Protesters in Peru Demand Justice for Ousted President Pedro Castillo

LIMA, Peru — Outside a prison at the foot of the Andes Mountains, a camp has formed in recent days, with up to 1,000 people traveling hundreds of miles to demand the release of its most high-profile detainee: its former president, Pedro Castle.

They will stay until he is reinstated, said a supporter, Milagros Rodríguez, 37, or until “the civil war starts.”

Castillo, a former schoolteacher and union activist who vowed to fight for the poor, is the man at the center of Peru’s fast-paced political drama, having been ousted from office last week after he tried to dissolve Congress and create a government that would rule by decree Within hours he was under arrest, accused of rebellion, and his vice president took office.

Now, Dina Boluarte is the sixth president in five years in a country reeling from a long history of high-profile scandals and deep divisions between the rural poor and the urban elite.

What began as a relatively peaceful transfer of power quickly erupted into widespread violence that left at least 16 people dead, many of them teenagers, and sparked attacks on police stations, courts, factories, airports and a military base.

During a live televised virtual court hearing on Thursday, a judge ordered Mr. Castillo to remain in pretrial detention for 18 months while his case is processed. Mr. Castillo refused to appear at the hearing.

At least 197 civilians and more than 200 police officers have been injured in the clashes, according to the country’s Ombudsman’s Office, which in a statement on Thursday called on security forces to “immediately cease the use of firearms and tear gas. launched from helicopters.

The government has responded to the unrest by imposing a state of national emergency, suspending the guarantee of many civil liberties, including the freedom of assembly. In an effort to quell the unrest, the new president has called early elections, for December 2023, a move that Congress is debating.

Boluarte, a longtime ally of Castillo, has found herself increasingly at odds with the rural Peruvians who voted for the two of them for office last year. On Thursday, his government extended the state of emergency, imposing a curfew in 15 provinces.

“Violence and radicalism will not kill a legal and legitimate government,” he said, speaking at a graduation for military officers on Thursday. “There is no room for fear, only courage, unity and hope for a country that deserves more from its politicians.”

Mr. Castillo is a leftist from a destitute farming family in the Andean highlands who had never held office before becoming president last year.

While Peru enjoyed a long period of commodity-driven economic success that lifted millions of people out of poverty at the turn of this century, that wealth failed to reach much of the country’s poor, especially in rural areas. who bear the brunt of Peru’s chronic inequality.

Protests over Castillo’s removal grew so quickly, many protesters said, because, whatever his misdeeds, he represented the voice of a swath of the population that has long felt marginalized by the elite.

“I am against my children not having the same opportunities as the upper class,” said Delia Minaya, 49, who had traveled an hour by car to the camp sprawling out of the prison, taking breakfast for dozens of people with her. of strangers

She said she had spent years working in a garment factory, doing regular 20-hour shifts, to send her two children to private school.

Not that she was a staunch supporter of Castillo, she said. But she should have had the chance to rule for people like her. “It hurts me to see my brothers fight every day for this damn system we have in Peru,” she said.

Some supporters arrived at the prison on December 7, the day Castillo was arrested. Since then more and more have turned up and turned the area into a town where some people now live.

There is a community kitchen under a blue tent, serving about 1,000 people a day, according to a volunteer cook, with donations of vegetables sticking out of plastic bags all around it. Just beyond, donated mattresses are piled at least two meters high, while handmade banners hang everywhere, calling for Mr. Castillo’s release.

“Congress sold, people reject you,” read a banner in front of the prison entrance.

On Thursday afternoon, a long line of police officers stood guard, protecting the giant gate of the prison. Tents lined the street. And several protesters wore plastic construction helmets, meant to protect them in case they clashed with authorities.

“We are mourning our president,” said Rodríguez, an accounting assistant who had come from Junín, a town more than 200 miles northeast of Lima.

Bryan Pando, 29, a Peruvian who lives in Buenos Aires, said he had flown to Lima the afternoon he learned of Castillo’s arrest. A medical student, he had been living in the camp ever since. More than two decades ago, his parents had emigrated to Argentina “because of the lack of opportunities in Peru.”

Now, they were comfortably middle class there, “and in this country,” he said of Peru, “almost nothing has changed.”

“Unfortunately we are submerged in a very deep corruption,” he said. “We are all seeking justice,” he said of the group outside the prison. “Because what they have done to the president, to our president, is a tremendous injustice.”

Protester after protester expressed deep anger against Congress and the national media, which many called “the mercenary press,” all of which claimed they functioned as proxies for the wealthy.

A woman boasted that she set fires in the street and overturned a journalist’s car during a protest in Lima the day before. “We are beyond negotiation,” she said.

Almost all those interviewed said they believed Castillo had been manipulated into trying to dissolve the government. “This was all planned,” Mr. Pando said.

The manipulators, Pando said, were “the country’s oligopolies.”

On Thursday there were clashes between police and security forces outside two airports, while the Ombudsman’s Office counted 113 roadblocks and 56 marches across the country, the highest daily number since the protests began.

Among the dead was a 16-year-old boy who was struck by a vehicle when protesters lifted a blockade in the northern region of La Libertad.

An ambulance carrying four patients to a hospital in the Amazon town of Puerto Maldonado was blocked and stoned by protesters on Thursday.

Closed airports and highways have kept Peruvians stranded across the country, leaving food destined for the capital to rot on the roads, while many foreigners were stuck in tourist spots like the Sacred Valley, home of Machu Picchu. A tourist, fearful of being left in a small town without supplies, said he walked 21 miles with his wife and his 4-year-old son to reach a larger community.

In a speech before the country’s diplomats, the new foreign minister of Peru, Ana Cecilia Gervasi, announced that the country would summon its ambassadors in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico back to Lima to protest what she described as “interference in the internal affairs of Peru. .”

Days before, the leaders of those four countries had issued a statement condemning Castillo’s removal and appearing to recognize him as the country’s president. All four nations have leftist leaders and are part of a wave of leftist presidents elected to power in Latin America who have tried to unite around common goals, including wresting power from the elite.

In her speech, Ms. Gervasi called for “unrestricted respect” for the law. Without that, she said, “the continuity of the nation will always be at risk.”

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Philadelphia.

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