Upheaval in Peru as president removed

Upheaval in Peru as president removed
Thousands of protesters march in Lima, Peru. 14 November 2020. (Photo by Beto Baron/Getty Images).

On 9th November 2020, president Martín Vizcarra was removed from office by Peru’s Congress over corruption allegations. Lawmakers voted 105-19 in favour of Vizcarra’s impeachment on the basis of a controversial “moral incapacitation” clause in the country’s legislation.

The former president announced he would not challenge the decision and stepped down. A poll by El Comercio-Ipsos published at the end of October 2020 had indicated that Vizcarra still enjoyed popular approval and that the majority of Peruvians thought he should have finished his term, ending in 2021, and faced corruption investigations afterwards. On 10th November 2020, the head of Congress Manuel Merino was sworn in as president.

After the congressional vote, mass protests erupted around the country. Following a crackdown on protests which left at least two people dead, pressure against legislators and the new government mounted. On 15th November 2020, Merino and several members of his newly appointed cabinet resigned after being in office for just five days. The following day, legislators elected Francisco Sagasti of Partido Morado as president of Congress – making him also interim president of Peru. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in April 2021.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests against rushed impeachment of Peruvian president

Thousands of people joined daily protests against the Peruvian Congress after legislators voted to remove former president Martín Vizcarra on 9th November 2020. Peaceful demonstrators, many of them young people, marched in several cities including Lima, Cusco, Arequipa and Trujillo to express their indignation at the country’s political class and demand the resignation of Manuel Merino, who led the removal process. In marches throughout the week, protesters wore black, banged on pots and pans, and held banners that read messages like, “Merino is not my president” and “I love Peru, I am ashamed of those who govern it”.

During the protests, police used excessive force and repressed demonstrators, firing tear gas and pellets indiscriminately, with some reports of officers employing firearms and detaining protesters arbitrarily. A spokesperson for the National Human Rights Coordinator stated on 13th November 2020 that police officers were misusing less-lethal weapons, including by firing tear gas cannisters directly at people’s bodies.

Overnight on 14th November 2020, law enforcement escalated the repressive response. Two young protesters, Jack Brian Pintado Sánchez and Jordan Inti Sotelo Camargo, were killed by gunshots and 94 were reported injured. The office of the Ombudsperson confirmed that several people could not be located after taking part in protests that evening. In a video, a protester who had been reported missing claimed he was beaten, arbitrarily detained, held incommunicado and without food for three days. According to Peru’s Ministry of Health, at least 207 people sought medical attention related to injuries sustained in protests between 10th and 17th November.

As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 35 reporters were also injured while covering the demonstrations. The secretary-general of the National Press Association of Peru said in an interview that demonstrators were responsible for a small number of attacks on the press, and that police had committed the majority of such attacks. On 12th November 2020, for instance, news outlets reported that journalist Ernesto Benavides with AFP had been hit with pellets while Alonso Balbuena with Ojo Público sustained a serious injury on the leg from the impact of a tear gas cannister.

On 16th November 2020, people across the country organised vigils and marches demanding justice for the two protesters killed and those who were injured. On 17th November 2020, the National Human Rights Coordinator announced it would file a criminal complaint against Manuel Merino and four other authorities for the human rights violations which took place during the protests. The United Nations declared that the government led by Francisco Sagasti had invited the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a mission to evaluate the impact of the political crisis on human rights in Peru.

Three Indigenous protesters killed and 11 injured

On 9th August 2020, three Indigenous protesters were killed and 11 injured during a police crackdown on a protest by Kukama peoples in the Bretaña community, Loreto department in north-eastern Peru. Six police officers were also injured. Demonstrators protested against Canadian oil company PetroTal, demanding compensation for their use of land and resources, and denounced the lack of medicine and medical care for COVID-19 patients in hospitals in the region.The protest took place on International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

Local police said they were investigating the killings which took place during the demonstration and argued that officers had reacted after protesters fired pellets at the police. Peruvian Interior Minister, Jorge Montoya, said the six wounded police officers had marks of pellets on their bodies. In a different version, the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the East of Peru (ORPIO) stated that the three protesters killed had been shot with firearms and that the protesters had only carried arrows and spears, ancestral and cultural defence tools. “The police practically came to kill us. We are a peaceful people,” said Indigenous leader Mayter Flores Crispin, brother of one of the murdered protesters.

ORPIO also said that the police presence in the region had increased after the incident. The National Coordinator for Human Rights (CNDDHH) issued a public statement condemning the violence against the Indigenous Kukama population. They called for an exhaustive investigation to determine the circumstances in which the police officers used lethal force against Indigenous citizens.

Healthcare workers protest

Healthcare workers in Peru continued to organise protests to demand better pay and working conditions. On 13th August 2020, sector workers protested outside Peru’s Ministry of Health. On the same day, former president Martín Vizcarra unveiled an obelisk at the Medical College of Peru in honour of 125 doctors who had died from the coronavirus.

On 26th and 27th August, dozens of health professionals joined a two-day national strike and protested in front of the Ministry of Health and one of Lima’s largest hospitals. They demanded an increase in the public budget for the health sector, as well as protective equipment for health workers in the frontlines against COVID-19. A spokesperson for medical union Federación Médica Peruana said workers also demand job security: “The president calls us heroes, he calls us by many positive adjectives. However, when it was in his hands to provide stability to workers who have waited 13 years, after 7 years of administrative service contracts, he denied it.”

Protests continued, with some incidents of clashes with police. In early November 2020, police used water cannons to disperse protesters on at least two separate occasions.

Mining conflicts intensify

Local communities in the Espinar province, Cusco department, were violently repressed after organising a series of protests and an indefinite strike to demand aid for families affected by the pandemic and economic recession. In May 2020, civil society had proposed solidarity payments of 1000 PEN/person (around 275 USD) to alleviate the impacts of the pandemic in the region. These payments would come out of a fund previously created as part of a framework agreement between the province and copper mining company Antapaccay, owned by Anglo-Swiss Glencore. While the majority of the fund’s managing committee approved the proposal, the company rejected the decision.

On 15th July 2020, community organisations called for an indefinite strike. During the strike, protesters blocked roads around the region and at least two vehicles were set on fire. On 22nd July 2020, police violently repressed protesters using tear gas and pellets, detaining at least 25 people. Three people, including two minors, were also reported injured with gunshot wounds. In a special report, the National Coordinator for Human Rights of Peru (CNDDHH) and the CSO Derechos Humanos Sin Fronteras (Human Rights Without Borders - DHSF) also highlighted testimonies of officers subjecting protesters to degrading treatment and sexual harassment.

On 7th August 2020, local organisations lifted the strike following negotiations with the company and government authorities where it was decided that solidarity payments would be made through multiple-use cards rather than cash. Further negotiations were scheduled to address other community demands. In a press conference on 25th August 2020, CNDDHH and DHSF presented their report on human rights violations in Espinar and highlighted the lack of investigation or recognition of these violations by law enforcement authorities.

In a separate development, people in Tuntuma and Hatun Collana, in Cusco’s Chumbivilcas province, also protested and blocked roads for over a week in October 2020. They denounced that mining company Las Bambas had failed to provide support for local development projects.

Positive court ruling

On 27th October 2020, a Cotabambas court acquitted 19 people criminalised after protesting against the Las Bambas mining project in 2015. The protesters faced various charges, including “disturbances” and “manufacture and illegal possession of weapons, ammunition and explosives”. Human rights organisations celebrated the court’s decision, underscoring that the ruling recognised the right to social protest as a constitutional guarantee.


Five Indigenous and environmental leaders killed during the pandemic

At least five Indigenous and environmental leaders were murdered since the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency on 15th March 2020. The leaders were opposed to illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking:

Arbildo Meléndez Grandes, head of the Indigenous Unipacuyacu community, was shot and killed in Puerto Inca on 15th April 2020. The shooter, who had recently been hired by the Indigenous leader, confessed and claimed to have mistakenly shot Arbildo while they were both hunting.

Benjamin Ríos Urimishi of the Asháninka community Kipachari in Atalaya province, Ucayali, was killed on 26th April 2020. Indigenous organisation Organización Regional Aidesep Ucayali (ORAU) denounced that he had been threatened and harassed by people associated with narcotrafficking and land grabbing in the region.

Gonzalo Pio Flores, head of the Asháninka community Nuevo Amanecer Hawai, located near the border of the Junin, Pasco and Ucayali regions, was murdered on 17th May 2020. He fought for the recognition of the community’s land rights and against illegal logging in the region.

Lorenzo Wampagkit Yamil, an environmental defender who worked for eight years as a park ranger in the Chayu Nain reserve (Amazonas), was killed on 29th July 2020.

Roberto Carlos Pacheco Villanueva was found dead in the Amazon forest region of the Madre de Dios department on 11th September 2020. He and his father had long fought illegal mining in the Tambopata National Reserve. Both defenders had denounced receiving repeated threats by land grabbers.

Protection of human rights defenders

In September 2020, Peru’s Constitutional Court ruled that “extraordinary” agreements between the national police and private sector were constitutional. The case questioned contracts signed by Peru’s police to provide security services to extractive industries. According to a civil society report, most of the extractive companies that signed these contracts have projects located in regions with social uprisings and where the projects have been questioned by local communities, affecting the police’s ability to be impartial and independent. While the Court outlined certain rules for these agreements, the Legal Defence Institute (Instituto de Defensa Legal) called the ruling “incongruous” as the Court recognised that these contracts affect the police’s objectivity but did not consider them unconstitutional.

In a positive development, on 1st October 2020 the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights approved the creation of the Register on Situations of Risk for Human Rights Defenders. This mechanism aims to collect, analyse and manage information on risk situations faced by human rights defenders in Peru. It will also contribute to adopting relevant measures and timely actions to prevent threats against defenders and guarantee their protection. The Register is the result of a comprehensive process of consultation between governmental actors, Indigenous populations, civil society and the corporate sector.

On 6th October 2020, representatives of Indigenous and civil society organisations participated in a public hearing at the Inter-American Council on Human Rights (IACHR) to denounce the lack of protection for environmental defenders in Peru. They presented four cases in which Amazonian Indigenous leaders were violently attacked after speaking up about illegal activities in their ancestral homelands. They stated that the government has not taken adequate measures to stop the systematic attacks on Indigenous rights and that “the State only provides protection on paper, not in practice”. One such violent attack took place in early October 2020, when ORAU leader José Luis Malpartida López was shot and gravely injured on his way to work, and two other Indigenous leaders were threatened.

Congress Commission shelves proposal to ratify Escazú Agreement

On 20th October 2020, the Peruvian Congress’ Foreign Relations Commission shelved the ratification of the Escazú Agreement (Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean), which has been described by activists as the first environmental human rights treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As reported by news media, Congressmen who supported the opinion against the Agreement’s ratification argued that Peru’s legislation already contained regulation on several of the issues covered by the regional treaty. Legislator Carlos Mesías (Popular Force) also claimed that the defence of the environment, the safety of activists or rights of native peoples are not necessarily human rights but sovereignty issues. Three parties, Frente Amplio, Partido Moradoand Somos Perú, voted against the decision but were defeated nine votes to three.

Civil society organisation Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Law, Environment and Resources - DAR) regretted the Commission’s decision, saying that these arguments caused concern seeing as Peru was one of the key proponents of the Agreement during its negotiations. The coordinator of DAR’s Amazonian Programme, Aida Gamboa, stated:

"We as civil society, hand in hand with the Indigenous organisations, have been supporting this process and by archiving the Escazú Agreement the congressmen are turning their backs on the citizens, on the Indigenous organisations, on the Indigenous peoples, on the people who defend and protect the environment and on being recognised as a country committed to the environment, and above all to the protection of human rights."