“If something happens to me, don’t cry,” Leonardo Hancco told his wife, Ruth Barcena, in Peru’s southern city of Ayacucho on the morning of Dec. 15.
The 32-year-old taxi driver and father of a seven-year-old girl had decided at the last minute to join the nationwide political protests in Peru.
“If I have decided to participate because I want to give my children a better future, then I will fight for my rights,” he added before leaving, according to Barcena.
Demonstrations that first broke out after the impeachment of former President Pedro Castillo in December have since continued – largely in central and southern Peru, where Ayacucho is located – fueled by allegations of corruption in the government and elected officials, as well as anger over living conditions and inequality in the country. Demonstrators demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the closing of the 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 outbursts of violence during the demonstrations. At least 10 people have been killed and more than 40 injured in this region alone, according to the country’s ombudsman.
Hanco was one of them. Hours after joining the march, he was shot in the abdomen near Ayacucho airport, where protesters had gathered and some tried to take control of the runway.
He died of his injuries two days later, Barcena told CNN.
The legendary region of Ayacucho was once home to the Wari civilization and became part of the Inca Empire. The capital, now also called Ayacucho, was one of the most important cities during the Spanish conquest. It was also the birthplace of one of the darkest and most painful chapters in Peru’s recent history, home to the Shining Path armed rebel group during the violent 1980s and 1990s.
According to the final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nearly 70,000 people eventually died as a result of the internal conflict between the Peruvian security forces and the Maoist rebel group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso in Spanish) and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movement Tupac Amaru ( MRTA). Both government and rebel groups have been accused of human rights abuses during their wars. More than 40% of the dead and missing in this bloody conflict occurred in the Ayacucho region.
Since then, this region has welcomed local and international tourists, relying on agriculture, mining and production of local products. But it still reflects the inequalities of the past. Compared to Peru’s capital, Lima, Ayacucho’s health and education system is underdeveloped, with facilities and standards well below those of the capital.
“They say Peru is doing very well economically, but the pandemic has stripped us,” Lurgio Gavilán, a professor of anthropology at the National University of San Cristóbal 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 toll and more than half of the population lacking access to adequate food during the pandemic. Poverty has been especially insidious in the country’s rural areas.
While the economy has recovered and GDP is back at pre-pandemic levels, the country’s persisting inequality means that not everyone is benefiting. 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 teacher who vowed to correct economic inequality before his demise. But polarization and the chaos surrounding his presidency — including allegations of corruption and multiple impeachment attempts by Congress, which Castillo rejected as politically motivated — only exacerbated already existing tensions in Peru.
Ayacucho’s painful past has been the backdrop of clashes in the region. Derogatory language used by government officials, sections of the press and the public to criticize protesters and portray them as vandals, criminals and “terrorists” has struck a historic chord.
“No one is saying that all protesters are terrorists, but they should know that people associated with the Shining Path are marching alongside them,” General Oscar Arriola Delgado, spokesman for the National Police of Peru (PNP), said after three people involved at the protests were arrested in Ayacucho for alleged ties to the Shining Path. One of them is accused of giving money to the demonstrators and of participating in planning attacks on public and private property.
Although Shining Path has been defunct since the late 1990s, remnants of the group remain active in the south of the country, where the Peruvian government claims to benefit 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 disclose whether they link her to any existing factions.
However, Gavilán warns against exaggerating the presence of Shining Path links. “People can think, they know how to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. We also know how to be outraged despite the fact that we have been through so much,” the anthropologist said.
“For us, the Shining Path died long ago, no one supports the Shining Path, they took us to a terrible war that no one wants,” he also said.
He himself has experienced firsthand how Peru has become entangled in the Shining Path. After being orphaned as a child soldier when he was 12 years old, the army recruited him at age 15 to fight against the same group. Gavilán later became a Franciscan priest before studying anthropology.
According to him, the real threat here lies in another déjà vu: Peruvian soldiers again confronting civilians. “Our population has seen the faces of the soldiers on the streets again,” he says.
Ayacucho is one of the regions now trying to hold Peruvian authorities accountable for alleged brutality against protesters. The National Prosecutor’s Office has already opened a preliminary investigation against the current president Boluarte, three of her ministers and police and army commanders.
At least 55 people have been killed and more than 500 police officers injured in clashes across the country since the unrest began, according to the Office of the National Ombudsman and the Interior Ministry.
Police say their tactics are in line with international standards. But a fact-finding mission to Peru by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that gunshot wounds were found in the heads and upper bodies of victims during protests, areas that should be avoided by law enforcement to save lives.
According to guidelines from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “using firearms to disperse a gathering is always illegal”.
Boluarte has said the decision to deploy the army has been a difficult one and that neither the police nor the military were sent to “kill.” She had also referred to the protests as “terrorismwhen she visited an injured police officer in hospital – a label the IACHR has warned could lead to a “climate of more violence.”
Barcena believes that the government should take responsibility for her husband’s death. After the shock of losing Hancco, she decided to lead a group of relatives of the dead and injured in Ayacucho to support the prosecution’s investigation and seek civil reparations from the government for the dead or injured.
Her family depended on his income as a taxi driver, a job he took after losing his job as a heavy machinery operator in a mining company when the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, she says.
“Those who died were innocent people, [security forces] had no right to take their lives. I know what kind of person my husband was; he was humble, he loved life, he gave everything for his family. A fighter. Despite being a farmer, he never had his head down,” Barcena told CNN.
Her claim is supported by human rights experts who study the current violence. Percy Castillo, Associate Ombudsman for Human Rights and Persons with Disabilities in Peru, told CNN after being on the scene in Ayacucho that his office supports the creation of a recovery mechanism for these families emerging from poverty.
Joel Hernández García, a commissioner for IACHR, also supports such measures, telling CNN that reparations for the dead were one of three steps needed to resolve the country’s crisis.