Jan 24, 2023 - World

Peru's protest crackdown could lead to authoritarianism, experts say

a young person in pigtails in  Peru pushes against a row of police officers in riot gear

Protesters on Jan. 21 in Lima demand the release of students arrested at a university. Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-government protests in Peru are entering their second month, with growing concern among human rights groups and political observers that the deadly police crackdown on demonstrators is leading to democratic backsliding in the country.

State of play: About 60 people have died and more than 700 have been injured in the past month as protests have spread from rural areas to all over the nation.

  • The situation led authorities on Saturday to close Machu Picchu, stranding tourists in one of the most visited places in the world, and cutting off a major source of revenue for the country.
  • This weekend, police entered the largest public university to disperse protesters and detain students, who police said had illegally entered the building. The National University of San Marcos denounced it as an abuse of authority.

Catch up quick: The protests started in early December after former President Pedro Castillo was ousted and arrested for attempting to dissolve Congress during an impeachment vote.

  • Dina Boluarte, who was vice president, replaced him — but Castillo's supporters want her to resign, accusing her of plotting with Congress, which they also want to dissolve and make way for immediate elections.
  • Boluarte has said "if we have made mistakes in trying to achieve peace and calm then I apologize," and that she won't resign "in response to a minuscule group making the country bleed."
  • Boluarte has also claimed that the munitions linked to the deaths haven't come from police or armed forces.

What they're saying: The government's refusal to pull back police forces is indicative of a "dangerous transition towards authoritarianism," dozens of Peruvian political scientists and academics wrote in a letter published yesterday in several Peruvian newspapers.

  • That makes any dialogue unlikely, political scientist Paula Távara Pineda, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, tells Axios Latino.
  • "If there's no real action from the government ... I do fear we'll be stuck with no way to move on from this conflict, and that uncertainty about what comes next will only grow," she adds.
  • The protests have also grown to include those angry over the police crackdown, not just Castillo's supporters, Távara Pineda says.

Many of those killed during the protests are between 15 and 30 years old, according to the country's human rights ombudsman office.

  • Many died from projectile or bullet-like wounds to the head and chest, according to a review of autopsy reports by the health news platform Salud con Lupa.
  • Edgar Stuardo Ralón Orellana, envoy to Peru from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said last week there should be prompt investigations into potential excessive use of force by the government.
  • Police have not responded to any accusations of excessive use of force.

The big picture: What's happening in Peru is indicative of the growing disenchantment with government institutions that has been seen across Latin America, analysts say.

  • Protesters in Peru say the current Congress isn't representative of the people — especially Indigenous communities — and that the nation needs a new constitution.
  • Only 1 in every 5 Latin Americans says democracy is working, and trust in Congressional bodies and judicial branches has plummeted, the premier regional poll Latinobarómetro conducted in 2020 and 2021.
  • This could be "paving the way for authoritarian populists who rail against a failed establishment" to rise in power in the region, warns a recent paper in Johns Hopkins' Journal of Democracy.

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