Peru continues to quash protests despite scolding from international community

Protesters from Puno in the Miraflores district of Peru’s capital, Lima, on 8 March 2023, international women’s day. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Peru has come under growing pressure from international organisations for alleged human rights abuses during ongoing anti-government protests. But actions on the ground show that the government is yet to internalise any criticism.

Three months after demonstrations erupted following the impeachment of former President Pedro Castillo on 7 December, the violent repression of protesters has prompted widespread condemnation from the international community.

Since the start of the unrest, nearly 70 people, mostly civilians, have died, including a number who were en route to medical care, due to roadblocks set up by protesters. Demonstrators who were initially outraged at the dismissal of Castillo – Peru’s first Indigenous president – are now rallying around calls for the resignation of Dina Bolluarte, the former vice president who replaced Castillo, and who they see as responsible for the violence and complicit with traditional political and business interests. Many are also asking for constitutional reform and early general elections, which congress has rejected.

On Monday, experts from the United Nations human rights office called for an end to ongoing repression by authorities, arbitrary killings, arrests and detentions. Fifteen special rapporteurs who signed the statement also expressed their concern over the stigmatisation of peaceful protesters as terrorists, and of violence committed against journalists.

“They are uprooting our rights and coming to kill us in Puno,” a tearful Margarita Macedo Ancasi from the poor southeastern region told Geneva Solutions on Wednesday. Puno regularly scores at the bottom of national tables in health and income per capita, with more than 90 per cent of the population earning less than 650 soles ($171) per month.

Macedo Ancasi, an agricultural worker, had arrived by bus a day earlier in Peru’s capital, Lima, from her home province of Melgar, over 1,300 kilometres away. Along with a couple of hundred other people from Puno, who had gathered on Wednesday at a peaceful protest in the Miraflores district, she was enraged at the ongoing repression and the killing on a single day of 17 protesters in Juliaca, Puno’s main commercial town, in early January.

Margarita Macedo Ancasi (second from right) with other protesters ahead of an anti-government demonstration on international women’s day 8 March 2023 in Miraflores, Lima, Peru. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)
Last week, military helicopters shot teargas into the community of Juli, which had been protesting against the gassing at a short range of women and children from the village protesting in Lima.

“They send us police and the army. They shot our children dead. There is no justice,” Macedo Ancasi said. “We want the international community to help us achieve justice for our sons and daughters.”

Many other protesters told Geneva Solutions that they felt the government cared more about multinational mining firms, whose fiscal impact was often imperceptible in the provinces, than its Indigenous populations.

Ultimatum and condemnations

The Andean country has come under increasing pressure from the international community. In January, countries condemned police violence in Peru during a review of its human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council.

More recently, the UN human rights office gave the government an ultimatum. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, it sent a letter of complaint, requesting Peru to share information regarding the deaths of dozens of civilians in the protests. It condemned the “disproportionate use of teargas, an over presence of police and military personnel and aggressions”.

The letter referred to allegations from civil society groups that “elements of public forces dressed as civilians mix with civilians to incite violence so that military and police action may be justified”. Peru has 60 days to respond, after which the document would become public regardless of whether it replies or not.

According to Peru’s ombudsman’s office, at least 66 people have been killed, while thousands of civilians have been injured and 944 police wounded. It reported 142 cases of attacks– both physical and verbal – against journalists. On 1 March, the government published a mandate allowing the police to regulate press coverage of protests.

In February, Amnesty International published an investigation that found that police had used lethal arms as well as other weapons “indiscriminately” against Indigenous populations during demonstrations. It also said that “systemic racism ingrained in Peruvian society and authorities” had fuelled the violence against protesting communities.

Agnès Callamard, the NGO’s secretary general, told Geneva Solutions in late February that she was “deeply alarmed” at the situation, which has deteriorated since the report’s publication. Referring to the country’s “shrinking space” for the right of expression and freedom of assembly, she added. “It is unfortunately a symbol of what is happening around the world.”

Brian Nichols, former US ambassador to Peru and state department deputy director for Latin America, said last week that Boluarte needed to come to an agreement with Congress to hold early general elections and warned of the current weakness of Peru’s democracy.

Dialogue and the crisis to come

For many international groups in Peru such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the current crisis in Peru came nonetheless as a surprise.

“No one could have foreseen the crisis that was coming,” Lihn Schroeder, ICRC’s head of delegation for Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, told Geneva Solutions.

Dafne Martos, the organisation’s spokesperson in Peru, said that the country already experienced protests in recent years but not with the same intensity. “Not even the population could have imagined things unleash to this extent.”

Following the detention of hundreds of people during the protests, the ICRC has been involved in ensuring access to detainees and making sure they have proper treatment and conditions.

Like in other countries, the humanitarian organisation has also been urging Peru to incorporate international codes of conduct for police forces into legislation and apply them.

With regard to the current crisis, the ICRC said it continues to maintain a confidential dialogue with authorities on the situation.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) meanwhile has been providing medical and psychosocial assistance to people, initially in areas adjacent to where mass protests were held, and more recently in private shelters where protesters like Macedo Ancasi have stayed after their long journey to Lima.

But with protests not expected to end any time soon, Jean Hereu, country chief at the NGO, worried about the effect that its duration may have on rural populations. After the economic fallout and health impacts of Covid-19, compounded by global inflation from the war in Ukraine, he feared further economic losses for protesters and their families may add to food insecurity. The UN estimates that one in five Peruvians is severely food insecure, going at least a day without anything to eat.

And with diplomatic ties frayed between Peru and several neighbouring countries, including Colombia and Chile who have condemned the government’s actions towards protesters, Hereu said the country is as diplomatically isolated as ever.

“They really tripped up from the start,” Hereu said regarding the government’s amplification of false narratives towards demonstrators and general strategy towards the protests. Early this week, Boluarte attempted to mollify the Indigenous Aymara populations in Puno –which she inappropriately referred to recently as not belonging to Peru – by offering an aid package, including school materials and building water supply infrastructure.

Police forces gathering next to an anti-government demonstration in Lima district of Miraflores on 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)
On Wednesday, as police attempted to stop Indigenous protesters from joining a gathering at a central park in Lima by shutting its gates, Ableco Mamani, who had also travelled from Puno, was angry.

“Our rights have been violated. Every day they repress us, and do not let us protest peacefully,” he said. “We want people to listen to us and help in Peru and internationally because they cannot take away our rights. We, Peruvians, have the right to protest.”

“The government has already become a dictatorial regime,” he continued. “We do not know where to appeal for support. We hope that the international community can help us because we will not stop protesting.”