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As this South American nation devolved into constitutional crisis and legislators ousted Pedro Castillo as president, I was in the capital, camera in hand, to see what happened next

Peruvians celebrate in Lima on Dec. 7 after the ouster of Peruvian president Pedro Castillo, who in the course of a few hours went from dissolving Congress to being replaced by his vice-president. Photography by Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Wednesday morning, Lima. In Peru to visit my family and to rest, I was in my apartment working on an upcoming story when I opened social media and saw the news of a nationwide curfew starting at 10 that night. My first thought was, “this is going to seriously complicate things.”

The curfew was due to the fact that the now ex-president Pedro Castillo was dissolving Congress. Peruvians call this an auto-golpe, a coup d’état originating from inside the executive. It brings back sour memories of the Fujimorista coup that led to a long and bloody dictatorship in the 1990s.

This time, though, Mr. Castillo didn’t have the support of the armed forces. Congress voted to oust him instead. Former vice-president Dina Boluarte would be sworn in as president, Peru’s first female leader, shortly afterward.

I got to work, grabbing my camera bag and heading downtown. I wasn’t sure what to expect. In recent years there’ve been many protests in Lima, and many have turned violent.

The quickest way downtown is by bus – Lima’s rapid transit. On the bus, anyone who had a spare hand was checking their phones for the latest news of the political crisis. The bus was packed to the brim and there was no wiggle room. The gentleman standing next to me showed me a video of people running away from what he told me were looters. “Se aprovechan,” they take advantage, he said. I was already apprehensive. Going alone into the centre of Lima can be a dangerous, especially as a lone photographer carrying thousands of dollars of equipment. Later, that same man showed me a picture of ex-President Castillo being forced out of his car, arrested.

After getting to my stop I made my way to Congress with hopes of taking pictures of the new president. I needed to get the lay of the land, feel the mood, read the numbers of potential protesters. As a photojournalist covering a city, you come to know the details of every street, every block. How the light hits the walls, where there is parking, shortcuts. I needed to connect with other journalists. Lima is not my regular beat and there’s safety in numbers.

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Police stand guard around the Congress building, which was closed to the public.

On my way I noticed an increased but not heavy riot-police presence. But shops were closing and people were glued to the news on their TVs. Still not comfortable enough to take out my cameras, I continued through police-held gates toward the Congress, where I met with other journalists.

Waiting for Ms. Boluarte in one spot was difficult because I could hear shouting and chanting down the empty streets. I knew there was action happening down there but I had already committed to being here.

Finally a convoy of armoured cars made their way toward the gates. Shielded by police, I wasn’t getting a clear frame of the car. Anyway, the vehicle’s blacked-out windows destroyed any chance of getting a picture of the new president. That’s how it goes sometimes. You try and make the best decisions with far from perfect information.

I headed down to where the chanting was. When I arrived it was clear that it was a demonstration of supporters and protestors of Pedro Castillo, accompanied by a line of riot police.

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Castillo supporters march in downtown Lima.

As Castillo’s supporters made their way to meet up with a larger group, the sun was setting and the mood was turning. I met with a larger group of Peruvian photojournalists, some of the only media left covering the clashes.

Arriving at police headquarters, the group of Castillo supporters I was following was immediately met with riot police, batons and tear gas. Because I was on vacation, I hadn’t packed my gas mask and so got a good whiff. Police continued to corral and cordon off areas of central Lima, pushing protesters further back, making liberal use of their batons. Protesters threw rocks. Several people were injured, although it was hard to say by whom.

I saw several protesters wildly throw bricks that easily could have ended up being friendly fire. Some people wore buckets as helmets. Riot police fired tear gas again directly where we were standing. I was upwind, but I got enough of it in my system for it to hurt. After that there was, thankfully, a period of calm, during which another photographer offered to drive me home.

It’s too early to say what impact Mr. Castillo’s ousting will have on Peruvian politics. But the curfew was never implemented. It was the eve of a holiday long weekend and people were out at bars and restaurants. Life just went on. After six presidents in seven years, Peruvians may just be getting used to it.

Scenes from the clashes between Castillo supporters and police: A man tends to his head injuries, some people throw rocks at police, others hide from them in the area around the Peruvian legislature building.
As the violence unfolded outside the legislature, Dina Boluarte, sworn in as the president, promised to move forward from the ‘attempted coup’ that she said ‘has not found an echo in the institutions, nor in the street.’ By nightfall, authorities said Mr. Castillo was under arrest on charges of rebellion.

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