LIMA, Peru — Wedged between the prosperous neighborhoods of San Isidro and Miraflores, Lima’s Lugar de la Memoria (LUM) preserves the story of the Peruvian government’s struggle against Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and other Maoist terrorist groups that tried to take over the country in the 1980s and ’90s. 

The idea for the museum, whose official title is the Lugar de La Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión, came from the Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Established in 2001 to investigate human rights abuses, the committee felt that there needed to be a public space to commemorate the victims as well as promote discourse. At the time, Peru was divided between those who believed the state and military’s side of the story, which represents the Maoists as the sole aggressors, and the humanitarian version of events, which maintains that both parties committed war crimes.

Despite being managed by the Ministry of Culture, the LUM takes the humanitarian route. One-half of its permanent exhibits are dedicated to the massacres carried out by Sendero Luminoso soldiers to scare the government into submission. The other half brings to light the equally gruesome tactics employed by the armed forces in their attempt to erase the Maoists — not to mention the peasant communities that may or may not have associated with them — from existence. The museum’s first floor gives an overview of violent altercations alongside information about the fate and identities of the victims, while the floor tells how collective action managed to restore democracy and rule of law to Peru, for a time. 

When I visited the LUM in November 2022, I did so in the hope of better understanding a country I sensed was on the verge of chaos. Instead, my takeaway was that Peruvian history is a contentious subject, and that the authorities in charge of writing its first drafts should not be taken at their word. 

The memory of domestic terrorism has given Lima’s political establishment, wary of sharing power with other regions of the country, a nefarious excuse to identify every left-leaning person lobbying for reform or representation as a terrorist. Ex-president Pedro Castillo, a subsistence farmer and union leader, was labeled as such when he ran for office and won.

Exterior of El Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social (photo by Mayimbú via Wikimedia Commons)

His successor, Dina Boluarte, who was not elected but rather inherited the presidency, is using the term to refer to protestors calling for new elections. Various commentators have been critical of her vocabulary, and for good reason. While protestors have organized roadblocks and pummeled law enforcement with stones, these actions are a far cry from the tactics of Sendero Luminoso. 

Considering that 49 of 50 reported deaths were civilians shot by military and police (the one other was an officer whose car was set on fire), all this terrorist rhetoric is an attempt to justify the government’s use of excessive, lethal force. 

As shown in Iran, force doesn’t intimidate protestors so much as strengthen their resolve. Peru’s current protestors are no longer marching just to remove Boluarte, but to demand justice for fallen friends and family members. 

Many ordinary Peruvians I spoke with think that the ongoing crisis is about more than a corrupt politician doing whatever she can to hold on to power — to which many national emergencies in the country boil down. Rather, it highlights the growing divide between the Lima-based elite and the disadvantaged, underrepresented, largely Indigenous populations of the Peruvian countryside.

As Dani, a lawyer from Trujillo, told me over WhatsApp, most of the protestors come from the south of Peru, “an area that historically has always been forgotten in political matters and wealth distribution. A lot of people minimize this feeling and call it rebelliousness or, even worse, ‘terrorism.’ In my opinion, the protests reflect the desire for a fair country that respects democracy and is free of corruption.” 

The city of Puno, struck by an unprecedented drought (photo Tim Brinkhof/Hyperallergic)

Augusto, an architect from the southern city of Puno, which has suffered heavily under government crackdown, agrees. “The worst of the Lima elite,” he said, “who have never respected or understood our culture, are imposing their reality and brutality, and once again committing all kinds of illegalities to silence the oppressed.”

I saw history being repeated as I looked around the Lugar de la Memoria, where displays of Sendero Luminoso executions of journalists and politicians make way for exhibits of government-sanctioned kidnapping and torture. On August 22, 1990, to name just one example, security forces killed 12 members of Peru’s Iquicha community, including three children, because they had refused to join the soldiers in an armed standoff against the Maoists. 

Having spent only two months in Peru, I do not profess to be an expert on the country, its people, or its problems. All I can say is that while I was there I noticed a stark difference in wealth between the center of Lima and the rest of the country, Cusco and Machu Picchu included. Of all the Peruvians I met, not a single person expressed faith in the country’s government — a government that has fed on bribes, extortion, and unkept promises for as long as they can remember. 

My feeling is that these protests are not just about removing Boluarte or reinstalling Castillo, or even holding new elections. They are a release of pent-up frustrations with a system whose operators have shown time and again that they will look out only for themselves. Having lost their last ounce of trust in that system, protestors are now taking to the streets. But does that make them terrorists?

Tim Brinkhof is a journalist and film critic based in Amsterdam. He studied early Netherlandish painting at NYU and has written for Esquire, High Times and History Today.