At least 17 people were killed in clashes with police in southern Peru, the country’s human rights office said on Monday, the deadliest day so far of protests demanding early elections and the release of jailed former president Pedro Castillo.
The clashes occurred in Juliaca, a city near the banks of Lake Titicaca in southern Peru’s Puno region, and left 68 people injured, Henry Rebaza, a Puno health ministry official, told the state-run television channel TV Peru. The dead included at least two teenagers, according to the ministry.
Some of the bodies had bullet wounds, Puno’s regional health director, Ismael Cornejo, told local radio station RPP.
The latest casualties raise the death toll from anti-government clashes with security forces to 39 since the protests began in early December following the removal and arrest of Castillo shortly after he tried to illegally dissolve Congress.
Castillo is serving 18 months of pre-trial detention on charges of rebellion, which he denies.
Rebaza also told Peru TV that 28 injured police officers are unable to be evacuated from Juliaca’s airport. Peruvian Prime Minister Alberto Otarola said thousands of protesters had tried to invade the airport along with a police station.
During the day in Juliaca, a witness recorded footage of gunshots and smoke on the streets as protesters took cover behind large metal plates and road signs and threw rocks at police using improvised sling-shots.
Other footage showed people administering CPR to a man lying motionless on the ground in a blood-stained sweater, and people with severe injuries in a crowded hospital waiting room.
An unidentified woman told journalists their relative had been hit with a bullet while taking a walk with a friend who lived nearby.
“I want to call on the central government – how can we have so many dead?” said Jorge Sotomayor Perales, the head of the intensive care department at a hospital in Juliaca.
“The death toll is appalling,” César Muñoz, associate director of the Americas division at rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, told the Buenos Aires Herald. “And it comes after other incidents where people were killed during demonstrations. Twenty-two people were killed in December, so it’s crucial that there be first a clear message from the government to the security forces, that any excessive use of force is absolutely unacceptable, and that members of the security forces who violate this will be held accountable.”
Protesters have been calling for early elections to be held as president Boluarte faces a crisis of legitimacy amid the protests. In December, Peru’s congress voted for presidential elections to be brought forward to April 2024, but another vote must be held before the new date is confirmed. It is unclear whether a firm election date would help to disperse the protests.
“When you have cases of excessive use of force by security forces, that, you know, that feeds the protests,” Muñoz said.
Peru’s human rights office, known as the Ombudsman Office, called for police to comply with international standards in using force and for investigations into the deaths, while urging protesters to refrain from attacking property or impeding movement of ambulances.
Earlier on Monday, the Ombudsman said a newborn had died while being transferred from the town of Yunguyo, southeast of Juliaca, to a local hospital in an ambulance that had been delayed by a road blockade.
Protests calling for the early elections and the release of Castillo resumed last week after a holiday lull. The protesters are also demand the resignation of new President Dina Boluarte, the closure of Congress and changes to the constitution.
Speaking at a “national agreement” meeting earlier on Monday with representatives from the country’s regions and various political institutions, Boluarte said she could not grant some of the protesters’ key demands. She called for citizens to “reflect”.
“The only thing that was in my hands was moving forwards the elections, which we have already proposed,” she said. “What you are asking for is a pretext to continue generating chaos in the cities.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said it would conduct a visit to Peru from Wednesday to Friday, visiting Lima and other cities to evaluate the situation.