She lost her partner in the protests. Then her twins. She’s still at it.

Demonstrators protest the administration of Peruvian President Dina Boluarte in Ayacucho on Jan. 27. The banner rhymes "Dina" with the Spanish word for "murderer" and says, "Ayacucho repudiates you." (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)
8 min

AYACUCHO, Peru — It was nearly two days after the bullet tore into Leonardo Hancco Chacca’s abdomen. Now his organs were failing.

The heavy machinery operator had been shot while protesting the government of President Dina Boluarte in this poor, largely Indigenous city in southern Peru. Dozens of his friends had donated blood, but he needed more.

His partner, Ruth Barcena Loayza, knew she was a match. The 27-year-old woman told his doctors she could help.

What she didn’t say was that she was pregnant. Just a few days earlier, the couple had learned they were expecting twins.

Desperate to save her longtime partner, the man she called her husband, she asked the hospital staff to draw her blood. It wasn’t enough. Hancco died holding Barcena’s hand. An autopsy confirmed the cause of death: gunfire.

Hancco, with whom Barcena also had a daughter, was one of 10 people killed and 69 injured here in clashes with security forces on Dec. 15. Demonstrators stormed an airport runway, and soldiers responded with force in one of the bloodiest days in a protest that has brought more violence since.

The protesters flooded Ayacucho’s streets that day in an outpouring of anger at the impeachment and arrest of then-President Pedro Castillo for attempting to dissolve Peru’s congress and rule by decree. The left-wing political outsider had campaigned on promises to lift the rural poor. Across the south, his ouster brought to the surface years of frustration with a ruling elite seen as distant and aloof and a congress seen as dysfunctional and corrupt.

The protests have snowballed into a nationwide movement demanding the removal of Boluarte, an overhaul of congress and a new constitution. At least 58 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured.

In Ayacucho, the deaths have reopened old wounds. This is the region hit hardest by the guerrilla violence and terror that brought Peru to its knees 40 years ago.

There have been no arrests in the killings here. Amnesty International, which sent a team of researchers to Ayacucho this week, said witness testimony and other evidence point overwhelmingly to the military.

“We’re almost two months away from these events and still there are many people who have not been able to come forward and give evidence because they are completely filled with fear,” researcher Madeleine Penman said.

With official investigations stalled, Penman said, relatives are demanding action. “They’re carrying a very heavy weight uncovering evidence, putting themselves at risk and becoming human rights defenders in the process,” Penman said.

They depend on Machu Picchu to survive. They shut it down anyway.

As the city has quieted and the country’s attention has turned elsewhere, families are struggling with losses that extend beyond those injured or killed on Dec. 15.

In the days after Hancco’s death, Barcena ate and slept little. She isolated herself in her apartment. On Dec. 22, she was back in the hospital again.

A week after the death of her husband, she lost their twins.

The stigma of terrorism

Castillo was ousted and arrested on Dec. 7. As his supporters began to protest and the first deaths were reported, Boluarte, his former running mate and vice president, issued a statement that would set the tone of her new government for weeks to come.

“This is no longer a protest,” she said. “This is terrorism.”

The following day, as the Ayacucho protesters stormed the airport, soldiers were deployed to restore order — with force, if necessary.

Barcena, who lives near the airport, climbed onto her roof to see a swirl of helicopters dropping tear-gas canisters from the sky. She heard gunshots. She watched videos on WhatsApp of bloodied protesters.

Then a neighbor knocked. She had been at the march, she said, and one of the wounded protesters was Hancco.

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Among the people killed or mortally wounded that day: A 22-year-old student and avid dancer. A 15-year-old boy who worked at a cemetery arranging flowers and cleaning tombstones. A 51-year-old mechanic who had been kneeling down and helping a protester when he was shot.

After the funerals, the grief in Ayacucho turned into fear. Barcena began to organize an association of families of those killed in the clashes. But her leadership made her a target.

Boluarte’s government — and national news outlets — described protesters as vandals connected to terrorist and drug trafficking groups. They did not provide evidence. Last month, authorities detained the head of a local union in Ayacucho and six other protest leaders, accusing them of terrorism. And relatives of the dead in Ayacucho — including Barcena — began receiving phone calls and threats from strangers demanding information about their alleged ties to terrorist groups.

The calls are rooted in a time-honored Peruvian tactic: terruqueo, an attempt to discredit political opponents with unfounded accusations of terrorism. Few places are more familiar with the phenomenon than Ayacucho, the region most traumatized by the brutal violence of the Shining Path.

At least 69,000 people are believed to have been killed during the 1980s and ’90s, more than half of them by the communist insurgency led by the Maoist Abimael Guzmán. About a third were caused by the military and other state authorities.

About 40 percent of the deaths and disappearances took place in Ayacucho, a largely rural department in south-central Peru where Guzmán, a onetime philosophy professor, built a stronghold at the San Cristóbal of Huamanga National University.

Guzmán, who called for a violent revolution and began his brutal campaign by bombing polling locations, drew much of his support from remote, rural communities in Ayacucho. Many young people were recruited or forced to join the Shining Path. But many who were not linked to the group were accused of membership — and killed for it.

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Decades later, the stigma lingers over Ayacucho.

Hilaria Aime Gutierrez, 37, remembers her mother guiding her and her siblings with a lantern through the Ayacucho countryside to hide in caves when the “terrorists” came. She thought back to those days after her 15-year-old son, Christopher Michel Ramos Aime, was shot to death on Dec. 15.

“At least we should be left in peace to carry this pain,” Aime Gutierrez said. “But we’re afraid.”

Demanding answers

Barcena grew up hearing stories of Ayacucho’s dark past. Two of her aunts disappeared during those years. But she spent much of her childhood in Lima, the cosmopolitan capital, more than nine hours away.

She returned home at 15, and soon Hancco, who had come from Cusco to work on a highway project. Barcena, a few years younger, reported to him. He spent a year trying to charm her before they began to date. They never married legally, Barcena said, because she was never baptized Catholic. But she called him her husband. At 20, she gave birth to their daughter, Camila, now 7.

They always wanted more children. But for years, Barcena struggled to become pregnant because of a thyroid disorder. So when they learned they were having twins, he was overjoyed. He had hoped for sons; he liked the names Alexandro and Christian David.

Hancco was the breadwinner of the growing family. His death has left Barcena struggling to take care of their daughter alone. They live in a one-room home with cement floors, its walls covered with children’s alphabet posters and family photos. When Camila returns to school in March, Barcena hopes to find work selling cakes or cooking in a restaurant.

For now, as the president of her new group for families, Barcena spends her days in meetings with lawyers and advocates helping her demand answers from the government. She has encouraged other families to join her for group grief counseling sessions and has helped raise money for the hospital bills of an injured man who remains in intensive care.

But she has begun to fear that her work is putting her in danger. Last month, she noticed strangers lurking near her home. One day, two men knocked on her door and began harassing her for information about how the protesters had planned to take over the airport. “If you’re not quiet, and if you don’t step to the side,” she recalled one of the men telling her, “your daughter will see the consequences.”

The men did little to deter her; the next day, she condemned the threats through human rights organizations on social media. Now she hopes to organize a trip with her association to Lima, to make her demands to the government in the capital.

“I’m not going to stop until the end. I’m going to demand justice,” Barcena said. “So much death cannot go unpunished.”