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Killing of protesters sparks early elections

Supporters of former president Pedro Castillo encounter riot police during a protest near the Congress in Lima on December 12, 2022. Unrest has escalated since Castillo was accused of an attempted coup, impeached and arrested last week. (Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES / AFP) 

They’ve been burying the dead. All were civilians. Most of them were very young, killed by government forces that were meant to protect them. Bullet wounds were the most common cause of death.

To date, 22 have died directly and six indirectly in the protests that swept across more than half of Peru’s departments following the failed ‘self-coup’ and subsequent ousting and arrest of ex-president Pedro Castillo.

Most of the victims were in the poorer, southern Andean regions of Ayacucho and Apurimac, where army and police repression has been fiercest and support for Castillo strongest.

Here are a few who were robbed of their lives: Wilfredo Lizarme Barboza, aged 18, who wanted to become a doctor; Clemer Rojas García, a keen traditional dancer, aged 22; Beckham Quispe Grafias, 18, who was mad about football and a bit of a local star himself; Cristian Rojas Vásquez a ‘kind and studious’ 19-year-old who wanted to become a police officer but was not tall enough, and finally, a 15-year-old known by his initials DAQ, a student and working child who dreamed of ‘building a big house’.

In addition, during several days of protest, around 600 people were injured, almost half of them police.

Shock and accusation

The use of lethal force against civilians by police and military, acting under a state of emergency declared by the new government of Dina Boluarte, has produced shock and outrage nationwide.

Numerous human-rights and civil-society organizations, including unions, have deplored the repression, calling for an immediate restoration of human rights and civil liberties, the dissolution of Congress, and for early elections.

Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights denounces the excessive police violence and the use of live ammunition against protestors and calls for ‘unrestricted respect for the right to protest.’ It also laments the lack of explanation for use of such force or accountability.

Boluarte’s own education minister Patricia Correa resigned, saying: ‘There is no justification for the killing of our compatriots’

Boluarte’s own education minister Patricia Correa resigned, saying: ‘There is no justification for the killing of our compatriots’.

In a recent development, Margot Palacios, a Congress member for Free Peru (Boluarte’s leftist former party) has denounced Boluarte and new Prime Minister Luis Alberto Otárola to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (ICHR), accusing them of ‘genocide’.

She has also named the former Prime Minister, and the police and army chiefs in charge in the department of Ayacucho, where 10 of the killings occurred. Officials from the ICHR are due to visit Peru shortly.

In a bid to quell the protests, Congress this week rowed back on its early position and agreed to bring forward presidential and congressional elections by two years to April 2024.

Whether this will be enough to quell large-scale protest remains to be seen.

What do they want?

The protesters’ main demands have been the dissolution of Congress, the resignation of the president, and for elections to be brought forward as soon as possible.

Their anger against the current legislature is supported by the wider public. A recent poll shows 87 per cent expressing hostility – even more than those who criticized Castillo for his poor record in office and the allegations of corruption against him.

Nominally she is of the Left, but it now seems that most of her support in Congress comes from the Far Right

Castillo’s attempted ‘coup’ against Congress on 7 December resulted in his being swiftly impeached and a few days later given an 18-month ‘preventative detention’ for alleged ‘rebellion’ against the constitution.

Supporters of Castillo see Boluarte (who was his former running mate) as a ‘traitor’ and her Congress-backed takeover as itself a ‘coup’ against a democratically elected leader. A number of lawyers and politicians, including former president Martin Vizcarra, are also of the view that Congress violated proper procedures in their haste to remove Castillo and appoint Boluarte.

Castillo is expected to appeal, while his wife, also under investigation for corruption, has been given political asylum with the couple’s two children in Mexico.

In a country that is deeply divided, many protesters readily identify with the ex-president, a rural schoolteacher who has cast himself as ‘a president of the poor’, as opposed to the Lima political elite epitomized by most of Congress. Which may be why Boluarte, when she delivered a speech lamenting the deaths of protesters, switched into Quechua, her native language – which, apparently, Castillo never troubled to learned, though he was advised to.

What now?

For the time being, road blocks have been lifted, airports re-opened and protest movements in parts of the country have declared a ‘truce’ until 2 January.

AIDESEP, the indigenous organization of Amazonian peoples has said it will remain in ‘permanent mobilization’ until the 2024 elections. However, it has also stated that it is not defending Castillo or asking for him to be freed.

The new date for elections will need to be ratified by Congress, and the elections going ahead will depend on the approval of a package of reforms to the political system.

When Boluarte took over there were fears that she might be captured by the political Right, which, dominant in Congress, has paralyzed any progressive law-making. Boluarte is in a difficult and weak position. Nominally she is of the Left, but it now seems that most of her support in Congress comes from the Far Right.

The president of Congress, José Williams, who would succeed Boluarte were she to be removed or to resign, is a member of the far-right Avanza País. He is also a retired army general.

None of which bodes well for those concerned about what Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights calls the ‘militarization of protest and growing authoritarianism’ in the country.


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