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Peru. Deaths of protesters spark calls for redress in a painful past



“If something happens to me, don’t cry,” Leonardo Hancco told his wife, Ruth Barcena, on the morning of December 15 in Ayacucho, a city in southern Peru.

The 32-year-old taxi driver and father of a seven-year-old girl had decided to join Peru’s nationwide political protests at the last minute.

“If I decided to join because I want to leave a better future for my children, I am fighting for my rights,” he added before leaving, according to Barcena.

Protests that first erupted after former President Pedro Castillo was ousted in December have since continued – mainly in central and southern Peru, where Ayacucho is located – fueled by allegations of corruption within government and elected officials, as well as anger over living conditions. and inequalities in the country. Protesters demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the closure of Congress, general elections as soon as possible and a new Constitution.

The ancient city of Ayacucho, known for its pre-Inca history and colonial churches, has seen dramatic eruptions of violence amid protests. In this region alone, at least 10 people died and more than 40 injured, according to the country’s ombudsman’s office.

Hancco was one of them. Hours after joining the march, he was shot in the abdomen near Ayacucho airport, where protesters had gathered, some trying to take control of the runway.

He died two days later from his injuries, Barcena told CNN.

The legendary region of Ayacucho was once home to the Wari civilization and became part of the Inca Empire. Its capital, also called Ayacucho today, was one of the main cities during the Spanish conquest. It was also the birthplace of one of the darkest and most painful chapters in Peru’s recent history, home to the armed rebel group Shining Path during the violent 80s and 90s.

According to the final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, almost 70,000 people ultimately died due to the internal conflict between Peruvian security forces and the Maoist rebel group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso in Spanish) and the Marxist revolutionary movement. -Leninist Tupac Amaru. (MRTA). Government forces and rebel groups have been accused of human rights abuses during their war. More than 40% of the dead and missing from this bloody conflict occurred in the Ayacucho region.

Since then, this region welcomes local and international tourists, relies on agriculture, mining and the manufacture of local products. But it still reflects the inequalities of the past. Compared to Lima, Peru’s capital, Ayacucho’s health and education system is underdeveloped, with facilities and standards well below those enjoyed by the capital.

“They say Peru is doing very well economically, but the pandemic has laid us bare,” Lurgio Gavilán, a professor of anthropology at the National University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga, told CNN.

After nearly two decades of sustained economic growth, Covid-19 has hit the country hard in 2020, with the highest per capita death toll in the world and more than half of the population without access to enough medical supplies. food during the pandemic. Poverty has been particularly insidious in rural areas of the country.

Although the economy has rebounded, with GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels, persistent inequality in the country means that not everyone will benefit. The World Bank has projected that poverty will remain above pre-pandemic levels for the next two years.

Some protesters have called for the release of imprisoned former president Castillo, a former rural teacher who vowed to correct economic inequality before his downfall. But the polarization and chaos surrounding his presidency — including corruption allegations and multiple impeachment attempts by Congress, which Castillo has dismissed as politically motivated — have only heightened pre-existing tensions in Peru.

Ayacucho’s painful past has been the backdrop for clashes in the region. The derogatory language used by officials, part of the press and the public to criticize protesters, portraying them as vandals, criminals and “terrorists” has struck a historic chord.

“Nobody is saying that all the protesters are terrorists, but they should know that people linked to Shining Path are walking alongside them,” said General Oscar Arriola Delgado, spokesman for the Peruvian National Police (PNP), after three people involved in the protests were arrested in Ayacucho for alleged links to the Shining Path. One of them is accused of having handed over money to the demonstrators and of having participated in the planning of the attacks against public and private property.

Although Shining Path has been disbanded since the late 1990s, remnants of the group remain active in the south of the country, where the Peruvian government claims to profit from coca production. Police said a woman they arrested spent years in prison in connection with guerrilla activity in the 1980s and 1990s, but did not release whether they linked her to any existing factions.

Gavilán, however, cautions against overestimating the presence of Shining Path links. “People are able to think, they know how to distinguish between what is good and what is bad, we also know how to be indignant despite the fact that we have been through so much,” the anthropologist said.

“For us, Shining Path died a long time ago, no one supports Shining Path, they took us to a horrible war that nobody wants,” he also said.

He himself has direct experience of Peru’s entanglement with the Shining Path. After joining the group as an orphaned child soldier at the age of 12, the army recruited him at the age of 15 to fight against the same group. Gavilán later became a Franciscan priest before studying anthropology.

The real threat here, in his view, lies in another deja vu – Peruvian soldiers once again clashing with civilians. “Our population has seen the faces of the soldiers in the streets,” he said.

Relatives and friends attend the funeral of Jhon Henry Mendoza Huarancca, killed during protests following the ousting of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, in Ayacucho, Peru, December 17, 2022.

Ayacucho is one of the regions now seeking to hold Peruvian authorities accountable for the alleged brutality against protesters. The National Prosecutor’s Office has already opened a preliminary investigation against the current President Boluarte, three of her ministers and police and army commanders.

Across the country, at least 55 people have been killed and more than 500 police officers have been injured in clashes since the unrest began, according to the national ombudsman’s office and the interior ministry.

Police say their tactics match international standards. But a fact-finding mission to Peru by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that gunshot wounds were found in the heads and upper bodies of victims during protests, areas that are expected to be avoided by law enforcement to preserve human life. .

According to guidelines issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “the use of firearms to disperse a gathering is always illegal”.

Boluarte said the decision to deploy the army had been difficult and neither the police nor the army had been sent in to “kill”. She also called the protests “terrorismwhen she visited an injured police officer in hospital – a label which the IACHR said could engender a “climate of more violence”.

Barcena believe the government should take responsibility for her husband’s death. After the shock of losing Hancco, she decided to lead a group of relatives of the dead and injured in Ayacucho to support the prosecutor’s investigation and demand civil reparations from the government for those killed or injured.

His family relied on his earnings as a taxi driver, a job he took after losing his job as a heavy machinery operator at a mining company when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020, she says .

“Those who died were innocent, [security forces] did not have the right to commit suicide. I know what kind of person my husband was; he was humble, he loved life, he gave everything for his family. A fighter. Although he was a peasant, he never lowered his head,” Barcena told CNN.

His request is supported by human rights experts who study the current violence. Percy Castillo, associate ombudsman for human rights and people with disabilities in Peru, told CNN after being on the ground in Ayacucho that his office supports the creation of a reparation mechanism for these families from the poverty.

Joel Hernández García, an IACHR commissioner, also supported the measures, who told CNN that reparations for those killed was one of three steps needed to resolve the country’s crisis.

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