“We can’t have a truce if she doesn’t tell the truth,” Blanca España Mesa, 48, said of Peru’s president. Though her eyes were watering from the tear gas, España Mesa said she was “happy because a lot of people came today. It’s like people woke up.”
Before last week, most of the major anti-government protests following the ousting of President Pedro Castillo took place in remote regions of Peru, mostly in the south of the country, revealing the deep division between residents of the capital and the long-neglected countryside.
The crisis that has unleashed Peru’s worst political violence in more than two decades began when Castillo, Peru’s first rural Andean leader, attempted to cut short his fledgling government’s third impeachment trial by ordering the dissolution of Congress on December 7. Instead, he was charged, national police arrested him before he could find sanctuary, and Boluarte, who was his vice president, was sworn in.
Since then, 56 people have died in the unrest among Castillo’s supporters, 45 of whom died in direct clashes with security forces, according to the Peruvian Ombudsman. None of the deaths were in Lima.
On Tuesday, police fired tear gas after tear gas as they blocked the passage of protesters who appeared more organized than before. The smell of tear gas permeated the air and could be felt even a block away when people leaving work suddenly had to cover their faces to try to lessen the sting.
“Murderers,” shouted the demonstrators, some of whom threw stones at the police.
Even after most protesters left, police continued to fire tear gas to disperse small groups of people in a square in front of the country’s Supreme Court.
“I have the right to protest in this country,” said 60-year-old Emiliano Merino as he was treated by volunteer paramedics after pellets grazed each of his arms.
Boluarte had previously called for a ceasefire and blamed protesters for the political violence that has gripped the country, claiming in a press conference that illegal miners, drug traffickers and smugglers had formed a “paramilitary force” to seek chaos for political gain . She said numerous roadblocks across the country and damage to infrastructure had cost the country more than $1 billion in lost production.
She suggested that the protesters who died with gunshot wounds were shot dead by other protesters and claimed investigations would show their injuries were inconsistent with the officers’ weapons. And now there are about 90 police officers with bruises in the hospital, she said: “What about their human rights?” asked the President.
The government has not provided any evidence that any of the injured officers were hit by gunfire.
Dismayed by the lack of international outcry from the regional and global community, human rights defenders are calling for the condemnation of state violence unleashed since Castillo’s ouster.
Jennie Dador, executive secretary of Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, said the lack of international response left us feeling “we are alone”.
“None of the states in the region have done anything concrete,” she said.
Boluarte was absent from a meeting of regional leaders in the Argentine capital on Tuesday, where most avoided mentioning civilian deaths in Peru.
Human rights activists have acknowledged acts of violence by some protesters – including efforts to take over airports and burn down police stations – but say the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful.
Some of the leaders at the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States blamed the Peruvian government for the violence.
Chile’s President Gabriel Boric said there was “an urgent need for change in Peru because the outcome of the path of violence and repression is unacceptable”. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a staunch supporter of Castillo, called for an “end to the repression”.
During the summit’s closing ceremony, Argentine President Alberto Fernández called for an end to “street violence and institutional violence that has claimed so many lives” in Peru.
“The international community has expressed its concerns, but I really think they could be more assertive,” said César Muñoz, deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
After some feverish closed-door negotiations in Buenos Aires that afternoon, the situation in Peru was left out of the summit’s final documents. “Peru is a sensitive issue,” but pressure from some leaders has prompted last-minute negotiations, said an official at Argentina’s foreign ministry, who wished to remain anonymous due to lack of powers to discuss the policy.
“Peru managed to fly under the radar,” said Marina Navarro, executive director of Amnesty International Peru. “Given the seriousness of the situation with this number of people who have died, we don’t see it being talked about as much as it could be.”
Associated Press writers Franklin Briceño in Lima and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina contributed to this report.