How I survived tear gas bombs dropped on protestors in Peru

9 mins read

From November 9 onward, the people of Peru realized that taking to the streets was increasingly unavoidable if they were to fight against the encroaching threat of a dictatorship, already underway in the midst of the biggest health crisis the country has ever faced. Back then, just thinking about it made my heart race.

I’m unsure which event was more outrageous; Manuel Merino seizing presidential power after the removal of President Martin Vizcarra without formal procedure, or Congress (which supposedly “represents the people”) once again supporting corruption entrenched in Peru’s federal government.

On the morning of November 10, my boyfriend and I arrived at Lima’s downtown historic center at Jirón Lampa to join the protest, and within the hour, the repression began. We had made it as far as Lampa because a police barricade prevented us from going further inward towards the Government Palace. The gathering crowd of protestors was quiet and restless with fear and uncertainty, a physical embodiment of the way the entire country felt. I began chanting “Come on, people, damn it! The people don’t give up, damn it!” and the crowd followed me. We took hold of the confidence that being in a large group instills, and managed to get past the barricade. It was at that moment police began hurling tear gas bombs everywhere.

A police contingent approached us and protestors took off running to escape. I wanted to warn everyone to stop because running would drench them in tear gas, but I began to choke because three bombs had fallen around me. I left just in time, pressing onward and calling out for water, but there was no one to help. I felt like I was dying. I was unprepared. The only things I had were my cloth mask and my water bottle in my boyfriend’s backpack, but I’d lost sight of him after the first tear gas bomb landed.

I went down a side street and found a small shop. Heaven opened its doors to me! I fumbled some coins out of my pocket and begged the shopkeeper for water, and he helped me.

Once I recovered my ability to breathe, two grinning, swaggering, heavily armed policemen passed by. I yelled after them. Surrounded by so many other people also struggling to breathe, blinded by tears, I shouted “You’re defending a man who seized power illegitimately. You’re attacking and violating us, your own people. You are traitors.”

The following days were spent organizing. I joined several WhatsApp groups that discussed defense tactics for protecting protestors from police violence. Some proposed creating shock troops, or tear gas bomb disposal teams, or coordinated assistance for protestors and street dogs hurt by tear gas.

My boyfriend joined a task force dedicated to deactivating tear gas grenades thrown by police. I was terrified something would happen to him, but when he mentioned it would be safer for me to stay home I resolved to stand with him in solidarity. So I became a tear gas bomb deactivator, too.

But my anxiety wasn’t assuaged. I thought about the voices of people demanding to face Congress, terrified they would be subject to brute force instead. Envisioning the roar of bombs and guns going off again terrified me.

On November 10, my heartbeat continued to pound a thousand times a minute. I slept poorly, had nightmares. I felt a pressure in my chest every time my boyfriend talked strategy and I felt unconfident about my role. I just didn’t want any more people to suffer what I suffered, suffocating while begging for help under a barrage of tear gas canisters.

In the days that passed, several mass demonstrations and noisemaker protests called cacerolazos were organized: the 11N, the 12N, the 13N, all named after the dates of the demonstrations.

On November 14 at 6:00 pm, we arrived at the team’s agreed meeting point and suited up with helmets, face shields, gas masks, and glasses. We marked our equipment in order to recognize one another, and moved to Plaza San Martín.

We pressed on until we reached the University Park and lined up next to Hip Hop Block, a university cultural and political group. Our team leader asked us to close ranks to prevent any dreaded “infiltrators” from breaking through and attacking us from behind. Our initial plan was to resist police attacks and provide aid to protesters. We’d learned how to dispose of tear gas bombs: One must run towards it with a large container of water and baking soda, quickly stuff the bomb inside it, cover the top, and shake it to snuff out the gas.

My confidence was bolstered a bit, although as soon as we began to move, my legs started to shake, too. Not five minutes passed before a roar filled the air and the bombs began to rain around us. One, two, three, four … I lost count and ran as best I could, a spray bottle in one hand and my water jug in the other. A small amount of gas leaked inside my mask, but I could still breathe. I pressed on until I reached an area where people were crying out desperately, entirely unprepared for the attack, just like I was on Tuesday the 10th. I made my rounds, spraying water with baking soda and repeating “Keep your eyes closed, keep your mouth closed. Everything’s going to be okay. Breathe. Stay calm. Everything will be okay.”

The bombs continued to drum on, the wounded left, and gunshots sounded.

My team roamed the streets, my fear growing as I tried to locate my boyfriend. I felt angry and cowardly for flanking the rear, but I also understood that helping was the most important thing to do. To resist. To keep fighting.

All at once, my boyfriend and his team partner returned. He was fine, but we didn’t know where the rest of the team was, nor how to tell them we were being overtaken and couldn’t stay much longer—our water had run out and a curfew was in effect that night at 11. Once the clock struck, the police would become even more aggressive. We resorted to using WhatsApp in order to decide the best way to escape.

We caught sight of one another’s faces when we regrouped: There was fatigue, outrage, fear, relief that although we were bruised we were still alive, and hellbent on keeping on fighting if the dictator did not fall.

We retired for the night, but cell phone messages began to ping notifications of the dead, injured, and detained. As I crossed my front door, Lima rumbled in cacerolazos. Inti, the first death of the night had been confirmed. Inti, who I had last seen at the Hip Hop Block, and who had probably gone ahead of me at some point before the killing began.


Charlene is a Bay Area journalist who hails from the small community of Fresno. Drawing from her experience writing for her college paper, Charlene continues to advocate for free press and local journalism. She also volunteers in all the beach cleanups she can because she loves the water.