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Interinstitutional conflicts, a self-coup, protests, and repression in Peru

by Carmen Forlenza

Figure 1: H. Curotto, Associated Press

1. Introduction

On December 7, Pedro Castillo, President-in-Office for just over 16 months, attempted to dissolve the Parliament, establish an emergency government, and call the elections for a new Congress in charge of drafting a new constitutional text. On the same day, the third impeachment motion against him for “moral incapacity” was scheduled. Although the outcome of the vote for his dismissal was uncertain, the now-former president was clearly convinced that he had no way out. Neither his ministers, nor his lawyers knew anything about his plan.

Castillo's vice president, some of the ministers, the majority of the deputies, and the armed forces opposed this decision. Since the President has the constitutional right to dissolve the Parliament just in case the latter does not approve the council of ministers twice in a row, Castillo's actions clearly constituted a self-coup.

On that same day, Castillo was arrested for treason and rebellion against the state while he was trying to reach the Mexican embassy and ask for political asylum, together with his family [1]. He is currently serving 18 months in pretrial detention, given the risk of flight and obstruction of justice. Four hours after his announcement, vice-president Dina Boluarte took office, becoming Peru’s first female president and the sixth head of government in just over five years.

The coup attempt would have been a desperate and wicked reaction to the repeated efforts of the right‑wing parties, holding the majority in Congress, to oust him from power. This was the epilogue of a long institutional conflict between the Presidency and the Congress, that began right after the 2021 elections. The results of the polls were indeed immediately contested by groups gathered around Keiko Fujimori, the other presidential candidate on the ballot. Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of dictator Alberto, and she never really distanced herself from her father’s crimes. Fujimori's supporters mobilized in the streets of the capital shouting without solid foundations to electoral fraud.

2. Pedro Castillo and Dina Boluarte

Castillo is a rural teacher from the Andean region of Cajamarca, he declares himself proud of his Andean culture, he used to be a rondero, i.e. a member of an autonomous peasant patrol, and started his political career within the school trade union circle. He was seen as an outsider in Peruvian politics, in opposition to the mestizo, or "whiter" elite of metropolitan Lima. Castillo has been continuously labled as ignorant, unprepared, and deemed a terrorist. Political opponents have insisted for months that under his leadership Peru would have become a new Venezuela, receiving strong echoes in the national media.

Once in office, Castillo faced two impeachment attempts, based on corruption charges, trying to oust him from power. The president who was supposed to mark a break with the system and prioritize the interests of the poorest and most marginalized regions and populations largely disappointed the expectations of his voters.

Figure 2: Dina Boluarte and Pedro Castillo wearing some traditional clothing from the regions of Apurimac and Cajamarca, MIDIS Ministerio de Desarrollo e Inclusión Social

He has not worked seriously on any of the measures he promised to his voters, such as the completion of the land reform, the creation of a fairer tax system and a progression on the constitutional process to get rid of the neoliberal text adopted under Fujimori. As the corruption investigation unfolded, he proved to be more similar than expected to his predecessors.

The rise to power of Castillo’s vice president hasn’t been perceived as a breaking element or a guarantee of overcoming the political crisis. Quite the opposite, from the very first week of her mandate, Boluarte hit a disapproval rate of 84% according to INEI. Her first misstep has probably been announcing her will to regularly end the presidential term, with new elections taking place in 2026. From that moment on, all over the country, malcontent towards the Congress was paired with disaffection towards her character.

Boluarte is a lawyer, born in Chalhuanca, in the country’s southern region of Apurimac. In 2018, she run for mayor in Surquillo, in the province of Lima, obtaining only 2,040 votes. Then, for more than a year, she served as Minister of Development and Social Inclusion during Castillo’s mandate.

Boluarte currently cannot count on the direct support of any political forces, given that in January 2022 she was expelled from her party Peru Libre, due to some statements made to the press in which she claimed that she had never supported the party’s set of values.

Boluarte’s government, as enshrined in the Constitution, granted the Congress the power to pass a bill to bring the elections forward. Congresswomen Digna Calle and Susel Paredes double attempt to bring forward the elections to 2023 did not pass, the approved bill instead moved forward the next general elections only to April 2024, a date still considered too far away for many citizens.

3. Growing discontent spreadss from the South of the country reaching Lima

Heavy nationwide protests sparked in December, in the aftermath of the coup. The protests were mainly organized by student groups, indigenous and grassroot associations, and trade unions and mainly took place in southern regions. The protests resumed on January 4 after a break during Christmas holidays, without central coordination but with similar dynamics across various regions. Finally, several delegations of demonstrators traveled to Lima to take to the streets in a national march on January 19, known as the "March de los 4 Suyos", referring to the four parts that formed the Tahuantinsuyo, i.e. the Inca Empire.

As of February 2, 58 people were killed and more than 1,200 injured during the demonstrations due to the clashes with the security forces, mobilized after the declaration of a state of emergency in several southern regions. Most of the victims died from gunshot wounds; countless instances of violence against unarmed people, even those already on the ground, have been documented. From December, National and international organizations for human rights protection have reported unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against civilians, in an attempt to force roadblocks by demonstrators and protect strategic structures such as airports.

Figure 3: M. Mejilla, AP/La presse

Protesters are demanding Boluarte to step down and call new general elections as soon as possible. The center of the protest are the southern regions of Ayacucho, Apurimac, Arequipa, Cusco, Puno, and Tacna. Regions where there is a will to change the current socio-economic situation and a strong intolerance towards the centralized system of Lima. It is no coincidence that these regions correspond to the areas that voted en-masse for Castillo, a teacher of a rural Andean area, with whom they can identify.

Historically, in Peru, the toughest oppositions to the centralism of Lima and the metropolitan elite have always come from the southern regions. Recent examples are the 2002 protests in Arequipa against the privatization of two public energy companies by President Alejandro Toledo, called the “Arequipazo” and the protests of the Aymara population in 2011 against the mining concessions of the government of Alan Garcia to Canadian companies, called the "Aymarazo". The idea of ​​creating an independent republic in southern Peru emerged even this year among the protesters in Puno.

Figure 4: The regions involved in protests in January 2023, ISPI

Between July 2021 and December 2022 alone, there were 1,624 protests in the southern regions. Long before the coup attempt, therefore, strong malcontent was widespread and a political crisis was already underway. According to national polls, during the mandate the citizens' disapproval rate for Congress went from 56% to 86%, disapproval rate towards Castillo’s management went from 32% to 52%.

4. Unaddressed issues erupt in protests

The southern regions, key actors in the wave of protests and demonstrations, are the poorest in the country. Areas suffering from infrastructure shortages in terms of public works, schools, hospitals, etc. These are predominantly rural areas, with a strong presence of Quechua and Aymara people, defending Andean identity and culture, historically excluded and victims of racism.

Their inhabitants feel disaffected and neglected by the central government. At the same time, however, foreign companies exploit the vast mineral resources, concentrated precisely in this part of the country, without improving living conditions and opportunities, but drawing the vast profits elsewhere. Informal work, such as the sale of food and/or objects in the street, is common throughout the country, but even more widespread in the South, where it is also accompanied by artisanal or indeed informal mining, without protections or safeguards.

Discontent is strong not only towards the central power but also regional authorities, which are often characterized by poor management, corruption, unspent funds due to lack of necessary professional figures and/or inaction.

Figure 5: A. Cinque, Reuters

5. Police repression in the streets, terruqueo in the media

Law enforcement agencies committed indiscriminate attacks against protesters. After 17 people died in a single day in clashes between protestants and law enforcement in Juliaca, Puno, the State Attorney General launched an inquiry into President Dina Boluarte, the Prime Minister, the Minister of the interior, and the minister of defense for crimes of genocide, manslaughter, and serious injuries. In Lima, thousands of people protested against the new government shouting "Dina asesina!".

A lot of indignation aroused for the raid of an armored police car inside the National San Marcos University, in Lima, leading to the arrest of almost 200 people. They were demonstrators, both students and adults who had come from other areas of the country, who were sleeping in the building since January 18 to participate in the demonstrations. The majority of those arrested were between 23 and 30 years old. Moreover, the police did not allow either the Defensoría del Pueblo or other lawyers to enter and clarify the facts.

Boluarte argues that these demonstrations are not spontaneous but are orchestrated. The dominant discourse in the national media is that the demonstrations are the result of a joint effort by external forces, each time identified with drug traffickers, terrorists, and infiltrated Bolivian citizens. According to this narrative the people who protest do so because they are coerced by local representatives of these groups.

Since the 1980s, the time of the internal conflict between the state and the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso, a part of the population, mainly living in urban areas and on the coast spreads a mental false correlation between southern Peruvians and terrorists, or with left-wingers and terrorists generating hard-to-die prejudices. This practice is called "terruqueo", i.e., attributing terrorist connotations to left-wing political opponents, or in this case to demonstrators, leading to stigmatization and lawfare. Protestants are threatened to be prosecuted for terrorism, to push citizens towards fear and self‑censorship. Indeed, the words "criminal" and "terrorist" are widely used in current news relating to the protest.

Figure 6: Lucho Rossell

In Peruvian law, the crime of terrorist activity has such a broad definition that it can even include participating in a march, collecting money to support health care costs for injured demonstrators, or holding public discussions. Investigating demonstrators for terrorism means limiting their rights and procedural guarantees. For example, a detention that normally lasts for a maximum of 72 hours, with an accusation of terrorism can even reach 15 days.

National and international human rights organizations obviously condemn this abusive discourse and express the urgent need to seriously investigate human rights violations perpetrated by the police, resorting to external experts who don’t not belong to the armed forces, and to decouple crimes against private property that occurred during the protests from the investigation led by anti-terrorism prosecutors, using human rights experts for the investigation.

Figure 7: Virgen de la sanguinaria, Alvaro Portalez

6. Conclusions

The protests stem from a request and a need for representation of a large area of ​​the country, a real "southern Peruvian question" that has not found a place in the national political discourse so far, besides Castillo's electoral promises.

Police repression of the protests, supported by the current government, which has declared the conduct of the armed forces "pristine", shows once again the persistence of structural racism: for many the life of a citizen of the south is not comparable with that of a citizen of the capital.

There is a widespread and generalized disaffection towards the entire Peruvian political class. Congressmen are seen as bearers only of personal interests and former president Castillo is yet another disappointment after the hopes of a regenerating change in Peruvian politics. For this reason, the refusal is total and the request is to make a clean slate with emergency general elections taking place as soon as possible. The protests are the proof of an unbridgeable gap between the political class and the citizens, between the mestizo and the whiter elite of the capital and the citizens of rural areas.

The only way to stop the protests seems to be calling early elections later this year, through a vote in Congress. Certainly, one element that exasperates the demonstrators is the almost complete lack of empathy of the president and her government for those who are mobilizing and for the victims of repression. Indeed, the government has repeatedly staunchly defended the armed forces and reiterated that the protesters are a minority not representing the whole country.

Given that Boluarte did not resign from her post in December, at the start of the protests, and with the first victims, it seems unlikely that she will do so in the weeks to come, but at least a dutiful change in attitude and an official communication is hoped for.

Figure 8: Lima in December, people hiding from the police, S. Castaneda, Routers

A protracted crisis is expected, with waves of more or less intense protests over the next few weeks and perhaps months. The government is counting on the tiredness of the demonstrators, but indignation towards the treatment given to protesters and at the number of deaths on the rise has so far been the driving force behind the new delegations continuing to travel to Lima to support the national mobilization.

People hope that the conservative right, which holds the majority in Congress, will finally accept the request for early elections, also because the current government, which is rightfully in office, does not at all have the support from the country for becoming a transitional government. Denying early elections means freezing the country once again in a stalemate, prioritizing the interests of individual deputies, and the victory of racism and state classism, without addressing the root causes of discontent of one big share of the country.

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[1] Castillo's wife and under-age children who reached Mexico together with the expelled Mexican ambassador in Peru, Pablo Monroy Conesa were granted political asylum.


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