Peru: Protester deaths spark calls for reparations amid painful past


“If something happens to me, don’t cry,” Leonardo Hanko told his wife Ruth Barsena on the morning of December 15 in the Peruvian city of Ayacucho.

A 32-year-old taxi driver and the father of a seven-year-old girl decided to join Nationwide political protests in Peru last minute.

“If I decide to join because I want to leave my children a better future, I am fighting for my rights,” he added before leaving, according to Barcena.

Demonstrations, which first erupted after the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo in December, have continued since then – mostly in central and southern Peru, where Ayacucho is located – fueled by allegations of corruption in government and elected officials, as well as anger over conditions life. and inequality in the country. The protesters demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the closure of the Congress, an early general election and the adoption of a new Constitution.

The ancient city of Ayacucho, famous for its pre-Inca history and colonial churches, has seen dramatic outbreaks of violence amid demonstrations. According to the country’s ombudsman’s office, at least 10 people were killed in this region alone, and more than 40 were injured.

Hanko was one of them. Hours after joining the march, he was shot in the stomach near the Ayacucho airport where protesters had gathered, some of whom were trying to take over the runway.

He died two days later from his injuries, Barcena told CNN.

Demonstrators stand on an airport airfield amid violent protests in Ayacucho, Peru, December 15, 2022.

The legendary region of Ayacucho was once home to the Wari civilization and became part of the Inca Empire. Its capital, now also called Ayacucho, was one of the main cities during the Spanish conquest. It was also the birthplace of one of the darkest and most painful chapters in Peru’s recent history, home to an armed rebel group. shining path in the turbulent 80s and 90s.

According to the final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, almost 70,000 people eventually died. due to internal conflict between the Peruvian security forces and the Maoist rebel group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso in Spanish) and Tupac Amaru’s Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Both government forces and rebel groups have been accused of human rights violations during the fighting. More than 40% of the dead and missing from this bloody conflict are in the Ayacucho region.

Since then, the region has been welcoming local and foreign tourists, dependent on agriculture, mining, and the production of local products. But it still reflects the inequality of the past. Compared to Peru’s capital, Lima, Ayacucho’s health and education system is underdeveloped, and conditions and standards are well below those that benefit the capital.

“Peru is said to be doing very well economically, but the pandemic has exposed us,” Lurgio Gavilán, professor of anthropology at the National University of San Cristobal de Huamanga, told CNN.

After nearly two decades of sustained economic growth, Covid-19 hit the country hard in 2020, with the highest per capita death rate in the world and more than half of the population lack of access to sufficient food during a pandemic. Poverty was especially insidious in rural areas of the country.

Although the economy has recovered and GDP has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the country’s continued inequality means not everyone will benefit. The World Bank predicts that poverty will remain above pre-pandemic levels over the next two years.

Some protesters called for the release imprisoned ex-president Castillo, a former rural teacher who vowed to correct economic inequality before his downfall. But the polarization and chaos surrounding his presidency, including allegations of corruption and multiple congressional impeachments that Castillo called politically motivated, have only exacerbated pre-existing tensions in Peru.

Ayacucho’s painful past has been the backdrop for clashes in the region. The derogatory language used by government officials, parts of the press and the public to criticize the protesters as vandals, criminals and “terrorists” has hit a historical nerve.

“No one says that all the protesters are terrorists, but they should know that people associated with the Shining Path are marching with them.” said General Oscar Arriola Delgado, spokesman for the National Police of Peru (PNP), after three protesters were arrested in Ayacucho on suspicion of links to the Shining Path. One of them is accused of giving money to protesters and allegedly being involved in planning attacks on public and private property.

Although Shining Path disbanded in the late 90s, the remnants of the group continue to operate in the south of the country, where the Peruvian government says they profit from coca production. Police said one woman they arrested spent years in prison in connection with insurgency in the 80s and 90s, but did not make public whether they linked her to any existing groups.

However, Gavilan cautions against exaggerating the existence of Shining Path connections. “People know how to think, they know how to distinguish what is good and what is bad, we also know how to be indignant, despite the fact that we have experienced so much,” the anthropologist said.

“For us, the Shining Path is long dead, no one supports the Shining Path, we have been led into a terrible war that no one wants,” he also said.

He himself has direct experience of Peru’s interaction with the Shining Path. After he joined the group as an orphaned child soldier when he was 12, the army recruited him at the age of 15 to fight the same group. Gavilan later became a Franciscan priest before studying anthropology.

The real threat here, in his opinion, lies in another deja vu – Peruvian soldiers once again confront civilians. “Our population has again seen the faces of the military on the streets,” he says.

Relatives and friends attend a memorial service for John Henry Mendoza Huaranca, who was killed during protests following the overthrow of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, in Ayacucho, Peru, December 17, 2022.

Ayacucho is one of the regions that the Peruvian authorities are now trying to keep. responsible for alleged brutality towards protesters. The National Prosecutor’s Office has already opened preliminary investigation against the incumbent President Boluarte, her three ministers, police and military commanders.

At least 55 people have been killed in clashes across the country since the beginning of the riots, and more than 500 police officers were injured, according to the agency. Office of the National Ombudsman and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Police say their tactics are in line with international standards. But an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) fact-finding mission in Peru said gunshot wounds were found in the heads and upper bodies of victims during the protests, places that law enforcement should avoid to save human life. .

According to the guidelines issued Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights“The use of firearms to disperse an assembly is always illegal.”

Boluart started said that the decision to deploy military forces was difficult, and that neither the police nor the army were sent to “kill”. She also called the protests “terrorismwhen she visited an injured police officer in the hospital, a label IACHR warned could provoke “an atmosphere of more violence“.

Barcena believes the government should take responsibility for her husband’s death. After the shock of losing Hanko, she decided to lead a group of relatives of the dead and wounded in Ayacucho to support the prosecution’s investigation and demand civil reparations from the government for those killed or wounded.

According to her, her family relied on his income from working as a taxi driver. He took the job after losing his job as a heavy equipment operator at a mining company when the country was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

“Those who died were innocent people, [security forces] had no right to take their lives. I know what kind of person my husband was; he was humble, he loved life, he gave everything for his family. Fighter. Even though he was a peasant, he never lowered his head,” Barcena told CNN.

Her statement is supported by human rights experts studying the current violence. Percy Castillo, Peru’s deputy ombudsman for human rights and persons with disabilities, told CNN after a stay in Ayacucho that his office supports the creation of a reparation mechanism for these families emerging from poverty.

Also in support of such measures is Joel Hernandez Garcia, IACHR Commissioner, who told CNN that making amends for the dead was one of three steps needed to resolve the crisis in the country.