It has fallen to state authorities to launch and carry out the offensive against Covid-19 in Latin America. Governments have appropriated new powers and incumbent politicians have taken a leading role in this, Martín Vizcarra among them.

However, in countries like Peru, the efficacy – and indeed the reach – of the state is a conditioning factor in any such offensive. The state takes on a much more powerful presence in urbanised areas (where, of course, a large majority of people live) than in rural ones.

We have drawn attention in recent editions of this newsletter to the role played by indigenous organisations in the Amazon region in defending their communities from the virus. This has, on several occasions, led to altercations with state authorities (see below), whether regional or at district level. It has also led to clashes with other outsiders, such as oil companies, timber extractors and informal miners.

Less attention has been paid to what is going on in other parts of rural Peru. Here the role of the rondas campesinas in the northern highlands is worthy of comment. In the highlands of Piura, Lambayeque and Cajamarca regions (especially in the last of these) the rondas have mobilised to prevent the influx of people who might be carrying the virus.

The difference in the incidence of Covid-19 in the coastal regions of the north as opposed to the highland areas is notable. This would appear, at least in part, to results from communal activity to stem the activities of those travelling into the highland areas.

First established in the 1970s as a means by which rural communities could defend themselves from the perennial problem of cattle rustling, the rondas involved the formation of patrols to defend territory from intruders. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the model was adapted and used by the state, especially in the south of Peru, into a paramilitary counter-insurgency strategy to reduce the presence of Sendero Luminoso.

In more recent times, the northern rondas (which always maintained their autonomy from the state) played a significant role in representing community interests in battles with mining operations in ways that have maintained the unity within local organisations. In many cases, they helped to mediate conflict and avert violent outcomes.

Since the declaration of the state of emergency, the rondas have assumed control in areas of the north where police presence is sparse, if not non-existent. They have imposed roadblocks on highways leading into the highlands to exercise control over who comes in and who goes out. Thousands of community members are involved. Only food and medicines are allowed to pass.

A major problem they confront is the flow of people seeking to return to their communities from the city where there is no work and no money with which to pay rent and acquire food. This is particularly a problem in Cajamarca, with some arriving by bus from the coast and others on foot.

The rondas seek to work with the police and health officials where possible, but much of their work is done autonomously. Santos Saavedra, the head of the association that coordinates the rondas nationally, complains that their contribution is not adequately recognised by government authorities. The Central Unica Nacional de Rondas Campesinas (Cunarc) claims to have twelve regional committees involving some 1 million ronderos (of which 30% are women).

Rolando Luque, who leads up the part of the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) that deals with social conflict, believes that the rondas have a valuable contribution to make. “In rural areas, the level of contagion is low” he is quoted as saying “It’s a concern that those arriving from urban areas may be agents of contagion. Here there is a role for the ronda, the police, the health system and the municipality to enforce the quarantine. Otherwise, the more than 200,000 people who want to return [to their communities of origin] may spread the virus in places where health services are minimal”.