On March 5th, 2023, the Joint Command of the Peruvian Armed Forces tweeted a photograph showing three soldiers in combat gear, holding machine guns, set against a background of recently dug up soil (Figure 1). As several commentators noted, the image resembled a mass grave—a symbol that evokes the Internal Armed Conflict (1980–2000) and the armed forces’ repressive actions in that conflict. The tweet came after weeks of protests against the government of Dina Boluarte, who took over following Pedro Castillo’s attempted self-coup and arrest. The protests have resulted in roughly sixty fatalities, largely the result of state repression of the protests.

Figure 1. A tweet from the Joint Command of the Peruvian Armed Forces (@CCFFAA_PERU) with an image depicting soldiers holding machine guns, set against a background of recently dug up soil.

The tweet stated: “#OurMissionPeru The Armed Forces will never relent in their struggle for national defence.” The same day, several soldiers drowned after they tried to cross the Ilave River in Puno. Others were rescued by Aymara comuneros whose protests they had been sent to repress. Later that day, in interviews on social media, the parents of the dead soldiers (who, as it happens, were also Aymaras doing their military service) blamed Boluarte for the death of their children. The counterpoint between the thinly veiled threat of the Joint Command’s tweet and the tragedy in Puno is telling.

The Joint Command’s tweet perfectly encapsulates the enduring role of the internal enemy in Peru, at once political and biopolitical (the communist obrero or blue-collar worker in the early twentieth century, the atavistic Indian in the mid-twentieth century, the bearded guerrillero in the 1960s, the uppity cholo in the 1980s, the terruco—terrorist—since the Internal Armed Conflict) in reinforcing and normalizing a project of rule that operates against the population.

While the internal enemy may appear as merely functional to the maintenance of the disciplinary imperative in particular historical conjunctures, it is, in fact, constitutive of the modern national project. It represents that against which the project is defined and therefore that which gives “progress,” “development,” “growth,” etc. . . . meaning and purchase. President Alan García (2006–2011) expressed this idea most clearly in his 2007 writings on “the dog in the manger,” where he blamed communists and environmentalists (and, crucially, those they claim to represent; the Indigenous) who oppose investment projects in mining and hydrocarbons for holding back Peru—for under-developing Peru. Progress, as it is conceived here, is the overcoming of such opposition, and its elimination.

When President Boluarte said in February 2023 that Puno was not Peru, she was making the point that the protests in Puno, the most Indigenous departamento, were not representative of the general mood in the country. But the phrase “Puno is not Peru” took on a broader meaning because, regardless of what Boluarte meant to say, the words expressed a fundamental truth that many people immediately recognized. For the elites, for “Lima” (a synecdoche of white, elite, rich Peru), Puno is not Peru.

In early March police in Lima shot tear gas cannisters at the bodies of protesting Aymara women from Puno. One tweeter claimed that the fact that the women wore red skirts was evidence that they were activists of “Runasur, who obey the orders of Evo [Morales], they do not march spontaneously, because they love Peru, they do it to impose their interests” (Figure 2). This claim taps into a long tradition of accusing those who dare to protest against the status quo of being foreigners, of doing the bidding of a foreign power, or of hating Peru. It also reveals how the internal enemy is often gendered in ways that reinforce its association with Indigeneity.

Figure 2. A screenshot of a tweet claiming the Aymara women’s red skirts were evidence that the women were activists for Runasur, a transnational organization promoted by the former President of Bolivia, Evo Morales.

Boluarte’s claim that “Puno is not Peru” also resonated widely because the phrase evokes a more fundamental idea: that Peru should not be Puno. On the contrary, Peru ought to be the opposite of Puno. What, after all, is the idea of “nation” that the Joint Command’s tweet evokes? What nation is it focused on defending? It is not a nation threatened by a foreign power since such a threat does not exist. It is, in fact, the nation understood as “not Puno” threatened by an internal enemy we could, in fact, call Puno.

As such, we can see how in this new, latest, iteration of the internal enemy, the political and biopolitical are conflated. The current wave of protests and repression has been characterized by incidents of overt racism such as when Óscar Becerra, Boluarte’s Minister of Education accused the Aymara women of being worse than animals for carrying children on their backs during the protests. As importantly, the crisis has exposed the underlying racist grammar that articulates Peruvian society; a racist grammar that relies on the reiteration of the figure of the internal enemy.

Various observers have rightly criticized the claims that circulate about what the protests and the repression mean, correctly calling out the “demonizers” and “romanticizers” who project onto the crisis their fears or aspirations. My aim here has been to draw attention to the ideas and symbols that the crisis has surfaced and in particular to the role played by the figure of the internal enemy.

I am struck by the portentousness of the situation. This crisis, it would seem, exceeds those that the country has lived through in recent years (such as the one that led to Manuel Merino’s resignation from the presidency in late 2020, after six days in power). Perhaps this is due to the symbolism of Pedro Castillo’s election (a poor, rural teacher becomes president defeating Keiko Fujimori, the representative of the elites), the fact that it coincided with Peru’s bicentenary, or the devastating impact of the pandemic on the country.

At one level, the current crisis appears superficially banal: caused by Castillo’s inept self-coup and the subsequent appointment (even if stricto sensu constitutional) of an unpopular president with low legitimacy, supported by an even more unpopular congress with even lower legitimacy, who was unwilling to bend to popular demands for new elections. At another, like the soil in the Joint Command’s photograph, the crisis has exposed the deep fractures in Peruvian society, making it appear existential.