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Peru: historic divisions and the National Police

Racial discrimination in society is reproduced within its police force



Peru’s complicated history is mirrored in the controversies affecting the Peruvian National Police (PNP). The violent treatment of Indigenous anti-government demonstrators illustrates the prevalence of racialised discrimination in Peru’s society, whilst recent revelations about the PNP’s disciplinary crisis provide an insight into the nation’s internal divisions.

News clips, documentaries and social media reels provide European and North American audiences with intermittent glimpses into the operations of Latin American police forces. But these cameos are often spectacles of criminality, corruption and violence inflicted upon civil society. The PNP has done little to shake this reputation: from systemic corruption to the human rights violations inflicted on Indigenous communities during the state’s two-decade war with the Shining Path guerrilla group and the treatment of Indigenous protestors during 2022.

Clip from video: Human Rights Watch 2023

‘They fired at anyone who ran. People were desperate,’ recalled one unidentified protester, referring to the actions of officers towards protesters in the largely Indigenous province of Ayacucho on 15 December 2022. ‘Despite the government’s efforts to paint them as terrorists or criminals, those killed were demonstrators, observers and bystanders.’ said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International. ‘Almost all of them were from poor, Indigenous and campesino backgrounds, suggesting a racial and socio-economic bias in the use of lethal force.’

The PNP is responsible for perpetuating the racialised trauma of campesino communities in rural regions of the country. But viewing the PNP as an inherently bad service which recruits and deploys bad people is to oversimplify this issue. We need to dig deeper and question the traditional understandings of the PNP. By analysing the force’s complicated role in society, and looking at the actions of officers towards society and towards each other, we can view the institution as less the cause of division in the country, than a reflection of historic divisions in Peruvian society..

The Complicated Histories of the PNP

Memory-tellers no.10 ‘Cayará – Is there a possible road to reconciliation?’ Cayara, Ayacucho, was the site of a massacre of 39 peasants by the Peruvian military in May 1988 -from the virtual archives of LUM

Between the neighbourhoods of San Isidro and Miraflores in Lima, sits the Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social (Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion, LUM). It is a museum inspired by the findings of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), aiming to commemorate those affected by the violence of the state and by paramilitaries during the country’s war with the Shining Path guerrilla group during the two decades from 1980-2000.

According to the TRC, the conflict between the state and the Shining Path led to around 69,000 deaths, 26,259 of which occurred in the predominantly rural and Quechua-speaking province of Ayacucho. Subsequent abuse committed by the police against Indigenous demonstrators has perpetuated this trauma. A 2023 survey by think-tank Latinobarómetro shows that 31 per cent of Quechua and Aymara speakers do not trust the PNP, whilst 53 per cent do not trust the military.

Across the city there is another museum dedicated to the conflict: the Museo de la Dirección Nacional Contra el Terrorismo (Museum of the National Directorate Against Terrorism). Under the private ownership of the PNP, this space honours the soldiers and police officers who fought in the conflict and frames the defeat of the Shining Path as an unequivocal victory. Whilst it is understandable given the extreme violence of the group, referring to all Shining Path members as ‘terrorists’ erases the human agency of those killed on both sides and glosses over the atrocities inflicted by the state.

Logo of the Peruvian National Police: ‘God, Country, Law’

This narrative has fuelled a broader practise known as terruqueo; accusing all Indigenous protestors of being members of the Shining Path, framing them as an internal enemy. This was described in my earlier article, ‘Why the terms ‘Lo Andino’ and ‘Terruco’ still matter’.

By 1980 many conservative sectors of the country still harked back to the perceived humiliation of Peru’s back-to-back military defeats by Chile (1879) and Colombia (1931). The response of the state has been to inflate the image of the military and police, creating a hyper-masculinised narrative that paints officers as the protagonists of national salvation.

Reflecting this standpoint, after asking for congress to approve a pay rise for officers for their response to protests in 2022, Prime Minister Alberto Otárola Peñaranda referred to PNP officers as ‘heroes of the homeland who are giving up their health and their lives for public order’.

When experiences of a certain event differ, they create different memories. When these experiences differ drastically – as they have frequently done between Peru’s rural, campesino regions and wealthier urban regions – they create what scholar Steve J. Stern (2010) refers to as ‘memory knots.’ 1)Stern, Steve J. (2010) Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Questions in Democratic Chile 1989-2006, Durham N.C. and London, Duke University Press These are self-serving narratives of history that are irreconcilable to one another. There are two ‘knots’ in the case of Peru, and the PNP is central to both of them: trauma and salvation. These conflicted histories breed division in Peru, and the PNP has become a microcosm of this division.

Disciplinary Crisis

On 29 October 2023, Victor Zanabria – current commander of the PNP – sat on the set of Peruvian news broadcast Punto Final in a dark green military uniform with gold badges glimmering in the light. Zanabria, who a general at the time, sheepishly revealed an uncomfortable truth: ‘We need approximately 35 thousand police officers … We have a gap accumulated from many years in many operational aspects.’

There are some pragmatic explanations for this. Firstly, as Zanabria was quick to point out, the substantial impact of COVID-19 cannot be overlooked. According to his estimations, the pandemic stalled the progression of around 10,000 trainee officers and led to the loss of 6,000 officers in active service. The effect of the pandemic on Peru was profound and the PNP was certainly not immune to that.

Interview with Victor Zanabria, commander of the PNP, Latina Noticias, 2024

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Secondly, the PNP has suffered from a chronic lack of state investment. Zanabria refers to an ‘issue of accommodation’ within police training centres, with some centres lacking basic facilities, whilst in another interview on 15 January 2024 he claimed that ‘the guns we use are from 1965.’ Stifled by a lack of funding, the police in some regions have turned to private investment, in a move that many see as undermining the state’s authority. More than 160 agreements have been concluded between the PNP and transnational extractive companies (predominantly for the protection of mining facilities, assets and personnel). These are worth billions of US dollars. Yet without regular investment, the PNP risks becoming a relic offering little to young Peruvians.

But this does not tell the whole story. According to government data acquired by El Comercio, 23,824 PNP officers were discharged because of disciplinary offences between 2018 and 2023, an average of 13 every day. As many as 71 per cent of those discharged were low-ranking sub-officials.

‘The 2nd– and 3rd-class sub-officials are the ones that have most contact with the population,’ indicated Enrique Castro, expert of Peruvian civil security. ‘That tells you that grave deficiencies exist in the selection of personnel, but also in police training: there is a lack of police training schools based in the community.’

According to the data 3,129 officers were discharged for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and a further 758 officers were discharged for consuming alcohol or drugs whilst on service. More gravely, NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have thoroughly documented patterns of violent treatment of civilians as well as violations of due process during protests.

Ruth Bárcena Loayza only discovered from social media that her husband had been shot . On the way to finding him, Bárcena recalled seeing a military officer grab a fleeing young man by the hair before flooring him with the butt of his rifle. According to Bárcena, the officer said ‘Terrorist, you are going to die,’ before shooting the man in the leg.

Bárcena’s husband, Leonardo David Hancco Chacca, was a 32-year old heavy machine operator from Ayacucho. He suffered internal bullet wounds from police gunfire during anti-government protests on 16 December 2023. After pleading with a military officer for the transportation of Hancco and other injured protestors to Lima, health workers were reportedly told ‘Terrorists deserve to die like that.’ Hancco died the following morning in a local hospital.

Although this anecdote captures only a single incident, it illustrates the prevalence of the terruqueo narrative within the PNP itself.

Whilst these abuses are rightly well-documented, NGOs do not explore how this historical narrative might affect PNP officers themselves, particularly those from Indigenous backgrounds. The data provides a subtle yet revealing glimpse into this.

Internal Division

The most common disciplinary offence was far more innocuous than the egregious examples shown to Western audiences, but equally as revealing. No less than 6,784 officers (28.7 per cent of the total discharged) were discharged for the common offence of being absent from their unit for more than five consecutive calendar days…

Article in El Comercio, Peru, March 2024: ‘Every day 11 police officers are retired for disciplinary offences.’

Former PNP General Carlos Tuse believes that the fact that this indicates ‘a grave problem of human management within the institution [and] demonstrates the reluctance of police officers to go to work.’ It tells a story of disenfranchisement within the institution, which reflects the attitudes of the country’s rural Indigenous communities more broadly. Whilst it is difficult to confirm, data suggests that the high rate of awols could be caused by a culture of bullying.

‘There is a lot of mistreatment,’ Tuse added. ‘(Officers) are treated as if they were a logistical resource.’ This claim is backed up by the data, which reveals that 69 PNP officers were discharged in the last six years for physically or psychologically mistreating members of their group, hinting at a broader culture of mistreatment within the institution.

We cannot prove that this mistreatment is racialised as there is little evidence at this stage. However, we do know that it stems from hierarchy. ‘There is too much abuse of power in the PNP and it is a problem of the system,’ Tuse states. We can also assume with a fair degree of confidence that – reflective of broader societal patterns – higher positions within the PNP are held by mestizo Peruvians whilst lower positions are made up of young Indigenous and Indigenous-descendant Peruvians. According to a 2007 survey by the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, 62.93 per cent of Peruvians believed that whites and mestizos controlled power in the PNP, compared to just 6.79 per cent for Indigenous or Indigenous-descendant people. With this element of superiority comes an ability to mistreat.


The PNP is at the heart of two irreconcilable histories. The effects of this on society are well-documented, but it is equally important to start talking about the effects of this on officers themselves. If efforts are not made to eradicate this culture of mistreatment within the institution, it is destined to repeat itself in the way officers treat the public. More broadly, the only way for the PNP to redeem its history is to redefine itself in an image of the society that it is designed to serve and protect.

Marley Markham is a journalist and writer from London interested in social memory and race in Latin America.

Main image: National Police, Peru – photo: Andina


1 Stern, Steve J. (2010) Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Questions in Democratic Chile 1989-2006, Durham N.C. and London, Duke University Press