Peruvian national governments have lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years. Corruption allegations repeatedly ignite political turmoil, pitting narrowly elected presidents against deeply divided legislatures. The last four presidents were all either impeached or forced to resign and the four before that completed their terms only to face criminal charges or investigations after leaving office.

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Supporters of Pedro Castillo, the ousted president of Peru, protest in front of police in downtown Lima on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. (Marco Garro/The New York Times)
Supporters of Pedro Castillo, the ousted president of Peru, protest in front of police in downtown Lima on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. (Marco Garro/The New York Times)

The broader population, however, seemed largely immune to the squabbles among Lima’s politicos. Not this time. This December, the impeachment and arrest of President Pedro Castillo (following his attempt to dissolve Congress and rule by decree) sparked widespread protests, especially in the country’s impoverished, largely indigenous south.

Over the past two months, protesters have blocked roads, shut down airports and set fire to police stations, derailing economic activity in crucial sectors, such as mining, agriculture and tourism.  Authorities have responded with deadly repression, firing live rounds into some demonstrations. Fatalities linked to the unrest stood at 58 in early February, mostly from clashes with police, though at least seven are blamed on traffic accidents and ambulance delays caused by roadblocks.

President Dina Boluarte, the former vice president who took over after Castillo’s ouster, has offered to move elections forward by two years, though Congress rejected the proposal. But she has taken a hardline against the protesters, suggesting that the movement has been infiltrated by drug traffickers and terrorist groups who want to sow chaos.  

Peru’s protests are among the most violent in recent Latin American history, but they are far from unique. Colombians took to the streets in 2021 to protest an unpopular tax reform; Chilean student protests in 2019 over a subway fare hike grew into mass demonstrations over inequality. In both cases some of the protests devolved into looting and violence. And in both, police responded with deadly, often disproportionate, force.

How can governments address legitimate grievances and de-escalate these conflicts? How should security forces ensure citizen rights to peaceful protest while protecting public order?

USIP’s Mary Speck spoke with political scientist Cynthia McClintock, sociologist Camilo León, and former U.S. diplomat Lawrence Gumbiner, about the challenges facing Peru. They discuss what can be done to address Peru’s dysfunctional politics, open dialogue spaces to defuse the violence and bridge the country’s deep social, economic and ethnic divides. She also asked Colombian security expert (ret.) Gen. Alberto Mejía how security forces can protect public order without endangering citizen lives and liberties.

How should the Peruvian government respond to these massive protests?  

McClintock: The current confrontations in Peru are the most intense since at least the 1970s. Although President Boluarte has called for dialogue — and although dialogue is difficult because there are no official leaders of the protests — she should intensify these efforts. A step that would be unusual but could transform the political dynamic is for Boluarte herself, with her security detail, to venture toward protesters and invite 10 of them to her office to talk. In addition, government officials should meet even more tirelessly with sub-national officials in the affected areas to respond as effectively as possible to their concerns.

Government support for officials who engage in dialogue could entice others to the table. Further, given the multiple problems of Peru’s 2021 elections, Congress should agree on moving the vote forward.  Boluarte should also signal openness to a process that could lead to a new constitution (another key demand of the protesters). Among the various reforms that would address Peru’s political dysfunction is the re-election of legislators and sub-national authorities; currently, the ban against re-election is a major factor in legislators’ hesitation about early elections.

A second advantageous reform is an additional round of presidential elections among the top-five candidates if no candidate wins more than 30 percent in the first round. Given Peru’s political fragmentation, the additional round would mitigate the possibility that two candidates at ideological extremes reach the final round as occurred in 2021. International actors can help by standing up for international democratic norms and by setting positive examples.

What explains the unrest in rural areas?

León: Peru suffers from deep social, cultural and economic fragmentation. With more than two-thirds of the population surviving through informal employment (a situation worsened by the COVID pandemic). Highly heterogeneous cultural identities infused with racism between indigenous and white/mixed race groups and the failure of free market policies to close socioeconomic gaps have debilitated the national social fabric. Peru’s fragmented society has been unable to find politically stable and effective representation.

A long-term democratic solution would have to address the legalization of activities such as artisanal and small mining, coca cultivation and informal commerce and manufacturing. It would also have to deal with racism, polarization — the far left and the far right have both grown significantly — and the ethical and moral values of citizens.

Bitter electoral contests have also become a major source of hatred and polarization in recent years. Keiko Fujimori, who narrowly lost the 2016 presidential election, then used her party’s congressional majority to oust former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in 2018. After losing again in 2021, Fujimori refused to recognize the results and helped lead impeachment efforts against Castillo.

For many Peruvians, Castillo’s failed coup was a desperate measure to avoid a third impeachment (for alleged corruption) organized by Lima’s elites. In this context it is highly important to re-enforce human rights and democratic values while countering hate speech and false news.

What should the United States do to help Peru restore rule of law?   

Gumbiner: The Peru crisis has roots going back decades, if not centuries. It involves complex circumstances not easily reduced to a “white hat, black hat” analysis. The Castillo government was incompetent, corrupt and did little to advance interests of the rural poor. Yet Castillo’s arrest and imprisonment represented in the eyes of some Peruvians another indignity perpetrated by a corrupt political elite from Lima.

Protesters represent a mélange of interests, from marginalized populations, to ideologically driven political movements, and possibly including narco-trafficking and illegal mining interests, and influences from foreign countries. The unifying factor is their desire to disrupt the status quo, remove the current government and call a constitutional convention.

Boluarte’s challenge is to earn legitimacy in the public eye. Her government should reaffirm support for peaceful protest but firmly reject violence, including acts perpetrated by security forces. It must seriously investigate accusations of unnecessary use of force by security forces and protesters alike. Efforts to press for dialogue and truce, including acceleration of elections, must continue. The timing of elections should be determined not in a vacuum but in dialogue with Congress and legitimate protest forces.

The United States and international community can assist by standing united in support of constitutional order, currently embodied by the Boluarte administration. Technical assistance for a dialogue, and investigation of unlawful acts, should be on the table. The United States should quietly but firmly message neighboring governments to refrain from inflaming violence and to jointly encourage a negotiated, peaceful settlement. Finally, the Boluarte administration with international support should accelerate implementation of programs/projects in the regions. Departmental governments and federal ministries generally execute only 15 percent to 50 percent of budgeted programs. Funding is available: The public needs to see that government works for them to restore trust.

How can security forces restore order without endangering human rights?

Mejía: Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that police and military forces can contain real threats in the context of social protests that turn violent and threaten institutions and public order. However, these actions must be carried out in a way that guarantees the life, honor and constitutional rights of citizens.

To face crises stemming from social protests that turn into violent riots, countries need to develop police and military capacities within a clear legal framework, with rules of engagement in accordance with the principles of international humanitarian law, such as  necessity, proportionality and legality.  When this first step is guaranteed, a police doctrine can be developed that contemplates the eventual implementation of a military assistance model, freeing up police human resources by allowing the military to provide certain protection responsibilities.

The command-and-control structure is crucial for effective leadership. The centralization of communications capabilities and technologies is also essential, so that the leaders can visualize what is happening and emit controlled orders to limit the possibility of errors. Lastly, members of the public force must receive adequate training to fulfill their duties without improvisation and be provided with the necessary protective equipment to guarantee their own integrity.

The consequences of ignoring the elements mentioned above are serious and can lead to human rights violations that cause lasting damage to democratic institutions.

Cynthia McClintock is a professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University.

Camilo León is a former vice minister of labor promotion in Peru with a doctorate in social anthropology.

Lawrence Gumbiner is a former U.S. diplomat and senior advisor for Latin America with WestExec Advisors.  

Alberto Mejía is a former general commander of the Armed Forces of Colombia.

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