LIMA, Peru (AP) — Thousands of people poured into Peru's capital, many from remote Andean regions, for a protest Thursday against President Dina Boluarte and in support of her predecessor, whose ouster last month launched deadly unrest and cast the nation into political chaos.
Police repeatedly fired tear gas into crowds of demonstrators as night fell Thursday, preventing them from heading into business and residential districts of Lima. The supporters of former President Pedro Castillo were demanding Boluarte's resignation, the dissolution of Congress, and immediate elections. Castillo, Peru’s first leader from a rural Andean background, was impeached after a failed attempt to dissolve Congress.
“We have delinquent ministers, presidents that murder and we live like animals in the middle of so much wealth that they steal from us every day,” said Samuel Acero, a farmer who heads the regional protest committee for the Andean city of Cusco. “We want Dina Boluarte to leave, she lied to us.”
Anger at Boluarte was the common thread as street sellers hawked T-shirts saying, “Out, Dina Boluarte,” “Dina murderer, Peru repudiates you” and a call for “New elections, let them all leave.”
“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.
By early afternoon, protesters had turned key roads into large pedestrian areas in downtown Lima.
The protests have so far been held mainly in Peru's southern Andes, with 54 people dying amid the unrest, the large majority killed in clashes with security forces.
“We’re at a breaking point between dictatorship and democracy,” said Pedro Mamani, a student at the National University of San Marcos. Students there are housing demonstrators who traveled for the protest that is being popularly referred to as the "takeover of Lima."
The university was surrounded by police officers, who also deployed at key points of Lima's historic downtown district.
Some 11,800 police officers were being sent out, Victor Zanabria, the head of the Lima police force told local media. He played down the size of the protests, saying he expected around 2,000 people to participate.
There were protests elsewhere and video posted on social media showed a group of demonstrators trying to storm the airport in southern Arequipa, Peru's second city. They were blocked by police but the airport paused operations.
The demonstrations that erupted last month and subsequent clashes with security forces were the worst political violence in more than two decades and has highlighted the deep divisions between the urban elite largely concentrated in Lima and poor rural areas.
By bringing the protest to Lima, demonstrators hope 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 professor of public policies at the Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University in Lima.
“The leaders have understood that and say, they can massacre us in Cusco, in Puno, and nothing happens, we need to take the protest to Lima,” Cárdenas added, citing cities that have seen major violence.
The concentration of protesters in Lima also reflects how the capital has started to see more antigovernment demonstrations in recent days.
The protester were planning to march Thursday from downtown Lima to the Miraflores district, an emblematic neighborhood of the economic elite.
The government has called on protesters to be peaceful.
Boluarte has said she supports a plan to push to 2024 elections for president and Congress originally scheduled for 2026.
Many protesters say no dialogue is possible with a government they say has unleashed so much violence against its citizens.
As protesters gathered in Lima, more violence erupted in southern Peru.
In the town of Macusani on Wednesday, protesters set fire to the police station and judicial office after two people were killed and another seriously injured by gunfire amid antigovernment protests. The person who was injured died Thursday morning in hospital, said a health official in the town.
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.
There are several key differences between those demonstrations and this week’s protests.
“In 2000, the people protested against a regime that was already consolidated in power,” Cardenas 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. “Now what we have is something much more fragmented,” Coronel said.
The latest protests have largely been grassroots efforts without a clear leadership.
“We have never seen a mobilization of this magnitude, there’s already a thought installed in the peripheries that it is necessary, urgent to transform everything,” said Gustavo Montoya, a historian at the National University of San Marcos. “I have the feeling that we’re witnessing a historic shift.”
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.
The protests have emerged “in regions that have been systematically treated as second-class citizens,” Montoya said. “I think this will only keep growing.”
Associated Press journalist Mauricio Muñoz contributed.