LIMA, Peru (AP) — Sixteen-year-old Cesar Medina was returning home from an Internet cafe, his mother says, and got caught up in a crowd of demonstrators when police and soldiers opened fire. A bullet tore into his head, killing him instantly.
The youth was among five civilians killed in this month’s outbreak of violence over Peru’s biggest mining project, and while authorities have not said who fired the deadly shots, local journalists say it was security forces.
Civilian deaths are disturbingly frequent when protesters in provincial Peru confront police, whose standard means of crowd control appear to be live ammunition, typically fired from Kalashnikov or Galil assault rifles.
Since 2006, bullets fired by Peruvian security forces to quell protests have killed 80 people and wounded more than 800, according to the independent National Coordinator for Human Rights watchdog. Human rights activists say that reflects a disregard for human life unmatched in the region and argue that the government’s routine use of deadly force against protesters could exacerbate violence.
“These numbers would be a scandal abroad. And I’m not talking about a comparison with Europe, but with Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, where there are protests but not so many deaths,” said Jorge Mansilla, investigator for Peru’s national ombudsman’s office.
By contrast, police have killed 28 protesters in neighboring Bolivia since January 2006, according to its non-governmental Permanent Human Rights Assembly. Police in Colombia, a country plagued by guerrilla and right-wing militia violence, killed just six from 2000 through 2011, according to that country’s human rights watchdog CINEP.
After the July 3 clash in the Cajamarca region in which Medina died, national police chief Raul Salazar commented tersely on the deaths, telling reporters that his officers’ job is to “maintain order with the lowest social cost.”
The protesters were pelting police with rocks and fireworks as they rallied against the $4.8 billion Conga gold mining project, which is majority-owned by Newmont Mining Co. of the United States.
The ombudsman’s office counts 245 social conflicts across Peru, most of them disputes over mining in which fears over water contamination predominate. The mining industry accounts for more than 60 percent of export earnings and has been the engine of Peru’s economic growth, but it inordinately affects the livelihoods of highlands farmers.
A congressman and former national police chief, Octavio Salazar, said security forces have no choice sometimes but to use live ammunition when protesters become unruly and endanger police.
“When these hordes attack and police are at a disadvantage, then, in those extreme cases, firearms are used,” he said.
Government critics say not enough is done to avoid such situations.
Peruvian forces regularly employ tear gas and plastic pellets fired from shotguns against protesters, but a March report by the ombudsman’s office called police training in nonlethal crowd control inadequate and said officers don’t have sufficient nonlethal weapons. It cited interviews with riot police commanders in four major cities.
The Interior Ministry declined to provide details on the police arsenal, either to the ombudsman or The Associated Press. Ministry spokesman Angel Castillo said supplies of tear gas and rubber bullets are adequate: “There are always stocks to cover the needs.”
Corruption has been a factor in the shortage of nonlethal equipment. In June, Interior Minister Wilver Calle canceled a $5 million contract for shields, helmets, gas masks and other equipment after determining the contractor was not going to deliver U.S. made goods as promised but Chinese-made items instead.
Officials in the Interior Ministry did not respond to AP requests for an explanation of why so many protesters are killed by gunfire in confrontations with police. Castillo asked that the AP’s questions be submitted by email, but never answered.
The ombudsman’s study, meanwhile, questioned why not a single police officer has been investigated for killing a protester and why no one wounded by police gunfire has been compensated by the government.
Rights groups including Amnesty International also have expressed concern about a bill introduced by Salazar, the former police chief now in Congress, that they say would rubber-stamp police use of lethal force against protesters by specifying that it is justified in self-defense.
Spanish human rights lawyer Mar Perez said the bill sends the message: “You can be at ease killing because nothing will happen to you.”
Cashiered police Gen. Alberto Jordan says that’s already true.
He was fired in 2008 for disobeying instructions to order his troops to fire on protesters who were blocking a bridge in the Moquegua region of southern Peru to demand higher royalties from local copper mining.
Sixty police officers were hurt in the struggle but no one died, Jordan said, who complained that police are poorly equipped to manage unrest.
“They send you to different parts of the country and when you open up the closets where tear gas is supposed to be stored you find them empty,” he said.
So police use the only weapons they have, which are typically Kalashnikovs, weapons of war that fire 7.62-mm bullets.
The Americas director for Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said allegations of police abuses in the use of lethal force are “not properly investigated or sanctioned” in Peru.
He cited, by comparison, the case in which Chile’s government fired nine police officers, including a general, in 2011 after a 16-year-old was killed in Santiago by a police bullet during protests demanding educational reforms.
The director of the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies at Pennsylvania State University, retired Marine Col. Andy Mazzara, said no country can justify using live ammunition to put down protests these days.
“The use of lethal munitions in such situations is born out of ignorance and a lack of political will and an almost criminal disregard for the value of human life,” he said.
Modern nonlethal weapons such as sonic “cannons” that hurl pain-inducing tones can be expensive, but low-tech options are available. Rubberized “stingballs” and beanbags fired from shotguns and pepper spray are among options, Mazzara said.
In neighboring Chile, riot police regularly use water cannons to quell demonstrations.
The deadliest recent case of Peruvian police firing on protesters came during a 2009 protest against mining and oil development in the Amazon. Thirty-four people were killed near the city of Bagua, including 24 officers who were slain by Indians in retaliation for the initial police fusillade.
Three police generals were fired for dereliction of duty, which was the extent of all sanctions for the deaths and also for the wounding of more than 200 people in the incident.
Among those hurt was 63-year-old Filomeno Sanchez. He has spent more than $80,000 on three operations. But a bullet remains in his head and he still can’t walk.
Elmer Campos, 30, was injured by police bullets in the spleen and right kidney and paralyzed from the waist down while among 3,000 people protesting the Conga project in November.
“I don’t know how I’m going to work. Look how they’ve left me. I can’t even move,” the father of two said before he was released from a Lima hospital last week.
After three operations, doctors had done all they could for the farmer, who gave up civil engineering studies for lack of funds.
Campos is staying with an older sister in Lima, who now does his diaper-changing.
He is distraught over his inability to provide for his wife and children, who can’t afford the $30 per person one-way bus fare to visit from Cajamarca.
“I don’t understand how life can be so unjust,” Campos said. “It would have been better if they had killed me.”
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