Over the last few weeks, Peruvians have been living through an unprecedented political and social conflict that has already resulted in more than 40 deaths. The vast majority of the victims, including several children, a doctor, and citizens who were helping the wounded, were killed through brutal repression and excessive use of force by the state against mobilizations demanding political change in the country. International solidarity is urgently needed to demand that the Peruvian government respect the lives and human rights of its inhabitants.
The state violence is taking place in the same areas of the country where Indigenous uprisings throughout Peru’s colonial and republican history have occurred, and where the armed conflict of the last decades of the 20th century was at its worst. We see an obvious element of racism in this state violence, which identifies the mobilized population, mostly Indigenous, as enemies. Political and military authorities have called the protesters “terrorists,” “mobs,” “criminals,” and “political conspirators,” while the prime minister himself called the protests an “assault on the capital Lima.”
In this context, our Amazonian allies are demanding political changes to overcome the crisis in solidarity with the protests, which are concentrated in the south of the country. With our U.S.-based allies, we are urging the government of Joe Biden to step up and reject the violence against the Peruvian people and demand an independent investigation of all deaths, in particular after the U.S. ambassador made a statement uncritically supporting the government of Boluarte.
Amazon Watch is in close coordination with our Indigenous and civil society allies to develop solidarity actions with the victims of the current repression. Amazon Watch demands that the Peruvian government immediately cease violence against the civilian population and fully respect human rights. An impartial and rigorous investigation into the deaths of every protester must be carried out. We are in solidarity with our Indigenous partners, and we are amplifying the demands and proposals of Peru’s national Indigenous federation, AIDESEP.
Together with other allies, we are urging the U.S. government to take a strong position against the Peruvian government’s violent actions, demanding full respect for the human rights of its population. Multiple embassies and U.N. and OAS human rights organizations have expressed their rejection of the violence, while the U.S. has so far spoken out in support of the government of Dina Boluarte.
A government transition lacking political legitimacy
On December 7, 2022, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo announced to the country his decision to dissolve the Congress of the Republic. Although Castillo’s executive branch had a longstanding conflict with Congress, which was also threatening to dismiss him, Castillo’s announcement was a total surprise. Several of Castillo’s ministers only learned about his plans through social networks. Neither the armed forces nor the police complied with the president’s order, leaving him completely isolated.
Peru’s Congress met that same afternoon and by an ample majority decided to remove Castillo from the presidency, in accordance with Article 117 of the Peruvian Constitution. Vice President Dina Boluarte took control of the government as enumerated by the law. Once ousted, Castillo was apprehended by police, just as he was on his way to the Mexican Embassy to request political asylum.
Widespread rejection by the rural population and racist violence by the Peruvian government
Since Dina Boluarte took office, protests have spread through the country, mainly in the southern Andean regions: Puno, Apurimac, Cusco, Arequipa, and Ayacucho. In these regions with large Indigenous Quechua and Aymara populations, the mobilizations have been massive, and protesters have established road blockades and attempted to take over public institutions and airports.
The protests reject the legitimacy of the new government and demand the resignation of the president, the resignations of the entire Congress, and general elections at the earliest possible date. The repression of these protests has been fierce and violent, resulting in the deaths of 28 Peruvian citizens before the new year, particularly in Apurimac and Ayacucho. The ongoing repression led in 2023 to 17 Peruvians killed in Puno on January 9 and one killed in Cusco on January 10. A police officer was also killed in a terrible incident that must be clarified.
The level of violence on the part of the Peruvian government exceeds anything that has happened since the country’s return to democracy, and it includes actions by the armed forces against the population. The Attorney General’s Office has already initiated a criminal investigation against Dina Boluarte, her Prime Minister, and the Minister of the Interior to determine responsibility for these crimes against the civilian population.
Under pressure from the mobilizations, the Peruvian Congress announced general elections, but only as soon as April 2024. Meanwhile, Boluarte declared her government a transitional government. These measures are largely insufficient for the mobilized population, which is demanding the immediate departure of Dina Boluarte and the shortening of the congressional session in order to have general elections this year.
The root causes behind the protests
The incoming government of Dina Boluarte decided to ally with right-wing conservative sectors of the Congress and has established a co-government with them, supported by the armed forces, which is fiercely repressing social protests in what looks like a war against its own population. Many in the public feel betrayal and a deep rejection of the majority of Congress, which today is a political partner of Dina Boluarte.
But the crisis does not start with Boluarte and Castillo. Since 2016, Peru has had six presidents: Two of them elected by popular vote, two vice presidents who assumed office through the line of succession, and another two who were appointed directly by Congress. The belligerence and intolerance of the right-wing forces in Congress make any government unfeasible.
Peru is a state created and consolidated against its Indigenous peoples, who are permanently discriminated against and only are of interest to the government when their territories need to be accessed for extractive mining, oil, and gas projects. The application of ultra-neoliberal policies since Fujimori’s authoritarian regime in the 1990s resulted in economic growth, but also in enormous inequality, systematic human rights violations, and the exclusion of broad sectors from the country’s economic progress. Faced with this situation, in recent decades the Peruvian people have continuously mobilized to demand social change, encountering repression and criminalization of protest.
The election of 2021 was a call for change as well, as Pedro Castillo was expected to be a genuine representative of the marginalized sectors of the country, especially in the Andes. His government has not been consistent, nor did it implement any relevant policy (it also had many indications of corruption), and he ultimately violated the law by trying to dissolve Congress. Despite the problems with his administration, many sectors opposed his dismissal, saying he was removed by political forces with no social legitimacy — only 8% of the population supports the parliament, according to several polls — and which today govern with Boluarte.
Amazonian calls to action and government demands
Although the protests and deaths are concentrated in the Peruvian Andes region, AIDESEP has expressed its solidarity with these struggles and has issued a number of statements in which it makes its political position clear. For the national Amazonian organization, it is unacceptable that a government that claims to be democratic is sustained by the deaths of civilians. AIDESEP maintains that after the killings of dozens of people, Dina Boluarte lacks any legitimacy and should resign.
AIDESEP proposes that elections should take place in 2023, but prior to this, Congress should change the Board of Directors, the four lawmakers Congress selects to compose the presidency and vice presidencies. Further, they must elect as president a member of Congress who generates consensus. If not, former general José Williams Zapata, who now leads Congress and has endorsed the massacres carried out by the state, would become president. AIDESEP is also calling for a process of debate on a new constitution in Peru, as the current political system does not represent the reality of the country. Through a constitutional process, Amazonian peoples would hope to get wider recognition of their rights and greater autonomy over their territories, within a state that truly represents them.
The violence unleashed by the government of Dina Boluarte is aimed primarily at Indigenous peoples and peasants in the south of the country. It is based on the stigmatization of these communities from a clear pattern of racism. To stop the excessive use of force and seek political solutions to the crisis, international pressure and solidarity with Peruvian indigenous organizations are essential. Please join us in denouncing the violence! Together we hold the U.S. government, President Biden, the U.S. State Department, and U.S. Ambassador in Peru accountable for failing to uplift international human rights mechanisms.