Peru protests grow despite new president’s early election pledge

President Dina Boluarte promises to hold a vote in 2024 amid growing protests demanding the release of ex-President Pedro Castillo.

Protests demanding new elections and release of former President Pedro Castillo, in Peru
Police officers clash with protesters during a demonstration at Arequipa Airport demanding the dissolution of Congress after the removal of President Pedro Castillo from office, in Arequipa, Peru, on December 12, 2022 [Oswald Charca/Reuters]

Protesters in Peru have erected new blockades and expanded their demonstrations in several regions, as calls for new elections and the release of detained former President Pedro Castillo grow across the country.

Hundreds used burning tyres, wood and rocks on Monday to block an airport runway in the country’s second-largest city, Arequipa, in anger over Castillo’s impeachment and arrest, while new roadblocks were set up in other major cities.

The death toll from the protests rose to at least four, authorities said, after clashes on Sunday between protesters and police in the southern city of Andahuaylas left two dead and at least five injured – including a police officer – as demonstrators attempted to storm that city’s airport.

Another protester died on Monday in demonstrations in Arequipa, Minister of Defence Alberto Otarola told lawmakers, while one person was killed in the state that includes Andahuaylas, according to legislators.

The protests have expanded, most notably in Peru’s northern and Andean towns, despite a pledge to hold early elections by President Dina Boluarte, who was quickly sworn in to replace Castillo following his removal last week.

“I have decided to present a bill to reach an agreement with Congress to bring forward the general elections to April 2024,” Boluarte said early on Monday in a speech to the nation, adding she would introduce the legislation in the “coming days”.

But the promise seems to have done little to quell public anger over the removal of Castillo, a former schoolteacher and union leader, who was voted out by legislators on Wednesday after he sought to dissolve Congress ahead of an impeachment vote.

Police disperse protesters in Peru
Police clash with protesters during a demonstration on the runway of the Arequipa Airport in Peru, on December 12, 2022 [Oswald Charca/Reuters]

The former president was arrested shortly afterwards, with prosecutors charging him with rebellion and conspiracy.

Protests swiftly broke out across the country, with many supporters of the detained former leader demanding that Peru hold elections rather than allow Boluarte to stay in power until Castillo’s term ends in 2026. Some protesters have also called for Congress to be shut down.

In a handwritten letter posted on Twitter on Monday, Castillo called for a constituent assembly. He vowed he “will not resign” and called Boluarte a “usurper”. He also said that “the people should not fall for their dirty games of new elections”.

He said he was “humiliated, incommunicado, mistreated and kidnapped”.

Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez, reporting from the capital, Lima, on Monday afternoon before Castillo’s letter became public, said the situation remained tense as several key roads have been blocked, including the Pan-American Highway, which is critical to get food into the city.

She said many flights have been cancelled due to the unrest, along with inter-provincial buses that run between Lima and other parts of the country. “So at least one million passengers have been affected,” Sanchez reported.

On Sunday, December 11, protests were reported in cities across Peru’s interior, including Cajamarca, Arequipa, Huancayo, Cusco and Puno.

In Andahuaylas in the Apurimac region, clashes broke out as demonstrators attempted to storm the southern city’s airport, authorities said. Protesters fired slingshots and hurled stones while police responded with tear gas, images from the scene broadcast by local TV showed.

Eliana Revollar, the head of Peru’s ombudsman’s office, told a radio station that a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old died during the clashes “possibly as a result of gunshot wounds”.

Hundreds of people also held protests at the legislative palace in Lima, where riot police used tear gas to disperse crowds.

Inside the palace, the Congress had convened in an emergency session to discuss the crisis but had to be suspended after physical altercations broke out. In images posted on social media, a man could be seen punching another man from behind and members shoving each other in the centre of the chamber.

Prime Minister Pedro Angulo said Boluarte’s newly appointed Cabinet was also meeting on Sunday night to evaluate the civil unrest and determine how to respond.

In her address early on Monday, Boluarte also declared a state of emergency in areas of “high conflict”, a move that would allow the armed forces to take more control if necessary.

“I have given the instructions so that control of internal order can be recovered peacefully, without affecting the people’s fundamental rights,” said the new president, who lamented the deaths that had occurred in Apurimac.

Amnesty International urged the Peruvian authorities to “put an end to the excessive use of force against demonstrations and guarantee the right to peaceful protest”.

“Moreover, to prevent further escalation of violence, we urge the authorities to seek dialogue and put human rights at the heart of their response to the crisis,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, the group’s Americas director, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, rural unions and organisations representing Indigenous peoples called for an “indefinite strike” beginning on Tuesday in support of Castillo, himself the son of a peasant family.

The statement from the Agrarian and Rural Front of Peru demanded Castillo’s immediate release as well as the suspension of Congress, early elections and a new constitution.

The demands for new elections come as recent polls show nearly nine in 10 Peruvians disapprove of the nation’s legislature amid years of political scandals and instability. The country is now on its sixth president since 2016.

The power struggle in the country has continued as the Andes region and its thousands of small farms struggle to survive the worst drought in a half-century.

The country of more than 33 million people is also experiencing a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, having recorded about 4.3 million cases and 217,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies