Six Weeks in Peru: A Human Rights Emergency leads to the “Seizure of Lima.” Violent Repression Ends in a Bloody Standoff

Bill Young

Summary: A Marxist-Humanist reports on the complex situation in Peru with critical historical context. — Editors

On January 15 Peru’s government declared a state of emergency in Lima and three regions following weeks of violent disruption that began December 7. In six weeks 54 people have been killed and more than 1,300 wounded by security forces. Police injuries exceed 100 with one death. State violence on the street was accompanied by systematic police raids on the headquarters of social movement organizations. There was widespread fury and grief as Peru’s worst political violence in years gripped the highland region of Puno, Cusco, and Arequipa, home to a predominantly Indigenous population of Quechua and Aymara speakers. By January 19 the highland protest was extended to the capital city Lima.

This level of death and injury for a civilian population is shocking and is compounded by the fact the primary targets in the first waves of state violence were young people aged 18 years or younger. On January 10, Peru’s Attorney General launched an inquiry into President Dina Boluarte and members of her cabinet to investigate allegations of genocide. On January 12, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS arrived in Peru to assess the situation, while the UN Human Rights Office stood on alert. Human rights organizations allege Peru’s police and military have employed excessive force which includes the use of live ammunition. In several cases, police helicopters were dispatched to fire on unarmed crowds. The state response resulted in dozens of deaths.

A Peruvian human rights lawyer and Indigenous activist spoke of the nature of state violence in highland communities, “They see us as enemies; they don’t see us as citizens. They see us as enemies to destroy, to manhandle, to frighten, to intimidate.” (Progressive International, Jan.13/23)

On January 18 thousands of protesters converged on the nation’s capital from the contested highland areas which were the first scenes of struggle and bloodshed. Describing their action as The National March (La Marcha Nacional) the leaders stated its purpose. ‘They can massacre us in Cuzco, in Puno, and nothing happens — we need to take the protest to Lima.” Lima, home to one third of Peru’s population, is now experiencing the protest that characterized the southern highlands. (Politi and Briceño, Jan. 19, 2023)

Meanwhile, 100 traffic blockades erected by protesters have paralyzed 18 national highways, impacting 10 of Peru’s 25 regions. This has halted shipments of minerals and deterred tourism which are the two key sources of Peru’s national income. Highland copper and gold represent 87% of Peru’s yearly exports.

On January 19 a demonstration of highland marchers and urban supporters took place in Lima under the name The Seizure of Lima (La Toma de Lima). It was organized by Indigenous organizations and the CGTP (Confederación General de los Trabajadores del Perú) the largest trade union federation in Peru. In response, the government deployed 11,800 police in the city of Lima. Protesters arrived by the thousands. Beginning peacefully, the demonstrators were attacked by aggressive cohorts of police who fired so much tear gas into the crowds that people could not see the streets. Protesters responded with acts of property damage and arson in the downtown area. “This isn’t ending today, and it won’t end tomorrow. Only when we achieve our goals,” said 61-year-old protester David Lozada. Referring to the government’s response he said,“I don’t know what they’re thinking. Do they want to spark a civil war?” (Associated Press, Politi and Briceño, Jan. 19/23)

In the early hours of January 21 police raided Lima’s San Marcos University, violently rousing sleeping students and detaining them face-down on the ground. San Marcos University had housed demonstrators traveling to Lima for the protests. Student Pedro Mamani exclaimed to journalists, “We’re at a breaking point between democracy and dictatorship.” (Associated Press, Politi and Briceño, Jan. 19/23) (The Guardian, Collyns, Jan. 22/23)

As protesters gathered in Lima more violence erupted in highland Peru from January 18 to 21. Energized protests continued in the provincial cities of Cuzco, Arequipa, Puno, and Juliaca.  In the town of Macusani, protesters set fire to the police station and judicial office after three demonstrators were killed by gunfire. In Arequipa, Peru’s second city, police clashed with protesters trying to storm the airport. Also in southern Peru, the large Antapaccay copper mine was shut down after protesters besieged the site. Approximately 1,500 protesters attacked a police station in the town of Ilave.  A police station in Zepita, Puno, was also set on fire. (Associated Press, Politi and Briceño, Jan. 19 & 20/23) (The Guardian, Staff, Jan. 21/23)


Are These Events Unique? Or Are They the Extension of an Enduring Crisis?

These startling events raise important questions. What historical developments produced such outcomes? Who are the historical subjects driving this process? What do Peruvian commentators and participants have to say? Where is this going?

The current crisis arose in the aftermath of the 2021 presidential election, a process which displayed the fragmentation characteristic of Peruvian neoliberal politics over the past thirty years.

In the first electoral round on April 11, 2021 there were a total of 18 presidential candidates. Pedro Castillo, a local union organizer from the highland city of Cajamarca, came in first with 18.9% of the vote. Castillo ran on a left populist platform promising “No more poor people in a rich country.” The second place challenger was the rightwing, establishment candidate, Keiko Fujimori, with 13.3%. Fujimori is the daughter of former neoliberal dictator Alberto Fujimori.

This was Keiko Fujimori’s third run for the presidency since 2011, narrowly losing twice previously. When the votes were counted in 2021, Pedro Castillo emerged victorious with a slim margin of 44,000 votes out of 17.6 million votes cast. Fujimori immediately launched an aggressive election denial campaign under the watchwords “Peru has been captured by communism” and “Pedro Castillo is a president without any legitimacy.” False and polarizing, these themes have been amplified loudly and repeatedly by Peru’s predominantly rightwing media from June 2021 to the present.


Presidential Turnover, Congressional Dysfunction, and the Crisis of Public Confidence

Peru has had six presidents in six years. None completed their elected terms. All ended in impeachment or imprisonment at the hands of a rightwing Congress. Thus the opposition’s personal attack on Castillo is a cover for a political attack where the Lima elite maintains control of the government and reserves the option to ignore election results. This represents a perennial pro-coup stance on their part. In fact, as a rightwing congressional leader, the defeated candidate Keiko Fujimori helped drive three of the six departed presidents from office: Kuczynski, Vizcarra, and Castillo. (Tegel, Dec 16/22).

Peru is governed by the Constitution of 1993. This neoliberal document enshrines market orthodoxies at the highest levels of national finance and planning. Its implementation followed the dissolution of Congress in 1992 by President Alberto Fujimori who used the constitution to establish an entrenched and authoritarian political-economic order labeled “fujimorismo”. Essentially the Constitution of 1993 has given congressional caucuses veto power over cabinets and presidents and any legislation to be passed.

In view of recent events and the history of the last thirty years it should not be surprising that a January 2023 survey showed a shocking 88% of Peruvians do not have confidence in Congress and generally condemn its actions. In fact, 69% of those surveyed say the country needs to draft a New Constitution. (IEP, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, Jan 17/23)


The Impact of Regional Inequality, Racism, and Classism

In attacking the legitimacy of Castillo’s campaign, opponents inflamed longstanding divisions between Castillo’s Indigenous highland strongholds and Lima’s coastal elites. Points of contention were not just the income inequalities which characterize neoliberal economies. In Peru, for instance, the top 20% of the population consume 49% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 60% receive just 25%. For the 25% of Peruvians who are Indigenous and who live in the Andean highlands, the access to economic opportunities, arable land, education, and health care is reduced below this average.

In the campaign to delegitimize Pedro Castillo’s election victory, political opponents and right wing media repeatedly mocked Castillo for being a highlander of Indigenous ancestry and therefore unfit to enter the corridors of power in the capital city. They mocked his manner of speaking, his style of clothing, and his cultural habits, as well as those of his family and political associates from the provincial cities of Cajamarca, Chiclayo, and Chota. Because this was his first time in elected office, Castillo’s unfamiliarity with congressional procedure was declared to be a sign of incompetence. This sustained campaign of delegitimization and humiliation made a deep impact on the 8.8 million Peruvians who had chosen Castillo as their candidate in the 2021 runoff. (Associated Press, Garcia Cano, Dec 9/22)


The December 7 Crisis: Castillo’s Failed “Self-Coup” Leads to His Imprisonment

In the seventeen months of his presidency, Pedro Castillo appointed 5 prime ministers, had 70 cabinet ministers come and go, survived 2 impeachment attempts, and weathered 6 corruption investigations. As described earlier, this high turnover and dysfunction was driven as much by the sustained obstruction of the rightwing as it was by Castillo’s sometimes questionable choices. It was nevertheless, the prospect of a third impeachment vote on December 7, 2022 that led Castillo to make several rash decisions which produced his downfall and arrest within the space of several hours.

On December 7 Castillo unilaterally declared the dissolution of Congress, suspended the functioning of the federal judiciary, and proposed to rule by presidential decree until new elections could replace the current Congress. The purpose of the new Congress was to establish a constituent assembly to draft a New Constitution. Castillo apparently tried to fulfill in one swoop the demands of the subsequent mass demonstrations. However, his sudden move caught even his cabinet by surprise. Pedro Castillo was arrested on charges of “rebellion” and “conspiracy ” and is now incarcerated in a Lima police station. He is under an 18 month sentence of preventive detention while congressional authorities build the case against him.

When Castillo made his fateful decision he was isolated from any military, congressional, or political support. Most importantly, he had not mobilized a popular base in Lima or the highlands. On the heels of Castillo’s December 7 proclamation the nation’s streets were virtually empty.


The December 7 Crisis: A “Coup Within a Coup”. Boluarte Takes Over

With Castillo’s arrest Vice President Dina Boluarte assumed the presidency. Boluarte’s first official act as President was to attend a military march-by and make a public assurance of her defense of law and order. She had neither popular nor institutional support so when she reached out to the managerial class and the traditional right she was quickly identified as a servant of the neoliberal establishment.

It was at this point that the serious public objections began. While Pedro Castillo’s administration was flawed, he had been democratically elected by 8.8 million voters who saw in his Indigenous identity a reflection of themselves. Castillo was inaugurated in July 2021 on the bicentennial of Peru’s national independence. He was the first Indigenous Peruvian to become president in the country’s two hundred year history. In the words of a 21st century Indigenous activist,“When he stepped up, we stepped up.” (Progressive International, Jan.13/23)


The December 7 Crisis: The Government Crackdown Produces a Social Explosion and the Emergence of a “Civil-Military Dictatorship”

After Castillo’s arrest there were immediate protests against Boluarte as a “usurper”. In the eyes of Peruvians from outside the capital city a familiar drama was playing out. The forces who won the election were removed. And the forces who lost the election took over.

Protester Laura Pacheco said, “We don’t agree with the way our president Castillo was ousted, by lies and trickery,” Moreover, “Boluarte doesn’t deserve to be president, she hasn’t been elected by the people. We are defending our democratic rights.” (The Guardian, Collyns, Dec.13/22)

For her part the inexperienced Boluarte and her ministers reacted defensively and hardened their positions. In view of the protesters’ call for her resignation, the closure of Congress, new elections, and a constituent assembly , the new president declared the protest agenda was “unfeasible.” On January 9, in what was taken as a deliberate provocation, Boluarte accused protesters of not understanding their own demands. “What you are asking for is a pretext to continue generating chaos.” (The Guardian, Collyns, Jan. 9/23) Moreover, on January 19 Baluarte doubled down saying those citizens responsible for acts of violence in December and January would not go “unpunished”, while at the same time falsely characterizing the behavior of security forces as “unimpeachable”. Local observers took this as a clear sign the Boluarte government will grant immunity to the security forces who fired on unarmed protesters while at the same time blaming those killed for being the perpetrators of disorder. This assertion is supported by a chorus from the parliamentary right and corporate media who approve violent state repression at the same time they criminalize protesters as “extremists” and “terrorists” (Noriega, Jan. 22/23)

For his part, the new prime minister, Alberto Otárola claimed the protest was driven by foreign interests, drug traffickers, and terrorists trying to “destroy the country”. He specifically called out neighboring Bolivians as culprits and banned former Bolivian president Evo Morales from entering Peru.The fact is Peruvian public opinion does not support Boluarte and Otárola’s statements and positions. Nevertheless, this defensive, hardline stance did much to drive the state violence and death of the first and subsequent weeks. Local Peruvian commentators are beginning to characterize the Boluarte regime as a “civil-military dictatorship.” (Noriega, Jan. 22/23)

Surveys show that 60% of Peruvians believe the protests were justified and 58% say the police used excessive force against protesters. Given the lack of public confidence in Congress, 83% of Peruvians are asking that the date of general elections be brought forward from the 2026 scheduled date. Moreover, a total of 36% call for the immediate closure of Congress followed by immediate elections (rising to 52% in highland areas).(IEP, Jan 17/23)


The Ongoing Uprising Is No Longer About Castillo. It Is About 500 Years of Colonialism and a “Train Crash of Civilizations.”

According to the IEP survey, 40% of the nation is calling for the immediate release of Pedro Castillo from prison. This number, however, is dwarfed by the massive 83% calling for new elections. Since current law prohibits re-election, Pedro Castillo would not be a candidate in the new elections. In mid-December Lima sociologist Eduardo Gonzalez Cueva observed that the uprising “has stopped being about Pedro Castillo and has become more about the big divides in Peruvian society. Which is rural versus urban and..the elite versus the Indigenous working class.” (Gonzalez Cueva, Dec.16/22)

The current uprising can be seen as a conflict between Lima and the regions. In fact it embodies the 500 year legacy of an entire colonial structure. According to the Indigenous lawyer and activist quoted previously, “I don’t know if civil war is the right word, but something similar to that is what is on the horizon in Peru…These possibilities are becoming more and more real…We are in a train crash of civilizations, you might say.” (Progressive International, Jan.13/23)


Peru’s Hollowed-Out Democracy Is Failing. Who Are the Political Subjects? Who Will Take Over?

In step with Congress’s 88% disapproval rating, the disapproval rating for President Dina Boluarte stands at 71%. (IEP, Jan 17/23) The opposition to her administration is not restricted to citizen street protests. Among other figures, the two elected governors of the highland Apurinac and Puno regions are also calling for Baluarte’s resignation.

These shockingly high disapproval ratings for the highest institutions of Peruvian democracy show the extent to which thirty years of neoliberal expediency and profit-taking have hollowed out democratic institutions in the country. With thirty years of “fujimorismo” as the foundation, the delegitimization appears irreversible. In the words of protester, Juana Ponce, “The only thing left is the people. We have no authorities, we have nothing. It is a national shame.” (Associated Press, García Cano, Dec 9/22)

Peruvian sociologist Alejandra Dinegro Martinez identifies Peru’s emerging political subject as a “national popular-rural bloc” that for decades has voted for social change but ends up betrayed and forgotten by the politicians who rise to govern in its name. According to Dinegro Martinez, while the bloc has grown and won rights it has not yet managed to consolidate a position of power. It includes local, regional, and communal leaders and the campesinos, workers, youth, Indigenous people, and rural communities that they represent. These are the voters who elected Pedro Castillo. These are the people now protesting in the streets at the risk of their lives. (Dinegro-Martinez, May 3, 2021)


The Standoff: The People Have Found Their Voice. But Can They Prevail? Can They Survive?

Following the whirlwind events of December and January, a Peruvian leader and participant summed up the situation as follows, “All I can say is we are on our way to the next crisis. I do not believe we are resolving the current crisis. We are just transitioning to the next one.” (Stefanoni, Nueva Sociedad, Dec. 2022)

Sociologist Dinegro Martinez says the emerging grassroots power bloc has not yet consolidated political power. But it has perhaps found its voice. The rising and observation of this voice is a crucial phenomenon in revolutionary theory. For as Raya Dunayevskaya already theorized, class struggle  is not only a matter of economics: “Economics is a matter not only of the economic laws of breakdown of capitalism, but of the strife between the worker and the machine against dead labour’s domination over living labour , beginning with hearing the worker’s voice, which has been “stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production.”” (on cit. Hudis, p. 32)

Thus on January 19 we saw protesters arrive in Lima after a 30 to 40 hour bus ride, who, when confronted by threatening rows of armored police, began to chant, “Peru I love you. That’s why I defend you.”(“Perú te quiero, por eso te defiendo.”). They were attacked by security forces who fired so many volleys of tear gas that it was impossible to see the streets of Lima. Highland farmer and protester Eugenio Allcca had this to say, “They call us terrorists and drug traffickers. They say we are ignorant peasants. But we are the people who are fighting to reclaim our rights. There are no terrorists among us. The real terrorism comes from this government. We continue this fight in strength. We have no reason to be afraid.” (Noriega, Jan. 22/23)

Furthermore, Gustavo Montoya, a historian at the National University of San Marcos reports, “We have never seen a mobilization of this magnitude. There’s already an idea taking root at the base that it is necessary and urgent to transform everything…I have the feeling that we’re witnessing a historic shift.” Montoya goes on to say the protests have grown to such a degree that demonstrators are unlikely to be satisfied with Boluarte’s resignation and are now demanding more fundamental structural reform. (Politi and Briceño, Jan 19/23)

However, in the face of the unconsolidated weakness of the Boluarte regime the potential of a military coup rises. The presence of anti-communist militias and conspiracy-minded rightwing populists raises the prospect of a genuine fascist movement allied with military backers. The grassroots people’s movement is energized and emboldened but lacks organization. It is national in scope but it is decentralized and without national leadership.


Three Traumas: Neoliberalism, COVID Pandemic, Political Massacre. The Strength to Persevere

Being rooted at the community level, the strength of the emerging “national popular-rural bloc” may be its ability to withstand assault, paying a high price yet persevering to continue the fight. Over the last forty years three traumas have fallen on Peru, and on this social group in particular. The ravages of neoliberal “fujimorismo” have been detailed above. While the neoliberal economy appeared to boom, state institutions were  greatly weakened by a governing philosophy that reduced state intervention to a minimum. Thus when the second trauma arrived in the form of the COVID pandemic, Peru was unprepared and undefended. Peru sadly suffered the highest per capita COVID death rate in the world. Peru’s COVID death rate ran two and a half times the death rate of the U.S. and the U. K. (Dinegro Martinez, May 3/21) The third trauma that befell the Peruvian highland population was the bloody Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla insurrection of 1980-2000 when more than 69,000 people were violently murdered. 54% were killed by security forces and 46% were killed by maoist guerrillas. Survivors were scarred by personal injuries and losses. At the same time massacre was normalized with the imminent risk of repetition, particularly by the state security forces.

It may be the painful memory of loss of life and trauma that feeds the fearless response of people who rise in the face of live ammunition, tear gas, and police truncheons. Their rising is, in fact, an affirmation of life. The protesters refuse to yield to the easy slander of ‘terrorist” (“terruco”) so frequently leveled at them. In fact they are the people most victimized by political violence. “False attacks do not stop us.” (“El terruqueo no nos va detener.”) Why? Because “As the people, we are the majority. And the majority will win.” “We continue this fight in strength. We have no reason to be afraid.” (Quotations from Noriega, Jan. 22/23)



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