Violence Grows in Peru After President Pedro Castillo is Ousted

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LIMA, Peru — A relatively peaceful, if abrupt, transfer of presidential power in Peru last week has shifted into violence and unrest as supporters of the former president intensified claims that his ouster was illegitimate and have staged attacks against police stations, courthouses, factories, airports and journalists.

The protesters, who are backed by organizations that represent some unions, Indigenous groups and poor farmers, are demanding new elections as quickly as possible.

At the same time, the leftist leaders of several Latin American countries have thrown their support behind the Peru’s former leader, Pedro Castillo, who was removed from office last Wednesday and arrested after he tried to suspend Congress.

The unrest has grown and spread to different parts of the country as the government, while denouncing the violence, has struggled to stabilize the situation and respond to protesters’ demands.

At least seven people have died in the clashes, according to Peru’s ombudsman’s office, with all of the dead appearing to be protesters, among them several teenagers. Amnesty International and local human rights groups have accused the police of responding with excessive force in some cases.

Mr. Castillo, a leftist former schoolteacher and union activist who won a presidential election by a narrow margin last year, had struggled to govern, facing allegations of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, while legislators seemed bent on ousting him.

Last week, facing a third impeachment vote, he announced that he was dissolving Congress and creating a new government that would rule by decree.

The move was widely denounced by both opponents and former allies as a coup attempt. Within hours Mr. Castillo was arrested, Congress voted to impeach him and the vice president, Dina Boluarte, a former ally, took office.

The events played out at such dizzying speed that many Peruvians struggled to understand what was happening.

Now, many of Mr. Castillo’s supporters, particularly in the rural areas that form his base, are responding, saying that they feel robbed of their vote.

Some protesters say they expect their movement to grow as the police respond to the demonstrations with what they call a heavy hand.

A police general, Óscar Arriola, said that 119 police officers have been wounded in recent clashes, while Amnesty International said it had verified images of police officers firing tear gas canisters from close range directly at protesters in a main plaza in the capital, Lima.

On Monday evening, several nations whose left-wing presidents have allied themselves with Mr. Castillo, Peru’s first leftist president in more than a generation, issued a joint statement calling the outgoing president “the victim of undemocratic harassment” and calling on people to respect the “will of the citizens” who voted him in.

The statement, issued by the governments of Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico, called Mr. Castillo “president” and made no mention Ms. Boluarte.

Last year, Mr. Castillo campaigned on a vow to address poverty and inequality. His motto — “no more poor people in a rich country” — and his call for a rewrite of the constitution energized many rural farmers in a deeply unequal nation where the urban elite vehemently opposed his candidacy.

The protests are backed by the largest federation of labor unions, the largest association of Indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon and many organizations representing poor farmers, among other groups.

So far, no single leader has emerged to try to unify the disparate groups. Peru has been hobbled by political upheaval and high-level corruption scandals that have led to six presidents since 2016.

Mr. Castillo’s supporters have made various legal arguments for why Mr. Castillo’s removal was unlawful, and they are calling on Ms. Boluarte to move up new elections.

The new president, who called for national unity as she was sworn in last week and later formed a center-right Cabinet, has already said she would try to move the next presidential election up by two years, to 2024.

But that effort will need approval from Congress.

Authorities have arrested Mr. Castillo, with the prosecutor’s office saying it had directed his arrest on charges of “rebellion.”

Appearing at his second court hearing on Tuesday, Mr. Castillo said that he had been unfairly detained arrested and that he would “never resign.”

“Nor will I abandon this popular cause that brought me here,” he said, before calling on authorities to “stop killing these people who are thirsty for justice,” a reference to the protesters.

When a judge interrupted to ask if he wanted to say anything in his defense, Mr. Castillo responded: “I have not committed the crime of conspiracy or rebellion.”

In an interview, Victoriano Laura, 48, a miner in the city of La Rinconada, high in the Andes Mountains, said that many people were traveling from La Rinconada to the city of Juliaca, about 100 miles away, to participate in the protests.

Mr. Laura said he believed that Mr. Castillo had the right to dissolve Congress, that he should be freed, that Ms. Boluarte should resign — and that a new election should be held, with the aim of writing a new constitution.

“People are furious,” about the president’s removal, he said. “The violence is starting because of the provocation of the police, and people aren’t going to remain quiet.”

Peruvian authorities closed at least two airports amid the protests, including the airport in Cusco, which is used by tourists visiting Machu Picchu and the surrounding region known as the Sacred Valley, an important source of income for the country.

Train service to and from Cusco and Machu Picchu has also been suspended, according to a travel alert from the United States embassy in Lima.

On Monday, Ms. Boluarte, addressing the nation on television a little after midnight, tried to calm the country by explaining that she knew her own election in 2021 “was not a blank check.”

She announced her support for the 2024 vote, lamented the deaths of protesters and ended on an optimistic note, invoking the Peruvian historian Jorge Basadre.

“He told us that the homeland was a problem — and a possibility,” she said. “For decades, we have focused on the problem. I think that now the boulevards are open to build the leafy forests of possibility.”


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