Peru’s unelected president, Dina Boluarte, remains in office despite abysmal approval ratings and calls for elections. Authoritarianism and repression are all the government has left.

Dina Boluarte at the summit of heads of state and government of the South American Amazon countries on August 7, 2023 in Belém, Brazil. (Filipe Bispo / dpa / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Peruvian president Dina Boluarte is the most disliked head of state in Latin America. She faces intense backlash at each public appearance, with the latest incident unfolding this past January during a presidential visit to the Andean region of Ayacucho. Despite strict security measures, two indigenous women managed to approach Boluarte, denouncing her as a murderer. In a bold move, one of the women grabbed her and shook her while the other deftly evaded the guards and pulled her hair.

Boluarte has faced many such explosions of anger since December 15, 2022, when, only a week after taking office, the Peruvian army committed a massacre in Ayacucho under her command. Among the ten fatalities were the fifteen-year-old son of Hilaria Aime and the husband of Ruth Bárcena, the two women who confronted the president earlier this year. Hilaria’s son was fatally shot in the back by a soldier while returning from his cemetery job cleaning graves. Ruth miscarried a pair of twins after donating blood in a failed attempt to save her husband.

Boluarte’s Ascension

Boluarte assumed office after serving as vice president for just over sixteen months. She rose to power following the removal of President Pedro Castillo, who unlawfully attempted to dissolve Congress and establish an emergency government when faced with the third impeachment proceeding of his term.

Shortly after Boluarte’s inauguration, predominantly indigenous and rural parts of the country erupted in protest after she failed to follow through on her promise to support a progressive platform and establish a transitional government. Instead, she aligned herself with the right-wing opposition, including with factions known for their overt racism. One of the protesters’ main demands was to conduct early elections to replace the entire political class.

During the initial two months of Boluarte’s administration, at least sixty civilians died during the popular upheaval against her government. Of these, forty-nine succumbed to injuries from gunfire or riot control projectiles. Evidence from autopsies and explicit video footage confirms that Peruvian security forces were responsible for these deaths, which major human rights organizations have identified as extrajudicial executions. All of the deceased were indigenous peoples or inhabitants of rural areas. Many were not even participating in the protests.

Over a year has passed since the protests began, but the erosion of democracy has only deepened. Justice is also elusive: no public official has been arrested for the many killings that took place during the winter of 2022–23. Moreover, the public prosecutor’s office has obstructed investigations into the killings, while the government has raised penalties for protest-related infractions, with some carrying sentences up to fifteen years. The administration’s ongoing repression and political persecution have succeeded in quelling the massive anti-government protests of a year ago.

Illegitimate Rule

Peruvians’ electoral demands have also been suppressed. President Boluarte, who initially conceded to demands for early elections, has not followed through. Her inaction is enabled by the legislative body, whose members oppose new elections that could strip their power and subject them to prosecution. Of Peru’s hundred thirty congress members, eighty-two are under investigation for corruption or other crimes.

The country’s economy is also in turmoil. After ineffective policies led to three consecutive quarters of economic contraction, Peru has officially fallen into a recession. This crisis, exacerbated by a surge in crime, prompted hundreds of thousands of Peruvians to emigrate last year.

Against this backdrop, public rejection of the government coalition has only intensified. A poll by the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) in late January 2024 shows that Congress faces an approval rate of 6 percent, while Boluarte’s has fallen to 8 percent, the lowest of her tenure. According to a regional survey conducted last September, Boluarte is the least popular president in Latin America.

She doesn’t fare any better with her compatriots outside of Peru, who consistently mount protests during her international visits. These demonstrations, ranging from disruptions in the United States to rallies in Germany, seek to represent the voices suppressed in Peru through violent repression and other brutal tactics. In Puno, an Andean region and the site of a second massacre, Boluarte’s administration has imposed a prolonged state of emergency and military presence to quash opposition. Even artwork that criticizes the president has been subjected to censorship. Nonetheless, many people continue to defy the government, as illustrated by the indigenous musicians who composed the song “Dina Asesina” (Dina the Murderer). The musicians have chosen to remain anonymous, while their song, enriched with Andean carnival rhythms, is sung at every protest, and has become an anthem of dissent.

The government’s response to allegations of human rights violations has been a mixture of denials and lies. The president has portrayed protesters as “terrorists” and “criminals,” attempting to shift the blame to them for their own deaths, despite no indication that any were armed. Ballistic analyses have pointed to the police and military forces as solely responsible. Most significantly, in an interview with the New York Times, Peru’s foreign minister admitted that “we [the government] don’t have any evidence” to support Boluarte’s claims.

Instead of seeking compromise and allowing for transparent investigations into the killings, the president has doubled down on the bloody crackdown by appointing some of its perpetrators to key positions. One notable example is the current prime minister, Alberto Otárola, whom Boluarte promoted after he oversaw the military’s massacre in Ayacucho as minister of defense. Recently, the Peruvian press exposed that Otárola had hidden meetings with senior military officials shortly before the killings.

The case of Army Inspector General Marco Antonio Marín is also part of this troubling trend of further empowering those who oversee killings and obstruct justice for the victims. Marín cleared all the officers involved in the Ayacucho massacre in a hasty and deeply flawed report. Subsequently, Boluarte reassigned him as military attaché at the Peruvian embassy in Washington, DC, and as deputy commanding general in US Army South, a unit under the US Southern Command. Marín’s appointment reinforces Peruvians’ concerns about the US government condoning a culture of impunity fostered by Boluarte’s administration.

Distorted Democracy

Hilaria and Ruth, the two bereaved indigenous women who confronted Boluarte, were arrested and are currently under investigation. Their case is a small window into the twisted nature of Peruvian democracy, where the voices and democratic aspirations of ordinary citizens continue to be suppressed by an unelected president who remains in power despite being implicated in extrajudicial executions.

In light of the actions of the Peruvian government, Boluarte’s high disapproval ratings are unsurprising. However, the most concerning issue is the ongoing threat her tenure poses to human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, and the physical safety of Peruvians.

The people of Peru have spoken: they do not recognize the legitimacy of Boluarte or the self-serving Congress that keeps her in power. Authoritarianism and repression are all the government has left.

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