The Boluarte government has next to no democratic legitimacy, is broadly rejected by the public and under investigation for numerous human rights violations. Now, with roughly 1,000 US troops stationed in the country, it faces a third massive march on Lima.
Social movements and trade unions in Peru are holding a third massive march on the capital, Lima, next Wednesday (July 19), to demand the resignation of the unelected President Dina Boluarte, the release from prison of the former elected President Pedro Castillo, the dissolution of the right-wing dominated Congress, new general elections, and a new constitution. The protest, dubbed the “third takeover of Lima” (tercera toma de Lima), is expected to draw the participation of thousands of members of Indigenous and peasant communities as well as diverse social organisations and trade unions from across the country.
“Our voice has to be heard from all over Peru, which demands the departure of Dina Boluarte,” said Erwin Salazar, leader of the General Confederation of Workers of Peru (CGTP).
Canadian Mining Interests, US Troops and a Deeply Unpopular Government
The delegation from the southern region of Puno alone, the epicentre of opposition to the Boluarte regime, is expected to send around 13,000 protesters to the capital. They are not just protesting for the broad demands mentioned above but also against the recent decision by the Boluarte government to grant the first of three exploration permits for lithium in Carabaya, a province in Puno, to Macausani Yellowcake, a Peruvian subsidiary of Canada’s American Lithium Corp. Indigenous communities in Puno are calling for the lithium deposits not only to be mined but also processed in plants installed in the region as well as a broad improvement in workers’ rights.
As I reported in February, Canadian mining companies have significant but oft-ignored commercial interests in Peru. Like the US, Canada is competing with China and Russia for the extraction of lithium and other raw materials in the Andean-Amazonian area, which is home to over two-thirds of the world’s known lithium reserves. For example, in Luis Arce government in Bolivia recently signed an agreement with two Chinese companies, Catl Brump & Cmoc (CBC) and Citic Gouan, and a Russian one, Uranio One Group, to exploit the lithium deposits in Uyuni and Pastos Grandes, considered the largest in the world.
Back in Peru, Macausani Yellowcake’s managing director Ulises Solís met with Castillo on two occasions in 2021, including once in New York, to try to persuade the president not to nationalise the strategic mineral. But apparently to no avail, according to a December 2022 report in the Peruvian daily Republica. In May this year, six months after the toppling of Castillo, the government of Boluarte, Castillo’s former vice-president, gave American Lithium Corp the green light to carry out additional explorations near its current lithium project. Meanwhile, all talk of nationalising lithium, hiking taxes on mining profits or improving workers’ conditions has all but disappeared.
As readers may recall, the reactivation of national protests in Peru coincides with the authorised entry of around 1,000 US military personnel onto Peruvian soil, most of whom are participating in a military exercise between June and August. The troops will be stationed in at least 14 departments, including Lima and provinces in the Andean south where many of the protests are taking place, until August. An additional 65 personnel will be staying put until the end of the year to oversee ongoing training programs.
The protest also comes roughly a month after Boluarte announced that her government would not be holding early elections, as it had repeatedly promised, and will instead try to cling to power until 2026.
“The idea of holding early elections is over,” said Boluarte. “We will continue working responsibly, respecting the rule of law, democracy, and the constitution, until July 2026.”
This is a dangerous move given how unpopular Peru’s government institutions have become, after decades of corruption scandals and poor governance. The country has burnt through seven governments in the past six years. Now, Boluarte’s administration and Peru’s Congress are registering record disapproval ratings. Boluarte’s supposedly left-wing government is rejected by a staggering 80% of the population, according to one recent poll, and is wholly dependent on the support of the right-wing majority in Congress, which is itself rejected by 91%.
Boluarte has zero respect for democracy or the rule of law. Her government has next to no democratic legitimacy, having seized power through a legislative coup against Boluarte’s former boss, Castillo, after he had taken the suicidal step of trying to establish an emergency government and reorganise the judiciary without the support of the military, Congress or the judiciary. Boluarte, along with some of her ministers and police chiefs, is under investigation by Peru’s Prosecutor’s Office for the alleged crimes of genocide, homicide, and serious injuries.
Around 60 people perished in the first wave of protests between December 7 and late January. All but one of the deaths took place in or around protests in Andean provinces, all with Quechua or Aymara majorities. At least 30 of the victims were shot with projectiles from weapons of war.
To date, no officials have been charged for the deaths. Boluarte claims she had “no direct contact with the Command of the Armed Forces or the Police” during the protests, and therefore no knowledge of, or involvement in, their actions. It is an absurd line of defence and some senior staff in the armed forces are not playing along. In recent testimony, General Manuel Gómez de la Torre, head of the Joint Command of Peru’s Armed Forces, said that both Boluarte and her defence minister received regular updates on the police and armed forces’ containment policies.
“How Many More Deaths Do They Want?”
As a fresh round of protests looms, fears are mounting that the police and army could once again resort to disproportionate use of force in the inevitable crackdown. As before, the high command in Lima is minimising the social character of the protests while painting many of the protesters as part of a broad “terrorist insurgency.”
In an interview last week, the general of Peru’s National Police (PNP), Óscar Urriola, said that members of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a notorious Maoist guerrilla group from the VRAEM (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantar) region, will attend the protest march, warning protesters to be on their guard. He also said the PNP will impose strict controls on marchers, including identity checks at tolls and highways, 3,000 AI-driven facial recognition cameras in downtown Lima and biometric voice recordings.
Boluarte issued an even blunter warning a few weeks ago (emphasis my own):
“In the six months that we have been in government, we have practically been firefighters putting out almost 500 violent demonstrations. Right now, I call on these people who are once again announcing a third takeover of Lima or the third takeover of Peru, how many more deaths do they want? Doesn’t it hurt your souls to have lost more than 60 people in these violent mobilizations.”
At the onset of the nationwide protests, in mid-December, veteran journalist César Hildebrandt made a prescient observation. The arrival of a virtual unknown like Pedro Castillo to the presidential palace in June 2021 was, he said, a sign of just how little legitimacy the political establishment in Lima has left in the eyes of the voting public. This, he said, is primarily due to its unwavering support for mafia-style neoliberalism. While Castillo failed miserably to overcome rabid right-wing opposition, neglected his base and by the end of his presidency was almost totally isolated, the political establishment’s refusal to veer from the neoliberal path all but guarantees “the emergence of another Castillo,” said Hildebrandt.
This is precisely why both the broadly detested Boluarte government and Congress are doing everything they can to forestall elections, even if it means repeatedly crushing popular protest in the country. The next wave of political repression will happen either with direct US military support or with US soldiers simply watching on and doing nothing.
The 1,172 US military personnel stationed in Peru includes members of the US Air Force, US Space Force and US Special Forces. They are officially there to run training exercises with Peru’s Joint Intelligence and Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Force and the FAP Special Forces Group, as well as provide “support and assistance in special operations to the Joint Command of the Armed Forces and the Police of Peru.”
Almost 1,000 US troops are participating in Resolute Sentinel 2023, a military exercise staged across a number of regions of Peru, including some recently engulfed in violence such as Cusco and Ayacucho. Whether intended or not (my guess is the former), the presence of US troops sends a strongly dissuasive message to the populace. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported in early May, Peru’s police forces and army — the same forces that are now receiving “support and assistance” from US troops — already resorted to “disproportionate, indiscriminate, and lethal use of force” in their response to the protests of December and January:
The information gathered by the IACHR in Lima, Ica, Arequipa, and Cusco shows that the disproportionate, indiscriminate, and lethal use of force was a major element of the State response to the protests. This is supported by factors including the high numbers of people killed and injured with shots (including pellets) to the top half of their bodies and the fact that a significant number of victims were not even involved in the protests or simply happened [to be] near the areas where clashes erupted.
In Ayacucho, there were serious human rights violations that need to be investigated with due diligence and with an ethnic-racial focus. The Commission notes in its report that killings perpetrated by officers of the State may amount to extrajudicial killings. Further—since there were in fact many violations of the right to life in specific circumstances in terms of how, when, and where they happened—they might also amount to a massacre.
In Juliaca, the IACHR found that there had been several instances of an excessive and indiscriminate use of force by officers of the State, which allegedly caused serious human rights violations against both protest participants and bystanders. All this happened in a complex and violent context, which started with clashes on airport grounds as law enforcement officers were attacked with stones, sticks, and other projectiles, including hazelnuts.
In recent days, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced an amendment calling on the Biden administration to ensure that no funds earmarked for the Defence budget for fiscal year 2024 be made available to Peruvian law enforcement agencies. The amendments calls for all security and military support to be frozen, including the provision of military equipment, defence services, crowd control tools and the coordination of exercises with the Peruvian Army or Police, at least until free elections take place in the country.
As far as I can tell, this development has received no coverage at all in the English language press. While certainly a welcome step, it comes a little late in the day given that more than 1,000 US troops are already in Peru or heading there, in order to train Peruvian security units and take part in a military exercise that (in the words of the Peruvian weekly newspaper Hildebrandt en sus trece) is intended as “a show of force to US strategic rivals Russia and China, which are ‘eroding’ US influence in the region.”