In the adobe house she built with her husband in a small village in Peru, Antonia Huillca dug up a stack of documents that once held a glimmer of hope.
They were part of an investigation into the death of her husband, Quintino Cereceda, who left one morning in 2016 to join a protest against a new copper mine and never return.
Ms. Huillca can’t read, but she can identify key documents: a photo of her husband’s body, a gunshot wound to his forehead; the question-and-answer format in which police officers describe live ammunition being fired as protesters threw rocks; the logo of the mining company that sends convoys of trucks onto unpaved roads, sparking protests from villagers fed up with the dust.
But today the investigation has cooled off.
« All these years and no justice, » said Ms. Huillca, a 51-year-old Quechua farmer, as a storm pounded her village, Choquecca, in Peru’s southern Andes. « It’s like we don’t exist. »
For years, dozens of similar cases in Peru have met a familiar fate: Investigations into the killing of unarmed civilians during protests in which security forces were deployed, mostly in poor rural and indigenous areas, are opened when they attract newspaper headlines, only to be shut down later, with officials often citing a lack of evidence.
Now, the unusually high death toll during anti-government demonstrations since the country’s president was ousted last year has thrust allegations of abuses by security officials into the global spotlight, raising questions about why so many previous killings remain unsolved.
At least 49 civilians have been killed in clashes with police or the military during protests after President Pedro Castillo was impeached last December when he tried to dissolve Congress and rule by decree, according to office data. of the country’s ombudsman.
A New York Times investigation in March found that in three cities where deadly clashes occurred, police and soldiers had shot civilians using lethal ammunition, fired assault rifles at fleeing protesters and killed unarmed people , often in apparent violation of their own protocols.
« We went through the same thing, » said José Cárdenas, whose younger brother, Alberto, was killed in 2015 clashes with police during protests that also targeted a copper mine. “My brother didn’t die in an accident. They shot him. »
So far, an investigation has not led to any charges.
The lack of accountability for excessive use of force by security agencies is a serious human rights failure, according to civil rights organizations, undermining people’s trust in the authorities.
In Peru, more than 200 civilians have been killed in police and military crackdowns on protests over the past two decades, according to a list compiled by the National Coordinator for Human Rights, an advocacy group.
However, in the same period, prosecutors have failed to secure a single conviction against police or military officers or their superiors for killings during the protests, according to human rights activists, lawyers and two prosecutors who insisted on anonymity because they did not they were allowed to speak to the news media.
In most cases, investigations do not even lead to a trial, they said, adding that instead, protesters and protest leaders are accused of vandalism or inciting public disorder.
“It’s the other way around – when it comes to punishing farmers they move fast,” said David Velazco, a human rights lawyer who has defended more than 200 rural protesters on various charges, including vandalism and disturbing public order.
The prime minister’s office and national prosecutor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while the interior ministry declined to answer questions.
The country’s current president, Dina Boluarte, who took over after Castillo was ousted, attributed the deadly clashes to protesters who blocked roads and attacked security forces with stones and slingshots.
Investigating clashes in rural areas can be challenging, legal analysts say, in part because it can be difficult to determine whether police face a legitimate threat to their lives when they are outnumbered by protesters, said Rolando Luque, who monitors conflicts in the ombudsman’s office.
« At some point, as they go about their duties, they could be ‘overtaken by protesters,’ he said, and ‘could be killed with their own weapons.’
That’s what happened during a clash in the Amazon between protesters and police in 2009 that left 23 officers and 10 civilians dead, said Mr Luque, who witnessed the aftermath. The officers, he said, « were taken to the forest and executed. »
To further complicate matters, the police and military often refuse to share details about their operations, according to lawyers involved in civilian death cases. And cases tend to be assigned to overworked prosecutors, some of whom handle more than 200 at a time.
Prosecutors have been reluctant to investigate senior government officials who may have authorized or encouraged the use of lethal force, or the role of mining companies hiring police to provide private security, human rights activists said.
« There is a clear lack of institutional will to address this issue, » said Carlos Rivera, a human rights lawyer.
Peru is not the only South American democracy where unarmed civilians have been killed in protests as popular discontent poured into the streets.
Javier Puente, an Andean studies scholar at Smith College in Massachusetts, said the military and police have long helped weak Latin American leaders compensate for the lack of strong parties and other institutions by normalizing violent solutions to political problems.
« The price Peru pays for the form of institutionalism offered by the military and police is impunity, » said Puente.
Peru’s return to democracy in 2000, after years of authoritarian rule, raised expectations of wider access to justice and political representation, along with an end to police and military abuses of Peruvians, particularly against indigenous people.
Instead, as Peru experienced rapid economic expansion, those hopes were abandoned.
One democratically elected president after another has been mired in corruption scandals. Inequality has remained high, social conflicts have deepened, and a global commodity boom has driven huge mining projects into rural indigenous regions.
“They never listen to us. They just send the police,” said Melchor Yauri, a member of an indigenous community in southern Peru.
She said her father, Félix, was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet by police during a protest in 2012 over pollution from a copper mine and died of an infection in his wounds. An investigation into his death was closed in 2015.
Peru’s police could be granted increased immunity under a congressional bill that would move trials involving officers from civilian courts to a military police tribunal.
While neighboring countries, including Chile and Colombia, have elected leaders who have promised changes to address excessive force, abuses and impunity in Peru appear to be increasingly entrenched, said Will Freeman, an American studies researcher Latina at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US research institute.
Ms. Boluarte and most lawmakers « don’t even seem interested in pretending to lobby for accountability or reform, » Freeman said.
Days after nine civilians were killed in clashes with security forces in December, Ms Boluarte promoted her defense minister to prime minister. Her administration has described the police’s handling of the protests as « impeccable » and has proposed longer prison sentences for people who damage property or disturb public order.
Relatives of victims of recent clashes say they don’t trust the head of the prosecutor’s office, Patricia Benavides, after she removed human rights prosecutors from the investigation and moved cases from rural areas to Lima, the capital , making it more difficult for their family members to track their progress.
After her husband died during the mining protest, Ms Huillca said her herd of sheep dwindled to 30 from 500, as she sold them to support her children’s education.
To this day, he freezes when he sees the police. « I’m afraid they’ll do the same thing to me, » she said.