The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is conducting a visit to Peru after the removal of President Pedro Castillo triggered protests in which dozens of people have been killed, hundreds injured, and large swathes of the country brought to a standstill.
Castillo had attempted to dissolve Peru’s congress and rule the country by decree just hours before a scheduled impeachment vote on corruption charges, a move widely regarded as a self-coup.
His removal sparked protests especially in southern Peru, where many saw it as a body blow for political representation of impoverished rural Peruvians and a victory for an elitist congress just as venal and corrupt as the president they deposed.
At least 27 people have been killed in the protests, according to the Peruvian press. The country’s Health Ministry reported that four of the protesters are confirmed to have been killed by firearms, and a further 12 were “probably” caused by firearms. Several of the deceased were teenagers.
Ayacucho’s Regional Health Directorate confirmed on Wednesday that ten victims had died during protests on December 15 and 16. Eight more people remain in hospital. The IACHR group in Peru, which is led by Adjunct Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, María Claudia Pulido, has met with authorities there to investigate how the protesters died.
Castillo was succeeded in office by his Vice President Dina Boluarte, who has become Peru’s first woman president. She declared a state of emergency across the country for 30 days on December 14, which suspended rights such as personal safety, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.
“The protests don’t respond to one single demand,” said Maria Claudia Augusto, a political scientist from Lima who focuses on social policy. She said that some groups of protesters are demanding a constituent assembly, while others are protesting against what they see as a betrayal by Boluarte and a national Congress that suffered even lower approval ratings than Castillo himself. In many cases protests intensified in the face of the security forces’ violent response, she added.
“The places where there are demonstrations are those that supported Castillo during the first and second electoral rounds,” she said, adding that Boluarte’s government lacks legitimacy in these areas.
Many of the victims are poor, rural Peruvians who have typically been excluded from political representation. The protests have been concentrated in areas where the Shining Path terrorist group was strongest, and the government is now attempting to play down the seriousness of the violence the victims have faced by describing them as “potential terrorists”, Augusto added.
“With that, they take away the human rights they have, as people, to not die for protesting.”
A source at the IACHR said the Commission is not giving interviews about the situation in Peru at this stage.
“Acts of violence have been registered in the context of the protests, which must be appropriately investigated, but that does not justify any use of excessive force on the part of agents of the security forces, which could put people’s lives and health at risk,” said rights watchdog Human Rights Watch Americas director, Juanita Goebertus.
“Peruvian authorities should prioritize dialogue and respect for human rights as a path to reach a solution for the political crisis afflicting the country.”
In addition to the human toll, the protests have brought daily life in large parts of southern Peru to a halt, which is likely to hit the country’s economy and tourism sector just as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tourism and External Commerce ministry announced on Saturday that tourists who had been stranded at Machu Picchu by the protests would be airlifted to safety.
Former president Pedro Castillo was impeached and removed from office on December 7 after he attempted to perform a self-coup by dissolving Peru’s congress and ruling by decree. Castillo is currently in pre-trial detention on charges of rebellion and conspiracy, where he has been visited by the IACHR.
On Tuesday, Peru’s congress voted to bring elections forward to April 2024, with 91 of the legislature’s 130 members backing the plan. However, the proposal will have to secure a two-thirds majority in another vote next year to be approved. Elections were originally scheduled to be held in 2026.
The president decreed this morning that she was reorganizing the staff in the presidential offices because several of those who had served under Castillo were facing corruption allegations.
Born to illiterate parents in the rural community of Puña, 53-year-old Castillo is a former school teacher and union leader with little experience in elected office. Economically and politically progressive but socially conservative, he had drawn comparisons with leaders such as Evo Morales, the Indigenous leftist who ruled neighboring Bolivia for 14 years.
Castillo assumed power in July 2021 after beating Keiko Fujimori, the right-wing daughter of jailed authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori, by just 0.25 percentage points. From the get go, his government was marred by instability, with around 80 ministers passing through his cabinet in just under a year and a half in office. Between that and a hostile congress that frequently stymied his plans, he implemented very little of his proposed agenda of progressive reforms.
However, analysts point out that Castillo was hampered just as much by a hostile congress as by instability in his party.
“Before he even came to power, there was a sector that was interested in removing him, a sector of the right,” said Augusto.
Castillo’s impeachment comes at a time of ongoing instability for Peru: the Andean country has now had six presidents since March 2018. One, Manuel Merino, resigned after just five days when two protesters were killed during demonstrations in Lima.