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Three Presidents in Six Days - The Security Impact of Peru’s Instability

Three Presidents in Six Days

The Security Impact of Peru’s Instability


Following constitutional turmoil, a new political and security landscape is emerging under the new Peruvian president, Francisco Sagasti.

Between now and upcoming elections in April, Sagasti is responsible for maintaining peace and security in the aftermath of a week that ended two presidencies, brought thousands of young Peruvians into the streets in protest, and resulted in two deaths. How Sagasti navigates the next six months will have implications for political stability and the security of organizations operating in Peru.

On November 9, the Peruvian legislature voted to impeach former President Martín Vizcarra on corruption charges. Vizcarra’s presidency was marked by a contentious relationship with the legislature after he dissolved congress in September 2019 in an effort to break long-standing deadlock, and then survived an initial impeachment vote in September 2020. The impeachment charges stem from allegations that Vizcarra received bribes for infrastructure contracts he awarded while governor of the Moquegua Department; there is little credible evidence for the allegations. Vizcarra was widely popular because of his anti-corruption efforts while serving as president. He willingly left office after the vote on November 9, but remains popular, with a 78% approval rating, as opposed to the 21% attained by his immediate successor, Manuel Merino. Peruvians have widely condemned the impeachment as an illegitimate power grab.

On November 10, Merino, the President of Congress, assumed the presidency due to vacancies higher in the line of succession. As the next in line to be president, Merino had a clear incentive to call an impeachment vote, bringing with him the support of 105 of the 130 legislators. This coalition comprised eight of the nine political parties represented in congress, excepting the Purple Party. Legislators were likely motivated by the prospect of stymying a series of reforms that would prohibit re-election for consecutive terms and end parliamentary immunity – a move that would have put at least 68 members of the legislature at risk of prosecution for corruption allegations.

In response to Vizcarra’s ouster and Merino’s ascendance, protests broke out throughout the country, including in Lima (where some 63,000 protesters gathered) as well as Arequipa, Chiclayo, Cusco, Huaraz, Iquitos, Piura, Tacna, and Trujillo. The protests were largely nonviolent until clashes broke out between demonstrators and police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. The confrontations wounded 100 protesters, and 41 were allegedly extrajudicially detained, although all protesters have since returned home. Two protesters in their early twenties died after being shot. Human rights organizations condemned the police response as heavy-handed and violent, and Sagasti has already opened an investigation into potential human rights abuses.

Facing this pressure, Merino resigned on November 15. Congress voted to replace him with Francisco Sagasti, a member of the Purple Party who was among the few senators to oppose Vizcarra’s impeachment. At 76, Sagasti has had a long career of work in international economic institutions outside of the domestic political culture of Peru and is widely seen as a moderate technocrat capable of avoiding controversy until his term ends following the April elections. However, some key lessons from the week of turmoil reveal long-term security trends that will continue to impact the operating environment within Peru, all of which derive from a growing accountability crisis within a government perceived as unresponsive to the needs of its citizens.

Security Implications for Peru

Youth Protest: The protests that broke out in anger over the ouster of President Vizcarra were notable for their strong contingent of young people. Protesters marched with signs and promoted hashtags declaring “They Messed with the Wrong Generation,” indicative of the role of Millennials and Generation Z as an emergent political force in Peru and across the region more generally. Peru’s median age is 31, and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the youth disproportionately. Out of work and frustrated with endemic corruption, this core of young, politically engaged activists is following political developments closely and is willing to organize quickly (and able to do so effectively) against the government for the first time. These protests echoed a similar movement that occurred in 2000 to protest the Fujimori government; many analysts have pointed to the power of a new generation taking up the legacy of pro-democracy protests. This nascent political force, empowered by the last few weeks, may be increasingly likely to take to the streets to make its voice heard over the next few months and in the lead-up to the April elections, disrupting transportation and increasing the security risk to travelers and personnel trying to operate as normal during protests.

Police Escalation: The violence that erupted during the protests took many by surprise, since it was seen as a disproportionate use of force by the police. The heavy police response to the protests was seen as an overreaction, and Sagasti has opened an investigation into human rights abuses. However, it also ties into a broader regional question about accountability for law enforcement and security forces. The quick response of law enforcement indicates a loyalty to the political establishment and seems to have alienated the public. Travelers and personnel who find themselves near demonstrations in the near future should be aware of this potential for escalation, as well as recent instances of arbitrary detention. A growing distrust between security forces and the public also hamstrings the work of all security professionals since it limits the sharing of timely information and the perceived legitimacy of any law enforcement operations.

Corruption: The role that corruption played in this turmoil indicates a culture of endemic political corruption that is resistant to reform. The majority of legislators who voted against Vizcarra stood to lose the guarantee of impunity on corruption charges if Vizcarra had succeeded in his proposed reforms. Vizcarra’s ouster is likely to have a chilling effect on future anti-corruption measures, a demonstration of the lengths to which members of congress may go to in order to maintain impunity. This culture of corruption and resistance to reform negatively impacts the security situation in Peru as it makes law enforcement and other segments of the government less responsive to the security needs of constituents and more beholden to special interests. State kickbacks on construction contracts can weaken and undermine the safety of public infrastructure such as roads, and a culture of bribery makes it easier to avoid punishment for crimes that might target the private sector. While the issue of corruption is not limited to Peru, these recent political developments demonstrate the difficulty of changing these practices and the flagrancy with which this corruption occurs.

Political Instability: Finally, although it looks as if Sagasti has the public and congressional support needed to hold onto power until the April elections, the political turmoil of the last few weeks underscores the potential for future political instability. Merino’s weaponization of the impeachment process sets a precedent for future legislatures to wield this threat over future presidents, eroding the separation of powers. Peru lacks a strong party system, and Vizcarra’s lack of a supportive political party in congress hamstrung his political agenda and made him more vulnerable to this sort of power grab. The widespread support of Merino’s action in congress despite strong public outcry shows that many legislators may be pursuing their own ends above those of their constituents. Although the strong public reaction mitigates to some extent how much leeway congress has to act in its own self-interest, this incident has shown that there is enough flexibility in the institutional process to allow for a legal but illegitimate power grab, and enough incentive that many legislators are willing to try. Another similar incident is unlikely, but always a possibility. Private-sector security managers should prepare for a contentious six-month period that could lead to another presidential ouster, more protests, or smaller-scale power negotiations behind closed doors that would frustrate any policy agenda. While Peru is in moderate, conciliatory hands under Sagasti, its political future is being decided in congress. Analysts should pay attention to the potential downstream effects of how these institutions find and maintain their balance of power.

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