In Peru, the “battle between rich and poor” continues in wake of parliamentary coup

Indigenous people from Puno region head for the capital city, Lima (La Jornada, Jan. 18); the Government Palace on a quieter day in 2015.

For many years, Peruvians have endured political crises repeatedly. Few presidents have been able to serve full terms and even if they do, they may end up in jail for corruption – the fate of six of the last 10 presidents. 

In the 20th century, elected presidents faced military coups. Today, those have given way to parliamentary coups: impeachment and removal from office. What might be a normal state of tension between executive and legislative branches in Peru today is toxic. There was a week in November 2020 when Peru had three presidents. The last of these presided through the electoral period that saw Pedro Castillo, a teacher from rural Peru, triumph narrowly over Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former dictator, on June 6, 2020.

More than 40 days after Castillo’s arrest and replacement by his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, about 50 people have been killed in protests and more than 600 injured, including 30 injured just yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 19). 

The protesters demand (with some variations): that Boluarte resign; that new congressional elections be held; that a constituent assembly be chosen to draft a new constitution; new presidential elections before the end of this year; and release of Castillo from prison.

Headlines from Peru on Dec. 7

The fury right now is that Castillo was elected by the rural poor – farmers, workers, Indigenous peoples – and in this latest conflict, they feel their vote is not respected by racist, urban elites. It may be that Castillo erred in trying to suspend congress on Dec. 7, but its summary impeachment (no trial) was at least as illegal. In his defence, Castillo’s move came after 18 months of confrontation: he was never allowed to lead. It’s the system that’s broken.

The outcome is consistent with 520 years of colonialism and keeping those of Indigenous ancestry out of the halls of power. During the election campaign, Castillo had said it was “a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between master and slave.” That is what is playing out on the streets and at the roadblocks today.

A fact-finding mission by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) visited Peru in mid-January. Right: in Canada, Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign to send letters to Peruvian and Canadian authorities.

The Latin American ecumenical news agency ALC Noticias spoke with several Peruvian church leaders.

We have arrived at social collapse, said Rev. Rafael Goto, a Methodist minister in Lima long active in human rights causes. “The crisis in which Peru is living shows us again the discrimination and contempt faced by those who are most impoverished. Once again, it seems that two different ways of looking at society are at play. On one side, that of political power, the historic colonial and oppressive mentalities are revived. On the other side, the excluded population continues to resist so as to break the chain of marginalisation, invisibility, and contempt.”

Rev. Luzmila Quezada, a Wesleyan minister, teacher and leader in the women’s movement, warned that Peru is reaching a point where “dehumanization” is apparent. “This crisis challenges us to connect with the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Andean South who have suffered for centuries from the exclusion and social stigmatization of a racist and fascist elite that only cares about material goods and forgets the maximum and urgent value of human life: who is our neighbour in this country?”

Meanwhile, a Catholic priest who worked for 26 years in the Puno diocese in southeast Peru (where some of the most extreme repression occurred), has returned to his native Argentina after his bishop ordered him to resign as parish priest in the city of Juliaca. In response to violence in Juliaca on Jan. 9, Fr. Luis Humberto Béjar had demanded Boluarte’s resignation. 

Later, he told reporters that he made the call because he believes that peace can only be achieved with her resignation. “I do not regret saying what I said, and I would say it 50 times more. In three hours, if I am not wrong, they killed 17 people, and one more died of wounds later.” A policeman was also killed in Juliaca that day.

A Quechua Indigenous woman whom I know in the Andean highlands sent a note to say that she and others are doing what they can to support the protests, but that it is difficult knowing that most of the victims of the violence are Quechua. 

“Our leaders are threatened,” she wrote. “There are no lawyers who will defend them. Everyone is afraid because the army and police are acting on behalf of the congress and Dina [Boluarte]. We have returned to the time of [Alberto] Fujimori [dictator in the 90s].”

Fake criminal charges, mining justice and solidarity in El Salvador

My friend Antonio Pacheco, renowned leader of a community development group in northern El Salvador, was arrested with five other men on Jan. 11 and charged in connection with a war-time death that happened more than 30 years ago. They are also charged with “illicit association,” the accusation that has led to detention of more than 60,000 alleged gang members by the government of President Nayib Bukele. 

The charges, say friends and allies, have nothing to do with achieving justice for any of the 75,000 people who died during the civil war, and everything to do with the government’s drive to re-open metals mining in El Salvador in the wake of its Bitcoin cryptocurrency failure.

Antonio Pacheco observes an ADES greenhouse in Santa Marta in 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Pacheco and members of the Santa Marta Development Association of El Salvador (ADES) were leaders in the successful effort to stop a gold mining project in Cabañas department, and part of El Salvador’s National Roundtable on Metals Mining that achieved a ban on metals mining in 2017. 

During the civil war in the 1980s, Santa Marta was targeted by the Salvadoran military and most residents fled to Honduras. Successive Salvadoran governments have not investigated the dozens of cases of human rights violations documented by the people of Santa Marta against the armed forces (including the Lempa River massacre in 1980, where 30 people were murdered and 189 others disappeared). 

The arrests last week drew global attention, including articles in The Guardian, the German news service DW and TeleSUR, and solidarity statements from the U.S. Institute for Policy Studies, the Honduran group COPINH, the U.S. Sister Cities network, and others. “Antonio Pacheco has struggled almost his entire life to build a country that seeks social, economic and cultural well-being and who is a friend to the causes of the Honduran people,” said COPIHN (the organization led by Bertha Cáceres until her murder in 2016).

I came to know Antonio, ADES and many other people the rural communities of northern Cabañas during the 20 years of my work with The United Church of Canada. I wrote about him several times, including a profile published in the United Church’s Mandate magazine in February 2011:

“A Life-Long Passion” (excerpt)

A child grows up in El Salvador in the 1960s. He asks: “Mamá, why are there poor people?”

Decades later, the question still animates Antonio Pacheco, executive director of ADES….

“I hardly ever talk about this,” Antonio said, smiling over his coffee in the food court below the United Church general council office in Toronto. “I had this intense curiosity. I asked lots of questions. I read, and read some more. I read the Bible, or tried to.”

In the sixties and seventies, Christians in Latin America began creating “base communities” to provide space for questions like those of Antonio and to share the Word of God among neighbours.

“One word caught my attention: solidarity. I began to understand why Jesus was taken to the cross,” Antonio said. 

“By the time I was 11, I understood that I wanted to work for the people. I wanted to be a doctor so that I could help.”

But as Antonio entered high school in the mid-seventies, El Salvador was in political upheaval. The base communities and church leaders became targets of repression. Antonio emerged as a leader of the student movement in his high school in San Salvador, and joined the revolutionary movement in 1977. Political and education work took him to Santa Marta for the first time in 1979, and by 1982 as the civil war raged, Antonio worked with the community directly in its education efforts. But aerial bombing grew so intense that the entire community fled into exile in Honduras in the mid-1980s.

It was after the return to Santa Marta in October 1987 that Antonio’s community development work really began to bear fruit. Even though a final peace accord was not achieved until 1992, the people of Santa Marta sought and found international help to rebuild. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund were among the first partners. In 1993, ADES was born to secure and manage development funds. Antonio has served as executive director since 1998.

Today, formal education is one of Santa Marta’s great successes…. ADES continues to lead in agricultural development and training in northern Cabañas, but a number of programs have spun off in varying degrees of autonomy: a micro-credit program for market workers, a community radio station in nearby La Victoria, and an AIDS education program for rural youth that works on both sides of the border.

Now in the 2020s, ADES is working with support from the United Church and the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation to expand ecological agricultural practices in Cabañas.

“David defeats Goliath”

With the mining victories in 2016 and 2017, Mandate published a short interview that I did with Antonio. At the end, I asked what he would say to Canadians about their responsibility to regulate their mining companies

“The Canadian people should be aware that Canadian companies operating outside the country have practices that fail to respect the human rights of the people in communities, and that they fail to repair damage to the environment. For those reasons, it is necessary and urgent that their actions abroad be regulated in Canada.”

Left: Mandate, February 2017. Right: Jim Hodgson with Antonio Pacheco, August 2006. Photo: Presbyterian World Service & Development.

In Mexico, 43 students missing for eight years: not forgotten and still making headlines

By now, you might not remember the murders and forced disappearances of the “normalistas” – education  students who were training to be rural teachers in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. 

On the night of Sept. 26, 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked in Iguala, Guerrero, after they had commandeered buses to travel to Mexico City for a protest over the Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of student protesters at Tlatelolco plaza in Mexico City.

In Iguala, six people – including three students – were killed in the assault, 25 were injured and 43 students were abducted and presumably murdered later. Leading suspects are members of the Mexican army who worked alongside municipal officials and drug-traffickers who were trying to move opium gum (or semi-processed heroin) on one of the buses that was taken.

As the eighth anniversary approaches, a series of events reveals more about what happened as well as efforts by people tied to the former government of Enrique Peña Nieto to maintain the cover-up. 

Left: La Jornada front page today: protests over judicial decisions, military cover-up. Right: remembering the 43 students in Tepoztlán, Morelos, December 2014.

First the news:

  • On Aug. 18, the report of the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice (appointed by the current government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador) published its report, stating that the students’ disappearance was a “state-sponsored crime.” The report accuses Col. José Rodríguez Pérez, commander of the 27th infantry battalion located in Iguala, of giving the order to murder the missing students. He was arrested on Sept. 15.
  • By pointing to army collusion, the new report denounced the version offered by 2015 by the Peña Nieto administration that the students were killed by a local drug gang after being abducted by municipal cops acting on the orders of Iguala’s corrupt mayor, and that their bodies were incinerated at a dump in the nearby town of Cocula – which is not to say that those officials do not share part of the responsibility for the crimes. Following the report, Peña Nieto’s  attorney-general, Jesús Murillo Karam, was arrested for obstruction in administration of justice in the case. Another official whose arrest has been sought, Tomás Zerón de Lucio,head of Peña Nieto’s Criminal Investigation Agency, left Mexico and is hiding in Israel
  • Among the many stories that emerged from the report is that of one of the students, Julio César López Patolzin, a former soldier now revealed to have been an army spy infiltrated into the school. Even though he was in touch with his supervisors up to the night of the disappearances, the army made no effort to extricate him from among the other students, making him a victim along with the others. 
  • Despite the truth commission report, a judge assigned to the case by the former government has ordered the release of at least 121 police officers and government officials previously charged, including some of the municipal officials and accused drug-traffickers. The district court judge, Samuel Ventura Ramos, is located in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (in northeastern Mexico, close to the U.S. border).
  • Federal prosecutors are now bringing charges against the judge, and President López Obrador demanded Friday (Sept. 23) to know why the cases are not taken up again. “What has that to do with justice? Who chose that judge? And why is the Ayotzinapa case, which has to do with Guerrero, attended to by a judge in Tamaulipas?”

What does all this mean?

When looking at the news these days, it’s important to keep in mind that part of the game plan of globalized capitalism is to show the state as ineffective, whether against the COVID pandemic, inflation, or protecting human rights and public security.

In Mexico, where the present government is attempting to transform the system into one more amenable to the impoverished majority, economic power and some instruments of political and judicial power are still held by old elites. 

Moreover, the system as implemented over the past 30 years has made the students and their cultures redundant, wrote Alejandro Nadal of the Centre for Economic Studies at El Colegio de Mexico. Industrialized agriculture is privileged over traditional small-holder farms. “That is to say, there is no place for campesinofarmers who aspire to a dignified life in freedom. The youth of Ayotzinapa rebelled and the established powers responded,” Nadal wrote in La Jornada.

And, who are those powers? Again we see, as we have repeatedly over the past two decades of a stepped-up “war on drugs,” we see the collusion of a drug cartel (this one is called Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors) with politicians and other state actors.

“The war on drugs has never controlled drug trafficking and has always been about social control,” wrote Laura Carlsen, director of the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. “Now it’s Mexico’s youth that are paying the price of that duplicity.”

I lived and worked in Mexico from 1994 to 2000. I was based in the city of Cuernavaca, about 90 km south of Mexico City in the state of Morelos and about 50 km north of the border with Guerrero. We frequently visited a Nahua Indigenous community near Taxco, Guerrero. If you take the libre (the two-lane, non-toll highway) towards Acapulco, you pass through Iguala.

During those years, I made several visits to the city of Tlapa in the eastern part of the state. I came to know the Tlachinollan human rights centre and once spent an afternoon near Olinalá talking with a group of rural teachers. Their option for the poor was absolute and inspiring.

The students reflected the context from which they emerged and to which they would have returned as teachers: impoverished and exploited rural Mexico. Their work was heroic.

The latter paragraphs of this text are adapted from a piece I wrote in a previous Unwrapping Development blog format in October 2014, days after the disappearances.