February 9, 2023

Peru grapples with its past as families of those killed in protests demand reparations

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(CNN) — “If something happens to me, don’t cry,” Leonardo Hancco told his wife, Ruth Bárcena, on the morning of December 15 in the southern Peruvian city of Ayacucho.

The 32-year-old taxi driver and father of a seven-year-old girl had decided to join national political protests in the country at the last minute.

Demonstrators demand the closure of Congress after protests following the impeachment of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, in Ayacucho, Peru, on December 20, 2022. (Ángela Ponce/Reuters/FILE)

“If I have decided to join, it is because I want to leave a better future for my children, I am fighting for my rights,” he added before leaving, according to Bárcena.

Demonstrations that first erupted after the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo in December have continued ever since, mainly in central and southern Peru, where Ayacucho is located, fueled by allegations of corruption in government and elected officials, as well as as well as anger at the living conditions and inequality in the country. The demonstrators demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the closure of Congress, general elections as soon as possible and a new Constitution.

The ancient city of Ayacucho, known for its pre-Inca history and colonial churches, has witnessed dramatic outbreaks of violence amid demonstrations. In this region alone, at least 10 people have been killed and more than 40 injured, according to the country’s Ombudsman’s Office.

Hanco was one of them. Hours after joining the march, he was shot in the abdomen near the Ayacucho airport, where protesters had gathered and some were trying to take control of the runway.

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

The protests and their historical context

The historic Ayacucho region was home to the Wari civilization and became part of the Inca empire. Its capital, also now 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 recent Peruvian history, as the headquarters of the armed rebel group Sendero Luminoso during the violent decades of the 1980s and 1990s.

According to the final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nearly 70,000 people died in the internal conflict between Peruvian security forces, the Maoist rebel group Sendero Luminoso, and the Marxist-Leninist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). . Both government forces and rebel groups were accused of human rights violations while fighting. More than 40% of the dead and disappeared in this bloody conflict were registered in the Ayacucho region.

Since then, this region has received local and international tourists, it is based on agriculture, mining and the manufacture of local products. But it still reflects the inequalities of the past. Compared to Peru’s capital Lima, Ayacucho’s health and education system is underdeveloped, with facilities and standards far below those that benefit the capital.

Demonstrators on the runway of an airport amid violent protests in Ayacucho, Peru, on December 15, 2022. (Miguel Gutiérrez Chero/Reuters)

“They say that Peru is doing very well economically, but the pandemic stripped us naked,” Lurgio Gavilán, an anthropology professor at the National University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga, told CNN.

After almost two decades of sustained economic growth, Covid-19 hit the country hard in 2020, with the highest death toll per capita in the world and more than half the population without access to enough food during the pandemic. Poverty has been particularly insidious in the country’s rural areas.

Although the economy has recovered, with GDP back to pre-pandemic levels, persistent inequality in the country means that not everyone will benefit. The World Bank has forecast that poverty will remain above pre-pandemic levels for the next two years.

Some protesters have called for the release of jailed former 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 attempts at impeachment by Congress, which Castillo dismissed as politically motivated, only exacerbated pre-existing tensions in Peru.

Ayacucho’s painful past has been the scene of confrontations in the region. The derogatory language used by public officials, some of the press, and the public to criticize protesters as vandals, criminals, and “terrorists” has struck a historic nerve.

Boluarte reproaches violence in Peru and says that they invited the Human Rights Commission. 5:05

“Nobody is saying that all the protesters are terrorists, however they should know that people linked to the Shining Path are marching with them,” said General Óscar Arriola Delgado, a spokesman for the Peruvian National Police (PNP), after three people involved in the protests were detained in Ayacucho for alleged links to Sendero Luminoso. One of them is accused of handing out money to protesters and allegedly participating in planning attacks on public and private property.

Although Sendero Luminoso disbanded in the late 1990s, remnants of the group are still active in the south of the country, where Peru’s government says they are profiting from coca production. Police said a woman they arrested had spent years in prison in connection with guerrilla activities in the 1980s and 1990s, but has not made public whether she is linked to any existing factions.

However, Gavilán warns against exaggerating the presence of ties to Sendero Luminoso. “People are capable of thinking, they know how to distinguish between good and bad, we also know how to be outraged despite having gone through so much,” said the anthropologist.

“For us, the Shining Path died a long time ago, nobody supports the Shining Path, they led us to a horrible war that nobody wants,” he added.

He himself has first-hand experience of Peru’s relationship with Sendero Luminoso. After joining the group as an orphaned child soldier when he was 12 years old, he was drafted into the army at the age of 15 to fight against the same group. Gavilán later became a Franciscan priest before studying anthropology.

The real threat here, in his opinion, lies in another déjà vu: Peruvian soldiers facing off against civilians once again. “Our population has once again seen the faces of the military in the streets,” he says.

Family and friends attend the funeral of Jhon Henry Mendoza Huarancca, who was killed during protests following the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo, in Ayacucho, Peru, on December 17, 2022. (Miguel Gutiérrez Chero/Reuters)

Excess force accusations

Ayacucho is one of the regions now seeking to hold Peruvian authorities accountable for alleged brutality against protesters. The National Prosecutor’s Office has already opened a preliminary investigation against the current president Boluarte, three of her ministers and her police and military commanders.

Nationwide, at least 55 people have been killed and more than 500 police officers injured in clashes since the unrest began, according to the Ombudsman’s Office and the Interior Ministry.

Police say their tactics match international standards. But a fact-finding mission to Peru from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that gunshot wounds were found to the head and upper body of victims during the protests, areas that law enforcement officers should avoid to preserve the human life.

Protests intensify in Peru 4:32

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

Boluarte has said that the decision to deploy the military has been a difficult one, and that neither the police nor the army had been sent to “kill.” He also referred to the protests as “terrorism” when he visited an injured police officer in the hospital, a label that the IACHR has warned could instigate a “climate of more violence.”

Bárcena believes that the government should take responsibility for the death of her husband. After the scare of losing Hancco, she decided to lead a group of relatives of the dead and injured in Ayacucho to support the prosecution’s investigation and demand civil reparation from the government for those killed or injured.

His family relied on his income as a taxi driver, a job he took after losing his job as a heavy machinery operator at a mining company when the covid-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020, Bárcena says.

“Those who died were innocent people, [las fuerzas de seguridad] they 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. A fighter. Despite being a farmer, he never lowered his head,” Bárcena told CNN.

His claim is backed by human rights experts who study current violence. Percy Castillo, Assistant Ombudsman for Human Rights and Persons with Disabilities in Peru, told CNN, after being on the ground in Ayacucho, that his office supports the creation of a reparation mechanism for these families who come from poverty.

Joel Hernández García, commissioner of the IACHR, also supports such measures, who told CNN that reparations for the victims was one of the three steps necessary to solve the country’s crisis.



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