“If something happens to me, don’t cry,” Leonardo Hanco said to his wife, Ruth Barquina, on the morning of December 15 in the southern Peruvian city of Ayacucho.
The 32-year-old taxi driver and father of a seven-year-old girl decided to join the political protests across Peru at the last minute.
“If I decide to join because I want to leave a better future for my children, I am fighting for my rights,” he added before leaving, according to Barkina.
Since then, demonstrations that first broke out after former President Pedro Castillo’s ouster in December have continued – largely in central and southern Peru, where Ayacucho is located – over allegations of corruption in government and elected officials, as well as anger at living conditions and inequality in the country. The demonstrators are calling for the resignation of President Dina Boulwart, the closure of Congress, general elections as soon as possible, and a new constitution.
The ancient city of Ayacucho, known for its pre-Inca history and colonial churches, has seen dramatic outbreaks of violence amid the demonstrations. In this region alone, at least 10 people have died and more than 40 have been injured, according to the country’s Ombudsman’s Office.
Hanako was one of them. Hours after he joined the rally, he was shot in the stomach near Ayacucho Airport, as protesters crowded together trying to take control of the runway.
Barkina told CNN he died two days later of his injuries.
The storied area of Ayacucho was home to the Wari civilization and became part of the Inca Empire. Its capital, which is now also called Ayacucho, was one of the major cities during the Spanish conquest. It was also the birthplace of one of the darkest and most painful chapters in modern Peruvian history, home to the armed rebel group Shining Path during the violent 1980s and 1990s.
According to the final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 70,000 people ultimately died due to the internal conflict between Peruvian security forces, the Maoist rebel group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso in Spanish), and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movement Tupac Amaru. (MRTA). Both government forces and rebel groups have been accused of human rights abuses during their war. More than 40% of the dead and missing in this bloody conflict were in the Ayacucho region.
Since then, this region has welcomed domestic and international tourists, and relies on agriculture, mining, and the manufacture of local products. But it still reflects the inequalities of the past. Compared to Lima, the capital of Peru, Ayacucho’s health and education system is underdeveloped, with facilities and standards far below those of the capital city.
“They say Peru is doing very well economically, but the pandemic has stripped us of health,” Lorgio Gavilan, a professor of anthropology at the National University of San Cristobal de Huamanga, told CNN.
After nearly two decades of sustained economic growth, Covid-19 hit the country hard in 2020, with the world’s highest per capita death rate and more than half of the population lacking adequate food during the pandemic. Poverty was particularly pernicious in the rural areas of the country.
Although the economy has rebounded, with GDP back to pre-pandemic levels, the country’s persistent inequality means that not everyone will benefit. The World Bank has predicted that poverty will remain above pre-pandemic levels for the next two years.
Some protesters have called for the release of imprisoned ex-president Castillo, a former rural schoolteacher who vowed to right economic inequality before his fall. But the polarization and chaos surrounding his presidency—including allegations of corruption and multiple impeachment attempts by Congress, which Castillo dismissed as politically motivated—only exacerbated pre-existing tensions in Peru.
Ayacucho’s traumatic past has been the backdrop for clashes in the region. The derogatory language used by public officials and parts of the press and public to criticize protesters, portraying them as vandals, criminals and “terrorists” has touched a historic chord.
“No one is saying that all the protesters are terrorists, but they should know that the people associated with the Shining Path are on their side,” General Oscar Areola Delgado, a spokesman for the Peruvian National Police (PNP), said after the three people involved. Protesters were arrested in Ayacucho for their alleged links to the Shining Path. One of them is accused of handing money to protesters and allegedly participated in planning attacks against public and private property.
Although Shining Path has disbanded since the late 1990s, remnants of the group are still active in the south of the country, where the Peruvian government says it benefits from coca production. Police said a woman they arrested had spent years in prison in connection with guerrilla activities in the 1980s and 1990s, but did not say whether they linked her to any existing factions.
Gavilan cautions against overestimating the existence of Bright Path links. “People are able to reason, they know how to distinguish between good and bad, and we also know how to feel anger despite the fact that we have gone through a lot,” said the anthropologist.
He also said: “For us, the Shining Path died a long time ago, no one supports the Shining Path, they took us into a terrible war that no one wants.”
He himself has first-hand experience of Biro’s involvement with The Shining Path. After joining the group as an orphaned child soldier at the age of twelve, the army recruited him at the age of fifteen to fight against the same group. Gavillan later became a Franciscan priest before studying anthropology.
The real threat here, in his view, lies in yet another déjà vu — Peruvian soldiers once again confronting civilians. “Our residents have seen the faces of the military on the streets again,” he says.
Ayacucho is one of the regions now seeking to hold the Peruvian authorities responsible for alleged brutality against protesters. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has already opened a preliminary investigation against the current President Boulwart, three of her ministers, and leaders in the police and army.
Nationwide, at least 55 people have been killed and more than 500 police officers have been injured amid clashes since the unrest began, according to the National Ombudsman’s Office and the Home Ministry.
Police say their tactics meet international standards. But a fact-finding mission to Peru by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that gunshot wounds were found on the heads and upper bodies of victims during the protests, areas that law enforcement officers should avoid to preserve human life. .
According to guidelines issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “The use of firearms to disperse an assembly is always illegal.”
Polwart said that the decision to deploy the army was a difficult one, and that neither the police nor the army were sent to “kill”. She also referred to the protests as “terrorismwhen she visited a wounded policeman in hospital – a designation that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights warned could spark a “climate of further violence”.
Parsina believes that the government should take responsibility for her husband’s death. After the shock of losing Hankou, she decides to lead a group of relatives of the dead and injured in Ayacucho to support the attorney general’s investigation and demand civil damages from the government for the dead or injured.
Her family relied on his income as a taxi driver, a job he took after losing his job as a heavy machinery operator for a mining company when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020, she said.
“Those who died were innocent, [security forces] They do not have the right to commit suicide. I know what kind of person my husband was; He was humble, loved life, and gave everything for his family. fighter. Although he is a peasant, he never lowers his head,” Barkina told CNN.
Her claim is supported by human rights experts who study current violence. After being on the ground in Ayacucho, his office supports the creation of a compensation mechanism for these families who have come out of poverty, Percy Castillo, Peru’s assistant ombudsman for human rights and people with disabilities, told CNN.
Supporting these measures was also Joel Hernandez Garcia, commissioner of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who told CNN that compensation for those killed was one of the three steps needed to fix the country’s crisis.