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Peru used lethal force against anti-government protests

A New York Times investigation found that the country’s police and military fired lethal ammunition at unarmed civilians during protests in December and January.

By Brent McDonald and Ainara Tiefenthäler Graphics by James Surdam

March 16, 202311 MIN READ

Over the course of five weeks, Peru’s security forces repeatedly responded to anti-government protests with what experts called excessive force, including firing shotguns at civilians with lethal ammunition, shooting assault rifles at fleeing protesters and killing unarmed people hundreds of feet away, a New York Times investigation found.

The protests began in early December, set off by the arrest and ouster of President Pedro Castillo after he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. Both the military and national police forces have participated in the clampdowns, which have unfolded mostly in the southern provinces where Mr. Castillo had his base of support.

Some protesters have been calling for a new constitution, among other demands, to address longstanding issues of poverty and inequality.

Forty-eight civilians have been killed, and more than 970 have been injured, according to Peru’s ombudsman. The Times investigation found that most of the deaths were caused by firearms.

The Times analyzed hundreds of videos and images, reviewed autopsy and ballistics reports, and spoke to witnesses and experts. The investigation closely examined eight deaths in December and January across three locations — in the cities of Ayacucho, Juliaca and Macusani — to show how the military and the police used deadly tactics, often in apparent violation of their own protocols, which call for a reasonable and proportionate amount of force when responding to civil unrest.

“The key factor is that the police are not using lethal force in a proportional manner,” said Joel Hernández of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He helped lead an on-the-ground assessment of the violence, and called it “excessive for the objective of controlling the protest.”

The protests have led to violent skirmishes between the police and protesters.

At least 363 officers have been injured as of late February, according to the Health Ministry. Protesters intent on occupying airports and attacking government buildings have hurled rocks with slings and launched improvised explosives. One police officer died when an angry mob burned his vehicle. Authorities said that roadblocks put up by protesters led to traffic accidents and hampered access to hospitals, contributing to the deaths of 11 people.

Heavily armed military and the police responded to a protest at the airport in Juliaca on Jan. 9, 2023.Credit...Max Nina

Peru’s president, Dina Boluarte, campaigned as a leftist and an ally of the rural poor, but has since taken a hard line against the protesters. Ms. Boluarte has said the country’s police and military responded in accordance with the nation’s Constitution, laws and protocols, and has cast blame for the killings on violent criminals.

“This is not a peaceful protest. It’s a violent action by a group of radical people who have a political and economic agenda,” Ms. Boluarte said in a speech on Jan. 24, after 18 civilians were killed in Juliaca. “And this economic agenda is based on drug trafficking, illegal mining and smuggling.” But in the hundreds of images and other materials examined, The Times found no evidence that homemade weapons carried by some protesters caused civilian deaths. And Peru’s foreign minister, Ana Cecilia Gervasi, told The Times in February the government had no evidence that the protests are being driven by criminal groups.

Peru’s prosecutor’s office is currently investigating Ms. Boluarte and her government’s actions related to the protests.

Ms. Boluarte, the Defense Ministry and the National Police of Peru have not responded to questions from The Times.

The videos and images in this story contain scenes of graphic violence.

Ayacucho: Protesters shot with assault weapons

On Dec. 15, one day after Ms. Boluarte declared a national state of emergency that granted the police expanded powers to detain people and enter private property without a warrant, and authorized the military to assist with civil unrest, a group of Peruvian soldiers, based in Ayacucho, arrived to clear the local airport of protesters.

By the end of the day, 10 civilians were dead or fatally injured. All were killed by gunfire. In two of the cases The Times examined in Ayacucho, visual evidence and documents show that soldiers used excessive, lethal force on civilians.

Around 2 p.m., videos show that the police begin shooting tear gas at about 150 protesters gathered on the airfield, some of whom responded by throwing or slinging rocks. More than a dozen soldiers advance with Galil assault rifles. A military register of weapons issued to soldiers deployed in Ayacucho obtained by The Times confirms that more than 80 soldiers were given Galil rifles that day.

As more protesters try to retake the airport, footage shows the soldiers pushing them back and chasing them into adjacent residential streets, firing indiscriminately in the direction of fleeing civilians.

A video recorded around 6:30 p.m., captures several soldiers at the airport’s southwest corner shooting as many as 20 rounds with Galil assault rifles in the direction of a city park where people were cowering behind trees and low concrete walls.

Improvised explosives launched by protesters detonate dozens of feet away from soldiers who appear unfazed and continue firing.

At 6:35 p.m., two blocks away, a security camera across from a city park records one bullet hitting 15-year-old Christopher Michael Ramos Aime in the back as he crosses the street.

The bullet hit Christopher with such force that it tore through his upper torso, exiting his opposite shoulder, according to a ballistics report conducted by the Peruvian police and viewed by The Times. The report estimated that the bullet, which was not retrieved, to be about 5 millimeters in diameter.

Footage shows soldiers around this time shooting in Christopher’s direction with Galil assault rifles. The soldiers were 300 feet away, a distance well within the rifle’s 1,300-foot range, and firing 5.56 millimeter rounds, consistent with the bullet that killed Christopher, according to a Times analysis and a review by a forensics expert who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

Moments later, a block away, 20-year-old José Luis Aguilar Yucra, drops dead from a bullet to the head. A video shows him standing on the sidewalk among a group of people when he’s hit.

Around this time, soldiers appear to shoot from a cemetery wall 250 feet away, again within a Galil’s range, and in the line of sight to where Mr. Aguilar had been standing.

Footage shows that after soldiers leave the scene, a group of people recover over a dozen spent cartridge casings from the pavement, identified by The Times as 5.56-millimeter ammunition.

According to the ballistics report, the bullet wound to Mr. Aguilar’s forehead corresponds to an estimated 5-millimeter round, consistent with the ammunition used by the military’s Galil assault rifle.

Ballistics reports of two victims, including José Luis Aguilar Yucra, who died from wounds consistent with the size of ammunition fired by the Galil rifles.

Peru’s Defense Ministry has not responded to requests for information on these two specific cases, but said in a statement on Dec. 16 that its personnel had been attacked at the airport “with blunt objects, explosives and homemade firearms.” In the footage reviewed, The Times found no evidence of protesters carrying guns. Videos appear to show that both Christopher and Mr. Aguilar were unarmed and, as stipulated in military protocols, posed no “imminent danger of death or grave bodily harm,” to officers or anyone else when they were shot.

Another six victims had bullet wounds consistent with the size of ammunition fired by the Galil rifles, according to forensic experts with the national police. A ballistics report shows the police recovered a 5.56-millimeter bullet in one victim.

Juliaca: The deadliest day of protest

On Jan. 9, following days of marches, Juliaca became the site of the deadliest clashes since protests began. Eighteen civilians, including three minors and one medic, were killed by gunfire, according to hospital and autopsy records obtained by The Times. Another 70 people were injured, including at least 31 by gunfire. One police officer died after his patrol car was set ablaze that night.

Images, documents and testimonies collected by the Times provide a detailed account of the military and police response to protesters at the local airport that day, and suggest police officers on the front lines were responsible for most of the gunshot injuries and deaths. Footage and official documents also point to police officers’ involvement in several more civilian shooting deaths in the city center that evening.

The shooting starts in the afternoon, when hundreds of protesters march to Juliaca’s heavily-protected airfield. Some try to storm the airport, hurling rocks and shooting what appear to be fireworks with homemade launchers. The police fire tear gas from the ground, and eventually, so does the military from a low-flying helicopter.

The Times analyzed images and documents to determine what firearms security forces carried and which type of lethal ammunition found in the victims’ bodies they matched.Credit...Max Nina

Images from the airport and surrounding streets show officers repeatedly aiming and shooting firearms in the direction of civilians. One video shows a soldier firing at the crowd. The Times, in consultation with weapons experts, was able to identify the types of firearms the police and military were carrying that day, and the ammunition they fired.

Shortly before 2 p.m., Gabriel Omar López Amanqui, a 35-year-old father of two, is photographed throwing rocks at a line of national police officers near the airport. Minutes later, he is shot. His autopsy report describes over 70 small penetrating wounds consistent with birdshot or buckshot — a type of lethal ammunition typically fired by 12-gauge shotguns — some of which caused fatal injuries to his heart and lungs.

The shotgun fired at Mr. López was likely aimed above the waist at a distance of less than 65 feet, according to the forensics expert who reviewed the documents for The Times.

The tactic appeared to violate Peru’s police protocols, which stipulate that when faced with protesters throwing blunt objects like rocks, officers should use rubber bullets, aiming at the lower extremities and firing at a distance of no less than 115 feet.

Police guidelines also say that the first step in controlling an unruly crowd should be to arrest violent actors. In Juliaca that day, 11 people were detained at the protests, according to the human rights group CNDH.

The scene near the airport rapidly descends into chaos, as several people are killed and dozens injured. At nightfall, the crowds disperse, but small groups of protesters continue to face off with the police in the city center, and at least three more civilians are killed.

One of those civilians is Eberth Mamani Arqui. He’s several blocks west of a national police station, among a group of over a dozen people. Footage taken around this time shows armed officers in riot gear running in the direction of the crowd. A video captures the civilians shouting toward the officers down the road, when a gunshot is heard and Mr. Mamani is knocked backward to the ground.

Mr. Mamani, a 40-year-old heavy machinery operator and father of an 8-year-old son, is shot in the face and killed.

Another confrontation unfolds two blocks north of the national police station, where at least four civilians were shot, two of them fatally. According to analysis of footage recorded over the span of about an hour, there’s repeated rifle fire in the direction of pedestrians and protesters, some of whom are launching what appear to be fireworks toward the officers.

At 7:51 p.m., CCTV footage shows a group of people dragging two young men who were fatally shot out of the police’s line of sight. In cellphone footage of the scene, the victims lie on the pavement, bleeding profusely. The Times has identified these two victims as 20-year-old Paul Franklin Mamani Apaza and 15-year-old Brayan Apaza Jumpiri.

According to Mr. Mamani Apaza’s autopsy report, he was killed by a 7.62-millimeter bullet to the chest — matching the ammunition of the police’s Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Brayan had a bullet lodged in his head, according to testimonies as well as medical and autopsy records. He died after three days in a coma.

All but one of the 18 civilians who were fatally injured in Juliaca on Jan. 9 died from shots to the upper body — four to the head. Forensic experts found 7.62-millimeter bullets in four of the bodies, including the younger Mr. Mamani. Another eight victims also had wounds consistent with police and military assault rifles. At least three victims, including Mr. López, died from lethal ammunition matching the shotguns carried by security forces at the airport.

According to the national police, one officer died and one was injured in the early morning hours of Jan. 10 in Juliaca, when they were attacked by an angry mob and their patrol car set on fire. Another six officers injured during the protests on Jan. 9 were flown to a hospital in Lima.

In a televised speech two weeks later, Ms. Boluarte said, “It’s not the police who are shooting,” and that the majority of deaths in Juliaca resulted from homemade or illegal weapons. “Lethal weapons that the police don’t use,” she said. The government has not provided any evidence to support the claim.

Macusani: Shooting from a distance

On Jan. 18, two more protesters, Sonia Aguilar Quispe and Salomón Valenzuela Chua, were shot and killed, as hundreds rallied in Macusani in southern Peru. The shots that killed them appear to have been fired by the national police, according to visual evidence, audio analysis and witness accounts collected by The Times.

In the afternoon, after a peaceful march through Macusani, footage shows scores of people scattered along a dirt road that runs above the city’s national police station. Some protesters are hurling rocks, improvised explosives and insults at the officers who are in and just outside the building about 100 yards away. The police fire tear gas, and gunfire is heard sporadically.

PLEASE SEE LINK FOR VIDEO: The police fired tear gas at a group of protesters on a hillside above the national police station in Macusani, where two victims were later fatally shot.

In a video that appears to be filmed by the police from inside the station, an officer fires at protesters on the hill with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. An hourlong livestream from outside the station repeatedly captures shots being fired from the entrance of the building. Officers are also shooting from the station’s roof.

PLEASE SEE LINK FOR VIDEO: Footage shows officers firing from the police station's courtyward and entrance at protesters hundreds of feed away.

Around 5:50 p.m., there’s a flurry of six shots in quick succession and commotion on the hill. Ms. Aguilar has been shot in the head. According to witness accounts, she was standing in the crowd when the bullet hit her.

Ms. Aguilar, a 35-year-old single mother of two young children, arrived at the hospital already dead, her skull fractured from the bullet, according to autopsy records.

The sound of the gunshots — one of which is believed to have killed Ms. Aguilar — was captured on two video livestreams: one filmed near the police station, the other at the protest atop the hill, less than 150 feet away from Ms. Aguilar.

The Times asked two experts to analyze the audio. Robert C. Maher, a gunfire acoustics expert at Montana State University in Bozeman, said the sound of the shots was consistent with rifle fire aimed in the general direction of protesters. Steven Beck, a former acoustics consultant for the F.B.I., said the distance of the shooter matched the location of the police station.

PLEASE SEE LINK FOR VIDEO: Around 5:50p.m., two recordings captured the sound of six gunshots--one of which is believed to have killed Ms. Aguilar.

Mr. Valenzuela, a 30-year-old truck driver, heavy machinery operator and father of four, is nearby when Ms. Aguilar is killed. About half an hour later, he is shot in the chest, just steps away, and dies the next day, according to his autopsy records.

That night, a mob set Macusani’s national police station on fire. According to local news reports, officers were rescued by helicopter. No one was reported injured.

Government accountability

All told, the 48 victims in Peru ranged in age from 15 to 62. The deaths we analyzed include Ms. Aguilar Quispe, a woman who studied abroad and returned home to take care of her parents; Mr. Aguilar Yucra, a young father who worked in a soda shop; and Brayan, a high school student who talked of becoming a police officer.

Some family members The Times spoke to expressed fear of retaliation from the authorities and said that victims had been branded as terrorists in the local media.

“My son had a future ahead of him,” said Asunta Jumpiri Olbea, the mother of Brayan, who had just turned 15. “My son was not a terrorist. They are terrorists and they are killing us like animals.”

Peru’s Public Ministry is conducting an investigation into Ms. Boluarte for possible crimes of “genocide, homicide and serious injuries” related to the protests, while also seeking to determine responsibility for each gun death. At the same time, the ministry announced in an internal document on Feb. 27 that it will no longer provide investigative services, including the use of forensics and ballistics experts — services that can be crucial for human rights investigations — unless specifically called for by the country’s top prosecutors.

To date, no military or police personnel have been charged or detained in connection with deaths at the protests.

John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington. Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia. Mitra Taj contributed reporting from Lima. Haley Willis contributed reporting from New York.

Brent McDonald is a senior video journalist, based in Washington. He produces short documentaries, video news stories and visual investigations. @DocuBrent

Ainara Tiefenthäler is a video journalist with the Visual Investigations team. She was among the recipients of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for The Times's coverage of the vast civilian toll of U.S.-led airstrikes. @tiefenthaeler

By Brent McDonald and Ainara Tiefenthäler Graphics by James Surdam

March 16, 202311 MIN READ

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