The Peruvian National Police committed multiple abuses against mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting the ousting of then-President Martín Vizcarra in November 2020, Human Rights Watch said. Peru’s interim President Francisco Sagasti, Congress, and the Police Command should adopt reforms to ensure that officers respect the right to peaceful assembly.
Two protesters were killed and over 200 were injured, some seriously, in the protests, between November 9 and 15. Witness statements and other evidence Human Rights Watch collected indicate that police repeatedly used excessive force against protesters. Injuries apparently caused by the impact of teargas cartridges and videos of police shooting teargas straight into the crowd show that they recklessly used riot guns. In addition, the evidence strongly suggests that officers used 12-gauge shotguns to fire lead pellets and glass marbles directly at people, violating their own protocols, which prohibit those munitions.
“We have gathered worrying evidence of excessive use of police force against demonstrators protesting the very questionable removal of president Vizcarra,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “President Francisco Sagasti has taken an important step by convening a commission to improve police performance. He should lead efforts to prevent future abuses against peaceful demonstrators at the hands of the police who should be protecting them.”
In his inauguration speech on November 17, interim President Francisco Sagasti said his government would work to prevent further police abuse and promised justice to victims. On November 24, he created a commission made up of government officials and civil society to recommend, in 60 days, measures “to modernize and strengthen” the police.
On November 9, Congress ousted President Vizcarra from office through a questionable legal process, claiming that he lacked “moral capacity” because there is an ongoing corruption investigation against him. He has not been charged with any crime. Many members of Congress who voted in favor of his removal are themselves under criminal investigation, including for corruption. Vizcarra had pushed forward various anti-corruption initiatives that affected them.
Thousands of Peruvians took to the streets between November 9 and 15 to protest Vizcarra’s removal. While demonstrations occurred without incident in many locations throughout the country, there is substantial evidence that in Lima, police used excessive and reckless force against protesters. The protests led to the resignation of Manuel Merino, the head of Congress who was sworn in as president after Vizcarra’s ousting. On November 16, members of Congress elected Sagasti, who had voted against Vizcarra’s removal, as president of Congress and, in accordance with Peru’s Constitution, he became interim president.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 76 people during a visit to Lima in late November and by phone, including victims, their relatives and lawyers, witnesses, and human rights defenders. Human Rights Watch also met with the justice minister, the interior minister at that time, the chief prosecutor, the police commander, the police inspector general, and a senior official from the Ombudsperson’s Office, and reviewed more than 200 videos posted on social media, as well as media reports and publications by local rights groups.
Many of the injuries and the two killings occurred in a two-block area in downtown Lima on the evening of November 14.
“We were shouting. Nobody was throwing any rocks,” Arturo Vilca, 24, one of the protesters, told Human Rights Watch. “I heard a whistling sound and thought it was a bomb. I looked to the right and saw a police officer who had fired at me … He wanted to kill me.”
Vilca was struck at close range by six pellets on his back, left arm, and head. A seventh pellet went through his neck bursting a blood vessel. Had it hit him slightly to the side and affected the carotid arteries, he would have died, doctors later told his family. They also said the pellets were lead, not rubber. “I don’t want this to remain in impunity,” Vilca said.
The Health Ministry said that more than 200 people received medical care in Lima in connection with the demonstrations. Of those, 17 remained in the hospital for at least a week due to the severity of their injuries, such as head traumas, injuries to various organs caused by pellets, and one case of a projectile lodged in a protester’s spinal cord. Peru’s National Association of Journalists documented at least 10 cases of injuries to journalists covering the protests, apparently by projectiles fired by police, and 13 cases in which police either beat reporters or tried to confiscate their equipment.
While demonstrations were largely peaceful, some protesters threw rocks at the police. The interior minister told Congress that 24 police officers suffered injuries, all minor.
In addition to uniformed police, commanders deployed the Urban Unit of Tactical and Operative Intelligence to the protests. Commonly known as the “Terna Group,” this plainclothes police unit is charged with fighting common crime. It is not trained for crowd control, general César Cervantes, the chief police commander appointed by the Sagasti government, told Human Rights Watch on November 26. Members wear no name tags, making investigations into rights abuses harder. General Cervantes said he would issue an order banning the deployment of plainclothes police for crowd control.
Police held at least 57 people in custody at police stations in connection with the protests in Lima, according to data the National Police provided to the Ombudsperson’s Office. Of those, at least 39 were held based on a legal provision that allows officers to keep someone for no more than four hours to check their identity if they do not have ID papers with them. That provision is overbroad and vulnerable to abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Some were detained by Terna officers.
Several investigations are under way. The chief prosecutor has opened an investigation into the role of Merino, as well as the people he selected as prime minister and interior minister, in the alleged abuses and another investigation into the police officers who allegedly carried out the abuses.
The Interior Ministry has opened a preliminary disciplinary investigation into two police generals and a colonel who held key positions during the protests. However, any decision on disciplinary sanctions will ultimately be made by the police inspector general, an active lieutenant general. The disciplinary procedures used by Peru’s National Police are inadequate to ensure independence and transparency, Human Rights Watch said.
General Cervantes told Human Rights Watch on November 26 that he had transferred the chief of the Lima police region, but had not taken any action against other officers, even those deployed at locations where protesters were injured or killed. They continue to carry out their normal duties, he said.