How Peru Used Lethal Force to Crack Down on Anti-Government Protests

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.

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.

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.

How The Times uses visuals to investigate the news. Our Visual Investigations team is made up of more than a dozen journalists who combine digital sleuthing and forensic analysis with traditional reporting to deconstruct news events. They have uncovered important details about drone strikes, police shootings and the Capitol riot.

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.

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.

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