LIMA, Peru — A young medical student in his work uniform, desperate, his family said, to help injured protesters. A 22-year old man who had finally saved up enough to study mechanics. An ice cream vendor returning home after a long day of work.
None took part in the demonstrations that have consumed Peru for a month. But all were killed in southern Peru on Monday, casualties in what became the deadliest day of clashes between protesters and government forces since the country erupted in violence last month.
In a matter of hours, at least 17 civilians and one police officer were killed in the chaos of demonstrations, according to the country’s ombudsman office, an extraordinary spasm of violence that complicated the new president’s attempt to stabilize the country.
The killings, in the city of Juliaca, near the border with Bolivia, drew widespread condemnation of Peruvian security forces, which appear to be responsible for most of the deaths, and have been accused by protesters and human rights groups of using lethal force indiscriminately against civilians.
“He was in uniform, like all the doctors, so that they would be recognized and not attacked,” said Milagros Samillan, 27, the sister of the dead medical resident, an aspiring neurosurgeon named Marco Samillan, 31. “But the police still attacked them to kill.”
On Tuesday, Jennie Dador, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Coordinator of Peru, an accountability group, blamed “indiscriminate use of force” by state security forces for Monday’s deaths.
“What happened yesterday was really a massacre,’’ she said. “These were extrajudicial killings.”
Peru, the fifth-most-populous nation in Latin America, has been the scene of violent demonstrations since early December, when the country’s leftist president, Pedro Castillo, who had promised to address longstanding issues of poverty and inequality, attempted to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. The move was widely condemned as unconstitutional and Mr. Castillo was arrested and replaced by his vice president.
Supporters of Mr. Castillo, many of them living in impoverished rural regions, quickly took to the streets to demand new general elections, with many claiming they had been stripped of the right to be governed by the man they had voted into office just one year earlier.
The violence in Juliaca on Monday marked the deadliest single clash between civilians and armed actors in Peru in at least two decades, when the country emerged from a dictatorship as well as from a long and brutal fight with a violent guerrilla group, a conflict that left at least 70,000 people dead, many of them civilians.
The political convulsion in Peru come as South America faces significant threats to many of its young democracies, with polls showing exceptionally low levels of trust in government institutions, politicians and the media.
On Sunday, supporters of Brazil’s former far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, stormed Congress and other buildings in the capital, fueled by a belief that the election Mr. Bolsonaro lost in October had been rigged. And in nearby Bolivia, protests have erupted in the economic hub of Santa Cruz following the arrest of the opposition governor, whose supporters claim he is being persecuted by the ruling government.
Peru’s interior minister, Victor Rojas, said that the protests in Juliaca had begun peacefully on Monday but turned violent around 3 p.m., when about 9,000 protesters tried to take control of the local airport and people armed with makeshift guns and explosives attacked police officers.
Amid the unrest, local television images showed people vandalizing the offices of public prosecutors and a supermarket in Juliaca and setting fire to the house of a lawmaker from an opposition party.
Mr. Rojas claimed that security forces had acted within legal limits to defend themselves. “It became impossible to control the mob,” he said.
The clashes in Juliaca raise the death toll since Mr. Castillo’s ouster to at least 47 people, according to the nation’s ombudsman. Nearly all of the dead have been civilians, the office said, with 39 killed, along with one police officer, amid protests and seven killed in traffic accidents related to the unrest or as a result of protesters’ blockades.
The country’s demonstrations began shortly after authorities arrested Mr. Castillo on charges of rebellion on Dec. 7. Over the last month, some protests have been peaceful; in other cases marchers have used slingshots to fling rocks, set up roadblocks on vital highways, burned government buildings and taken over airports.
When the new president, Dina Boluarte, a former ally of Mr. Castillo’s, declared a state of emergency in December, the military took to the streets to maintain order.
Hundreds of police officers and civilians have been injured.
The most recent bloodshed occurred in the region of Puno, a heavily Indigenous part of Peru, after villagers from remote Aymara communities arrived by the thousands in the city of Juliaca.
Many were calling for Mr. Castillo to be returned to office, a political nonstarter in the capital of Lima, and a move that would be illegal.
The chief demand is new general elections, which the electoral authorities said could happen as early as late this year. Congress has rejected such a tight time frame, with many representatives reluctant to give up their seats, but has backed a proposal for a vote in April 2024.
By Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Boluarte still had not commented on the unrest since confirming the first civilian killed a day earlier, when she sounded exasperated with protesters’ demands.
“The only thing in my hands is bringing forward elections — and we’ve already proposed it,” Ms. Boluarte said at an event on Monday. “During peace, anything can be achieved, but amid violence and chaos it gets harder.”
Prime Minister Alberto Otárola, at a news conference, blamed Mr. Castillo and his allies for the deaths of the protesters, saying that they had incited violent attacks meant to destabilize Ms. Boluarte’s government.
“They are who is responsible,” he said, “not our police, and not citizens who have been terrorized to see how these hordes of criminals try to undermine our rights.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Otárola said the region of Puno would be subject to three days of curfew beginning at 8 p.m.
In the wake of the violence, the United Nations, the British ambassador in Peru and other international players issued statements explicitly calling on Peruvian security forces to respect human rights.
The United States, which has repeatedly expressed support for Ms. Boluarte’s government and last week announced $8 million in new funding for Peru to support efforts to fight drug trafficking, was less direct.
“It is urgent that measures are taken to stop this painful situation of violence and avoid the loss of more human lives,” the U.S. ambassador to Peru, Lisa Kenna, wrote on Twitter.
After the first nine bodies arrived at a hospital in Juliaca on Monday afternoon, Dr. Enrique Sotomayor, a hospital official, told local media that all had been shot with projectiles from firearms strong enough to seriously damage internal organs.
Mr. Samillan, the aspiring neurosurgeon, hoped to one day open a hospital that would serve people with few economic resources, his sister said. He was completing an internship at a hospital in Juliaca, and on Monday, he and other volunteers had gone to the streets to help wounded protesters, she said.
Speaking on the phone as she stood in a courtyard outside the hospital morgue, Ms. Samillan said her brother had been shot twice.
“Everything was so fast, so bloody that even now I can’t believe everything that’s happening,” she said.
Ms. Samillan said her brother was “a person who likes to help people. And many times he has said: ‘I am going to support the people. It doesn’t matter if I lose my life.’ Unfortunately that became real, didn’t it?”
She called for the resignation of Ms. Boluarte.
“The people don’t want her,” she said.
Roger Cayo, 22, always wanted to study mechanics, but he couldn’t afford it, said his only brother, Mauro Cayo. This year he had finally saved up enough money to go. Those plans were dashed when he was shot in the head on Monday while passing by the protests.
“Right now we are all mourners here,” said Mr. Cayo, who was waiting to collect his brother’s body. On the phone, the sound of crying was audible in the background.
Gabriel Omar López, 35, was the first person reported dead by the police on Monday. His wife told a newspaper, La República, that he had been shot amid the chaos after a day selling ice cream in the streets.
On Tuesday, the police identified the dead officer as José Luis Soncco, and the Interior Ministry said he had died after protesters attacked a police vehicle, seized weapons and set the vehicle on fire.
Protesters have vowed to march to Lima in the coming days, while the government has promised to introduce new measures to restore order. Many Peruvians fear a fresh wave of violence.
The government said a delegation of high-ranking officials was being deployed to Puno to establish dialogue. But it was unclear whom they would speak with. On Monday, the interior minister, Mr. Rojas, said he was unable to find anyone in Puno willing to talk with him.
“In the executive branch, we want to do things right, we want to fix our mistakes,” but the protesters have “closed the door” to dialogue, he said.
“Their purpose is to create chaos,” Mr. Rojas said. “They were seeking these deaths.”