Published May 29, 2003
LIMA, Peru – Peruvian soldiers and police reopened the Pan American Highway (search) after violent clashes with protesting farmers who had blocked the key 1,500-mile stretch of road with rocks and burning tires, officials said.
Thousands of travelers have been stranded since Monday as farmers sought to stop farm produce from getting to Lima and other cities to force the government to reduce taxes on some crops and protect local farmers from imports.
On Wednesday, government forces clashed with the demonstrators who had blocked 64 sections of the highway that links the north and south of Peru (search). In the most violent incident, soldiers and police fired tear gas and then bullets at protesters blocking the highway outside Barranca, 100 miles northwest of Lima. The crowd resisted and hurled rocks before scattering as troops advanced.
By nightfall, security forces had reopened the highway, Defense Minister Aurelio Loret de Mola said.
Health Minister Alberto Sanabria said 95 demonstrators had been detained throughout Peru and 16 policemen were hurt in the clashes. There were no figures available on injuries among protesters.
On Tuesday, President Alejandro Toledo (search) declared a national state of emergency -- giving police and the military the authority to use force to clear the highways, restore order, detain strikers and enter homes without warrants.
The 30-day measure also limits freedom of movement and prohibits public assembly.
"Tolerance has its limit," he said on national television. "We have the responsibility to govern for 26 million Peruvians. We have the responsibility to protect citizens and the public order."
Tens of thousands of farmers had joined striking teachers, government health workers and judiciary employees in spreading protests that turned increasingly violent.
The farmers are demanding lower taxes on their crops and protection from imports. The other groups want wage increases.
In declaring a state of emergency, Toledo risked tarnishing his image as a democratic leader. He rose to political prominence in the struggle to force former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori from power in 2000.
Toledo, who took office in July 2001, is viewed as a weak, indecisive leader by most Peruvians, according to public opinion surveys. In recent months his popularity has tumbled, with some polls showing his support as low as 14 percent.
"He shows very weak leadership, which has caused problems to get out of control, to the point that he now wants to compensate for his weakness with the extreme measure of turning control of internal order over to the military," said Jorge del Castillo, a leader of the populist Aprista Party, Peru's strongest opposition force.
But the state of emergency -- which placed Lima and 11 other of Peru's 24 regions under military control -- drew applause from many quarters.
"It's the best showing by Toledo so far," said Samuel Gleiser, a prominent business leader. "He took the bull by the horns."