LIMA, Peru (AP) — Police used tear gas to try to contain thousands of protesters who poured into the Peruvian capital on Thursday, many from remote Andean regions, calling for the ouster of President Dina Bolhuarte and a return to power of her predecessor, whose ouster last month sparked deadly unrest and plunged the nation into political chaos.
Demonstrators gathered in Lima’s historic center clashed with security forces who barred them from key government buildings, including Congress, as well as the capital’s business and residential districts.
In addition to Bolwarte’s resignation, supporters of former President Pedro Castillo have demanded the dissolution of Congress and immediate elections. Castillo, Peru’s first leader of rural Andean descent, was impeached after a failed attempt to dissolve Congress.
For most of the day, the protests played out like a game of cat and mouse, as demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks at law enforcement, tried to break through police lines and officers responded with volleys of tear gas that drove the protesters to escape using rags dipped in vinegar to relieve the sting of their eyes and skin.
“We are surrounded,” Sofia Lopez, 42, said as she sat on a bench outside the country’s Supreme Court. “We tried to go through a lot of places and ended up going around in circles.”
Late Thursday night, firefighters were working to put out a raging inferno that broke out in an old building near the protests taking place in downtown Lima’s San Martin Square, but its connection to the demonstrations was not immediately clear. Images show people rushing to move their belongings out of the building, which is close to several government offices.
As the sun set, fires smouldered in the streets of downtown Lima as protesters threw rocks at police officers who fired so much tear gas it was hard to see.
“I feel furious,” said Veronica Paucar, 56, coughing from the tear gas. “We will return peacefully.”
There was visible frustration among protesters who had hoped to cross into the Miraflores district, an iconic neighborhood of the economic elite.
In Miraflores Park, a heavy police presence separated anti-government protesters from a small group of demonstrators expressing support for law enforcement. The police also used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
Bolwarte was defiant Thursday night in a televised speech alongside key government officials, thanking police for controlling the “violent protests” and vowing to prosecute those responsible for the violence.
The president also criticized the protests for “not having a social agenda that the country needs”, accused them of “wanting to undermine the rule of law” and raised questions about their funding.
A total of 22 police officers and 16 civilians were injured Thursday across the country, Interior Minister Vicente Romero Fernandez said.
Peru’s ombudsman said at least 13 civilians and four police officers were injured in protests in Lima on Thursday.
Until recently, the protests were mainly in Peru’s southern Andes, with a total of 55 people killed in the unrest, mostly in clashes with security forces.
Anger at Boluarte was the common thread Thursday as protesters chanted calls for her resignation and street vendors hawked T-shirts that read “Out, Dina Boluarte,” “Dina killer, Peru rejects you” and “New elections, let them all go.” .
“Our God says you shall not kill your neighbor. Dina Boluarte kills, makes brothers fight,” Paulina Konsac said as she carried a large Bible as she marched in downtown Lima with more than 2,000 protesters from Cusco.
By early afternoon, protesters had turned key roads into large pedestrian areas in central Lima.
“We are at a tipping point between dictatorship and democracy,” said Pedro Mamani, a student at the National University of San Marcos, where the demonstrators who traveled to the protest were housed.
The university was surrounded by police officers who were also stationed at key points in Lima’s historic center – a total of 11,800 officers, according to Victor Zanabria, Lima’s police chief.
Protests were held elsewhere and video posted on social media showed demonstrators trying to storm the airport in southern Arequipa, Peru’s second city. They were blocked by police and one person was killed in the ensuing clashes, Peru’s ombudsman said.
It was one of three airports that suffered attacks by protesters on Thursday, Boluarte said, adding that it was not “just a coincidence” that they were stormed on the same day.
The protests that erupted last month marked the worst political violence in more than two decades and highlighted deep divisions between the urban elite, largely concentrated in Lima, and poor rural areas.
By taking the protest to Lima, the demonstrators hoped to give new weight to the movement that began when Boluarte was sworn into office on December 7 to replace Castillo.
“When there are tragedies, bloodbaths outside the capital, it doesn’t have the same political importance on the public agenda as if it happened in the capital,” said Alonso Cárdenas, a professor of public policy at the Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Lima.
The concentration of protesters in Lima also reflects how the capital has begun to see more anti-government demonstrations in recent days.
Bolwarte said he supports a plan to hold presidential and congressional elections in 2024, two years ahead of schedule.
Activists dubbed Thursday’s demonstration in Lima the March of Cuatro Suyos, a reference to the four cardinal points of the Inca Empire. It is also the name given to a massive mobilization since 2000, when thousands of Peruvians took to the streets against the autocratic government of Alberto Fujimori, who resigned months later.
But there are key differences between those demonstrations and this week’s protests.
“In 2000, people protested against a regime that was already consolidated in power,” Cárdenas said. “In this case, they are up against a government that has only been in power for a month and is incredibly fragile.”
The 2000 protests also had centralized leadership and were led by political parties.
Recent protests have largely been grassroots efforts without clear leadership, a dynamic that was clear Thursday as protesters often appeared lost and unsure of where to turn as their path was continually blocked by law enforcement.
Protests have grown to such an extent that demonstrators are unlikely to be satisfied with Bolwarte’s resignation and are now demanding more fundamental structural reform.
Protesters on Thursday said they would not be intimidated.
“This won’t end today, it won’t end tomorrow, but only after we achieve our goals,” said David Lozada, 61, as he watched a line of police wearing helmets and shields block protesters from leaving downtown Lima. “I don’t know what they’re thinking, do they want to start a civil war?”
Associated Press reporter Mauricio Munoz contributed.
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