They marched through the streets of Peru’s capital, carrying signs that said “I’m not a terrorist” and waved rainbow-colored flags associated with Indigenous communities in the Andes. Many chant “murderer” at the country’s leader and sing hymns about not being afraid anymore. On Thursday, more continued to arrive, with many vowing to stay for the long fight.
In the past week, thousands of rural Peruvians have descended on Lima to join local protests calling on President Dina Boluarte to resign following the ouster in December of the country’s former leader after he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.
The growing demonstrations in the capital follow seven weeks of protests around the country that show little sign of abating. Instead, Peru has found itself at an ugly impasse with the government doubling down on portraying demonstrators as pawns for drug-traffickers, illegal miners and terrorist groups who are trying to sow chaos, according to Ms. Boluarte.
Day by day, the protests seem to grow more chaotic.
The ongoing showdown has ratcheted up the polarization of the country, which has been convulsed by what is already its deadliest conflict this century.
Since Ms. Boluarte took office on Dec. 7, violent protests against her government have paralyzed large swaths of southern Peru, shutting down copper and tin mines and choking off highways leading to Lima and towns in the Amazon.
There have been at least 57 deaths related to the unrest, all outside of Lima. Forty-six civilians were killed in clashes between protesters and law enforcement officers, including 17 during a day of violent demonstrations in one southern city in Puno, a heavily Indigenous and rural region bordering Bolivia.
Daily marches in Lima, where roughly a third of the country’s population of 33 million lives, have been relatively small but have grown as protesters from outside the city have arrived, many carrying sacks of grains and potatoes.
Protesters in Lima have found shelter at public universities. Others are staying with relatives and friends who migrated to the city years ago and have successful businesses.
“Over there, we’re killed,” said Jose Hilaquita, an Indigenous Aymara farmer from Puno, explaining why he had traveled for more than two days to march in Lima. “Over there, no one listens to us. We have to come here to be seen.”
The protests have been led largely by Indigenous, rural and poorer Peruvians fed up with what they portray the country’s dysfunctional political system and entrenched discrimination. Many support the former leftist president, Pedro Castillo, a onetime union activist from a poor Andean town who was arrested and accused of trying to illegally seize control of Congress and the justice system on Dec. 7.
But demonstrators have also found support in Lima from some residents, while others have welcomed them with insults. Many have been invited to camp out on the grassy lawns and the squeaky gym floors of public universities. Others sleep in the offices of leftist groups or in the homes of local residents.
In Lima’s working-class district of Santa Anita, Rosa Zambrano, a 74-year old retired psychologist, opened her half-finished home to 40 protesters.
After she heard they were heading to Lima, Ms. Zambrano got in touch with friends in Moquegua, the Andean region she migrated from 40 years ago, and asked how she could help.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of them sleeping outside,” she said as she prepared a giant pot of carapulcra, pork stewed with chiles, peanuts and potatoes, to serve the group for lunch before a demonstration. “I’m proud of the struggle of my compatriots. There is too much injustice in this country.”
Food donations from residents of Lima, large and small, have helped feed protesters sheltering in large houses and at two public universities. The rector of one university opened its doors to provide refuge, while the other, San Marcos, the oldest university in the Americas, was occupied by students.
Yet, the protests have fiercely divided public opinion in Peru — while 60 percent of rural Peruvians support them, that figure drops to less than 40 percent among Lima residents, according to a recent poll.
Some believe Ms. Boluarte has abused her executive power to quell the demonstrations, and that Peru’s entrenched corruption and inequality can only be addressed with new elections and a new constitution.
But others say her resignation would only usher in more chaos and erode the already weak rule of law. “Castillo tried to do a coup and failed. Now his people are upset and want to use violence to remove the person the constitution says should replace him,” said Eduardo Rivera, a business administrator in Lima. “That’s not how it works.”
While most protesters march peacefully, many demonstrations in southern Peru have ended in clashes with security forces and crowds vandalizing government offices. Road blockades have disrupted deliveries of food, fuel and medical oxygen.
Machu Picchu, one of the most popular destinations in Peru, has closed its doors, dealing a heavy blow to the tourism industry. The conflict has led to more than $500 million in losses so far, according to the government, with small businesses and some of the poorest regions hit hardest.
The authorities said that in recent days, protesters have staged simultaneous attacks on airports in southern Peru and set fire to two dozen police stations and courthouses. In the southern region of Arequipa last weekend, a crowd captured a police officer, doused him with gasoline and threatened to burn him alive unless authorities released prisoners.
In some regions, large groups of men carrying sticks dressed as civilians have appeared to help the police force protesters off roads, sparking fears of clashes between groups of civilians.
As she has struggled to gain control, Ms. Boluarte has staked out an increasingly hawkish stance, treating the crisis not as a political challenge, but mainly as a security threat.
On several occasions, she has compared the protests to one of the country’s darkest chapters, a two-decade period when leftist insurgents terrorized the country and military death squads massacred civilians.
She has suggested that protesters are paid to promote the agendas of drug traffickers, illegal miners, smugglers and Bolivian leftists, and this week she claimed that protesters, not police officers, had killed other civilians during clashes. As proof, the president cited a video that she claimed showed a protester with a gun.
The government has yet to provide clear evidence to back up that claim, or claims of high-level coordination by a terrorist organization or illicit funding behind the violent attacks.
Ms. Boluarte said that violent radicals in Puno had “practically paralyzed” the entire region.
“What should we do in the face of these threats?” Ms. Boluarte said during a news conference. “Let them burn us alive? We have to protect the lives and tranquillity of 33 millions of Peruvians. Puno isn’t Peru.”
Within minutes, video clips of Ms. Boluarte saying “Puno isn’t Peru” circulated on social media. Ms. Boluarte tweeted an apology.
On Saturday, in an extraordinary show of force, the police used a tank to tear down a gate at San Marcos University and then lined up Indigenous protesters and students face down on the concrete. Nearly 200 people were detained, and all but one were released the next day because of a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.
“They’re trying to deactivate our movement,” said Brich Huanca, a university student from the city of Cusco. “She’s trying to install the idea that Peru is fighting against a common enemy, against a menace to society.”
Ms. Boluarte insists she will not resign but has proposed to move up elections to April 2024, a date that must be ratified by Congress with a supermajority, which many analysts say looks unlikely.
She has the support of centrist and right-wing lawmakers and most Lima-based media outlets, as well as Peruvians who blame protesters for the violence.
“Supposedly we have a democracy to avoid all of this,” said Rosa Trelles, a newspaper vendor in the capital. She said relatives in a southern coastal region had been unable to work for weeks because of road blockades, and she’s been struggling to afford rising food prices.
“This has gotten out of control,” she said. “They want to affect businessmen, but this is affecting the people, too. They want more deaths to keep their movement alive.”
Peruvians sympathetic with the now-defunct Shining Path insurgency have been spotted at protests, as they often are at demonstrations for leftist causes.
Peru is also home to large drug trafficking and illegal mining trades that employ hundreds of thousands of laborers, many of whom were sympathetic to Mr. Castillo, the ousted president, and have joined protests.
“Things aren’t black and white. Peru is a country very burdened by gray areas,” said Eduardo Dargent, a Peruvian political analyst.
“It’s true that there are groups that want to push the situation to the limits,’’ he added. “But none of that negates the fact that first there was discontent. That discontent is what’s driving the protests, and it has a lot to do with how the government behaves.”