Chronicle of Pedro Castillo’s Fleeting Self-Coup in Peru

Former president Pedro Castillo during his arrest in Lima, Peru.  Photo: EFE | Confidencial

The coup lasted just 88 minutes. What self-destructive drive led the now former president to jump into the abyss?

By IDL Reporters (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – There was a self-coup in 1992 and another self-coup in 2022. Both used the same memorable verb: “Dissolve”, for the same purposes, almost in the same order of enunciation.

There the similarities ended. The ’92 coup in Peru was prepared for more than a year and a half; that of this week’s in less than an hour and a half. That of 1992 mobilized all the Armed Forces and the Police; the one the latest one only mobilized words read from a trembling sheet of paper. The one of 1992 lasted eight years; that of 2022 a little more than 88 minutes. The one in 1992 was a calculated risk; that of 2022 an immediate suicide.

What happened? And above all, why did it happen? What self-destructive drive led former president Pedro Castillo to the blind idea of throwing himself into the abyss?

IDL-Reporteros has tried to reconstruct the sequence of events based on documents and interviews with several people close to the events, some of whom made open statements, while others requested that their names not be used.

Next, the chronicle of implausible events that, however, turned out to be true.

The hours before

Tuesday December 6 was the day before the debate on the vacancy motion presented in Congress against Castillo. The decisive hours of the debate would begin after noon.

In an incessant crescendo, the formal accusations made, the confessions revealed, and the informer accomplices converged in a communication pandemonium, whose evident purpose was to pressure the vote. However, it apparently did not manage to alter a numerical reality. Were there 87 votes or not? The matter was not only verbal and less rambling, but arithmetic. Did they have the votes?

Until the end of Tuesday the 6th, with noise or without noise, the votes against Castillo for vacancy of duty did not add up to 87.

Benji Espinoza, the lawyer for then-President Castillo, spent the entire afternoon of that day preparing his argument.

“Yesterday [Tuesday the 6th] we were in the Palace for six hours, all afternoon,” Espinoza told IDL-R, “I arrived around 12:30 and we stayed until six. The President arrived at four. We reviewed details, the jurisprudence. I left the Palace after 6 p.m. […] I had my arguments ready, finishing them.”

During those six hours, “at no time was the issue of dissolving the Congress addressed,” says Benji Espinoza, “Yesterday I thought the President was convinced that we were doing well in Congress.” In fact, adds Espinoza, “last night [Pedro Castillo] signed my appearance before Congress. He accredited me and Jose Palomino as his lawyers”.

During the afternoon, the Executive had refined the reinforced defense strategy that was going to be presented on Wednesday the 7th. In addition to the lawyers Espinoza and Palomino, several ministers were going to intervene in the debate. So, Espinoza says, “the ministers Chero, Salas, Sanchez were there, and Landa also arrived.”

In all this long process, Benji Espinoza says “I honestly did not notice anything unusual or strange in the president.”

On the morning of Wednesday the 7th, Espinoza called Pedro Castillo, “at 9 or 9:30 to make arrangements. I told him that we would meet there, as agreed. There was no consultation.[…] We [Espinoza and Palomino] were going to arrive at 2 [in the afternoon] or a little earlier”.

At 11:42 a.m. Castillo announced the self-coup

Message to the nation from President Pedro Castillo

Benji Espinoza, the lawyer who had best coordinated the President’s defense, said “everything was a surprise. I am absolutely amazed. I don’t know who told him to do what he did. […] The closure of Congress was never raised at any point in our conversations,” he stated.

Espinoza did not hesitate about his next step. At 12:36 p.m., he posted on his Twitter account that he had irrevocably resigned from Castillo’s defense.

“My resignation is irrevocable. I could not endorse undemocratic conduct.”

The self-coup was literal: it hit the person who perpetrated it, Castillo himself.

The resignations cascaded: the first to resign was the Minister of Labor, Alejandro Salas, at 11:59 a.m. Seven minutes later, Foreign Minister César Landa did. The last to resign was the head of MIDIS, Cinthya Lindo, at 2:10 p.m. The penultimate was Defense Minister Gustavo Bobbio, who resigned at 1:59 p.m.

By now, the self-coup had completely deflated.

Every coup d’état needs, if it aspires to success and not suicide, a certain capacity of force, to be applied at key points, with coordinated precision. The lesser the force, the greater the risk of a bloody outcome.

And when there is no force, the outcome is not operative, it’s totally inoperative.

Castillo, as would be seen, did not even have his body guards.

But at the moment he gave his message, many people suffered from uncertainty about what forces the president could mobilize, taking into account the draconian measures (curfew, etc.) that Castillo announced.

The day before, on Tuesday the 6th, it was learned that the top Commander of the Army, General EP Walter Cordova, had written a letter of resignation from his position. At seven in the morning on Wednesday the 7th, Cordova visited Castillo in the Palace, along with Defense Minister Bobbio, who entered before him. Each one spent around ten minutes with Castillo. Shortly after 8 a.m., Bobbio signed Cordova’s resignation letter.

The Army was left that morning without a general commander. For some, that was an ominous sign when coupled with the self-coup announcement made a few hours later.

The two hours following Castillo’s message at 11 in the morning, were, for many, the longest of the year. Various institutions (the National Board of Justice, the Judiciary, the National Prosecutor’s Office) spoke out against the coup, but the silence of the Armed Forces and the Police remained.

A statement from the Army, at one in the afternoon, fueled concerns:

There was total immobility. Was this another April 5th (when in 1992 Alberto Fujimori declared his self-coup)?

No, it wasn’t a repeat. In fact, the security forces had foreseen the possible conflict scenarios on the day of the debate on the presidential vacancy motion and were prepared to face it.

Soldiers of the law

Days before Wednesday, December 7, the high command of the National Police met with the heads of the Joint Command to weight the situation and action hypotheses.

Cooperation between institutions depends to a large extent on the relationship of trust between their leaders. The head of the Joint Command, General EP Manuel Gómez de la Torre, cultivated a good relationship with the Police during his administration, as demonstrated in the presentation of Operation Patriot, in the VRAEM, a few months ago.

Both the Commander General of the PNP, General PNP Raúl Alfaro, and the Chief of Staff, Police General Vicente Álvarez, maintain a cordial relationship with the Joint Command of the Armed Forces. General Álvarez, in particular, cooperated closely with the Armed Forces for several years in the fight against Sendero Luminoso.

In the meetings, the principles that were going to guide their action became clear: no order that meant fracturing or breaking democratic legality would be obeyed.

This was not new; but continued what the previous head of the Joint Command, General EP Cesar Astudillo, established in 2020.

Shortly after the vacancy of the then President Vizcarra, when the usurping government of Manuel Merino faced mobilizations of increasing intensity, Merino ordered the Armed Forces to intervene to quell the demonstrations.

Astudillo and his officers refused, issuing a statement that marked the character of the Armed Forces of the 21st century and, incidentally, accelerated the fall of the usurping government.

The Joint Command of 2022 obeyed exactly those principles. The high command of the Police as well.

As soon as the content of what Castillo was going to say was known, the Armed Forces and Police commanders met. Police General Alfaro was on medical leave, so General Alvarez assumed his representation as deputy general commander.

At 1:30 in the afternoon, the longest two hours of this year ended, when the Armed Forces and National Police published their joint statement.

It did not have the inspired wording of the 2020 press release, but its meaning was abundantly clear.

The self-coup, already almost deflated, collapsed at that moment. It was born in agony and died two hours later.

Then, General Alvarez learned that Castillo was leaving the Palace in vehicles with his family. Castillo’s escort, made up of police officers, received his order to go to the Mexican embassy.

Alvarez then ordered the arrest of the former president. The order was transmitted to Castillo’s escort by the head of State Security, Police General Ivan Lizzetti. Pretending to be a security problem, the caravan turned right at the Garcilaso intersection with Av. España and headed to the Prefecture premises (where the Seventh Police Region is located). There General Alvarez was waiting. He informed Castillo that he was under arrest, for the flagrant attempted coup.

That was the end of the coup, the freedom of Castillo and, at the same time, the threat against democracy. Vice President Dina Boluarte was sworn in as President of the Republic, as was appropriate. The far right, which for months sought to restrict her, had to resign themselves to her presidency, for now.

And so ended, in a day of surprising events and unexpected outcomes, the short and turbulent history of Pedro Castillo’s presidency. It arose amid the traumas of the coronavirus plague, which aroused both fears and hopes and justified neither one nor the other. Instead, it unleashed a chain of disappointments and growing indignation in the face of rudeness, dishonesty, and incompetence, where the main enemy of his presidency appeared: Castillo himself. He was the author of unprecedented disappointments and with a special talent described by the expression, “to rescue defeat from the very jaws of victory.

Text originally published by IDL-Reporteros


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