World·CBC Explains

What's behind Peru's political crisis? Who are the players? And what might happen next?

Peru has been gripped by protests and political intrigue since the ouster of its former president, Pedro Castillo on Dec. 7. The Andean nation is the world’s second-largest exporter of copper but is rife with structural inequalities and poverty. How did Peru get to this point?

Gripped by inequality, Peru has cycled through 6 different presidents in 6 years

At least 17 people killed in Peru political protests

2 months ago
Duration 2:15
Peru's political crisis has deepened with clashes between supporters of former president Pedro Castillo and security forces resulting in 17 deaths in Juliaca.

Peru has been gripped by protests and political intrigue since the ouster of its former president, Pedro Castillo, on Dec. 7.

The South American country's security forces imposed a 30-day state of emergency on Dec. 14, banning demonstrations, curtailing freedom of movement and allowing police to search homes without a warrant.

The country had a short respite around the Christmas and New Year's holidays, but protests have resumed with force in some of Peru's poorest areas. At least 40 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the protests so far, including 17 civilians killed on Jan. 9, the deadliest day yet.

Castillo's opponents say he was impeached in a constitutional fashion after overstepping his authority by trying to dissolve the country's congress ahead of an impeachment attempt by lawmakers.

A helmeted officer is silhouetted against the streetlights of the city at night. A streak of tear gas cuts across the length of the photo. Other officers are visible in the background.
Tear gas is returned to police trying to break up supporters of ousted President Pedro Castillo at plaza San Martin in Lima, Peru, on Dec. 11. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

Supporters of the former union leader say he was unjustly removed and imprisoned by the country's political establishment, arguing he should be allowed to continue governing or new elections should be held.

The Andean nation is the world's second-largest exporter of copper but is rife with structural inequalities and poverty.

CBC News breaks down Peru's political crisis, how the country came to this point and what might happen next. 

Who is in charge now? 

Dina Boluarte, who served as Castillo's vice-president, was sworn into office on Dec. 7, the same day Castillo was ousted.

She is the country's first female president and was not a particularly high-profile politician before gaining power.

She's supported a plan to push up the 2024 elections for president and congress originally scheduled for 2026. She's also expressed support for judicial investigations into whether security forces acted with excessive force.

But such moves have so far failed to quell the unrest.

The office of Peru's top prosecutor has launched an inquiry into Boluarte and members of her cabinet over the violent clashes.

However, the new government won a vote of confidence in Congress by a wide margin. A loss would have triggered a cabinet reshuffle and the resignation of Prime Minister Alberto Otarola.

More than 70 per cent of Peruvians disapprove of Boluarte's ascension to the presidency, according to polling data from December cited by local newspaper La Republica. Forty-four per cent approved of Castillo's attempts to shut down the congress, the same poll said.

Peruvian politicians in suits and sashes attend an event at the government palace.
Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, centre front, and newly named cabinet members gather for a group photo after their swearing-in ceremony, at the government palace in Lima on Dec. 10. (Guadalupe Pardo/The Associated Press)

Two cabinet ministers, Education Minister Patricia Correa and Culture Minister Jair Perez, resigned in the face of the ongoing violence.

"State violence cannot be disproportionate and cause death," Correa said via Twitter on Friday. 

Who is former president Pedro Castillo?

Castillo was a political outsider who led a rural teachers' union in one of  Peru's poorest regions before winning the presidency in a run-off election in 2021.

He campaigned on reducing inequality, improving social inclusion and fighting corruption. His message resonated with the rural poor and Indigenous communities who had been largely left behind by Peru's mining-driven economic boom.

A man gestures while seated at a table.
Castillo is shown at a news conference at the presidential palace in Lima, Peru's capital, on Oct. 11. Today he sits in a jail cell and is under investigation for 'rebellion and conspiracy.' (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

Rivals painted Castillo as a Marxist radical; he was elected by a margin of fewer than 50,000 votes.

In office, many analysts considered the 53-year-old a largely ineffective leader. Fellow lawmakers attempted to impeach him three times before he tried to dissolve congress, and he spent much of his tenure fighting off challenges from other politicians rather than delivering on promised results. 

Where is Castillo now?

Today, Castillo sits in a jail cell in 18-month pretrial detention while he is investigated for "rebellion and conspiracy."

His supporters consider that profoundly unfair.

"This should not have happened," one pro-Castillo demonstrator told CBC's The National last month. "He was kidnapped. Our pain is because of this injustice."

What are other countries saying about Castillo's ouster?

Some Latin American nations — particularly those with left-leaning governments, including Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia — have lined up in Castillo's favour.

Chile, which is governed by a left-leaning leader, and Brazil's incoming president have said Castillo was deposed through legitimate constitutional means.

Canada, the European Union and the United States have backed the new government and criticized Castillo.

The United Nations and the Organization of American States have both accepted the transition as legitimate and have recognized the new government, CBC's Evan Dyer reported.

The UN, however, has expressed "deep concern" over reports of deaths during protests and the detention of minors involved in demonstrations.

A protester wearing a breathing mask is on one knee on a paved street. Other protesters are visible.
Supporters of Castillo launch firecrackers at riot police during a protest near the Congress in Lima on Dec. 12. (Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images)

How is the unrest impacting tourism? 

With such historic sites as Machu Picchu and the colonial city of Cusco, as well as a budding food scene, Peru has become a popular tourist destination.

Global Affairs Canada recommends travellers "exercise a high degree of caution due to crime, social conflicts and strikes."

It has also advised against non-essential travel to four regions — Arequipa; Cusco, including the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu; Ica; and Puno — due to "violent demonstrations related to the political situation."

The backs of police officers are pictured in front of an historic church in Peru.
Police officers stand guard in the Plaza de Armas, a popular tourist attraction in downtown Cusco, Peru, in 2020. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press)

What happens next? 

For now, the unrest seems likely to continue. Boluarte has become Peru's sixth president in as many years. Supporters of Castillo had been calling for his reinstatement or at least new elections.

After initially suggesting she should be able to finish Castillo's remaining 3.5-year term, Boluarte then suggested holding new elections in December 2023. That may not excite critics.

Some analysts say Peru's broader political unrest requires deeper solutions. Some have suggested a new constitution; others say the country needs better structured political parties to allow governments to last longer and actually get things done.

"It's the latest cycle of this long cycle of instability," Patrick Clark, a professor at Toronto's York University who studies the country, told The National of recent unrest. "I think these protests are out of this exasperation people have."

Two people in stand in the foreground in apparent conversation. Police, some with riot shields, line up on the wall of the building behind them. An apparent barricade of sandbags is piled near the building.
Police officers stand guard outside their station in Puno, in southern Peru, as a precaution after hundreds of Castillo supporters were spotted heading to the city. (Juan Carlos Cisneros/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from CBC News, Reuters and The Associated Press