Thousands of Peruvians have staged some of the country’s largest protests in decades - mostly peaceful but increasingly marred by clashes - since the Congress voted last Monday to remove Martin Vizcarra as president over bribery allegations, which he denies.
The political shakeup has come as Peru, the world’s No. 2 copper producer, battles the coronavirus pandemic and what is expected to be its worst economic contraction in a century.
Protesters filled plazas in downtown Lima late on Saturday, with demonstrations beginning peacefully but growing more intense by nightfall. Two young protesters were killed in clashes, the public ombudsman said. Peru’s state medical program, EsSalud, confirmed in a statement that two young men had died from gunshot wounds.
Peru’s National Human Rights coordinator said 102 people were injured and at least 41 were missing. The Health Ministry said separately that 63 people were hospitalized after suffering injuries or inhaling tear gas. At least nine had gunshot wounds, officials said.
After the violence, 11 of 18 Cabinet ministers, who had been sworn in on Thursday, announced their resignations. Calls grew for the departure of Merino, the former head of Congress who had led the push to impeach Vizcarra and who took over last Tuesday.
“President Merino should present his resignation at this time,” the new head of Congress, center-right lawmaker Luis Valdéz, told local station América Televisión early on Sunday, adding he had called for an urgent meeting of legislators around mid-morning.
The national assembly of Peru’s regional governments also released a statement demanding Merino’s resignation, saying he was “politically responsible for the acts of violence.”
Prime Minister Ántero Flores-Aráoz said in an interview with RPP radio that if Merino resigned he, too, would depart. “I owe him respect, consideration and loyalty, I cannot leave him alone,” he said.
Vizcarra blamed repression by Merino’s “illegal and illegitimate government” for the deaths of two protesters overnight.
“The country will not allow the deaths of these brave young men to go unpunished,” Vizcarra wrote on Twitter.
FIREWORKS AND TEAR GAS
On Saturday hundreds of mostly young protesters unveiled a massive Peruvian flag and sang the national anthem in Lima’s central Plaza San Martín.
But the sprawling coastal city soon echoed with sirens, shouts and chants of protesters’ demanding Merino’s removal as rallies and police response grew increasingly violent.
Peru’s Ombudsman warned on Twitter late Saturday that security forces had begun “misusing force and throwing tear gas without justification” against young protesters who had gathered in the city’s center. The agency has demanded an investigation.
“The march is not for Vizcarra to return, it is strictly against Merino. We are tired of corruption, of the usual politicians who divide and impose their personal interests,” said César Anchante, a University of Lima graduate who marched in a rally Saturday.
The prime minister earlier on Saturday told reporters that Vizcarra’s removal on corruption charges by the opposition-dominated Congress had been legal. Flores-Aráoz said Merino had no intention of caving to demands from protesters that he resign.
“This was a constitutional change,” Flores-Aráoz said. “We ask people for understanding. We don’t want to descend into chaos and anarchy.”
Merino, a member of the center-right Popular Action party, has called for calm and promised to stick with a plan for new presidential elections in April.
Vizcarra, a politically unaffiliated centrist who is popular with Peruvians, oversaw an anti-graft campaign that led to frequent clashes with Congress in a country that has a history of political upheaval and corruption.
The former president has yet to be found guilty of the corruption charges brought against him during the impeachment hearing prior to his ouster.