Protests across Peru on Thursday saw thousands of police officers deployed to the capital Lima as thousands of protesters marched toward the downtown area, while fierce clashes erupted in the southern city of Arequipa.
The Andean country’s weeks-long protest movement – which seeks a complete reset of the government – was sparked by the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo in December and fueled by deep dissatisfaction over living conditions and inequality in the country.
Demonstrators’ fury has also grown with the rising death toll: At least 53 people have been killed amid clashes with security forces since the unrest began, and a further 772, including security officials, have been injured, the national Ombudsman’s office said Thursday.
Protesters shouted “assassins” at police and threw rocks on Thursday near Arequipa’s international airport, which suspended flights on Thursday as several people tried to tear down fences, according live footage from the city. Smoke could be seen billowing from the surrounding fields.
Protestors marching in Lima meanwhile – in defiance of a government-ordered state of emergency – demanded the resignation of President Dina Boluarte and called for general elections as soon as possible.
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.
Protester Daniel Mamani said that even if “the state says that we are criminals, terrorists, we are not,” he told CNN en Espanol. “We are workers, the ordinary population of the day to day that work, the state oppresses us, they all need to get out, they are useless.”
“We are not vandals, we work with our effort, not like other corrupt people that come here to take money out of the country, and with that, they fill up with money, they just work for themselves, they don’t work for the country, it’s a lie,” said another protester, Carmen Lopez.
Peruvian authorities have been accused of using excessive force against protesters, including firearms, in recent weeks – a claim that police deny, saying their tactics match international standards.
Autopsies on 17 dead civilians, killed during protests in the city of Juliaca on January 9, found wounds caused by firearm projectiles, the city’s head of legal 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 civilian death toll in the country since Peru’s return to democracy” in 2000.
A fact-finding mission to Peru by the the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) also found that gunshot wounds were found in the heads and upper bodies of victims, Edgar Stuardo Ralón, the commission’s vice-president, said Wednesday.
Ralon described a broader “deterioration of public debate” over the demonstrations in Peru, with protestors labeled as “terrorists” and indigenous people referred to by derogatory terms.
Such language could generate “a climate of more violence,” he warned.
“When the press uses that, when the political elite uses that, 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 protests movements, told CNN.
Peruvian officials have not made public details about those killed in the unrest. However, experts say that Indigenous protestors are suffering the greatest bloodshed.
“The victims are overwhelmingly indigenous people from rural Peru,” Burt said.
“The protests have been centered in central and southern Peru, heavily indigenous parts of the country, these are regions that have been historically marginalized and excluded from political, economical, 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.
Ahead of Thursday’s demonstrations, people explained to CNNEE why they had arrived in Lima to protest. Some complained about corruption in their areas, while others called Boluarte, who was former President Castillo’s vice president, a traitor.
“Right now the political situation merits a change of representatives, of government, of the executive and the legislature. That is the immediate thing. Because there are other deeper issues – inflation, lack of employment, poverty, malnutrition and other historical issues that have not been addressed,” protester named Carlos, who is a sociologist from the Universidad San Marcos, said from Lima on Wednesday.
Another protester told CNNEE that “corruption is big in Peru, unfortunately the State has abandoned the people.”
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 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.
Joel Hernández García, a commissioner for IACHR, told CNN what was needed to fix the crisis was political dialogue, police reform, and reparations for those killed in the protests.
“The police forces have to revisit their protocol. In order to resort to non-lethal force under the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality and as a matter of last resort,” Hernández García said.
“Police officers have the duty to protect people who participate in social protest, but also (to protect) others who are not participating,” he added.