Deadly protests in rural Peru grow into a referendum on democracy
Yulinio Mamani Mamani recovers after being shot during a protest, in Juliaca, Peru, Jan. 13, 2023.
By JULIE TURKEWITZ
Highways blocked with giant boulders and broken glass. Entire cities shuttered by mass protests. Fifty families mourning their dead. Calls for a new president, a new constitution, a new governing system altogether. Pledges to take the fight to Lima, the capital. Local officials warning that the country is headed toward anarchy.
A protest anthem shouted in the streets: “This democracy is no longer a democracy.”
Rather than fade, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the ouster of the former president have only grown in size and in the scope of demonstrators’ demands, paralyzing entire sections of the country and threatening efforts by the new president, Dina Boluarte, to gain control.
The unrest is now far broader than anger over who is running the country. Instead, it represents a profound frustration with Peru’s young democracy, which protesters say has failed to address a yawning gap between the rich and the poor and between Lima and the country’s rural areas.
Democracy, they say, has largely helped a small elite — the political class, the rich and corporate executives — accumulate power and wealth, while providing few benefits to many other Peruvians.
More broadly, the crisis in Peru reflects an erosion of trust in democracies across Latin America, fueled by states that “violate citizens’ rights, fail to provide security and quality public services, and are captured by powerful interests,” according to a new essay in The Journal of Democracy.
In Peru, the former president, Pedro Castillo, a leftist, had promised to address long-standing issues of poverty and inequality, but was impeached and arrested in December after he attempted to disband Congress and rule by decree.
His supporters, most of them in the country’s poor, rural regions, launched protests, sometimes burning government buildings, blocking vital highways and occupying airports. Peru’s government soon declared a state of emergency, sending security forces into the streets.
Boluarte, who comes from the rural south-central region of Apurímac, ran on Castillo’s ticket last year, and was elected vice president. But she rejected her former ally’s attempt to rule by decree, calling it an authoritarian power grab, and replaced Castillo. She has since urged unity and, responding to protesters’ demands, called on legislators to move up new elections.
Congress, with many members reluctant to yield power, has blocked that effort, and Boluarte’s critics now call her a weak president working at the behest of a self-interested, out-of-touch legislature.
At first, demonstrators mainly sought Castillo’s reinstatement, or new elections as quickly as possible. Now, they want something much bigger: a new constitution and even, as one sign put it, “to refound a new nation.”
Since Castillo’s removal, at least 50 people have been killed, 49 of them civilians, some of them shot in the chest, back and head, leading human rights groups to accuse the military and the police of excessive use of force and of firing indiscriminately at protesters.
Those deaths have hit particularly hard in the southern city of Juliaca, a two-day drive from the capital, past scrubby, snow-capped mountains and grazing llama-like vicuña.
At nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, just 40% of Juliaca’s population has running water, many roads are unpaved and malnutrition is the biggest problem at the lone public hospital.
Last week, 19 people died as a result of a single demonstration, marking the deadliest single clash between civilians and armed actors in Peru in at least two decades. Eighteen of the dead were civilians shot by firearms, according to a local prosecutor. One police officer was found dead inside a police vehicle that had seen set on fire.
The country’s interior ministry said officers had responded lawfully after thousands of protesters tried to occupy the local airport, some with makeshift guns and explosives.
The youngest to die was Brayan Apaza, age 15, whose mother, Asunta Jumpiri, 38, called him an “innocent boy” killed after he had gone out to buy food. At his wake last week, past a highway roadblock of burning tires, supporters held black flags across their chests like battle weapons, and vowed to fight until Boluarte stepped down.
“We declare ourselves in a state of insurgency,” said Orlando Sanga, a protest leader, standing outside a union hall being used for the vigil.
Nearby, Evangelina Mendoza, wearing the traditional skirt and sweater of women in the region, said that if Boluarte did not resign, “the south is going to run with blood.”
But few investigations into civil unrest and protests in Peru this century have led to convictions, and a new law that removed a requirement that the police act proportionally in their response to civilians makes them even more difficult, said Carlos Rivera, of the Legal Defense Institute, a Peruvian nonprofit group.
Peru, a nation of 33 million people, the fifth largest in Latin America, returned to democracy just two decades ago, after the authoritarian rule of President Alberto Fujimori.
But the country’s current system, based on a Fujimori-era constitution, is rife with corruption, impunity and mismanagement, for which even those in the government blame a lack of oversight and a culture of quid pro quo.
Trust in democracies across Latin America has tumbled over the past two decades, according to the AmericasBarometer, a regional survey conducted by Vanderbilt University. But in few places is the issue more acute than in Peru, where just 21% of people say they are satisfied with their democracy — down from a high of 52% a decade ago. Only Haiti fares worse.
In Juliaca, dozens of people were shot in the confrontation with the police last week, and the city’s public hospital is full of people recovering from their wounds. Inside, little cardboard collection boxes sit at the end of many beds, asking for help with medical expenses.
“Perforated lung” reads the sign on one collection box. “Bullet in the spine” reads another.
Boluarte, in a speech to the nation on Friday, offered her condolences to the families of the dead, describing the protesters as unwitting pawns led to the marches by manipulators seeking to topple her.
“Some voices, influenced by violentistas, by radicals, are demanding my resignation,” she said, “scaring the people into chaos, disorder and destruction. To this I say, responsibly: I am not going to resign.”
Brayan, the 15-year-old, was killed by a bullet to the head, according to his autopsy. At his funeral, hundreds gathered at a cemetery at the edge of town, where a protest leader, César Huasaca, shouted about justice, directing his anger at Boluarte.
“Do you think you have lessened our resolve?” he boomed. “No! We are stronger than ever.”
“We are 33 million,” Huasaca declared. “What are we going to do? Force them to respect our rights! It’s not about left, or right, what we want is attention!”
After a Mass offered by a priest in a simple white robe, an orchestra followed the coffin to a dirt plot. There, Jumpiri, Brayan’s mother, delivered some of the last words before his burial.
“Dina!” she shouted, addressing the president, her hands gripping Brayan’s coffin, her face twisted in pain. “I am ready to die for my son! I am going to fight, I want justice!”
Then she offered a challenge: “Dina! Kill me!”