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Peru protests intensify in response to violence and police repression

Authorities decree a curfew in Puno, where a police officer was burned to death inside his patrol car. The government says it will not allow these demonstrators into Lima. At least 46 people have died in a month

Demonstrators clashed with security forces at a protest in Juliaca, Peru. Photo: STRINGER (REUTERS) | Video: EPV
Renzo Gómez Vega

The day began with 18 coffins left outside Carlos Monge Medrano Hospital in Juliaca, in southern Peru. Following the deaths of 17 demonstrators and a police officer on January 9, a group of funeral homes donated coffins so that relatives could say farewell to their loved ones with dignity. That act of humanity has shone like a light in the midst of the violence that flared up following the December 7 failed self-coup by former president Pedro Castillo, who remains in pre-trial custody. Demonstrators are demanding early elections and the release of Castillo, a rural schoolteacher, unionist and political underdog who won the 2021 election despite his rivals’ claims that he would destroy democracy and replace it with a communist system.

At the same time in Lima, the capital that lives with its back to the rest of the country, the ministers serving under President Dina Boluarte, with Prime Minister Alberto Otárola in the lead, arrived in Congress with their security detail to request a vote of confidence, a constitutional mechanism that lends legitimacy to the cabinet vis-à-vis the other powers of the state.

Former prime minister Mirtha Vásquez criticized the fact that this act was not suspended despite the deaths of 46 people in the last month. “As if the death of Peruvians in Puno had no value, showing complete indolence, Congress decides to carry on with the plenary session normally, even dealing with the vote of confidence in favor of the executive. This is a congress with its back turned against the dignity of a people.”

Riot police clash with anti-government protesters in Puno, Peru.
Riot police clash with anti-government protesters in Puno, Peru.JUAN CARLOS CISNEROS (AFP)

Meanwhile, in the rest of Peru, demonstrations intensified in 31 provinces in response to the violence and repression that left 18 people dead on Monday. Citizens from the provinces of Canchis, Canas, Acompayo and Quispicanchi gathered in the capital of the Cusco region to demand the resignation of Boluarte, a president who can count more deaths than days in government: 46 fatalities in the 33 days she has been in office.

In the afternoon, the executive declared a national day of mourning on January 11 for the victims of the protests. But instead of acknowledging the government’s political responsibility and lowering the tone of his confrontational rhetoric, Prime Minister Otárola made it clear that they are not willing to yield. “We are not going to allow this coup to reach Lima and weaken the government,” he said. His address to Congress was marked by booing from leftist lawmakers.

Meanwhile, authorities in the regional government of Puno declared Boluarte and Otárola persona non grata; as well as Interior Minister Víctor Rojas and Defense Minister José Luis Chávez, among other officials.

On Tuesday, authorities reported the death of a 29-year-old policeman, José Luis Soncco Quispe, whose patrol car was burned down by a group of protesters in Puno. The Interior Ministry said that the attack took place on Monday, when a mob set his vehicle on fire. According to the investigation, a fellow officer was able to escape while Soncco burned to death. An 8pm-4am curfew has been decreed in Puno for three days starting Tuesday.

A woman during a confrontation with security forces demanding early elections.
A woman during a confrontation with security forces demanding early elections.STRINGER (REUTERS)

International condemnation is growing. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed its concern: “We urge prompt and effective investigations and protection of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced that it will visit Peru again between Wednesday and Friday of this week.

The National Prosecutor’s Office has formalized an investigation into the president, Dina Boluarte and the ministers involved in the conflict: Prime Minister Alberto Otárola; Interior Minister Víctor Rojas and Defense Minister Jorge Chávez, as well as the fleeting ex-premier Pedro Angulo and former interior minister César Cervantes. All of them are being investigated for “the alleged crimes of genocide, qualified homicide and serious injuries” for the 46 deaths and hundreds of injuries in the December and January protests.

After five hours of debate, late at night, the plenary of Congress approved the motion of confidence in the Cabinet helmed by Alberto Otárola. A simple majority (half plus one) of the 123 lawmakers in attendance was required. They managed it with 73 votes in favor, 42 against and six abstentions – a fact that will continue to fuel the indignation of the population.

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