Peru protests: when humanitarian aid runs scarce

A volunteer serving food to anti-government protesters in Lima, 7 March 2018. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Angered by deadly state violence and government deception, Indigenous Peruvians have committed themselves to protest until their calls for justice are heard. But maintaining pressure on authorities comes at a cost while traditional aid response remains limited.

Packed into a reconfigured warehouse space in the port city of Callao adjacent to Peru’s capital, Lima, 70 people representing mostly Indigenous communities prepare for another day of demonstrations.

Side-by-side mattresses cover the long concrete-slab floor of the locale, one of roughly 30 spaces that internal migrants who have resettled here have provided to protesters, many of whom have travelled over a thousand kilometres from their homes.

Residents await their turn to use the single bathroom in a corner of the room, while several people prepare breakfast in a makeshift kitchen.

Sara, who did not share her surname due to security concerns, is a farmer from the southern region of Arequipa. She sat up on her bed as she was queried by a visiting aid worker last week about a respiratory infection that had left her bed-bound that morning. In spite of difficult choices that she and her family have had to make throughout their lives, she is as combative as ever.

“We have sacrificed ourselves day and night in the fields to feed the country and sell our products in the markets,” she told Geneva Solutions. “We came here asking  that our voices and human rights be respected. But they haven’t been respected for a very, very long time.”

Sara travelled to Lima in January to protest just days after at least 17 civilians, including a medic, died in protests in the southern Andean of Juliaca, while 10 were killed in her own province. In the capital, she experienced firsthand the repression and stigmatisation by authorities towards protesters.

The morning after she and many others arrived at the University of San Marcos, where they had been “warmly” offered refuge, the police forced their way into the campus by ramming an anti-riot vehicle into the gates. Sara became one of more than 200 people, including students, to be detained by the authorities.

“The police shouted at us, insulted us, calling us ‘cholas’ and ‘indias’ [derogatory terms used to describe ethnic backgrounds],” said Sara, describing the moment that the forces suddenly entered the university. Teargas filled the campus while police helicopters flew overhead.

At least 66 people have been killed nationwide in clashes with police and military forces during protests that began in early December, when president Pedro Castillo, a former Indigenous teacher, was ousted after having attempted to suspend Congress.

Nevertheless, protesters have remained defiant. They want Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s successor – who they refer to as an assassin – to step down, that the Constitution be revised and that new general elections be called.

Sara in shelter.jpg
Sara, a farmer from the southern Peruvian region of Arequipa at a shelter in the port city of Callao, next to the capital Lima, 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Sara explained that after police stormed the university, all of the protesters' belongings were confiscated and they were bussed to police stations, where no one was allowed to visit them. After two days she was finally offered a lawyer, which she initially rejected as she was concerned about the cost before she understood that the service would be free.

“At the police station they told us that we were terrorists,” she said, referring to a historically-loaded narrative being pushed by central government authorities and in politically conservative media.

During the 1980s and 1990s, a dirty war was fought between police and military forces and the terrorist group Shining Path, pitting poor Indigenous Peruvians in the middle. It is estimated that at least 70,000 people were killed or disappeared during that period. “It is deplorable that Mrs Dina Boluarte mistreats our Peruvian sisters in this way,” said Sara.

Sara was freed from detention soon after, but is still required to return to the police station for ongoing investigations.

Another resident at the temporary shelter, Yvon Saavedra, who has a business growing and selling quinoa in the district of Huancané in the region of Puno, was equally incensed by their treatment.

“We want our voices to be heard peacefully,” she said. “We don’t have arms, we just came with our signs and our voices. We want to explain what happened in Juliaca, in Puno, and all around Peru. We are crying for our dead people, for our loved ones, so that there is justice.”

Saavedra said protesters are often beaten and gassed at demonstrations, including just a day earlier in the centre of Lima. “Yesterday I asked a policeman why they hit us, and they said ‘you shouldn’t come here.’ But we are free to go where we want to as Peruvian citizens,” said Saavedra.

On Thursday, a New York Times investigation found that in three southern cities, police had used lethal ammunition, killing unarmed civilians during the unrest. The report, which studied videos and documents, detailed how assault weapons had been used at short range, in violation of police protocols.

Read more: Peru continues to quash protests despite scolding from the international community.

Social media has played a growing role in the protests, as Roger Ortíz Chambi, a former community leader, from Huancané, explained at a protest later in the day. As people gathered in a park, he spoke to police in riot gear, pleading that they not be locked in. At another recent protest, demonstrators and journalists were dangerously cornered before having to jump from a wall toward a busy road.

He said that in spite of the “scam” of fake news that privately-held television stations push on viewers, communities were now able to inform themselves regarding their rights and injustices that the current constitution had imposed.

“Thanks to social media, we know how things are. With the current laws, they are taking all of our land,” Ortíz Chambi explained. Living as a subsistence farmer from the vegetables produced on the community's land and fish from Lake Titicaca, he worried that at any stage the state could sell public land, such as between his community and the lake, to an investor for a pittance. This may be allowed under the current constitution dating back to the rightist authoritarian presidency of Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s, he explained.

Many like Ortíz Chambi are calling for a new constitution. “We want the mines to be for our benefit, that they would favour the population and the environment and that they could allow us to have better roads,” Saavedra said. “But instead, people are getting poorer and the multinationals richer.”

Puno, as well as other major mining regions, have some of the highest levels of poverty, child illness and food insecurity in the country. National production in mining fell by over 11 per cent in January as a result of protests and roadblocks, according to the latest business data. Police in other southern regions have reportedly threatened people not to strike or protest amid government concerns over further economic impacts to the country’s economy.

Where’s the aid?

Although the number of protesters who have arrived in Lima have fallen since January, the conditions in which they are living are challenging, as the situation in the warehouse in Callao demonstrates. A community organiser estimated that there were currently around 3,000 demonstrators in the capital, compared to 7,000 two months ago.

Jean Hereu, country head at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who regularly visits shelters housing protesters to check on their health, offered advice to the residents at the site.

With Covid-19 cases again on the rise in the country, he said cramped quarters could provide perfect conditions for its spread within an already vulnerable population. Peru recorded the world’s highest death rate from the disease and lost hundreds of healthcare staff at the height of the pandemic when vaccination was slow to roll out and medical services were at a point of collapse.

Elsewhere in the country, Hereu warned of a sharp rise in mosquito-borne dengue in areas where protests and roadblocks are ongoing and where access to medical care has long been patchy.

After protests moved to Lima in January, MSF immediately set up response points to attend to anyone in need of care during protests, including security forces, in line with the group’s ethics. Patients came with injuries from pellet shots, lesions to the head, teargas intoxication and panic attacks. The ombudsman’s office reported that until late February, “thousands” of civilians have been injured in the protests, as well as over 900 police officers.

MSF has since focused on providing psychosocial and first aid support to protesters in temporary shelters, like the one in Callao, where the group’s neutrality is trusted in order to gain access to their otherwise confidential locations.

Jean Hereu, Médecins Sans Frontières country head (at right) checking with residents at a former warehouse in Lima’s port city, Callao, where 70 Indigenous people have sought shelter during anti-government protests. 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Hereu said levels of anxiety have been high among the Indigenous protesters following the undoing of a president who had offered them hope and a sense of mistreatment and disrespect from the government of Boluarte. “People have had enough,” he said.

Several local independent health brigades, composed of doctors, nurses, first aid workers and medical students have also been put into action to respond to the needs of people injured during protests. But attacks and arbitrary detentions of brigadistas by the police have been reported.

Meanwhile, the digital news platform Salud Con Lupa wrote that staff at several hospitals in central Lima advised admitted patients not to say that they were injured at protests to avoid alerting the police, but rather to claim they were injured in a theft.

On Monday, the International Solidarity and Human Rights Mission said that in Juliaca, on arrival at the hospitals, injured protesters were told illegitimately by police and the military that they will face terrorism charges. The group of Argentinian lawmakers visited several other Peruvian cities to investigate abuse allegations and violence, and concluded that acts of violence committed by public forces and deprivation of rights were equivalent to crimes against humanity.

Strikingly absent in the crisis has been the Peruvian Red Cross, which last August was suspended as a member of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), due to the president’s “misuse of power”.

Responding to questions sent via email, Ruben Romero, IFRC’s head of the Andean regional delegation, told Geneva Solutions that the group was regularly monitoring the national society’s progress in implementing an action plan, and that “the suspension may be lifted if the reasons for it no longer apply, and if the IFRC Commission of Compliance and Mediation advises that the Peruvian Red Cross has taken the necessary steps to comply with IFRC’s requirements”.

“There are many humanitarian challenges in Peru at the moment, not only within the context of the protests but also because of the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, population movements, and the climate crisis, among other triggers,” Romero wrote. “In this scenario, addressing the short- and long-term humanitarian needs is crucial and a team effort –where the Peruvian Red Cross could play a significant role as an auxiliary to the public powers in close coordination with other stakeholders.”

Relying on your people

Back in Callao, Sara said the protesters were grateful for the support they have received, in particular from members of their own community who would spare whatever they could to help – even by lending the equivalent of just a few cents to pay for the bus fare for residents to travel to Lima.

She explained that community members would take turns going to Lima while others worked, similarly to how they would organise themselves back home in maintaining roadblocks.

In the capital, networks of supporters from the provinces living in popular neighbourhoods have also chipped in. “All the mattresses, blankets and sheets were donated by people from our regions who have lived in Lima for years,” Saavedra explained. “It’s not true what is said that we are staying in hotels – you can see that. With donations we are able to buy food.”

An anti government protester from southern Peru at a shelter in Callao, the port city adjacent to the capital Lima holding a sign saying: “Mom, I went to defend my motherland. If I do not return, I went with her.” 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Two days after visiting the shelter, Sara was busy fundraising and buying food an hour north in Puente Piedras, taking a rare day off from protesting.

But in spite of waning numbers, demonstrators remained intransigent, even as high levels of police violence continued showing that international condemnation of the government has not impacted official actions on the ground.

“It’s now a dictatorship,” Pedro Tito, a machine operator from Puno, told Geneva Solutions at the shelter. “They don’t let us protest and they try to tire us, but we are fighting for the next generation, for a better life for our children and better education for them.”

“We will not lower our guard in our struggle,” added Sara. “We will continue with even more will to fight. They are mocking us. It’s not because of that that we will step aside.”