- Guillermo D. Olmo
- Tacabamba, Peru
When all Peru wondered who this unknown primary school teacher was who had won the first round of the presidential elections, Santos Fernández already had the answer.
“I have known Pedro Castillo since he was a child; he is an honest and hard-working man,” he says from the main square of Tacabamba, during a pause in the patrol patrol of which he is a part.
The peasant rondas emerged in Peru in the 1980s as a form of self defense of rural communities in the face of cattle rustling and war between the Peruvian State and the Shining Path communist insurgency.
Over time, they ended up becoming one more law enforcement force, especially in rural Peru, where candidate Castillo comes from.
He was also a rondero, a condition that he claims in all his public appearances, knowing that many Peruvians in the countryside identify with the ronda.
Santos Fernández takes his work as a patrolman very seriously, and every night, accompanied by his companions, he patrols the streets of Tacabamba armed with a binza, a kind of whip made from the dry skin of the bull’s penis with which he imposes the laws of the field.
Until recently, whoever is ahead in the counting of presidential votes was I walked daily through these steep streets. He was one of the primary school teachers in this small town nestled in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. Hence comes the nickname with which he has made his fortune in politics: the teacher.
And things look very different from up here to Lima and coastal Peru, which mostly opted for Keiko Fujimori, the other candidate.
“This country has too much wealth to have so many poor“proclaims Santos, almost tracing what has been one of the slogans of the campaign of his countryman, who in the campaign has exhibited as one of his symbols the rustic hat with which many Cajamarcans cover themselves.
Tacambamba is one of the many rural towns in the Department of Cajamarca, one of the poorest in Peru according to official statistics. To get here, you have to drive almost five hours from the city of Cajamarca on roads whose layout and pavement put the guts of the most seasoned traveler to the test.
Although Peru has been one of the most dynamic economies in Latin America in recent years, the improvement has not been noticed on the roads that run through this mountain range.
In its highest sections, the road crosses peaks above 4,000 meters of altitude.
The locals fight the soroche, as they call altitude sickness here, by chewing coca leaf, which outsiders can buy in some of the few businesses open on the road.
The controversy of mining
Far from Lima and coastal Peru, a lucrative business is carried out in the imposing Cajamarca mountains.
The Andes hide rich deposits of gold and other minerals, and here in Cajamarca are some of the largest mines in South America, but many in these lands wonder if the deal is fair for them.
“How can it be that gold is extracted from here that is distributed throughout the world and the roads are still not fixed,” asks Juan Chillón, an environmental activist who in the last elections unsuccessfully competed for a seat in Congress with an alliance of left-wing parties.
The campaign promises of “recovery” of the national wealth of candidate Castillo were welcomed in places like this, where sectors of the local population they have been protesting for years for what they consider abuses by mining companies, which they blame for extracting resources without sharing the benefits with local communities and causing serious environmental damage.
Although not everyone sees it in the same way. Engineer Julio Chávez, who worked for 12 years at the Environmental Assessment and Enforcement Agency, a public agency, points out that “many times the problem is the communities that do not understand the benefits and refuse to have the infrastructure built.”
“They also want the mining companies to give them jobs, but these are operations that cannot hire people without qualifications,” adds Chávez.
According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, mining accounts for 61% of exports Peru and the largest source of foreign exchange earnings in the country, which helps explain why it is a central issue in the Peruvian public debate.
For the Cajamarquinos, especially those who live in the mountains, it is difficult to avoid it. Mining is too present and dominates its landscapes. In Hualgayoc, halfway between Cajamarca and Tacabamba, the gigantic gold and copper mine that the South African multinational Gold Fields exploits on Cerro Corona presides over the horizon.
His stamp impresses. Years of exploitation have peeled the mountainside, which now reveals the successive layers in which the mineral has been extracted as if it were a huge cheese sliced into perfect slices. At the foot of the mountain, a line of trucks surrounds the huge central lagoon transporting tons of rock and lime.
Not even the great bullring of Hualgayoc, a reflection of the deep-rooted bullfighting hobby of the Sierra Cajamarca, can compete in size with such an infrastructure.
Sometimes the promoters of the mining business have met with insurmountable resistance from the people here.
A paradigmatic case is that of Máxima Acuña, a woman who refused to sell his land and it became an insurmountable obstacle to the development of the Conga mining megaproject of the American company Newmont.
Máxima continues to live at her home on a deserted mountain, where she is occasionally visited by journalists who are interested in her story. There is no economic offer that can convince her to leave in the desert and frozen place where she has her house.
The project has been paralyzed for years and Máxima lives with her husband surrounded by the camps that the miners abandoned. Castillo has promised that, if he becomes president, he will definitively close the Conga project, and Máxima will finally be able to sleep peacefully.
Like Máxima Acuña, Pedro Castillo is a Peruvian from the highlands. Born in Puña, a small peasant village, he lives in a modest house in the also small Chugur, near Tacabamba, where everyone knows him. Actually, everyone knows each other here.
Betsabé Tarrillo was a teacher to one of Castillo’s two children and has been his co-worker at the Tacabamba school for years.
“He has always been a responsible and committed man, with values,” he says. In a commercial space presided over by a poster of Che Guevara, Bathsheba talks with other teachers gathered there before the time of the curfew due to the covid epidemic, which the ronda is in charge of strictly imposing.
Everyone remembers with gratitude Castillo’s role in the 2017 teachers’ strike. He was then one of the leaders of the Unitary Union of Education Workers of Peru (Sutep) and managed to wrest the government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. improvements for this group. It was the first time Castillo achieved public notoriety.
Tarrillo sees in his countryman an “opportunity for Peru to have for the first time a president who is not tainted by corruption.”
Keiko Fujimori prevailed in Lima and other coastal departments, but Castillo swept Cajamarca with more than 70% of the vote.
And Keiko Fujimori’s campaign, based on presenting Castillo as a “communist” with ties to Sendero Luminoso “terrorism”, has failed to convince many in this region.
“Pedro Castillo is my neighbor; I know him well,” says Marielba Tarrillo, Bathsabé’s aunt. “They say he is a terrorist, but he is a man who has dedicated his life to childhood and to his farm.” There, in his terroir of Chugur, he has been sowing potatoes, beans, peas and other typical crops of the area for years.
Other residents of Tacabamba present Castillo as an austere man, faithful to the evangelical church of the Nazarene, to which he used to go with his wife, Liliana Paredes.
His detractors see in the evangelical cult that follows the cause of macho attitudes, such as the comments in which he attributed the femicides to the “idleness generated by the State.”
But that doesn’t seem to matter much to them in Tacabamba.
“Keiko is the worst. We already had a Fujimori as president and there were years in which there were many attacks and corruption,” says Marcial Vázquez, also a professor in Tacabamba, who has observed with amazement how the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa asked for the vote for Fujimori, which he always denounced, to stop Castillo.
“That shows that these people do not defend ideals, but only their interests.”
To many urban Fujimori voters they are concerned about the alleged lack of preparation of the candidate Castillo, who in an interview with the journalist Diego Acuña showed signs of not fully understanding the concept of monopoly and others of basic economics.
But Marcial doesn’t care. The important thing for him is that “Pedro is not going to be sold; because they cannot buy him with money.”
He is one of those who feels that the State has historically turned its back on this region.
And the covid pandemic has once again exposed the shortcomings of rural Peru. In the country that has recognized the highest mortality rate in the world. many of the dead have been in the field.
José Isidro Medina, manager of the Tacabamba health network explains that “the pandemic has hit very hard and we do not have enough protective equipment.”
Ruth García Briones, the young subprefect of Tacabamba, regrets that “here there are no means other than to stabilize patients and then there is no choice but to send them to Chota, “a larger town about two hours away on a lousy road.
His followers in Tacambamba hope that Castillo will end years of backwardness in Peruvian rural medicine, at least here on his land.
For the first time in a long time, they feel that, if the massive challenges presented by Keiko Fujimori do not prevent it, the next president of Peru will be one of their own.
The question is whether President Castillo would be as good at running a country in crisis as growing potatoes or teaching elementary calculus to boys in school.
Judging by the recent history of Peru, which has had 4 presidents in the last 4 years, the congressmen from Lima will be much more difficult to handle than their students from Tacabamba.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.