The Peruvian authorities rushed to restore order yesterday in a remote Andean town where thousands of townspeople took 20 municipal workers hostage and beat the mayor to death out of anger at official corruption.
As government officials and an army general headed to Ilave near Lake Titicaca to negotiate the release of the hostages and restore calm, there were indications that the protests could rebound negatively on the national government, which is already struggling with record low approval ratings in opinion polls.
The townsfolk of Ilave began their protest against Mayor Cirilo Fernando Robles peacefully, with a week of demonstrations accusing him of embezzling badly needed state funds and demanding his resignation.
The situation deteriorated, however, after election officials from the Interior Ministry cautioned against forcing Mayor Robles' resignation and said there should be new elections instead.
Passions boiled over on Monday as the protesters, many of them highland Aymara Indians, seized the town officials. Mayor Robles was dragged, tied to a post, beaten and left for dead beneath a bridge, according to local news reports. He later bled to death.
"The body was found abandoned below a bridge. He was taken to a hospital," the deputy interior minister Ricardo Valdes told CPN radio. "The people are very angry."
News of the unrest was broadcast to the rest of the country in dramatic fashion when a policeman from Ilave called into a radio programme featuring the Interior Minister, Fernando Rospigliosi. He reported that about a thousand rioters had begun throwing molotov cocktails at the police station. The 50 officers holed up inside had run out of tear gas grenades, he said, and some of them were injured. "Don't let them take hostages or take your weapons," Mr Rospigliosi told the officer directly on the radio. The phone connection went dead moments later.
The Lake Titicaca region is close to the Bolivian border and is an important supply route for the two countries. During the unrest, two bridges straddling the border have been closed, along with schools and many other public buildings.
The outbreak of violence was a further symptom of discontent in Peru, where President Alejandro Toledo's government is struggling with approval ratings in single figures, a divided and equally unpopular Congress, and growing speculation that he may not hold on to power long enough to see out his term, which ends in July 2006.
A United Nations report issued in Peru last week showed that Latin America as a whole was growing disillusioned with its democratically elected leaders because of their perceived weakness in the face of rampant corruption and economic policies dictated by the US and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
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