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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Talking human rights and police brutality

In the last few months, the right to protest has become a salient theme for many people across Europe. Especially us students have experienced many instances in which institutions and police have attempted to suppress critical voices and evade accountability. Incrementing police brutality makes protesting increasingly unsafe, revealing many institutions’ real outlook on protecting protesters’ rights: They tolerate protest until they are required to make systemic changes. This experience is shared by many marginalised groups and their allies worldwide.


In Peru, the current administration is violently undermining people’s right to protest not only through unwarranted police force - the obvious method - but also through a deeply entrenched, deeply racist discourse on indigenous people. In the course of protests against President Dina Boluarte’s regime, at least 60 demonstrators have been murdered, thousands injured, and dozens unjustly detained. 


Under international law, states have the duty to protect and respect the rights of all protesters without discrimination. However, while doing research for an article on the topic, I came across multiple sources reporting on the opposite occurring in Peru. One of them pointed me towards Mr. Rodriguez, a volunteer lawyer at the Peruvian human rights NGO Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDDHH). In an interview with me, he illustrates the many ways in which indigenous Peruvian protestors have been inappropriately targeted and discredited by Peru’s government.


CNDDHH coordinates 72 human rights organisations throughout the whole country. Their mission is to ensure that people’s rights are observed by police offices and also hospitals in the cases in which protesters had to be hospitalized due to the violence inflicted upon them.


Mr. Rodriguez recounts the events, starting with ex-President Castillo’s ousting from power. The protests surged right after, with especially violent police repression in Apurímac and Abancay, where the first victims were reported. On December 15, military forces murdered ten protestors in Ayacucho. Similar occurrences started to happen all over the country, but predominantly in South Andean regions, including Puno, Ayacucho, Cuzco, and Apurímac. Indeed, augmented police violence against South Andean populations is a tactic used by the state to provoke greater upheaval and justify further oppression of indigenous people. 


Lima, on the other hand, saw a less drastic state response. Given the harsh repression in rural areas, the protestors started moving towards Peru’s capital. During what was coined “la toma de Lima” [the capture of Lima], thousands took the streets of Peru’s capital, very much to the demise of the Limeños. 


I don’t know how long you have been outside the country,” Mr. Rodriguez says to me, “but unfortunately, Lima is a very conservative, very discriminatory city, even more so towards the South-Andean people.” Middle and upper class Limeños felt offended by the capture of their city, which further aggravated the situation for the protestors. 


We had not seen a protest like this before,” Mr. Rodriguez notes. The capture of Lima has been, at least initially, a social movement organised by campesinos [peasants]. Previous protests had been organised by the political opposition, and the protestors could count on backing from the wealthier classes of Lima. In the case of the 2022/ 2023 protests, the campesinos have been especially vulnerable due to a lack of political affiliations, exposing them to targeted defamation campaigns by the state.


The protests in Lima started on January 6 and continued until February. Every day, from 7am until 3am, volunteers from CNDDHH relentlessly supported protestors at police offices. Individuals could be detained for up to 72 hours, during which CNDDHH workers observed multiple cases of abuses against detainees. “Some cases were cruel, some very inhumane, some could even be considered torture,” Mr. Rodriguez reveals, emphasising that it was predominantly people of Quechua or Aymara descent who experienced abuse and were denied interpreters during the process. 


CNDDHH pressured the state, where they could, to meet their legal duties of assigning attorneys to those who could not afford their own, a right often denied to detained protestors of Indigenous origin. Peru has a long history of systemically oppressing its indigenous population. Racism and classism deeply and pervasively penetrate political, social, and economic spheres and are embedded in the very way people think, speak, act, and live. The dehumanising discourse deployed routinely against marginalised populations serves the state to justify their unreasonably violent reactions towards campesinos. The Limeños avert their eyes when the (denominated) perro [dog] or terruco [terrorist] from the South is being verbally abused, assaulted, and finally shot to death, enabling the state’s undoing of Peru’s democracy.  


The state went to great lengths to represent the protestors as violent and justify their actions. “There’s always people who go too far and directly confront the police,” Mr. Rodriguez admits, “but we have found that most of those people were agents provocateurs.” They belong to the Urban Operational Tactical Intelligence Unit (also known as Grupo Terna), a specialised unit of the Peruvian National Police, and infiltrated the protests as agitators to entice violence. 


Mr. Rodriguez tells me of one case that especially made an impression on him: “It was a boy, [the police] chased him around a few blocks and finally managed to isolate him from his group. Once they captured him, they threw him on the ground and they kicked him in the face. Then, they took him to a police office. [CNNDDH] was already there, when they brought him in bleeding. Instead of first bringing him to a hospital, they tried to process him. We had not seen this before. We had not seen this type of brutality in previous protests.” 


Mr. Rodriguez also described cases of mass detentions, in which even children were arrested. Protestors’ lodging places were repeatedly raided, and the armed forces attempted to plant incriminating items like machetes and bombs on them. “They couldn’t do it because the machetes were so new, they still had the tags on them,” Mr. Rodriguez reports. This shows the confidence with which the police acted, convinced of their power and impunity. 


CNHHDD has a registry documenting all deaths during protests since 2003. Up until 2022, they had documented 167 people. For comparison, in just 1,5 months, the armed forces murdered 50, about one-third of the victim count throughout 20 years. That is how brutal the recent protests turned out to be. No police officer has ever been brought to justice and no state intervention to stop police brutality has been recorded. Unfortunately, proof is incredibly difficult to obtain.


The victims’ wounds, all located above the torso, clearly show lethal intent behind every shot. Amnesty International has since published a detailed report about extrajudicial executions and the unlawful use of police force titled Lethal Racism, undoubtedly linking the inhumane events unfolding during the 2022/ 2023 protests to blatant racism.


Internationally, the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have brought attention to the human rights violations in Peru, but neither have they been able to hold the state accountable nor offer financial support. The families of the victims are also still seeking justice. The system repeatedly fails the victims, and for that matter, the people, whose rights the state should protect but instead their subaltern characteristics, their skin, their language, and their history, exactly what makes Peru so culturally rich and diverse, are instrumentalized and held against them. The state has now ensured that previously autonomous organisations, such as the Defensoría del Pueblo, which are supposed to serve and protect the people from institutional power abuses, are led by people who are clearly affiliated with the current administration, further undermining peoples’ options to hold the state accountable. As long as systemic racism persists and voices of criticism are silenced, Peru will continue to struggle against its own people rather than progress as one country. 


For more information on the protests in Peru, read my previous article or follow CNDDHH.

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