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With 50 Dead in Peru, a Referendum on Democracy

Highways blocked with giant boulders and broken glass. Entire cities shuttered by mass protests. Fifty families mourning their dead. Calls for a new president, a new constitution, a new governing system altogether. Pledges to take the fight to Lima, the capital. Local officials warning that the country is headed toward anarchy.

A protest anthem shouted in the streets: “This democracy is no longer a democracy.”

Rather than fade, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the ouster of the former president have only grown in size and in the scope of demonstrators’ demands, paralyzing entire sections of the country and threatening efforts by the new president, Dina Boluarte, to gain control.

The unrest is now far broader than anger over who is running the country. Instead, it represents a profound frustration with Peru’s young democracy, which protesters say has failed to address a yawning gap between the rich and the poor and between Lima and the country’s rural areas.

Democracy, they say, has largely helped a small elite — the political class, the rich and corporate executives — accumulate power and wealth, while providing few benefits to many other Peruvians.

More broadly, the crisis in Peru reflects an erosion of trust in democracies across Latin America, fueled by states that “violate citizens’ rights, fail to provide security and quality public services, and are captured by powerful interests,” according to a new essay in The Journal of Democracy.

One of the many road blocks in Peru set up as a protest against President Dina Boluarte.

The road to Juliaca, where 19 people were killed last week.

In Peru, the former president, Pedro Castillo, a leftist, had promised to address longstanding issues of poverty and inequality, but he was impeached and arrested in December after attempting to disband Congress and rule by decree.

Mr. Castillo’s supporters, most of them in the country’s poor, rural regions, launched protests, sometimes burning government buildings, blocking vital highways and occupying airports. Peru’s government soon declared a state of emergency, sending security forces into the streets.

Ms. Boluarte, who comes from the rural south-central region of Apurímac, ran on Mr. Castillo’s ticket last year, and was elected vice president. But she rejected her former ally’s attempt to rule by decree, calling it an authoritarian power grab, and replaced Mr. Castillo. She has since urged unity and, responding to protesters’ demands, called on legislators to move up new elections.

Congress, with many members reluctant to yield power, has been slow to embrace that effort, and Ms. Boluarte’s critics now call her a weak president working at the behest of a self-interested, out-of-touch legislature.

At first, demonstrators mainly sought Mr. Castillo’s reinstatement, or new elections as quickly as possible. Now, they want something much bigger:a new constitution and even, as one sign put it, “to refound a new nation.”

Since Mr. Castillo’s removal, at least 50 people have been killed, 49 of them civilians, some of them shot in the chest, back and head, leading human rights groups to accuse the military and the police of excessive use of force and of firing indiscriminately at protesters.

Those deaths have hit particularly hard in the southern city of Juliaca, a two-day drive from the capital, past scrubby, snow-capped mountains and grazing llama-like vicuña.

Asunta Jumpiri by the coffin of her son, Brayan Apaza, 15, who was shot in the head during protests this month.
Mourners gathered around Brayan’s coffin. A clash between protesters and police on Jan. 9 marked the deadliest day since the ouster of President Pedro Castillo.

At nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, just 40 percent of Juliaca’s population has running water, many roads are unpaved and malnutrition is the biggest problem at the lone public hospital.

Last week, 19 people died as a result of a single demonstration, marking the deadliest encounter for civilians with armed actors in Peru in at least two decades.Eighteen of the dead were civilians shot by firearms, according to a local prosecutor. One police officer was found dead inside a police vehicle that had seen set on fire.

The country’s interior ministry said officers had responded lawfully after thousands of protesters tried to occupy the local airport, some with makeshift guns and explosives.

The youngest to die was Brayan Apaza, age 15, whose mother, Asunta Jumpiri, 38, called him an “innocent boy” killed after he had gone out to buy food. At his wake last week, past a highway roadblock of burning tires, supporters held black flags across their chests like battle weapons, and vowed to fight until Ms. Boluarte stepped down.

“We declare ourselves in a state of insurgency,” said Orlando Sanga, a protest leader, standing outside a union hall being used for the vigil.

Nearby, Evangelina Mendoza, wearing the traditional skirt and sweater of women in the region, said that if Ms. Boluarte did not resign, “the south is going to run with blood.”

But few investigations into civil unrest and protests in Peru this century have led to convictions, and a new law that removed a requirement that the police act proportionally in their response to civilians makes the prospect of successful prosecution still more unlikely,said Carlos Rivera, of the Legal Defense Institute, a Peruvian nonprofit group.

Peru, a nation of 33 million people, the fifth largest in Latin America, returned to democracy just two decades ago, following the authoritarian rule of President Alberto Fujimori.

But the country’s current system, based on a Fujimori-era Constitution, is rife with corruption, impunity and mismanagement, for which even those in the government blame a lack of oversight and a culture of quid pro quo.

At the same time, half the population lacks regular access to sufficient nutrition, according to the United Nations, and the country is still reeling from the pandemic, in which Peru suffered the highest per capita death toll in the world.

A young boy killed, his mother said, while out to buy food.
Prosecutors said they would investigate civilian deaths, but it was unclear what that might yield.

Intense concentration of media ownership, with many Lima-based outlets either ignoring the protests or highlighting accusations that the demonstrators are terrorists, has only exacerbated a sense that the urban elite have colluded against the rural poor.

Trust in democracies across Latin America has tumbled over the last two decades, according to the AmericasBarometer, a regional survey conducted by Vanderbilt University. But in few places is the issue more acute than in Peru, where just 21 percent of people say they are satisfied with their democracy — down from a high of 52 percent a decade ago. Only Haiti fares worse.

Other nations with particularly low levels of satisfaction include Colombia and Chile, both of which have seen large anti-government protests in recent years, and Brazil, where protesters who say last year’s presidential election was rigged stormed the capital this month.

What is saving many Latin American democracies from “outright death,” said Steve Levitsky, a leading expert on democracy at Harvard University, is that a viable alternative — like Hugo Chávez’s authoritarian socialism in Venezuela — has yet to emerge.

In Juliaca, dozens of people were injured by bullets in the confrontation with the police last week, and the city’s public hospital is full of people recovering from their wounds. Inside, little cardboard collection boxes sit at the end of many beds, asking for help with medical expenses.

“Perforated lung” reads the sign on one collection box. “Bullet in the spine” reads another.

Yulinio Mamani recovering after being shot during a protest in Juliaca.
Saúl Soncco’s brother with an X-ray showing a bullet lodged next to Mr. Soncco’s spine.

Some of the injured seemed afraid to say they had been protesting, and a dozen men with bullet wounds all said they had been passing by the demonstration when they were shot.

None of the injured said they had received copies of their medical reports, which would help them understand the source of, and appropriate treatment for, their injuries. Access to this information is a right under Peruvian law, but several people said they believed that they were being punished for their association with the demonstrations.

In one bed lay Saúl Soncco, 22, shot in the back, he said, as he was walking home from work as a carpenter.

His brother managed to take a photograph of an X-ray showing a bullet lodged next to his spine. Still, the family said, hospital officials had told them he should go home.

The hospital’s director, Victor Candia, said that patients were being given the care they needed.

Ms. Boluarte, in a speech to the nation on Friday, offered her condolences to the families of the dead, describing the protesters as unwitting pawns led to the marches by manipulators seeking to topple her.

“Some voices, influenced by violentistas, by radicals, are demanding my resignation,” she said, “scaring the people into chaos, disorder and destruction. To this I say, responsibly: I am not going to resign.”

In Juliaca, just 40 percent of the population has running water, many roads are unpaved and the biggest problem at the public hospital is malnutrition.
Waiting to pay respects to Brayan’s family.

Brayan, the 15-year-old, was killed by a bullet to the head, according to his autopsy. At his funeral, hundreds gathered at a cemetery at the edge of town, where a protest leader, César Huasaca, shouted about justice, directing his anger at Ms. Boluarte.

“Do you think you have lessened our resolve?” he boomed. “No! We are stronger than ever.”

“We are 33 million,” Mr. Huasaca declared. “What are we going to do? Force them to respect our rights! It’s not about left, or right, what we want is attention!”

After a Mass offered by a priest in a simple white robe, an orchestra followed the coffin to a dirt plot. There, Ms. Jumpiri, Brayan’s mother, delivered some of the last words before his burial.

Dina!” she shouted, addressingthe president, her hands gripping Brayan’s coffin, her face twisted in pain. “I am ready to die for my son! I am going to fight, I want justice!”

Then she offered a challenge: “Dina! Kill me!”

Mitra Taj contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.

A street in Juliaca.

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