‘It was a massacre’: Fury and grief amid Peru’s worst political violence in years | Peru

LIsbeth Candia cried uncontrollably as she waited at Cusco’s central morgue to collect the body of her brother Remo, the latest protester to be killed by Peruvian security forces as the country experiences its worst political violence in decades decades.

“Let there be no more deaths, let this be the last,” she said between sobs. “We don’t want his death to have been in vain,” she told the Guardian by phone.

She sat in the waiting room as coroners performed a post-mortem examination on her brother’s body on Thursday morning. Remo Candia, 50, had been rushed to the city’s Antonio Lorena Hospital the previous night with a gunshot wound to his abdomen, but doctors were unable to save him.

“He was like just exercising his right to protest and they shot him at close range,” Lisbeth said.

A Sunday lunch was the last time she saw the cheerful and popular chef of Urinsaya Ccollana, the Quechua language farmer community in Anta province where the family lives.

A father of three – the youngest only five – Remo had led farmers in his village to join protests in the regional capital of Cusco, demanding the resignation of President Dina Boluarte over the 41 civilians who died in the violent clashes with security forces in just over a month.

Relatives and friends of the victims laid their coffins in the main square of Juliaca, Peru on January 11.
Relatives and friends of the victims laid their coffins in the main square of Juliaca, Peru on January 11. Photograph: Juan Carlos Cisneros/AFP/Getty Images

The spiral of violence began when former leader Pedro Castillo was forced to resign and detained on rebellion charges in early December after he attempted to dissolve Congress and rule by decree in hopes of avoiding a third impeachment trial.

Boluarte, his vice-president, succeeded him but quickly became unpopular when police unleashed deadly violence against Castillo’s supporters, in turn increasing anger and prompting more protests and blockades.

There was grief and visceral anger in Juliaca, near Peru’s border with Bolivia, as it reeled from the deadliest bout of violence in more than a month of anti-government protests. Under curfew, the city was brought under control on Wednesday as mourners, in their thousands, followed the coffins of at least 17 protesters and bystanders who had been killed – without exception – by gunshot wounds.

Among the dead were a 31-year-old medical student who was helping an injured protester and a 17-year-old girl who was volunteering at an animal shelter.

The remains of a police officer were also found in a burnt out patrol car. His companion, injured in the head, said he was attacked by a crowd.

Rowing Candie.
Rowing Candie. Photograph: Family document

Candia was fatally injured as protesters attempted to storm Cusco airport, the gateway to Machu Picchu, the country’s top tourist attraction. Protesters were calling for Boluarte’s resignation but, analysts say, the anger runs deeper and is rooted in a decades-old schism between Lima’s political elite and marginalized indigenous and peasant communities in the Andes and Amazon.

In Castillo, a former schoolteacher with no prior political experience, many rural Peruvians believed they had found a leader who represented them. Despite allegations of corruption and accusations that he surrounded himself with cronies and had little understanding of how to govern, many sided with him as he confronted the deeply unpopular opposition-led congress and hostile media .

In the impoverished, largely indigenous city of Puno, where nearly 90% of the population voted for Castillo in 2021 on his promise to support the poor, Governor Richard Hancco said a dialogue with Boluarte’s government was out of the question.

A group of people demonstrate in Tacna, Peru on January 11.
A group of people demonstrate in Tacna, Peru on January 11. Photograph: Rafael Arancibia/EPA

“For us, it is a murderous government. There is no value given to life,” Hancco said. “It is completely unacceptable that a government should have more than 40 deaths and that there has not been a single resignation.”

Even by security force standards, Monday’s violence represented a sharp escalation, said Javier Torres, editor of regional newspaper Noticias Ser. “Our security forces are used to shooting people but I think here they have crossed a line that has never been crossed before.

“It was a massacre – I can’t find any other word to describe it,” he added.

Omar Coronel, a professor of sociology and Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said Boluarte’s government had formed a tacit coalition with powerful far-right lawmakers who portrayed protesters as “terrorists,” a throwback to the internal conflict of the Peru with the Shining Path in the 1980s and 90s. Known as blue in Peru, it is a common practice used to dehumanize protesters with legitimate grievances.

“Peruvian police are used to treating protesters like terrorists,” Coronel said. “The logic is that people who protest are enemies of the state.”

Given the utter distrust of political institutions and growing demands for Boluarte to step down, the plan to bring the elections forward two years to 2024 is too far off, Torres said. “If you continue like this, it will be a protest, followed by a massacre, and that’s just not sustainable,” he said.

Police fire tear gas in Cusco, Peru on January 11.
Police fire tear gas in Cusco, Peru on January 11. Photograph: Ivan Flores/AFP/Getty Images

The UN human rights office has demanded an investigation into the dead and injured while Peru’s attorney general’s office has opened a genocide and homicide investigation into Boluarte and his top ministers.

At the Cusco morgue, Lisbeth Candia oscillates between grief and rage. “Why do so many lives have to be spent just because this woman doesn’t want to leave government?” she asked.

“She has to go. We don’t want her. We want her to pay for the death of my brother, for the death of so many people,” she said angrily. “We want to live in a new homeland, where we are not considered second-class citizens.”

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