Imprisoned Coup Leader Wanted Dictatorship, Supporters Still Inflict Chaos on Peru
On December 7, 2022, then Peruvian President Pedro Castillo unsuccessfully attempted a self-coup by dissolving the National Congress and seizing the judiciary. Cornered by the Prosecutor’s Office with accusations of collusion, influence peddling, and leading a criminal organization, it was a desperate attempt to evade justice and cling to power.
The silver lining was that Castillo’s dictatorial ambitions became undeniable and could be nipped in the bud. However, even though he is now out of power, his actions have sunk Peru deeper into a stability crisis with six different presidents in the past six years.
Rather than accept an unconstitutional dissolution of the National Congress, congressmen immediately opted to oust Castillo. The national police arrested him that very day, and congressmen swore in Vice President Dina Boluarte as the new president.
But the problems are far from over, since many of Castillo’s supporters appear to share his penchant for chaos and rule without a legislature. They have instigated violent, nationwide riots and claimed the lives of 65 people. The rioters’ weapon of choice is intimidation—amid what has become known as the Lima Takeover—and they want more than Castillo’s release. In addition to a closed Congress, the call now is for a new constitution.
No Leg to Stand on for Self-Coup
On December 7, Congress was scheduled—for the third time in one and a half years—to debate Castillo’s impeachment on the grounds of “permanent moral incapacity.” This came after multiple corruption scandals, in which he is still immersed. Castillo is in preventive detention and could spend up to 20 years in prison if he is found guilty of rebellion.
Castillo’s argument for the self-coup was that Congress was seeking to oust him to establish “a congressional dictatorship backed by the Constitutional Court.” With this touted justification, Castillo—trembling before the cameras—announced the dissolution of Congress, the establishment of an emergency interim government, and the creation of a constituent-assembly process. The interim government was also to take command of the judiciary, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Constitutional Court. In other words: it was to be a dictatorship under Castillo.
Congress’s impeachment process required 87 out of 130 votes. It had failed twice before, most recently in March 2022. However, after the self-coup announcement, 101 congressmen voted in favor of Castillo’s impeachment, including six out of 15 Marxist-Leninist Free Peru congressmen. Castillo won the presidency with Free Peru, but after one year in office—on June 30, 2022—he resigned from Free Peru amid a conflict with party leadership.
Lacking support from the law, his cabinet, his former party, and the military, Castillo’s own presidential escort captured him as he tried to flee to the Mexican embassy. Lima’s famous traffic congestion slowed him down. His former cabinet chief, Guido Bellido, gave the absurd excuse that Castillo may have been drugged before his speech announcing the coup. Castillo then refused to take the toxicology tests the prosecution ordered.
Leftist presidents from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico are some of the few remaining prominent Castillo backers, and they announced their support for him despite his flagrant attempt to establish a dictatorship. These politicians pay lip service to democracy, but this case is one of many that demonstrates they only support democracy when it suits them. When it does not, such as in Venezuela, they turn a blind eye.
When You Do Not Get Your Way, Throw a Tantrum
Castillo wanted to emulate President Alberto Fujimori’s self-coup of 1992. In that case, Fujimori enjoyed the support of the armed forces. Consequently, he dissolved Congress and assumed all the powers of the state.
Whether it is Castillo or not, someone is using his Twitter account to motivate his followers to confront law enforcement agents. The account is claiming he is a victim and is calling for his release and a constituent process for a new constitution. The Interior Ministry, in charge of local security, has warned of protest funding from narcotraffickers and illegal miners.
Rioters are accusing Congress of obstructing Castillo’s administration. However, his impeachment, which was imminent prior to his coup attempt, did not come out of nowhere. He faced credible accusations of leading a criminal organization from his presidential office. His cabinet was in disarray with 78 changes in 500 days, the most in the last 40 years. Finally, despite a grandiose campaign there appeared to be zero policy agenda and all focus on the gravy train.
Interim President Boluarte has promised to govern with all political parties, and she has asked Congress to bring forward the presidential election to October 2023. In a genuflection to rioters, she has also called for a reform of the constitution.
Her desire for a truce between rioters and law enforcement agents has failed to please rioters, who are demanding her immediate resignation, the closure of Congress, and Castillo’s release. Boluarte was, in fact, elected by those who are now demanding her resignation. She even said a year ago that she would resign if Castillo were removed from office by Congress. Many Free Peru supporters and Castillo loyalists perceive her position as betrayal.
Castillo supporters’ violent assaults on law enforcement agents and institutions have cornered police to respond in kind. In addition to the 65 people who have died, including one policeman, 1,000 have been injured, split about evenly between protesters and law enforcement agents. The Peruvian left are demanding an end to police repression. However, they have not engaged in peaceful dialogue nor halted their own violence.
Castillo is his own worst enemy and the source of Peru’s social unrest. With arrogance and clumsiness, Castillo tried to establish a dictatorship and failed. Peruvian institutional weaknesses, including an inability to control riots, suggest a similar fate for Boluarte and her successors.
Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón.