Peru’s dark past surfaces as young protester is laid to rest

Dec 17, 2022, 9:41 PM | Updated: Dec 18, 2022, 2:48 pm

Soldiers stand guard outside the airport in Ayacucho, Peru, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. The eight deaths...

Soldiers stand guard outside the airport in Ayacucho, Peru, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. The eight deaths this week that converted Ayacucho into the epicenter of violence in Peru's still unfolding crisis is for many a stark reminder of the region's bloody past and longstanding neglect by authorities in the far-away capital. (AP Photo/Hugo Curotto)

(AP Photo/Hugo Curotto)

QUINUA, Peru (AP) — This rural hamlet nestled high in the Peruvian Andes was the site of a major battle that secured South America’s independence from Spain in the 19th century.

But on Saturday, the streets of Quinua were overrun by weeping residents commemorating a far more senseless loss: the death of Clemer Rojas, a 23-year-old student who left his parents’ home Thursday to protest the ousting of President Pedro Castillo and never returned.

A funeral procession of a few thousand peasant farmers, led by a steady drumbeat and people speaking in their native Quechua language, carried Rojas’ casket draped in Peru’s red and white flag to a colonial church where a mass was celebrated, and he was later buried in a nearby cemetery. Interspersed amid the crowd were signs calling for the closure of Congress and denouncing caretaker President Dina Boluarte as an “assassin.”

“My son is leaving. Tell me he’s not leaving,” Nilda Garcia, a street vendor, wailed as friends and family members struggled to keep her from falling down.

Rojas died in clashes with the army in the nearby provincial capital of Ayacucho, which has emerged as an unlikely epicenter of unrest in Peru’s still unfolding political crisis. The tumult was triggered by Castillo’s attempt to close Congress — a futile act of gamesmanship widely condemned by the U.S. and others as a self-coup but seen here, in Peru’s long-neglected countryside, as a pride-filled display of defiance against a hostile establishment that never allowed the former rural school teacher to govern since his shock victory 17 months ago.

Boluarte has tried to quell the protests, emphasizing her own humble roots and support for protesters’ demands that elections, scheduled for 2026, be pushed up to next year. At a news conference Saturday, Peru’s first female president delivered extensive remarks in Quechua — a foreign language to past Peruvian presidents — comparing the highway blockades, acts of arson and violent protests engulfing Peru to the invisible, emotional damage suffered by children growing up in a broken home with constantly feuding parents.

“Didn’t you see me walking across the country, filling plazas and looking for votes among brothers and sisters?” said Boluarte, who served as Castillo’s running mate and only broke with him following his attempt to dissolve Congress. “Then why this violence in the streets? I didn’t look to be here. I tried to protect him as much as I could.”

Authorities blame the bloodshed in Ayacucho on a horde of young protesters who on Thursday attacked an army patrol with sharp objects, explosives and homemade weapons as it was racing toward the airport to break up an unruly crowd.

Nine people died that day — more than a third of the total deaths reported nationwide — as soldiers hustled from the barracks as part of a 30-day state of emergency and indiscriminately fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammo into large crowds.

In a tragic irony, Rojas was killed by a fellow soldier’s bullet. Like his father, still a teenager he joined joined the Peruvian army, which recruits heavily from impoverished, Quechua-speaking homes.

“He wasn’t armed,” says his father, Reider Rojas, who was dressed in black. “They fired at point-blank range. The autopsy said a bullet fired by a Galil rifle used by the army pierced his liver and lungs.”

In his hometown, Rojas is remembered as a good kid and an avid participant in folk dances around Carnival time who drove a moto taxi to pay for his studies at a vocational school.

Ayacucho’s small size and sclerotic agro-based economy belie the oversized role it has played in Peru’s history.

Once a thriving outpost of the Incan empire, it was vanquished in the 16th century by Spanish colonizers. Centuries later, it was renamed Ayacucho, in reference to the battle where a rebel army led by Venezuelan-born Simon Bolivar gained the definitive upper hand against royalist forces sent from Spain. Its name in native Quechua translates as “corner of death” in honor of the battle’s many casualties.

The region’s poverty — even today 45% of children under the age of 3 suffer from iron deficiency, according to the government — made it a hotbed of clandestine activity for Maoist guerrillas that once terrorized much of Peru. The spread of the Shining Path in decades past, in turn, generated a ferocious backlash by Peru’s military that has forever embittered residents against the ruling elite in the far away capital.

In an echo of past statements stigmatizing residents of Ayacucho to terrorist sympathizers, Jose Williams, who as the head of Congress is next in the line of succession should Boluarte resign, blamed the violence on a “black hand” operating behind the scenes.

“The same behavior is appearing in one place, then another,” said Williams, a retired army general. “Something is behind the scenes leading us to chaos.”

In recent years, investigators discovered on the abandoned edge of the Los Cabitos barracks outside Ayacucho a giant oven containing shoes, clothes and human remains of more than 100 victims killed during the army’s own macabre killing spree in the 1980s — part of a dirty war estimated to have claimed the lives of 70,000 people across the country between 1980 and 2000.

That dark past was front and center for the thousands who poured into Ayacucho’s cobblestoned streets Friday — a day after the deadly disturbances — demanding Boluarte’s resignation. Some sang a popular folk song whose lyrics recall an even earlier tragedy here, in 1969, when 20 students protesting against the then-military dictatorship were brutally killed.

“We are returning to those painful years,” said Rocio Leandro, a community leader who was among those who marched Friday seeking justice for those killed. “They consider us third- and fourth-class people.”


AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Miami.

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Peru’s dark past surfaces as young protester is laid to rest