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Deadly antigovernment protests are spreading across Peru

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Anti-government protests are spreading across Peru, and at least 48 people have been killed over the past month during clashes with security forces, including 17 civilians and a police officer just this week. The unrest began after the ouster of leftist president Pedro Castillo in December. Protesters are calling on the new president, Dina Boluarte, to resign. They want new elections, a new constitution and the release of Castillo. For the latest, we're joined by journalist Simeon Tegel from Peru's capital, Lima. Good morning.

SIMEON TEGEL: Good morning.

FADEL: So let's start with the violence that we saw this week. Some are referring to it as a massacre. What happened?

TEGEL: So there were protests in Puno, which is a impoverished, largely Indigenous region up on the Bolivian border around Lake Titicaca, which had voted heavily for Pedro Castillo last year. Seventeen people and one - 17 civilians, I should say, and one police officer have been killed. Most of the civilians, it looks like, were killed by live rounds fired by the police. Some of them may include protesters who were behaving violently, but we also know that the dead include a doctor who was treating an injured protester, a street vendor and a teenage girl who'd been on her way to an animal shelter where she was volunteering. So Amnesty International are calling the use of force by the police unnecessary, disproportionate and arbitrary.

FADEL: Now, Peru's top prosecutor's office has launched an inquiry against the president, several cabinet members over allegations of genocide. What's the latest on that? What do we know?

TEGEL: So that inquiry or investigation was launched only a couple of days ago. It's still in the earliest phases. But I have to say that in Peru, there's quite a bit of skepticism about it. The notion that cabinet ministers and President Boluarte may be legally - criminally, even - responsible for homicide, amongst other things, is serious. What doesn't appear to have any foundation is the notion of genocide. No one's arguing that there's been any systematic attempt to wipe out a ethnicity. And I was talking to one lawyer yesterday who believes that the genocide charge in the investigation has put - has been put there deliberately by the chief prosecutor to actually undermine the investigation. So it allows the chief prosecutor, according to him, to pose as a hero investigating this, knowing that really the investigation's not going to go anywhere.

FADEL: Because the government has excused the violence as necessary, correct?

TEGEL: That's right. The - I mean, there's been a lot of back-and-forth and debate about this within Peru. But the government has been arguing that the protesters are terrorists. And critics are saying that really that's absurd, and it's based on racism and really a misunderstanding by decision-makers in Lima of what's going on up in the Andes.

FADEL: Let's take a step back to the larger reasons these protests started at all. Remind us why Castillo's ouster sparked these demonstrations.

TEGEL: So he was really Peru's first president who wasn't basically from the white upper classes, or at least an honorary member of those, but someone who came from the rural underclass. And a lot of poor, marginalized Peruvians really put a lot of hope in his presidency and are feeling very betrayed right now.

FADEL: What is causing the violence, all of these deaths that we're seeing?

TEGEL: I think it's that frustration, but also the police response, which has been heavy-handed and, according to experts, is violating basic international human rights standards.

FADEL: And how has Peru's government responded to the protesters' demands, if they've responded at all?

TEGEL: The one area where they have conceded is in bringing elections forward. They were due to be held in 2026. They will now be held in 2024. But a lot of people here think that even that's not going to work. The protesters want immediate elections, and if this goes on for much longer, the government may be forced to concede that as well.

FADEL: And it's been going on for a month. Do you see these protests subsiding at all?

TEGEL: I think that's probably unlikely, in part because of the police response, which has just outraged a lot of the protesters and a lot of people in Peru. Even if they die down now, in the next few days or couple of weeks, I think Peru is just simmering right now and could boil over again at almost any point, at least while this government is in power.

FADEL: And how are the protests affecting the rest of the country when people are trying to get to work and feed their kids and do their daily lives, you know, and live?

TEGEL: Well, it's having a big impact outside of Lima. In Lima, where Pedro Castillo was very unpopular, we haven't really felt it very much, but in a lot of parts of Peru, especially in the Andes, it's having a major impact. People can't get to work, or their work is - you know, if - it's not opening, their places of work. A lot of roads are blockaded. So it's having a real impact. And as ever, that impact is being felt most by the poorest.

FADEL: Simeon Tegel is a journalist based in Lima, talking to us about the latest on the protests in Peru. Thank you so much for your reporting.

TEGEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Simeon Tegel