They are dismissed as ignorant, savage and violent. That is what is allowing these aggressions by the police.”

That alleged racism has taken the form of terruqueo, a uniquely Peruvian term that describes the smearing of critics by falsely accusing them of terrorism. The tactic resonates deeply in a society traumatized by the Maoist insurgents of the Shining Path, who slaughtered an estimated 31,000 people in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s still used routinely by the Peruvian far right.

Lawmakers impeached Castillo after he attempted to dissolve the Congress and rule by decree. Boluarte was his running mate on the Marxist-Leninist Free Peru ticket in 2021.

But critics say she has now been “captured” by the legislature’s conservative majority. She accused protesters last month of “terrorism,” before backtracking and distinguishing the spectrum of views and tactics among them. She appointed as head of national intelligence Juan Carlos Liendo, a conservative retired army colonel who had argued that all the demonstrators were, by definition, terrorists. (She later forced him out.)

Boluarte, a lawyer and civil servant, has lamented the deaths and called for “dialogue.” But she also said the demonstrators’ demands “can’t be understood,” a claim with racist overtones. Her first prime minister, Pedro Angulo, who lasted just a week in the job, infamously blamed protester deaths on the supposed inability of Andeans to understand police orders in Spanish.

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Former prosecutor Antonio Maldonado warned that Boluarte and several of her ministers could be prosecuted for murder and extrajudicial executions simply for failing to rein in the national police, who have a long history of human rights abuses. They include the 2009 Bagua massacre, clashes over the extraction of natural resources from ancestral land that left 23 police officers and 10 civilians dead, and the killing of two anti-government protesters in Lima in 2020 following the ouster of then-President Martín Vizcarra.

“You don’t need to give a specific order,” Maldonado told The Washington Post. “Stigmatizing protesters as vandals, terrorists and criminals is sufficient cover for a highly militarized police force with an obsolete doctrine of national security that fails to apply modern international human rights standards.”

Maldonado was dismissive of Peru’s chief prosecutor, Patricia Benavides, who on Tuesday opened a preliminary “genocide” investigation against Boluarte and key ministers, despite the lack of any systematic attempt to wipe out an entire ethnic group. “She is deliberately torpedoing her own investigation, posing as a hero when she is not,” he said.

The protests continue. According to Peru’s official human rights watchdog, 55 roads across the country remained blockaded.

Congress, meanwhile, has failed to provide oversight of the Boluarte administration’s response to unrest. Several lawmakers have called for harsher repression.

Lawmakers have been taking advantage of the crisis, seeking to remove checks on their own power, including pushing a bill to allow them to appoint the state’s attorney for Congress — that is, naming the prosecutor who would investigate them for corruption. They voted Tuesday to shield from prosecution a fellow legislator accused of raping an aide in his office.