Peru’s Foreign Minister Concedes There’s No Evidence Criminals Are Behind Protests

In a harsh admission, Peru’s foreign minister contradicted his president about the origin of the deadly protests that have rocked the country, saying in an interview this week that “we have no evidence” that the demonstrations were being fueled by criminal groups.

Protests that began over the ouster of the president have rocked Peru for nearly two months, leaving nearly 60 dead, most of them civilians, and the country deeply divided over issues of excessive police force, inequality and corruption. A central strategy of the increasingly hardline new president of Peru, Dina Boluarte, has been to claim that the most violent demonstrations are organized by drug trafficking groups, the illegal mining industry and political activists in neighboring Bolivia.

The strategy, say its critics, is designed to undermine the protests while trying to present itself as the symbol of order. But the foreign minister’s acknowledgment could further damage the credibility of an already struggling government, even as the minister insisted proof would be found.

Just over a week ago, hours before the marches in the capital Lima, Boluarte clearly accused the criminals of leading the protests. in a national address. “This is not a peaceful protest. This is a violent action generated by a group of radical people who have a political and economic agenda,” he said. “And this economic agenda is based on drug trafficking, illegal mining and contraband.”

His accusations have been echoed by elected officials, repeated by the mainstream media, and posted all over social media, helping to define a growing social conflict.

But in an interview with The New York Times, Foreign Minister Ana Cecilia Gervasi said this week that the government had no evidence to back up those accusations. Investigators were looking for him, she said.

“I am sure that we will have that evidence very soon,” Ms. Gervasi said.

“They are being financed, definitely by someone,” he said of the protesters, adding that criminal groups “are the ones who would benefit from the chaos in the country.”

Peru erupted into protests in early December after its former president, Pedro Castillo, a leftist with no prior political experience who had vowed to tackle long-standing poverty issues, tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree, a move widely seen as an attempt to suddenly.

At the time, Castillo was under investigation for corruption, and even his supporters criticized him for mishandling the government.

Denounced by the top prosecutor, abandoned by his officials and without the support of the armed forces, he was soon arrested and replaced by his vice president, Mrs. Boluarte.

But in the weeks that followed, many of Castillo’s supporters took to the streets, many claiming they had been robbed of their right to be ruled by the man they chose. The marches grew, with protesters calling on officials to address a much bigger problem: a democracy they claimed only worked for the elite.

Some protesters were peaceful, while others burned government buildings and occupied airports; a policeman was burned alive and others were taken hostage. The response by the police and the military, which human rights groups have accused of indiscriminately firing on protesters, has only exacerbated anger.

Fifty-seven of the 58 people who have died in the riots have been civilians, according to the Ombudsman of the country.

Boluarte is a longtime ally of Castillo, but critics have accused her of being a weak president who works at the behest of a disinterested and disengaged legislature. Seventy-five percent of the country now believes that Ms. Boluarte should resign, according to a recent survey of the IEP signature.

In recent weeks, his government’s actions have come under increasing criticism. The army has occupied for weeks the main square in the center of the capital, which is often used for protests. On January 21, more than 500 officers raided the San Marcos University in Lima, used a tank-like vehicle to break down a door, and detained nearly 200 protesters and students before releasing all but one the next day for lack of evidence.

Videos soon circulated of a police officer recording himself declaring victory over “the terrorists” while detainees were lined up face down on the ground.

In the interview, Ms. Gervasi, the foreign minister, said the president was working for a peaceful solution to the unrest and had been pressing Congress to move up new elections, a key demand of the protesters. (The next election is currently scheduled for 2026.)

On Wednesday, Congress rejected a second attempt by some legislators to set new elections for 2023.

Ms. Gervasi also said that in the interests of accountability, the country had received visits from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Amnesty International. Peru’s national prosecutor would investigate the 58 deaths, she added.

But it was important to note, he said, that “the government has not ordered the police or the army to fire on the protesters. That didn’t happen.”

Omar Coronel, who studies protests and social movements at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, said that the discourse about illegal actors financing demonstrations has been used since the 1990s to delegitimize protests that normally lack a centralized organization.

Amid the ongoing demonstrations, he said, companies and community organizations have sometimes financed transportation, food and lodging for protesters going to Lima. They often view the aid as “a matter of local social responsibility to support protests” in areas that are already protesting, “to look good with their community,” she said.

But he has seen no evidence that illegal groups are convincing Peruvians to take to the streets.

The protests, which began in rural areas largely with the support of the poorest indigenous Peruvians, have paralyzed swaths of the country, closing roads, mining operations and tourism. The demonstrations have focused not just on Mr. Castillo but also on entrenched political dysfunction (there have been six presidents since 2016) and deep-seated issues of inequality among the country’s 33 million people.

The tension in Peru has been exacerbated by the response from other Latin American leftist leaders, several of whom have supported Castillo and called for his release.

Ms. Boluarte’s government has banned former Bolivian President Evo Morales, a stalwart of the left, from entering the country. alleging that he had previously entered Peru “to carry out activities of a political proselytizing nature.”

On January 13, Ms. Boluarte stated that the weapons used in the protests came from Bolivia.

“We know that a type of firearms and ammunition could have entered the country through the south of Peru,” she said in a national direction. “Those are the ones who could have caused the death of our compatriots.”

Genevieve Glatsky Y mitra taj contributed reporting.