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Peru declares state of emergency as protests intensify

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Peru’s fragile interim government declared a 30-day national state of emergency on Wednesday in an attempt to quell violent protests that erupted after former president Pedro Castillo’s failed attempt last week to seize extraordinary powers.

Defence minister Alberto Otárola announced that the police and army would guarantee law and order in the Andean nation in order to halt “acts of violence and vandalism”. Peruvians’ rights to gather and move freely would be suspended, but the authorities have not yet decided whether to impose a curfew, he said in a televised news conference.

Troops had already been ordered on Tuesday to take control of airports and key infrastructure, such as hydroelectric dams, after violent demonstrations by angry Castillo supporters, in which seven people died and hundreds were injured.

Castillo, a hard-left former primary school teacher from the rural north, tried to pre-empt a bid on December 7 to impeach him on corruption charges by shutting down Peru’s Congress, taking over the judiciary and ruling by decree. The army, police and his own cabinet refused to support him and he was arrested hours later after fleeing the presidential palace.

As Castillo’s vice-president, Dina Boluarte swiftly condemned his attempted power grab and was sworn in as his successor later in the day in accordance with the constitution, after Congress impeached Castillo by an overwhelming majority of 101 votes to six.

The nation’s Supreme Court was considering on Wednesday a request by prosecutors to extend Castillo’s arrest for up to 18 months pending trial on charges of conspiracy and rebellion, after an initial seven-day detention was about to expire, the RPP radio station reported. Castillo told the hearing he had been “unjustly” detained and denied committing the offences.

Peru’s council of state, which groups Congress, the presidency, the legislature and other key institutions, issued a joint statement early on Wednesday backing Boluarte and calling for the immediate re-establishment of law and order.

Castillo has been calling from his detention cell for demonstrations in favour of his release, tweeting that he has been “humiliated, mistreated and held hostage” and describing Boluarte as a “usurper” in league with the “snot and spit of the coup-mongering right”.

Since Sunday, several thousand protesters have blocked roads, mainly in the south of the country, in support of the impeached former president. Some residents have complained of problems with food and water supplies and analysts have raised concerns that prolonged disruption could hit exports of copper, of which Peru is the world’s number two producer.

The capital Lima has so far not been seriously affected by the disruption. Cusco airport was closed for a third day because of the fear of protests and troops have guarded public buildings in Arequipa. RPP said 13 of Peru’s 24 regions had been affected by demonstrations and road blocks.

Ambassadors from the US, EU and UK have all met Boluarte to express support for her administration. The interim leader has tried to calm the crisis by offering to bring forward presidential and parliamentary elections by two years to April 2024. On Wednesday, she suggested that a fresh vote might even be held in a year’s time.

In Washington, state department spokesman Ned Price commended Peruvian institutions and civil authorities “for safeguarding democratic stability”, adding: “When it comes to Peruvian president Dina Boluarte, we of course do recognise her as such.”

However, Mexico’s leftwing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador threatened a diplomatic spat by refusing to recognise Boluarte, saying late on Tuesday that, for Mexico, Castillo remained Peru’s legitimate leader and he had put relations with the Andean country “on hold”.

A joint statement by López Obrador and the fellow leftwing leaders of Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia referred to Castillo as “president” and claimed he had been the victim of “undemocratic bullying” since his election in July last year.

“We call on those who make up the institutions to refrain from overturning the popular will expressed freely at the ballot box,” it said.

Nicholas Watson, Latin America director at consultancy Teneo, said only a minority of protesters had mobilised in direct support of Castillo. “More broadly, the protests are driven by frustration with the whole political class,” he wrote in a note. “Congress is widely seen as deeply corrupt and is even more unpopular than Castillo was.”

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