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Flames erupt in the Peruvian capital as protesters call on the president to resign

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LIMA, Peru — Weeks of anti-government protests in their rural towns and villages had brought no change in a country they said had forgotten them. Thus, thousands of Peruvians went to the capital of their country to demand a solution to the political crisis that left more than 50 dead.

They marched through the streets of Lima on Thursday night to demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the overhaul of a deeply unpopular Congress and the creation of an assembly to draft a new constitution. The protest – participants called it a “Lima takeover” – quickly descended into chaos, as police fired tear gas at protesters and flames engulfed a building in the historic heart of the capital.

Boluarte refused to resign. She accused the protesters of sowing violence to “take over the nation”. Local media called them “vandals”. But protesters were back on the streets on Friday, determined to stay, they said, in the capital until the president resigns.

Discontent and death toll rise as Peru’s low demand shifts

“We want the murderer to quit,” said Elva Fernández Quisped, 47, who visited here by bus from Ayacucho, the site of some of the deadliest protests in the past month. “We want justice.”

A fire broke out in a building near the historic San Martín square on January 19, where anti-government protesters clashed with police, in Lima, Peru. (Video: Reuters)

In a country familiar with political instability – it has had five presidents in 25 months – Peru appears to enter a period of turmoil unprecedented in recent years – and with no clear end in sight. The death toll in the past month and a half has now surpassed that of recent years in Colombia and Chile, where protests have lasted much longer.

Demonstrators took to the streets last month to protest ousting of former President Pedro Castillo, the incompetent and allegedly corrupt leader who was impeached and arrested for attempting to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. But the cause has evolved from a demand for Castillo’s release to a broader expression of frustration with a government and Congress widely seen as corrupt and indifferent to the country’s poor.

Castillo of Peru impeached, arrested after trying to dissolve Congress

Much of the anger has centered on Boluarte, de Castillo’s vice president and former leftist ally who protesters say has now aligned himself with right-wing politicians and the military. They hold her responsible for the deaths of at least 53 people in recent clashes between protesters and police, among the country’s worst violence in decades. At least 19 people were killed in a single protest in southern Peru last week. Many of those who arrived to demonstrate in Lima this week came from southern cities that have seen the most deaths.

Protests in the capital so far have been smaller than those in 2020, when massive crowds in Lima and across the country forced then-president Manuel Merino to resign. The protests were then more unified – the vast majority of Peruvians were in favor of ousting Merino – and lasted only a few days, noted Omar Coronel, a sociologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. This time, protests across the country lasted for weeks and expanded beyond the removal of a political leader.

Also unlike 2020, these protests originated in rural parts of the country, in poor and indigenous communities in the south. Their arrival in the capital, where support for Boluarte is concentrated, once again revealed the cleavage between Lima and the rest of Peru. A recent poll showed just over half of Lima residents believed the December protests were justified, and 38% think the main actors are groups linked to terrorism.

Widespread discontent in the country reflects a crisis of confidence in institutions in Peru, and one that extends from the presidency and Congress to civil society and the country’s media, said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific. Half of Peruvians say they no longer “support” democracy – the third highest proportion in Latin America, behind Honduras and Haiti.

“This is a country that has broken its democratic consensus,” Vergara said. He said the country lacked leaders capable of calming the unrest.

Vergara predicted that the protest would not be quieted unless Boluarte resigns. But even then, he said, the country would enter a period of intense uncertainty. The President of Congress would be responsible for leading the country and organizing elections as soon as possible.

And unless the elections are coming soon, Coronel said, Peru will will likely remain stuck in a cycle of violent protests.

“Without this escape valve, the protests will remain, and so will the repression,” Coronel said.

Caravans of buses arrived in the capital on Thursday, after hours or days of travel. Protesters marched through the streets chanting, “Dina, Dina, Dina. Traitor and murderer.

Some held up signs with photos of protesters killed in recent weeks. Others carried boxes resembling coffins.

“To the people who marginalize us, to the people who think we are ignorant… we are tired,” said Carlos Villafuerte, 42, from Cusco. “Unfortunately, the woman does not listen to us when we are there. Let’s see if they’ll listen to us here.

Later Thursday, flames rose from the top of a building near San Martín Square, where large crowds had gathered for hours. The cause and extent of the fire were not immediately clear, but authorities said the building was empty at the time.

At least 58 civilians were injured in protests across the country on Thursday, including 25 in Lima, according to the Peruvian ombudsman’s office.

In a televised address on Thursday evening, Boluarte told Peruvians his government remained “firm” and “the situation is under control”. She criticized the protesters, who she said were “generating acts of violence that destroy private and public property”, and pledged to prosecute the crimes.

Inside the country, she said, protesters tried to take control of three airports. She called for dialogue with those who visited the capital. She also condemned their actions and questioned their intentions.

“To those who parade daily, who finances you?” Boluarte asked. “You don’t work. … what money do you bring home? Why are you abandoning your families to take to the streets in protest?

Protesters in Peru refuse to back down as political crisis deepens

“You want to generate chaos and disorder…to take over the nation,” she added. “You are wrong.”

Boluarte has repeatedly refused calls for the resignation and rejected protesters’ calls for a new Constitutional Assembly. His government extended the state of emergency in the country’s capital and three other regions.

Earlier in the evening, a group of people carried an injured man out of the protests. They said a journalist his leg had been hit by a tear gas canister. Another group carried an injured man in a makeshift stretcher and helped him into a taxi.

Fiorella Callañaupa Manottipa, a 24-year-old political science student, joined a group of students who traveled more than 24 hours by bus from Cusco. Strangers along the way offered to give them water and food.

Callañaupa said she voted for – and believed in – former President Castillo. “We saw in him a person who gave us back that confidence.” But she is now disillusioned with him and his government, and especially his successor.

“We can no longer reach a dialogue, because many people have died,” she said.

Gilberto Huaman Laime, 24, student next to her, said it would be a “failure” to return to Cusco before seeing the change they have long been asking for.

“There, he said, they are waiting for us to come back with a victory.”

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