Protests across Peru on Thursday saw thousands of police officers deployed to the capital Lima as hundreds of protesters marched towards the downtown area, while fierce clashes erupted in the southern city of Arequipa.
Outrage initially sparked by the country’s political instability has only grown as the death toll ticks upwards. At least 53 people have died in the unrest since Peru’s protest movement began in December, and a further 772 have been injured, the national Ombudsman’s office said Thursday.
Smoke was seen billowing from the fields surrounding Arequipa’s international airport, which suspended flights on Thursday, as several people tried to tear down fences, according to live footage from the city. Protesters shouted “assassins” at the advancing police and threw rocks.
The country has been seeing its worst violence in decades, which erupted following the December ousting of former President Pedro Castillo, as protesters who oppose the current government call for political change.
Protestors marching in Lima on Thursday demanded the resignation of President Dina Boluarte and called for general elections as soon as possible – while also defying a state of emergency imposed by the government on Sunday.
General Victor Sanabria, head of Peru’s National Police for the Lima region, told local media that 11,800 police officers were deployed in Lima, with key locations such as the parliament, the prosecutor’s office, select TV stations, the Supreme Court and the army headquarters receiving extra protection.
Authorities have been accused of using excessive force against protesters, including firearms, in recent weeks. Autopsies on 17 dead civilians, killed during protests in the city of Juliaca, found wounds caused by firearm projectiles, the city’s head of legal medicine told News84Media en Español.
A fact-finding mission to Peru by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) found that gunshot wounds were found in the heads and upper bodies of victims, Edgar Stuardo Ralón, the commission’s vice-president, said Wednesday.
Police have denied using disproportionate force, saying their tactics match international standards.
Ralon also described “a deterioration of public debate” over the demonstrations in Peru, with protesters labeled as “terrorists” and Indigenous people referred to by derogatory terms, which he and other experts warned could generate “a climate of more violence.”
“When the press uses that, when the political elite uses that, I mean, it’s easier for the police and other or 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 News84Media.
IACHR’s Ralón said the investigation into Peru should “focus on human rights and a racial-ethnic focus since the clashes happened in the Southern region and that among the victims, both dead and injured, there are Quechuas and Aymaras peoples.”
Peruvian officials have not made public details about those killed in the unrest. However, experts say that Indigenous protesters are suffering the greatest bloodshed.
“The victims are overwhelmingly indigenous people from rural Peru,” Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told News84Media.
“The protests have been cantered in central and southern Peru, heavily indigenous parts of the country, these are regions that have been historically marginalized and excluded from political, economic, and social life of the nation.”
Protesters want new elections, the resignation of Boluarte, a change to the constitution and the release of Castillo, who is currently in pre-trial detention.
At the core of the crisis are demands for better living conditions that have gone unfulfilled in the two decades since democratic rule was restored in the country.
While Peru’s economy has boomed in the last decade, many have not reaped its gains, with experts noting chronic deficiencies in security, justice, education, and other basic services in the country.
Castillo, a former teacher and union leader who had never held elected office before becoming president, is from rural Peru and positioned himself as a man of the people. Many of his supporters hail from poorer regions, and hoped Castillo would bring better prospects for the country’s rural and indigenous people.
While protests have occurred throughout the nation, the worst violence has been in the rural and indigenous south, which has long been at odds with the country’s coastal White and mestizo, which is a person of mixed descent, elites.
Peru’s legislative body is also viewed with skepticism by the public. The president and members of congress are not allowed to have consecutive terms, according to Peruvian law, and critics have noted their lack of political experience.
A poll published September 2022 by IEP showed 84% of Peruvians disapproved of Congress’s performance. Lawmakers are perceived not only as pursuing their own interests in Congress, but are also associated with corrupt practices.
The country’s frustrations have been reflected in its years-long revolving door presidency. Current president Boluarte is the sixth head of state in less than five years.