Peru’s capital city is bracing for further unrest as thousands of protesters from across the country pour into Lima to demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, after nearly six weeks of turmoil that has claimed close to 50 lives.
Outrage over the rising death toll has powered the growing protests, which began in early December in support of ousted former president Pedro Castillo but have shifted overwhelmingly to demand Boluarte’s resignation, the closure of congress and fresh elections. Boluarte was Castillo’s vice-president, who replaced him after he attempted to shutter congress and rule by decree on 7 December.
Travelling amid the convoys of lorries and cars en route to the coastal capital were a group of medical volunteers who were mourning Marco Antonio Samillan, a 30-year-old student doctor fatally shot while helping an injured protester last week in the deadliest bout of violence since the protests began.
His companions have renamed their brigade in honour of Samillan, who had just completed his sixth year studying medicine and aspired to be a neurosurgeon. He died from internal bleeding caused by a bullet wound in the violent clashes last Monday which saw 18 civilians and one police officer killed in the southern city of Juliaca.
“He always had a vocation to serve, to help the poorest,” said Samillan’s elder brother, Raúl, 40.
“I tried to persuade him not to go to the protests, but he picked up his first aid case and went anyway. That’s the last time I spoke to him.”
“The whole of Juliaca is in mourning. This has caused deep pain among our people,” he added.
Marco Samillan, the sixth of nine siblings who grew up in poverty, had always dreamed of becoming a doctor and treating patients in his native Puno, the poor, hardscrabble region on the high plateau which connects Peru’s southern border with Bolivia.
Human rights organisations and the UN have accused Peru’s security forces of using disproportionate force in the protests, including firing live ammunition and launching tear gas cannisters from helicopters.
Edgar Ralón, vice-president of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, detailed last week that a fact-finding mission had “received reports of indiscriminate shootings against demonstrators in certain regions … as well as other reports of shots aimed at vital points [of the body] with lethal and high-calibre weapons in violation of the principle of the gradual use of force.”
Speaking to journalists on Friday, Ralón said that the prolonged political crisis in Peru – which has seen seven presidents in six years – had contributed to deadliest political violence in two decades. Discrimination and inequality had also played a role, while labelling protesters as terrorists had added to the polarisation and conflict, he added.
The deaths have also stirred longstanding grievances in Puno and much of the largely poor southern Andes, which is home to many of the mines that drive the country’s economy, and attractions like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, which account for the vast majority of its income from tourism.
“The riches from those raw materials never reach our towns; they are shared among the elite in Lima,” said Samillan.
“We are part of this country. We want quality of life with good healthcare and education too. But when we raised our voice in protest asking them to respect our rights they responded with blows and bullets.”
Fifty-eight percent of Peruvians consider there were excesses on the part of the forces of law and order in the face of the protests, according to an Institute of Peruvian Studies poll this month. The same survey indicated that 83% of those polled were in favour of bringing forward elections and just 3 in 10 Peruvians approved of Boluarte’s government.
Boluarte has apologised for the deaths but also insisted she will not resign, repeatedly blaming radical elements for stirring up the protests and coercing people into participating.
Patricia Zárate, head of public opinion research at the Institute of Peruvian Studies, said that while extremists – including some linked to the Shining Path rebel movement that terrorised the country in the 1980s and 90s – may have played a minor role in the protests, Boluarte’s discourse was being perceived as being condescending.
“She is treating people as if they are not in control of their political opinions, as if they were being manipulated and don’t understand why they are marching,” she said.
“People don’t feel represented by the political system and they want to be included.”