Silent Wars are Opening: Memory Practices and Political Uprisings in Peru

From the Series: The "Marcha a Lima" against the Denial of Modern Political Rights

Adelma Quispe Condori, Presidenta de la Asociación Provincial de Mujeres de Melgar (Puno). Photo by Vladimir Velazquez.

Violence can take multiple forms and its aftermaths exceed human casualties to include consequences imprinted in places: mountains, rivers, territories. In Peru, there are examples of killings, disappearances, sexual violence, and police and military repression that occurred during the armed conflict (1980–1992) and in democratic times as well. There are also more subtle forms of violence, mostly pernicious and visceral. “A silent war,” as Peruvian writer Manuel Scorza used to describe years of campesino and Indigenous struggles and resistance to dispossession of land, massacres, and death: news that seldom appears on the front pages even when these Indigenous campesinos call for rights, to vote, and national assembly. These stories exist in the intimacy of the untold. Uchuraccay is one of such places, and juridical cases, that illustrate these different levels and forms of violence.

On January 26, 1983, in the surroundings of apu Razuhuillca,[1] along the path to Uchuraccay (a village in Ayacucho), eight journalists and their guide died. They were investigating the Shining Path’s incursions and the armed forces presence in the area. In late 1982 then President Belaunde declared a state of emergency in Ayacucho, prompting the entry of the armed forces into the region. The case appeared on front pages, and debates soon followed. Beyond ideological disagreement, politicians and academics shared an inability to see that campesinos make decisions for themselves. The investigative commission led by writer Mario Vargas Llosa disregarded these populations’ relationships with the cities, how they migrated to work, and how they returned to their villages; their modern gaze prevented them from seeing beyond indigenous cosmopolitics. The Uchuraccay event also challenged Peruvian anthropology as some of the members of the investigative commission were anthropologists. It showed Indigenismo legacies at their worst: passive Indians, living with nostalgia in the outskirts of modernity and the state. What kind of politics emerges from years of political violence and contempt?

Uchuraccay remained in Peru’s memory of the armed conflict as a tragedy that had a cruelly violent sequel. According to the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than 100 people died in the months that followed the massacre. As death expanded, Uchuraccainos left. In the early 1990s, after the capture of Abimael Guzman—leader of the Shining Path—some returned but refounded their village in a different place: close enough, but different.

Below is a large retablo showing the journalists’ long walk to Uchuraccay (see Figure 1). Florentino Jiménez, an Ayacuchano artist, created it with his sons. Using the metaphor of Christ’s path to calvary, a dog leads the journalists to Ukupacha, the underworld, the place of the non-living. In the retablo non-living and the living meet in time and space, as Franz Krajnik’s photographs also show: memory and pain are transtemporal (see Figure 2).

Figure 1. Floretino Jiménez retablo Uchuraccay. Photo by María Eugenia Ulfe, 2002.
Figure 2. Franz Krajnik photograph Banderas, Uchuraccay, Ayacucho, 2012.

Violence and power create permanent minorities, those who suffered the most, were again Indigenous campesinos. In 2021 Uchuraccay—as well as other Andean communities in Ayacucho, Puno, and Apurimac—overwhelmingly voted for Pedro Castillo, a rural schoolteacher and union leader, to become president. The Uchuraccainos returned to the political scene by voting to demand a change in government. They thus exercised the republican promise of citizenship, elusive to illiterate sectors in Peru until 1979 when a new Constitution approved universal suffrage. In 2021, a national survey that linked poverty to voting, showed Uchuraccay as being both among the poorest and among those with the most votes for Pedro Castillo.

The Uchuraccainos’ choice for president actually became president. Right-wing parties and conservative groups denied the election results. Following the Trumpian path, they began a legal battle, called for vote recounting, and alleged fraud. With rage and contempt, they broke the long-awaited republican promise of democracy and equality. Suspicion cloaked the electoral institutions, and it was claimed that Indigenous communities and the “rural poor didn’t know how to vote”—a lineal antagonism of progress against poverty and the capacity to cast a vote. However, since Fujimori’s coup d’état in April 1992, Uchuraccay as well as other Ayacuchano communities devastated by violence, became symbols of social programs, as the fight against poverty became the main discourse in government politics.

Uchuraccay directly exemplifies the cumulative violence that was not limited to one town, a postwar period that never ended, a series of fractures that only grow with the years, and silent wars that keep occurring. The case also illustrates how little is known about Andean and Amazonian communities and their cabildos, assemblies as other forms of politics. The idea of politics in Peru is dominated by political scientists and rests on political parties. Little is known about images, discourses, and practices that go beyond these formed structures. For instance, there is solidarity and cooperation, and the way memory, despite been in the past, is present. Social fractures, recent memory, and history participate in electoral contests—at least they have been in Peru since 2001.

Moreover, the pandemic has left an indelible imprint on households. Peru has among the worst mortality rates, and it was Andean and Amazonian communities that bore the brunt of these near deaths, that in some cases reminded what happened during the years of the armed conflict. Violence is the lens through which the present is lived. In their region, Uchuraccainos delicately thread the ever-elusive possibility of another form of politics, based on assemblies, cooperation, and solidarity. The possibility of being part of something larger, like the national community, that connects the protesters who walk from Uchuraccay and other Andean and Amazonian communities to Lima: women with their children on their backs with men who believe that this is their time for political representation. They are ending silent wars and enabling the possibility of new social tissues to grow.


[1] Razuhuillca is a mountain located in the northern part of Ayacucho, an earth-being revered as an apu, a mountain with a living spirit by those who live near it.