(Washington, DC) – Peru’s civilian authorities should conduct prompt, thorough, and independent investigations into at least 21 killings of protesters, allegations of excessive use of force by security forces, and acts of violence by some protesters, Human Rights Watch said today.
Then-president Pedro Castillo triggered the current crisis on December 7, 2022 by announcing he would temporarily dissolve Congress and restructure the judiciary, in what was effectively an attempted coup. In response, Congress removed Castillo, and Vice President Dina Boluarte assumed the presidency. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets calling for early elections.
“The violence committed during the protests needs to be investigated, but does not justify any excessive use of force by security forces, which may endanger people’s health and lives,” said Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Peruvian authorities should prioritize dialogue and respect for human rights as they seek a solution to the country’s ongoing political crisis.”
The Ombudsperson’s Office has reported at least 21 killings, including four of children, during protests since December 7. The Health Ministry confirmed that firearms killed five of the victims, another one died from internal bleeding, and another person from head trauma.
The Health Ministry said at least another 12 were “likely” killed by firearms, pending autopsy results. Among them are nine people who died in an area of Ayacucho where military personnel armed with assault rifles were deployed. The armed forces said a patrol used “force,” without specifying what form the forcible response took, in response to what authorities described as an attack by “a mob” armed with homemade weapons and other objects.
The Ombudsperson’s Office reported that 356 demonstrators and 290 police officers had been injured as of December 18. The Health Ministry said 38 people remained hospitalized as of December 20, including eight in serious condition – one of them died after the report was issued, becoming the 21st victim. There have been no public reports of injuries among armed forces personnel.
The National Human Rights Coordinator (Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos), a coalition of human rights organizations, has alleged that police beat some people during arrest or while in custody; misused less-lethal weapons, causing injuries to demonstrators; delayed lawyers’ access to detainees at police stations; and held some detainees for longer than the law provides.
Some alleged abuses occurred after President Boluarte declared a 30-day state of emergency on December 14 that suspended some basic rights, such as freedom of association, allowed searches without a warrant, and deployed the armed forces to “support” the police in maintaining public order.
While thousands of people have marched peacefully across the country, some protesters have thrown rocks at police, attacked health personnel, set prosecutors’ offices and other private and public buildings on fire, and looted.
Peru’s National Association of Journalists reported 47 attacks against reporters covering the demonstrations and media outlets, 90 percent by protesters and the rest by police.
Protesters blocked roads across the country for several days. The Ombudsperson’s Office reported six deaths in traffic accidents and other incidents related to those blockages. A children’s hospital in Lima said that one child died because a protest blockage impeded his transportation to a hospital and an ambulance carrying other children was stopped for 10 hours.
The right to peaceful protest does not include impeding the passage of ambulances, medical supplies, and other emergency services, Human Rights Watch said.
The Attorney General’s Office should conduct prompt, thorough, and independent investigations into the killings of protesters, the injuries experienced by protesters and police, and the other acts of violence during the protests. Prosecutors specializing in human rights should lead the investigations into possible abuses by police or the armed forces, Human Rights Watch said. Prosecutors specializing in crime prevention should also take preventive measures to ensure police and the armed forces abide by the law.
The deployment of the armed forces to maintain public order raises particular concerns, as they do not have the equipment, training, or mission to carry out those tasks. Videos shared on local news outlets and social media – reviewed and verified by Human Rights Watch – show military personnel apparently firing assault rifles in the streets near the Ayacucho airport.
During a December 18 news conference, the joint command of Peru’s Armed Forces said “bad Peruvians” had attacked military personnel. It did not provide any details about the death of eight people on December 15 – an additional person died of his injuries on December 17 – or the injuries to at least 14, in areas of Ayacucho where the armed forces, not police, were deployed.
On December 18, President Boluarte said that, in addition to the civilian prosecutors’ investigation, the deaths of protesters will be investigated within the military justice system, which applies to members of the armed forces and police. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ruled prosecutions for human rights violations should take place in civilian courts, rather than military tribunals, even in cases in which the suspects are armed forces members.
Peruvian politics have been particularly polarized since Castillo narrowly defeated Keiko Fujimori in 2021 presidential elections. Until this month, a group of lawmakers had repeatedly tried and failed to garner enough votes in Congress to remove Castillo from office.
In October, Attorney General Patricia Benavides charged Castillo and two former cabinet members with belonging to a criminal organization, influence peddling, and collusion. Prosecutors have opened six investigations into alleged corruption and other offenses against him. Separately, prosecutors are also investigating several members of Congress and Fujimori for corruption.
Castillo’s attempt to dissolve Congress the morning of December 7 appears to have been aimed at preempting a vote scheduled by Congress for that afternoon to remove him from the presidency based on the corruption allegations against him.
After Castillo announced the temporary dissolution of Congress and the “reorganization” of the judiciary on December 7, most members of his cabinet resigned and the armed forces issued a statement calling for respect for the constitution. Congress approved Castillo’s removal within the next few hours, and Vice-President Boluarte became president the same day.
Police detained Castillo and prosecutors charged him with rebellion and conspiracy. On December 13, the Supreme Court ruled that detaining him had been legal. On December 16, a judge ordered 18 months of pretrial detention for Castillo.
Boluarte initially said she would govern until the end of Castillo’s term, in 2026, but, after protests broke out, she asked Congress to approve early general elections. On December 20, Congress approved holding early elections in April 2024. The decision needs to be confirmed in a second vote in the next legislative session, after February 28, 2023.
General elections would include presidential and congressional elections. In Peru, members of Congress cannot run for immediate reelection, so early elections would mean current congress members would lose their seats. More than 80 percent of Peruvians support early elections, a poll conducted after December 7 found. Early elections are a main demand of protesters.
Under international human rights law, the authorities should protect peaceful assemblies, and not disperse them even if they believe them to be unlawful. Peaceful protests that block traffic may as a general rule be dispersed only if they cause serious and sustained disruptions.
The police and armed forces should use force only if unavoidable, and then with restraint and in proportion to the circumstances. Intentional lethal use of firearms should only be employed when strictly unavoidable to protect life, Human Rights Watch said.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that the military should only be used for law enforcement tasks in extraordinary circumstances, to assist but not replace civilian officials, and subject to strict monitoring to ensure accountability.
Excessive use of force by state agents is a persistent problem in Peru. Rules for use of force by security forces do not comply with international standards. Congress passed a law in 2020 eliminating an explicit requirement that use of force be proportionate and granting police new protections against prosecution.
Eight months after enactment of the law, police used excessive force in Lima during largely peaceful protests about the removal of then-President Martín Vizcarra. Over 200 people were injured, and two protesters killed. The Castillo administration failed to carry out police reforms to ensure a more effective and accountable force, Human Rights Watch said.
While several countries and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned Castillo’s attempt to “break the constitutional order,” Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico issued a joint statement that did not comment on his actions on December 7 and portrayed him as a victim of “harassment” throughout his presidency.
“The international community should support Peruvians by defending the rule of law and democratic principles,” Goebertus said. “They should send a clear message to Peruvian authorities about the need for effective civilian investigations into the killings of protesters, and for a peaceful solution to the political crisis that takes into account citizens’ legitimate concerns.”