Chaos on the Caminos of Lima

by Max Olson

When a traveler gets swept up in a street protest in Lima, Peru, a shift in the crowd forces him to be more than a spectator.

The usually bustling streets of downtown Lima were empty and silent. The screams of vendors, laughs of children free from school, and furiously honking horns were absent. The government district of Lima was a ghost town, and I felt as though I was walking through a graveyard. What exactly had hammered the nails into this neighborhood’s coffin on such a warm and sunny day? Metal barricades blocked the major thoroughfares. Policemen turned me away, pointing towards the next street. The policemen at the next street gave a similar answer. In front of the country’s congress building, guardsmen clad in riot gear sat atop massive horses with batons in hand. Lima was meant to be dead. Meant to be dead because those who governed it feared that Lima was about to become very much alive.

At first, the cries and shouts could only be heard far in the distance, like muffled noise from a static TV. Minute by minute, I noticed them getting closer and more distinct. “Cierre el Congresso! Cierre el Congresso!” Close the Congress, they were demanding. Bright red flags danced in the air as what appeared to be an underwhelming group made their way towards the blockades and horse-mounted riot police. The air came alive with loudspeakers, sparklers, and screams as the once-dead streets of Lima burst into life. More and more police with riot shields and tear-gas rifles trickled their way between the protestors and the Congress building.

At this point, two choices darted through my mind: Go back to the safety of the hostel or witness a Peruvian street protest. The latter won out. Standing near the front of the crowd at this point felt safe. Escape seemed easy, as the sea of people behind me seemed relatively light. I failed to realize that this was only the beginning.

The crowd of protesters was thickening with every passing minute. My escape routes were slowly closing as more and more protestors flooded into the streets. I found myself trapped in a pocket near the very front. A pickup truck began slowly making its way through the sea of street activists towards the blockade. Standing on the bed of the truck were the leaders of the street insurrection. Dressed in traditional Peruvian costumes and waving flags of various South American leftist causes, these were the men and women who had brought Lima’s streets to life.

The crowd hushed as, one-by-one, the leaders had their turn on the microphone. A small crane on the back of the truck lifted a speaker into the air. The fiery oratory of each leader was audible even for those far in the crowd’s back. Perhaps it could even be heard from Congress. The protestors cheered and clapped with each sentence. They were made to feel a part of something great. Even with little understanding of Spanish, I could see the intense emotions and sense of historical destiny in their faces. Flags and raised fists seemed to stretch into the horizon. The police tensed their hands around their weapons and began to fit their gas masks. 

The realization of how unprepared I was for such an event hit hard and fast. All around me were police and protestors sporting gasmasks, riot gear, and helmets. My gut started turning. You’ve seen enough. You have enough pictures. Turn around and get out. The strange grip of curiosity continued to win out over the panicky flight of fear.

The captain of the riot police worked his way towards the front of the crowd. Tall, authoritative, and covered in riot gear, he presented a façade of order over the situation. A much smaller but similarly dressed man stepped out of the front ranks of the protestors to greet him – an activist leader evidently. The two men sized each other up, each obviously disgusted with the other but both striving to maintain peace and professionalism. Words were exchanged. Their faces did not betray anger or hostility but rather fear, fear of a situation likely to spiral out of control.

The pickup truck turned political soapbox made its departure through the crowd inch-by-inch. The driver honked his horn as activists were unable to clear a path. Eventually, with both leaders and speakers on its bed, the truck left the scene, disappearing into the sea of Peruvian leftist protestors. What would take its place as the centerpiece remained to be seen.

Screaming and cheering erupted from the rear of the crowd. Around thirty men hoisting flags and wooden poles forced their way to the blockades. The moment I laid eyes on them, I knew the situation was doomed. Immediately, it was clear that something had changed. These men, simply through their presence, had sent an electric current through the air that threatened to make lightning.

Wooden poles swung down through the air and smashed against the reinforced glass of the riot shields. Splinters exploded like shrapnel with each contact, some passing inches from my face. “Empuje!” The police chief screamed the Spanish word for push, hoping to gain some semblance of control over the situation. The police shoved forward like a brick wall, pushing the now violent protestors back with each step. Wooden poles, rocks, and water bottles flew overhead as peaceful slogans were now replaced by projectiles. I could feel the wave of protestors behind me pushing those of us near the front closer and closer to the riot line. Nearby reporters with their cameras in hand began readying their gas masks and helmets. The entire situation was on a tightrope, and all it needed was one gentle nudge to send the entire scene into chaos.

The police chief stepped into the front of the protest. His activist counterpart strode forward to meet him. Professionalism and communication were now things of the past. Spittle flew from both men’s mouths as they stood face-to-face. Screaming, posturing, and threats flew between the two. Then, it happened. The police chief backstepped behind the line of riot shields, and a faint shot rang out. The canister flew over the first few protesters and made a dull thud as it hit the cement. I was standing in the epicenter with no way out. Pandemonium erupted.

Like a tidal wave, the crowd surged its way backwards. The gas covered the immediate area in a thin, gray cloud. The smell of pepper and chemicals filled my nostrils like a boiling nasal spray. My throat lit up as though I had contracted strep throat in a matter of seconds. Protesters ran through the streets, some with t-shirts covering their faces, others hunched over, dry heaving. I leaned over and violently coughed while trying to keep my wobbly legs running. When the effects of the gas ceased, I looked around in a daze. The riot police with their gas masks moved forward step-by-step, giving any stragglers a quick strike with their baton. Eventually, the activists reorganized themselves and made a second stand, safely out of reach of the belching gas canister.

Trash cans and metal barricades flew overhead. Riot police and protestors clashed with batons and sticks as if they were children playing swashbuckling pirates. More gas shot forth. The police were quickly making it known that there would be no closure of Congress today.

Protest leaders with megaphones shouted over the chaos, trying desperately to restore order in their ranks. Tear gas and baton strikes seemed more convincing than leftist slogans. The protestors began to disperse. Some ran for the side streets and alleys while others ducked into nearby shops. Those still suffering from the tear gas poured water on their bloodshot eyes. Trash and destroyed barricades littered the streets. The sting of tear gas still in my eyes and throat, I blended into the stampede fleeing the violence. I had indeed seen enough. 

Walking away from the protest towards the historic center of Lima, with the sting of tear gas still in my throat, I reflected. Only blocks away, riot police with tear gas had been at war with protestors with batons, yet here was complete normalcy and tranquility. The government district had certainly come alive as the police had predicted, yet here things seemed to have never been dead to start with. The protest painted a near flawless portrait of Lima’s political situation: Chaos in one place and tranquility just across the street. Complete instability.

Cover photo credit

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