Entrenched racism, political dysfunction, environmental degradation and growing inequality are fueling protests in Peru that have already claimed 70, mostly indigenous lives.
“Polycrisis” is an emerging term that is making its way into the language of global policymakers and decision-makers, from elite universities to boardrooms in Davos. The term is broad in its definition; Almost like an amoeba, it morphs to encompass the many challenges facing humanity, from climate catastrophe to poverty, famine, war, mass migration, and the decline of democracy.
In early December, Peru erupted in protests after the Latin American nation's former president, Pedro Castillo, attempted to seize power. Since then some 70 protesters have been killed, allegedly by local law enforcement. The protesters, many of them from Peru's indigenous communities, are demanding the resignation of the current president, Dina Boluarte, and a new wording of the nation's constitution.
Boluarte, a former member of the Marxist Peru Libre party, has turned to the right in his bid to end the protests. Neither party seems willing to give in.
The divisions exposed by the protests in Peru are fueled by some of the highest levels of inequality in one of the most unequal corners of the world, where death rates during COVID soared well above global averages and where sporadic economic growth and environmental degradation have long gone hand in hand.
Peru has had six presidents in seven years and three different parliaments. A 2021 survey found that barely a quarter of the country is satisfied with democratic rule, the lowest of any Latin American country except Haiti.
It is, in short, a living incarnation of polycrisis.
Photojournalist and founder of Peninsula 360 Press, Manuel Ortiz, has extensive experience covering conflicts in Latin America, from cartel violence in Mexico to the civil war in Colombia and social unrest in Honduras and El Salvador. He has just returned from a 10-day reporting trip to Peru, a trip he describes as one of the "most intense" of his long career.
While conditions in Peru are unique to the country, the bigger picture, Ortiz says, stands as a warning to the world of what happens when social divisions are allowed to fester, when institutions fall short, and when the calamity rushes in to fill the gap.
You described your experience in Peru as one of the most tragic you have encountered in Latin America. Why is that?
I have witnessed the Colombian government systematically shooting young protesters in the eyes. And I have seen a lot of violence in Mexico. But in Peru it seems like a policy of extermination. Are they using snipers? I saw them in Cuzco.
I met with the family of Remo Candia Guevara, who was shot in the chest during a January 11 protest near the city. He was a local Quechua leader, someone everyone turned to, especially when this latest crisis hit. Days before his death, he told his family that he was being followed.
They urged him not to join the protests, but he went anyway after community members told him they needed him. There is a video of him at the head of the crowd. No weapons... no stones, no sticks. The police fire tear gas. Remo tries to hide behind a post. It is then that he is shot in the chest. He died in the hospital shortly after. His family told me that the police attacked him. They knew who it was.
You attended a memorial marking one month since his death. What did you hear there from the community?
People were nervous at first. But as the memorial went on, they started talking to us. They thanked us for being there, as members of the international press. They talked about how journalists from ?the capital?, Lima, never speak to or visit Quechua communities, which many Peruvians, we learned, often equate with terrorism. They feel as if they have been forgotten.
The next day we shared breakfast. I would play with their children and they would ask me: "When is dad coming home?" Later we headed to the top of a nearby hill, where hundreds gathered to plant trees. It's part of the Quechua tradition, something they do every 10 years or so to reforest the surrounding mountains. But this year it had an added layer of meaning. Many there told me that they believe that Remo will come to inhabit the trees and the mountain, and that he will take care of them.
What did the protesters tell you about their demands? What are they looking for?
Very few mentioned former president Pedro Castillo, for whom the majority voted. Their main demand is the resignation of the current president. Some even told me that if she resigns today, the protests will end and they can negotiate other issues. They feel betrayed by Boluarte, someone who came from the left but is now aligned with Peru's right.
They also feel that the constitution does not represent them and demand that it be amended to better reflect indigenous concerns.
What did you hear from ordinary Peruvians you met about this current crisis?
Peruvians are very divided. When we landed, I asked our Uber driver what he thought of the situation. He called the protesters terrorists. I mentioned the protesters killed by the police and he said they deserved to die. He called them ignorant. I could not believe it. I was shocked. I have never seen the kind of anti-indigenous racism that I encountered in Peru. But then you turn on the TV and that's what you see on the news, interspersed with ads for mining companies operating in southern Peru, where most of the indigenous communities live.
But we also met a taxi driver, a priest from Cusco who we hired to take us up the mountain. He had grown up close to indigenous communities, but had almost no contact with them. He showed lukewarm support for the protests, but also had misgivings about the indigenous protesters, saying they had done "bad things."
We spent several days together, during which he listened to testimony from Quechuas whose loved ones had been killed in the protests. When we parted ways, he thanked us. "You showed me something about my country that I had never known before."
He also interviewed a local police chief during a protest in Cuzco. What was your impression of him?
He arrived at the main square of Cuzco where he addressed a meeting of Peruvian journalists. But it was not an interview. There were no questions. Basically he made a list of the crimes committed by the protesters and assured the press that everything was under control. I asked for an interview with him, and when I pressed him about the killing of protesters by police, he became visibly angry. I don't know if that's when they started following us, we were photographed several times during our trip, but many activists I spoke to here have told me that they are under attack.
More than 70 people have been killed since the protests began in December. Who are they and what have you heard from their friends or relatives?
The people who have died are mostly poor, many are young, some are children and some are old. Some of the dead were caught in the crossfire that was walking by. We do not have the exact number of deaths or injuries, partly because there have been reports of protesters being detained by police at local hospitals. Many are now afraid to seek medical treatment.
We met with a large group of relatives of victims in the Pueblo de Dios church in Juliaca, in the south. We thought we were going to talk to one or two people at most. But when the neighbors found out we were there, they started flooding the church. There came a time when it was almost full. They told us that the media had never come to hear their stories. I still get calls from people who couldn't make it to church that day. The priest is called Father Lucho. Coming from the Liberation Theology movement, she has turned her church into a kind of community center, where the wounded and the bereaved come, and where donations are sent to support local communities. Father Lucho is compiling a list of the wounded and dead. In a way, it is a bulwark against even harsher repression. At one point I asked him how he's holding up and how he seems to constantly wear a smile. So tears came to your eyes? "People like me, and people like me."
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