LIMA, Peru — Thousands of protesters poured into Peru’s capital Thursday, clashing with police amid tear gas and smoke and demanding the ouster of President Dina Boluarte. Many came from remote Andean regions, where 55 people have died amid unrest since Peru’s first president from a rural Andean background was removed from office last month.
The protests have seen Peru’s worst political violence in more than two decades and highlighted deep divisions between the country’s urban elite, largely concentrated in Lima, and poor rural areas. Former President Pedro Castillo has been in detention and expected to be tried for rebellion since was impeached after a failed attempt to dissolve Congress.
The day was mostly quiet, punctuated by clashes and tear gas. The government called on everyone who could to work from home. After sundown, clashes escalated, and late Thursday night, a major fire broke out at a building near the historic Plaza San Martin, although no connection to the protests was immediately clear.
Anger at Boluarte was the common thread Thursday as protesters chanted calls for her resignation and street sellers hawked T-shirts saying, “Out, Dina Boluarte,” “Dina murderer, Peru repudiates you,” and “New elections, let them all leave.”
Peru’s ombudsman said at least 13 civilians and four police officers were injured in the Lima protests Thursday. A total of 22 police officers and 16 civilians were injured Thursday throughout the country, Interior Minister Vicente Romero Fernández said.
Protesters blamed Boluarte for the violence. “Our God says thou shalt not kill your neighbor. Dina Boluarte is killing, she’s making brothers fight,” Paulina Consac said as she carried a large Bible while marching in downtown Lima with more than 2,000 protesters from Cusco.
Many Lima residents also joined today’s protests, with strong presences from students and union members.
“We’re at a breaking point between dictatorship and democracy,” said Pedro Mamani, a student at the National University of San Marcos, where demonstrators who traveled for the protest were being housed.
The university was surrounded by police officers, who also deployed at key points of Lima’s historic downtown district — 11,800 officers in all, according to Victor Zanabria, the head of the Lima police force.
Boluarte was defiant Thursday night in a televised speech alongside key government officials in which she thanked police for controlling the “violent protests” and vowed to prosecute those responsible for violence. Boluarte has said she supports a plan to hold elections for president and Congress in 2024, two years before originally scheduled.
The president also criticized the protesters for “not having any kind of social agenda that the country needs,” accused them of “wanting to break the rule of law” and raised questions about their financing.
For much of the day, the protests played out as a cat-and-mouse game, with demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks at law enforcement, trying to get through police lines and officers responding with volleys of tear gas that sent protesters fleeing, using rags dipped in vinegar to alleviate the sting to their eyes and skin.
By bringing the protest to Lima, demonstrators hoped to give fresh weight to the movement that began when Boluarte was sworn into office on Dec. 7 to replace Castillo.
“When there are tragedies, bloodbaths outside the capital it doesn’t have the same political relevance in the public agenda than if it took place in the capital,” said Alonso Cárdenas, a public policy professor at the Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Lima.
Protests were also held elsewhere and video posted on social media showed demonstrators trying to storm the airport in southern Arequipa, Peru’s second city. They were blocked by police and one person was killed in the ensuing clashes, Peru’s ombudsman said.
That was one of three airports that suffered attacks from protesters Thursday, Boluarte said, adding it wasn’t “a mere coincidence” they were stormed on the same day.
As the sun set, fires smoldered in the streets of downtown Lima as protesters threw rocks at police officers who fired so much tear gas it was difficult to see.
“I’m feeling furious,” said Verónica Paucar, 56, coughing from the tear gas. “We’re going to return peacefully.” Paucar is a resident of Lima whose parents are from Cusco.
Clashes escalated after dark, and late Thursday evening, a raging inferno broke out in an old building near the protests that were taking place in Plaza San Martín in downtown Lima, but its relationship to the demonstrations was not immediately clear. Images showed people rushing to get their belongings out of the building that was close to several government offices.
Activists have dubbed Thursday’s demonstration in Lima as the Cuatro Suyos March, a reference to the four cardinal points of the Inca empire. It’s also the name given to a massive 2000 mobilization, when thousands of Peruvians took to the streets against the autocratic government of Alberto Fujimori, who resigned months later.
But there are key differences between those demonstrations and this week’s protests.
“In 2000, the people protested against a regime that was already consolidated in power,” Cárdenas said. “In this case, they’re standing up to a government that has only been in power for a month and is incredibly fragile.”
The 2000 protests also had a centralized leadership and were led by political parties.
The latest protests have largely been grassroots efforts without a clear leadership, a dynamic that was clear Thursday as protesters often seemed lost and didn’t know where to head next as their path was continually blocked by law enforcement.
The protests have grown to such a degree that demonstrators are unlikely to be satisfied with Boluarte’s resignation and are now demanding more fundamental structural reform.
Protesters on Thursday said they would not be cowed.
“This isn’t ending today, it won’t end tomorrow, but only once we achieve our goals,” said 61-year-old David Lozada as he looked on at a line of police officers wearing helmets and carrying shields blocking protesters from leaving downtown Lima. “I don’t know what they’re thinking, do they want to spark a civil war?”