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As Protesters Die, Peru’s Security Forces Face Little Scrutiny

In the adobe house she built with her husband in a small village in Peru, Antonia Huillca pulled out a stack of documents that once represented a glimmer of hope.

They were part of an investigation into the death of her husband, Quintino Cereceda, who left one morning in 2016 to join a protest against a new copper mine and never returned.

Ms. Huillca can’t read, but she can identify key documents: a photo of her husband’s body, a bullet wound to his forehead; the question-and-answer format in which police officers describe firing live ammunition as protesters threw rocks; the logo of the mining company sending convoys of trucks over unpaved roads, sparking protests among villagers fed up with the dust.

But today, the investigation has gone cold.

“All these years and no justice,” Ms. Huillca, a 51-year-old Quechua farmer, said as a storm gathered over her village, Choquecca, in Peru’s southern Andes. “It’s as if we don’t exist.”

For years, scores of similar cases in Peru have met a familiar fate: Investigations into the killing of unarmed civilians at protests where security forces were deployed, most of them in poor Indigenous and rural areas, are opened when they attract headlines, only to be closed quietly later, with officials often citing a lack of evidence.

Now, the unusually high death toll during antigovernment demonstrations after the removal of the country’s president last year has put accusations of abuse by security officials in the global spotlight, raising questions about why so many previous killings remain unsolved.

At least 49 civilians were killed in clashes with the police or military during protests after President Pedro Castillo was impeached last December when he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree, according to figures from the country’s ombudsman’s office.

A New York Times investigation in March found that in three towns where deadly clashes occurred, the police and soldiers had fired shotguns at civilians using lethal ammunition, shot assault rifles at fleeing protesters and killed unarmed people, often in apparent violation of their own protocols.

“We went through the same thing,” said José Cárdenas, whose younger brother, Alberto, was killed in 2015 in clashes with the police during protests that also targeted a copper mine. “My brother didn’t die in an accident. He was shot.”

So far, an investigation has not led to any charges.

A lack of accountability for excessive use of force by security agencies is a serious human rights failure, according to civil rights organizations, undermining people’s faith in the authorities.

In Peru, more than 200 civilians have been killed in police and military crackdowns on protests in the past two decades, according to a list compiled by the National Human Rights Coordinator, an advocacy group.

Yet, over that same period, prosecutors have not won a single conviction against police or military officers or their superiors for killings at protests, according to human rights activists, lawyers and two state prosecutors who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.

In most cases, investigations do not even lead to a trial, they said, adding that, instead, demonstrators and protest leaders are accused of vandalism or inciting public disorder.

“It’s backwards — when it’s about punishing campesinos they move fast,” said David Velazco, a human rights lawyer who has defended more than 200 rural protesters on various charges, including vandalism and disturbing the public order.

The prime minister’s office and the national prosecutor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while the Interior Ministry declined to answer questions.

The country’s current president, Dina Boluarte, who took over after Mr. Castillo was ousted, has blamed the deadly clashes on protesters who have blocked roads and attacked security forces with rocks and slingshots.

Investigations involving clashes in rural areas can be challenging, legal analysts say, partly because it can be hard to determine whether the police face a legitimate threat to their lives when they are outnumbered by protesters, said Rolando Luque, who monitors conflicts in the ombudsman’s office.

“At some point, while carrying out their duties, they could be” overtaken by protesters,” he said, and “they could be killed with their own weapons.”

That is what happened during a clash in the Amazon between protesters and the police in 2009 that left 23 officers and 10 civilians dead, said Mr. Luque, who witnessed the aftermath. The officers, he said, “were taken into the forest and executed.”

Further complicating matters, the police and the military often refuse to share details about their operations, according to lawyers involved in cases of civilian deaths. And cases tend to be assigned to overworked prosecutors, some of whom manage more than 200 at a time.

Prosecutors have been reluctant to investigate top government officials who may have authorized or encouraged the use of lethal force, or the role of mining companies that hire the police to provide private security, human rights activists said.

“There’s a clear lack of institutional will to tackle the issue,” said Carlos Rivera, a human rights lawyer.

Peru is not the only South American democracy where unarmed civilians have been killed in protests as popular discontent has boiled over into the street.

Javier Puente, a scholar of Andean studies at Smith College in Massachusetts, said militaries and the police have long helped weak Latin American leaders make up for the lack of strong parties and other institutions, normalizing violent solutions to political problems.

“The price that Peru pays for the form of institutionalism that the military and the police offers is impunity,” Mr. Puente said.

Peru’s return to democracy in 2000 after years of authoritarian rule raised expectations of broader access to justice and political representation, along with an end to the police and military abuses of Peruvians, notably against Indigenous people.

Instead, as Peru experienced a rapid economic expansion, those hopes were left by the wayside.

One democratically elected president after another became mired in corruption scandals. Inequality remained high, social conflicts festered and a global commodities boom brought huge mining projects to rural Indigenous regions.

“They never listen to us. They just send in the police,” said Melchor Yauri, a member of an Indigenous community in southern Peru.

He said his father, Félix, was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet by the police during a protest in 2012 over pollution from a copper mine and died from an infection to his wounds. An investigation into his death was closed in 2015.

Peru’s police could be given greater immunity under a proposed congressional bill that would shift trials involving officers from civilian courts to a military-police court.

While neighboring countries, including Chile and Colombia, have elected leaders who promised changes to address excessive force, abuse and impunity in Peru seem to be growing more entrenched, said Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. research institute.

Ms. Boluarte and most lawmakers “don’t even seem interested in pretending to put pressure behind accountability or reforms,” Mr. Freeman said.

Days after nine civilians were killed in clashes with security forces in December, Ms. Boluarte promoted her defense minister to prime minister. Her administration has described the police’s handling of protests as “impeccable” and proposed longer prison sentences for people who damage property or disrupt public order.

The relatives of victims of recent clashes say they do not trust the head of the prosecutor’s office, Patricia Benavides, after she removed prosecutors who specialize in human rights violations from investigations and moved cases from rural areas to Lima, the capital, making it harder for family members to monitor their progress.

After her husband’s death at the mining protest, Ms. Huillca said her herd of sheep dwindled to 30 from 500, as she has sold them off to support her children’s education.

To this day, she freezes up when she sees the police. “I’m afraid they’ll do the same thing to me,” she said.

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