LIMA, Peru — The whereabouts of Peru’s most recent president were a mystery Tuesday as prosecutors probed the violent repression of protests while the South American nation rushed to name its third head of state in just over a week.
Manuel Merino was appointed interim president on November 10 following congress’s shock dismissal of Martín Vizcarra, the popular corruption-busting leader, the day before. But Merino resigned equally abruptly on Sunday amid a wave of national fury and international rejection of what many saw as an unconstitutional power grab by a corrupt political class seeking to shield itself from Vizcarra’s reforms.
After more than 24 hours of frantic haggling amid a dangerous power vacuum, the scandal-wracked congress eventually agreed to appoint Francisco Sagasti, a progressive lawmaker who had opposed Vizcarra’s ouster, to lead the country until next year’s general elections. Sagasti was due to be sworn in today.
The tide turned against Merino on Saturday night. Two demonstrators were killed and dozens more injured when police opened fire in downtown Lima as Merino desperately sought to keep his de facto government afloat against a tsunami of repudiation.
The demonstrations had been raucous but largely peaceful, observers said, until they were targeted by the police, allegedly with firearms and undercover officers who repeatedly snatched individuals from the crowds, several of whom remain missing.
But hours later, on Sunday afternoon, Merino announced his resignation, seeing the writing on the wall after more than half his cabinet quit overnight and the heads of the armed forces refused to attend an emergency meeting he had called in the presidential palace.
That was scant consolation for the families of Inti Sotelo, 24, and Jack Pintado, 24, the two protesters gunned down by police. They were buried on Monday in different Lima neighborhoods, to tears, applause, and the playing of Peru’s national anthem.
Pintado’s grandmother said he had wanted to study law. “He saw a lot of injustice in Peru,” Moraiba Sandoval told local journalists. “He said that he wanted to study law, to achieve justice,” she added. “Now look what they have done. He only went out to defend democracy.”
Gastón Rodríguez, the interior minister in Merino’s short-lived cabinet, had previously insisted that officers were only using “nonlethal” arms. But traces of lead were found during Sotelo’s autopsy while Pintado’s death was attributed to firearms.
Amnesty International effectively accused Rodríguez, a former police general, of lying, noting that officers were using “teargas, buckshot, and firearms.”
In a video address posted on November 16, Peru’s chief prosecutor, Zoraida Ávalos, expressed her “complete rejection” of the repression and said she had ordered human rights prosecutors to open an investigation into Merino, his prime minister Ántero Flores-Aráoz, Rodríguez and senior police officers for murder and “forced disappearances”.
She said investigators were also touring central Lima’s police stations in the search for missing protesters. “I can assure you that these deaths will not go unpunished,” Ávalos added.
Moreno’s spectacular rise and fall may have given many Peruvians a sense of déjà vu. Excluding Vizcarra, five of the country’s previous six heads of government, stretching back to 1985, have seen their post-presidencies overshadowed by corruption allegations.
One is in jail for embezzlement and directing death squads. Another is fighting extradition from California, accused of taking $30 million in kickbacks. A third killed himself last year as he was being arrested for allegedly taking bribes, while the two most recent have spent months either in pretrial custody or under house arrest.
Congress had last week named Merino to replace Vizcarra, the popular corruption-busting president, whom it had controversially voted out of office over unproven allegations of taking bribes.
The move, which critics warned violated the constitution, sparked a wave of anger across Peru as citizens of all races and classes took to the streets to express their fury, from upscale, largely white neighborhoods in Lima to remote towns in the Andes and Amazon.
Although the protests against Merino’s aging and deeply conservative cabinet came from all age groups, they were spearheaded by the young, with Generation Z and millennial demonstrators frequently chanting, “You messed with the wrong generation.”
Vizcarra’s ouster came despite overwhelming public support, with polls showing four out of five Peruvians opposed his removal, even though they took the charges against him seriously and wanted an investigation after he was due to step down next July.
Reforms Vizcarra has rammed through a recalcitrant Congress include a ban on political candidates with criminal convictions, a requirement for parties to have equal numbers of male and female candidates, and an end to consecutive reelection.
He was also trying to get lawmakers to renounce the parliamentary immunity that has shielded dozens of legislators in recent years from police probes into crimes ranging from faking high school diplomas and drunkenly groping an airline stewardess to asset-laundering and homicide.
As Peru erupted in fury at Vizcarra’s dismissal, Merino—a glum, uncharismatic chicken farmer—appeared at a loss for how to respond.
Initially, he dismissed the protesters as “irresponsible” and accused them of creating a national climate of “anxiety” adding: “There will have to be an investigation to know what are the real motivations [of the protesters]. This will calm down in the shortest term.”
But by Monday afternoon, the same congress, which just a week earlier had voted 105-19 to sack Vizcarra, was so chastened by the wave of public outrage that it had agreed to replace Merino with Francisco Sagasti.
Viewed as distinguished, transparent and intellectual, Sagasti, a 76-year-old industrial engineer and academic, appears the complete antithesis of Merino. He is due to be sworn in today but has already been calling for both justice and national reconciliation.
“When a Peruvian dies, and even more if they are young, all of Peru is in mourning,” Sagasti told Congress after being chosen as the new interim head of government. “And if they died defending democracy, then in addition to grief we have indignation. What we see in the street is this indignation, which we must recognize, accept, and channel along peaceful paths.”