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  • The San Juan Daily Star

In heart of Peru’s protest, a pause to mourn the dead


Mourners attend the funeral of Clemer Fabricio Rojas, who died during a protest at the airport in Ayacucho on Thursday, in Quinua, Peru, on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022.

By Julie Turkewitz


Beyond the burning tires and roadblocks guarded by angry protesters, after the justice palace had been set on fire and the military had been sent to intervene, a funeral was underway.


In a white coffin draped in the flag of Peru, the body of Clemer Fabricio Rojas, 22, traveled down the road Saturday in a crowd so thick that it seemed to float. His mother wailed. And then, just as the coffin passed an intersection, a second one was borne down the cross street, this one holding the body of Christopher Michael Ramos, just 15.


“Justice!” the mourners shouted.


Peru is reeling from mass protest more than a week after Pedro Castillo, the country’s first leftist president in more than a generation, tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree, setting off a dizzying drama that resulted in his arrest and the installment of his vice president as the new executive.


The protests, by supporters of Castillo’s, have led to confrontations with police and the military that have left at least 25 dead, hundreds injured and a country deeply divided over the mandate of the new president, Dina Boluarte, a former ally of Castillo’s. Peru remains in a state of emergency, with many civil liberties suspended and the military and police charged with enforcing a curfew in parts of the country.


In few places are the tensions more evident than in Ayacucho, an overwhelmingly poor, largely rural department far from the capital that Thursday was the scene of a brutal encounter between protesters and the military. It left nine people dead, including Rojas and Ramos.


In an interview, the local head of the ombudsman’s office, David Pacheco-Villar, said that after a group headed toward the airport, probably in an attempt to use it as a seat of protest, soldiers responded with “disproportionate use of force,” launching an hourslong siege on the airport and surrounding neighborhoods.


Castillo, a farmer, teacher and union activist, won a democratic election for the presidency last year — although he had never held office — supported by rural Peruvians who had long felt excluded from the halls of power. Like many of the country’s politicians, his government was mired in corruption scandals from the start and hobbled by a political establishment also plagued by malfunction.


Facing a third attempt by Congress to impeach him this month, Castillo declared that he was disbanding Congress and creating a government that would rule by decree. The measures clearly fell outside the limits on presidential power in Peru’s Constitution. Castillo’s opponents, and even his own Cabinet, declared them an attempted coup — and a clumsy one at that, given that he appeared to have rounded up no support for it.


But some of his supporters argued in interviews that Castillo had been manipulated into his actions by canny elites angling to wrest back power, and they began calling for him to be reinstalled.


Pacheco-Villar said that Thursday’s protest had begun peacefully in the city center, but that soldiers made a “grave error” when they tried to stop the march from entering the main plaza.


The group eventually entered the plaza, and around noon, some people decided to head to the airport, he said. There, the army asserts, soldiers were attacked and responded to defend themselves.


Pacheco-Villar, who lives blocks from the airport, said he had heard the sound of gunfire. Videos began circulating of wounded and dead people, and of others screaming in the streets for the soldiers to leave. Helicopters flew overhead. At least 61 people were hurt.


Rojas’ cousin Mayra Condori, 23, was among the people at the airport Thursday. “They were shooting at us at point blank,” she said. “They killed us in the most cowardly way.”


Amid the chaos, protesters have set fires in several local government buildings while attacking other entities.


Rojas and Ramos both came from poor families in Quinua, a small town an hour from the department’s capital.


Rojas was studying mathematical physics at a public university. On Saturday, his friends and family carried his body through the main plaza in Ayacucho in a march led by his 14-year-old brother.


“He wasn’t a delinquent!” the crowd yelled. “He was a student!”


“Close the Congress!” they continued.


And then singling out the new presidnt: “Dina! Assassin! The people reject you!”


Afterward, mourners drove to Quinua, where they filled a large white church for Mass.


Outside, as church bells clanged, boys with drums beat out a lament, and women in traditional braids, skirts and black hats stood silently, tears rolling down their faces.


Ramos was among the youngest people to die in the protests. In Quinua, his sister, Analuz, 18, said she had been like a mother to him, caring for him while their parents worked.


Their mother sold food in the streets, and their father was a bricklayer.


“What I would suggest,” Analuz Ramos said, directing her comments to protesters “is that they keep fighting.”


After the Mass, a local orchestra played a song of mourning, marching with the two coffins and at least 1,000 people through the streets.


Among them was Marleni Durán, 48, a mother of two children, who described life in the region as difficult. She said she woke at 4 a.m. to buy alfalfa, which she resells in a market, along with a traditional corn dessert. She finishes her day around 10 p.m.


For this, Durán brings home about $8 a day, she said, while a large canister of gas for cooking has risen in price to about double that.


Her sister, Luisa Quispe, 59, gestured toward the dead. “Here, you have justice if you have money.”


Finally, the coffins were carried to the archway of the cemetery, where they were held high, bounced and turned around, giving the two young men their final dance.


Then, the enormous crowd crossed under the arch, marching past the cemetery’s brick and concrete crypts, and Rojas’ family prepared to slide his body into its vault.


His mother, Nilda García, leaned over the open coffin, wailing in Quechua, “We will never see my son again!”


Soon, the coffin was closed, the flag of Peru removed and crumpled into a ball.


As the casket disappeared, García fell to the ground, while Rojas’ friends, overcome with anger and sorrow, began grasping at the crypt.


“My little Clemer!” García yelled. And then the boy drummers took up their beat again.

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