At least 17 killed in Peru as anti-government protests intensify

At least 17 people were killed in clashes with police in southern Peru on Monday, the bloodiest day since protesters took to the streets demanding the release from detention and reinstatement of former president Pedro Castillo.

Analysts said the violence suggested the crisis engulfing Peru would continue to dog the government of president Dina Boluarte, who took office on December 7, hours after Castillo was arrested for attempting to pre-empt an impeachment vote in congress by seizing emergency powers. 

Thirty-nine civilians have been killed in the unrest since Castillo’s arrest, according to the country’s independent human rights office, while the defence ministry said 75 police officers had been injured. Protesters, mostly in rural and poorer provinces where Castillo maintains strong support, have sporadically blocked roads and disrupted airports, although they took a break over Christmas.

Officials said Monday’s clashes began when 9,000 protesters attempted to storm the airport in Juliaca, a city in the southern Puno province. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is sending a delegation this week to evaluate the crisis, having condemned the violence in December.

Lawmakers are expected to hold a confidence vote in Boluarte’s new cabinet on Tuesday, another test for the administration. She is Peru’s sixth president since early 2018.

Bridging the country’s social divisions is one of Boluarte’s most urgent priorities. While the world’s second-largest copper producer has experienced sustained political instability over recent years, its economic growth has been generally healthy.

But the headline figures mask gaping inequality, with most of the country’s wealth and investment concentrated in the capital, Lima. To his supporters, Castillo — a former primary school teacher and subsistence farmer from rural Chota province in the northern Andes — represented a break with the status quo.

Polls carried out by the Institute of Peruvian Studies in late November found that Castillo maintained the support of 45 per cent of the country’s rural areas, but only 31 per cent of the whole country.

In a bid to calm demonstrations, Boluarte proposed bringing forward elections from 2026 to April 2024, which congress approved provisionally. However, it is not clear if this will appease the demonstrators.

Peru’s problems, including its fragmented and discredited political parties, would not be resolved with early elections, said Paula Muñoz, a political-science professor at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima. 

“Early elections are the only way out of this escalation of violence, as space for dialogue closes and each side shows less interest in doing so,” she added. “This political crisis has been coming for years.”

Prime Minister Alberto Otárola gave a press conference on Monday night in which he blamed the unrest on “foreign interests” and “drug traffickers”, although he did not give any evidence to corroborate the claims.

Earlier on Monday, Peru’s interior ministry banned Bolivia’s socialist former president Evo Morales from entering the country, along with eight other unidentified Bolivians. Morales, one of Latin America’s most prominent leftists and indigenous politicians, has been a vocal defender of Castillo since his arrest. 

Otárola accused Morales of stoking unrest. “We are closely watching not only the attitude of Mr Morales, but also of those who work with him in southern Peru,” he told the press conference. “They have been very active in promoting the crisis.”

Castillo is serving 18 months of pre-trial detention. Before his removal in December, he survived two impeachment attempts amid multiple criminal investigations for alleged influence peddling.

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