Egregious Abuses by Security Forces

Relatives and friends of people killed during demonstrations in Juliaca, Peru, carry pictures of their loved ones at a February 9, 2023, march commemorating one month since their deaths. © 2023 Juan Carlos Cisneros/AFP via Getty Images
  • Peru’s military and police likely carried out extrajudicial or arbitrary killings and committed other egregious abuses against demonstrators and bystanders during protests in recent months.
  • The government’s apparent efforts to minimize the abuses and apparent inaction in the face of strong evidence of abuses raises questions as to negligence and complicity.
  • The government should invite a commission of independent international experts to support criminal investigations. The international community should support national dialogue over Peruvians’ legitimate concerns.

(São Paulo, April 26, 2023) – Peru’s military and police likely carried out extrajudicial or arbitrary killings and committed other egregious abuses against demonstrators and bystanders during protests from December 2022 through February 2023, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The abuses occurred against the backdrop of deteriorating democratic institutions, corruption, impunity for past abuses, and persistent inequality.

Security Force Abuses and Democratic Crisis in Peru

The 107-page report, “Deadly Decline: Security Force Abuses and Democratic Crisis in Peru,” documents excessive use of force by security forces, due process violations and abuses against detainees, and failures in criminal investigations, as well as the entrenched political and social crisis that is eroding the rule of law and human rights in Peru. While some protesters were responsible for acts of violence, security forces responded with grossly disproportionate force, including with assault weapons and handguns. Forty-nine protesters and bystanders, including 8 children, were killed.

“The Boluarte administration seems to have looked the other way for weeks as security forces killed protesters and bystanders,” said César Muñoz, associate Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “There were serious acts of violence by protesters, which need to be investigated, but that is no justification for the brutal, indiscriminate, and disproportionate response by security forces.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 140 people, including witnesses, injured protesters and bystanders, relatives of those killed, police officers, prosecutors, journalists, and others in person in Peru and remotely. Human Rights Watch also met with the ministers of defense and the interior, the then-commander of the national police and the police inspector general, the attorney general, and the ombudswoman. Human Rights Watch verified over 37 hours of video footage and 663 photographs of the protests, and reviewed autopsy and ballistics reports, health records, criminal files, and other documentation.

Human Rights Watch established that at least 39 people died from gunshot wounds. More than 1,300 people were injured, including hundreds of police officers. A police officer was killed in unclear circumstances. The investigation into these killings needs to be credible and thorough, and must reach all those who may bear responsibility, including at the highest levels of government.

Peru has experienced an erosion of the rule of law and democratic institutions in recent years, in part due to pervasive corruption and a Congress dominated by petty personal agendas and intent on eliminating checks on its power. Then-President Pedro Castillo, who was under investigation for corruption, triggered the current crisis on December 7, 2022, by attempting to close Congress and take over the judiciary, effectively a failed coup. Congress removed Castillo and Vice President Dina Boluarte became president, as provided by Peru’s constitution.

Thousands of people took to the streets – mostly rural workers and Indigenous people in the south of the country – calling for early elections, among other political demands. Demonstrators told Human Rights Watch they were also motivated by frustrations stemming from not being able to provide a better life for their children, lack of access to quality education and health care, and a sense of being forgotten by the political leadership.

While most of the protests were peaceful, there were grave incidents of violence. Roadblocks set up by protesters contributed to 11 deaths of people who could not reach hospitals or who had car accidents, according to the Ombudsperson’s Office.

In at least 39 of the 49 civilian killings of protesters or bystanders reported by the Ombudsperson’s Office, the cause of death was gunshot wounds, according to autopsy and ballistics reports and health records reviewed by Human Rights Watch. In a 40th case, a health document listed the cause as “probably” a gunshot wound.

Witness testimony, corroborated by hours of videos reviewed by Human Rights Watch, shows security forces were equipped with firearms and used them against protesters in some locations outside of Lima. All the types of bullets identified in ballistics and autopsy reports as cause of death can be fired with the assault rifles and handguns with which security forces were seen. Police did not seize any firearm, homemade or not, from protesters, nor did Human Rights Watch find any image of a protester holding a firearm.

An additional five people were killed by pellets fired from shotguns and one protester was likely killed by a teargas canister fired at close range, according to documents and videos verified by Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch could not ascertain the cause of death for the remaining three cases, out of the 49 killings.

[IMG | SOURCE: | ALT: Peru: Egregious Abuses by Security Forces]

These killings are most likely extrajudicial or arbitrary killings under international human rights law, for which the state is responsible.

Human Rights Watch also documented due process violations and abuses against detainees. Police appear to have abusively employed an overbroad legal provision allowing them to take people into custody to verify their identity, conducted an abusive mass detention at the San Marcos National University in Lima, and ill-treated detainees.

Criminal investigations by the Attorney General’s Office have had serious flaws, including failures to collect key initial evidence. The authorities failed to secure crime scenes or order gunshot residue tests on military and police officers, and to seize their weapons for ballistics analysis without delay. In some instances, prosecutors did not seek CCTV footage of the locations where people were injured or killed. In two cases, they failed to arrange autopsies before burials.

In January 2023, the attorney general opened a preliminary investigation against President Boluarte, Prime Minister Alberto Otárola, and other current and former officials, including for homicide and serious injuries committed during protests.

Evidence that the police and the military were engaging in excessive use of force emerged as early as mid-December 2022. Yet, senior officials were dismissive about the abuses, often denying they occurred. They also claimed without proof that the killings were caused by homemade weapons or by firearms and ammunition entering from Bolivia, and repeatedly disparaged and stigmatized protesters, insinuating that they were “terrorists.”

The government’s rhetoric that appeared to excuse or minimize the abuses, combined with the apparent inaction of the highest civilian authorities overseeing security forces in the face of strong evidence of abuses, raises questions as to possible negligence or even complicity in the abuses, Human Rights Watch said. As of early February, the Interior Ministry had not opened investigations into the abuses against protesters, bystanders, or journalists, and no police officer had been disciplined or removed from duty.

Meanwhile, sectors of Congress are actively moving to remove checks on its power, including through efforts to weaken the independence of electoral agencies and the Ombudsperson’s Office. New corruption allegations have emerged against President Boluarte, and dozens of members of Congress are under investigation.

The government of Peru should invite an independent commission of international experts and grant it access to government information and case files to support ongoing criminal investigations and report on the current crisis and human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. It should also take concrete actions to regain public trust and pave the way for dialogue with protesters and affected communities, and work with Congress to secure long-needed police reform to make the police force more efficient and respectful of the law.

Under international human rights law, authorities should protect peaceful assemblies, and not disperse them even if they believe them to be unlawful. 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.

Foreign governments have largely failed to consistently speak out or take action to defend democracy and human rights during the crisis. The United States and Canada did not denounce the killings and other serious abuses for months. Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico defended Castillo. Few governments seem to have focused on the new threats to democratic institutions coming from Congress.

“Many countries have spoken out only selectively about the crisis in Peru, rather than recognizing that defending democratic institutions and the rule of law in Peru goes hand in hand with protecting human rights,” Muñoz said. “The international community needs to be much more vocal and consistent in denouncing human rights violations and threats to democratic systems in Peru, to press for accountability, and to help create the conditions for genuine dialogue that takes into account Peruvians’ legitimate concerns.”

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