Protesters and police clashed in the streets of Lima on Thursday as thousands of protesters from across the country converged on the Peruvian capital, facing a massive show of force from local police.
The weeks-long protest movement in the Andean country – seeking a complete reshuffle of the government – was sparked by the ouster of former president Pedro Castillo in December and fueled by deep dissatisfaction with living conditions and inequality in the country.
Demonstrators’ anger also grew as the death toll mounted: At least 54 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since the unrest began and another 772, including security personnel, were injured, the national ombudsman’s office said on Thursday. .
Protesters marching in Lima – in defiance of a government-ordered state of emergency – demanded the resignation of President Dina Bolwarte and called for general elections as soon as possible.
State television TV Peru showed a group of protesters breaking through the security cordon and advancing towards Abancay Ave, near Congress. The video shows protesters throwing objects and pushing security agents.
Police forces were also seen using tear gas against some demonstrators in the city center.
Violent clashes also erupted in the southern city of Arequipa, where protesters shouted “murderers” at police and threw stones near the city’s international airport, which grounded flights on Thursday. Live footage from the city showed several people trying to tear down fences near the airport, with smoke billowing from surrounding fields.
Public officials and some in the press dismissed the protests as being led by vandals and criminals, a criticism that several protesters rejected in interviews with CNN en Espanol as they gathered in Lima this week.
Even if “the state says we are criminals, terrorists, we are not,” said protester Daniel Mamani.
“We are workers, the common day-to-day population who work, the state oppresses us, they all have to go, they are useless.”
“At the moment, the political situation deserves a change of representatives, of the government, of the executive and the legislature. It’s the immediate thing. Because there are other deeper problems – inflation, unemployment, poverty, malnutrition and other historical problems that have not been addressed,” another protester named Carlos, who is a sociologist at the University of San Marcos, told CNNEE on Wednesday.
Peruvian authorities have been accused of using excessive force against protesters, including firearms, in recent weeks. Police counter that their tactics meet international standards.
Autopsies are included 17 civilians killed, killed during protests in the city of Juliaca on Jan. 9, found wounds caused by gunshots, the city’s head of forensic medicine told CNN en Español. A police officer was burned to death by “unknown subjects” days later, police said.
Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told CNN that what happened in Juliaca in early January represented “the highest number of civilian casualties in the country since Peru’s return to democracy” in 2000.
A fact-finding mission to Peru by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also found gunshot wounds to the heads and upper bodies of the victims, Edgar Stuardo Rallon, the commission’s vice president, said on Wednesday.
Ralon described a broader “deterioration of the public debate” about the demonstrations in Peru, with protesters being labeled “terrorists” and the local population being referred to in derogatory terms.
Such language could create a “climate of more violence,” he warned.
“When the press uses this, when the political elite uses this, I mean it’s easier for the police and other security forces to use this kind of repression, right?” Omar Coronel, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru who specializes in Latin American protest movements, told CNN.
Peruvian authorities have not released public details of those killed in the unrest. But experts say local protesters are suffering the most bloodshed.
“The victims are overwhelmingly indigenous from rural Peru,” Burt said.
“The protests are concentrated in central and southern Peru, highly indigenous parts of the country, regions that have historically been marginalized and excluded from the political, economic and social life of the nation.”
The protesters want new elections, the resignation of Boluarte, a change to the constitution and the release of Castillo, who is currently in pretrial detention.
At the root of the crisis are the demands for better living conditions, which have not been fulfilled in the two decades since the restoration of democratic governance in the country.
Although Peru’s economy has boomed over the past decade, many have not reaped the gains, with experts noting chronic deficiencies in the country’s security, justice, education and other basic services.
Castillo, a former teacher and union leader who had never held elected office before becoming president, is from rural Peru and positions himself as a man of the people. Many of his supporters hailed from poorer regions and hoped Castillo would bring better prospects for the country’s rural and indigenous population.
Although protests have taken place across the nation, the worst violence has been in the rural and indigenous southern areas, which have long been at odds with coastal white and mixed-race elites.
Peru’s legislature is also viewed with public skepticism. The president and members of Congress are not allowed to serve consecutive terms under Peruvian law, and critics note their lack of political experience.
A poll published in September 2022 by the IEP showed that 84% of Peruvians disapproved of the performance of Congress. Lawmakers are not only perceived as pursuing their own interests in Congress, but are also associated with corrupt practices.
The country’s frustration is reflected in its long-running rotating presidency. The current president, Bolwarte, is the sixth head of state in less than five years.
Joel Hernandez García, commissioner of the IACHR, told CNN that what is needed to solve the crisis is political dialogue, police reform and reparations for those killed during the protests.
“The police force needs to review its protocol. To resort to non-lethal force according to the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality and as a last resort,” said Hernández García.
“Police officers have a duty to protect people who are participating in social protest, but also (to protect) others who are not participating,” he added.
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