What began as a routine maintenance job soon turned into a complex hostage situation. On June 9, four subcontractors working for Israeli telecoms firm Gilat were dispatched to fix an internet mast amid a remote cluster of indigenous settlements in the central Peruvian Andes, a little over 13,000 feet above sea level. The team failed to return the next day, and the comunidad campesina Chopcca went dark.
The following morning, another two engineers were sent to investigate. One managed to relay back a pair of cellphone videos — of the fire-blackened antenna, its burned-out apparatus, and an angry crowd — before they also went offline. The engineers’ manager went to plead for their release. He was also seized, along with his driver. Officers from a nearby police station, around an hour’s drive away, attempted to intervene but were forced back under a hail of stones.
With Chopcca authorities proving implacable over the phone and flights grounded due to the coronavirus lockdown, government officials, conflict negotiation specialists, and Gilat staff began a 24-hour journey from the capital, Lima, up along 265 miles of winding roads to Huancavelica Region.
Standoffs over infrastructure and mining projects are nothing new in this part of South America. Patrols often form in times of conflict or crisis to protect the community, and in February 2019, a crowd of Chopcca protesters seized the local police precinct, setting fire to patrol cars and beating up three men accused of robbery. But this was the first time that Gilat’s employees had been taken hostage “for more than a couple of hours,” Arieh Rohrstock, Gilat’s general manager for Peru, told Rest of World. “The village was very reluctant to let our people leave the site.”
Community President Lorenzo Escobar explained that, as the Chopcca have rigorously observed the national lockdown since it was imposed in March, they were taken aback when “the engineers entered the area to work without the permission of our authorities.” While Peru has been hard hit by the pandemic — over 26,000 people have died from Covid-19, among the highest rate per million inhabitants of any country worldwide — as of mid-August, Huancavelica had among the lowest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths nationwide.
But interviews with residents and people familiar with the incident suggest that it was caused by a volatile mix of factors, including fear of infection and conspiracy theories, spread via Facebook and WhatsApp, linking Covid-19 to 5G cellular networks.
Violent reactions to fake news about 5G are an emerging “global phenomenon,” noted Américo Mendoza-Mori, a professor of Quechua at the University of Pennsylvania. In April 2020, more than 70 telecoms masts were damaged in apparent arson attacks across the United Kingdom, with similar episodes taking place in Australia, New Zealand, and Cyprus as well as in neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay. More importantly, Mendoza-Mori sees the fierce Chopcca response as bound up with a long legacy of brutal racism, which includes a mass sterilization campaign in the 1990s that disproportionately targeted Quechua-speaking indigenous peoples. As such, locals often regard outsiders with justifiable suspicion. “We have concrete examples of external interventions in many Andean indigenous peasant communities,” he said, “where modernity and ‘progress’ didn’t lead to something positive.”
“Fake news on social media has circulated quite a lot, and perhaps this has contributed to misinformation among the Chopcca nation,” said Felipe Soto Crispin, a health worker from Ccasapata, the largest Chopcca settlement. As news of the incident filtered out, government officials insisted that 5G networks, while harmless, are not currently installed anywhere in Peru, although their rollout is planned for 2021 or 2022.
While the Chopcca are physically isolated, they are not cut off technologically. Gilat set up the internet antenna over a year ago, and cell phones arrived in the area in earnest around 15 years ago. Soto estimated that most of his neighbors now have cell phones, though it’s not common to use one. Still, “we have at least enough communications to be up to date with what goes on in the world,” he said.
While the cost of data and licensing issues put some apps out of reach, Soto explained that many Chopcca use WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook Lite — a low-data, slow-connection version of the social network — to share news and stay in touch with relatives and friends. The app for Latina, one of Peru’s largest TV network, brings telenovelas, news, and sports into local households; apps like mobile-banking service Yape reduce the need to journey into distant urban centers. Since April, the government-created app PerúEnTusManos (Peru in your hands) has enabled the Chopcca to monitor how coronavirus hot spots, marked as red circles, have mushroomed in neighboring districts.
As Covid-19 proliferated globally, people across Peru also received a steady drip of alarming, often misleading information from nonofficial sources. Among the first conspiracy theories to spread nationally were WhatsApp audio recordings, purportedly of Peruvians in China, claiming the virus was a hoax. “Like every country in the world, we’re experiencing an overload of decontextualized, unsourced content,” said Carla Díaz, a reporter at the investigative journalism outlet Ojo Público. “We’re seeing more than ever the impact that disinformation can have.”
Echoing suggestions made by Donald Trump in April, several Peruvian legislators have called on the government to endorse the use of chlorine dioxide (otherwise known as bleach) to treat Covid-19. In May, a woman and her daughter in the southern city of Tacna died from suffocation, having sealed themselves in their bathroom while burning eucalyptus in an attempt to ward off Covid-19.
But in Acobamba and Huancavelica provinces, one conspiracy theory proved particularly insidious. “The real virus is already in Peru,” read a Facebook post in block capital letters that reportedly circulated among the Chopcca villagers. “The government has authorized the secret installation of 5G antennas across the entire Peruvian territory. … 5G is described as ‘invisible virus’ given that its electromagnetic radiation is 300 times stronger than before. … Wake up! If you see 5G being installed in your district, avoid it, because you run the risk of contracting the virus!”
WhatsApp has been the “most significant” vector for spreading Covid-19-related falsehoods, said Carlos Guerrero of Hiperderecho, a digital rights NGO. “It’s the easiest way to share information. You send it to a big group, and they pass it on to their contacts.” (On April 7, WhatsApp altered its policy so that its 2 billion global users could only forward messages identified as “highly forwarded” to one contact. Previously, the maximum number of recipients was five.) But as Peru’s most popular social network, Guerrero said that Facebook was the other key conduit for fake news.
In one viral message-to-camera seen by 1 million people on the platform, an apparently Peruvian man asserts that 5G causes Covid-19 and that sealing himself in his basement cured him of it, twice. Another video, titled “China rose up and is starting to destroy the 5G,” was shared nearly 30,000 times on Facebook groups in Peru from late May to mid-June. In reality, it showed demonstrators in Hong Kong last August toppling a pole outfitted with facial-recognition cameras. But by mid-June, anti-5G protests had already spread across the country.
On one level, the apparent spread of the 5G conspiracy theory from London and Lima into Chopcca villages reflected the community’s connectedness to the outside world. But it also supercharged their mistrust of external interference. Videos from the scene show one of the engineers trying to convince the angry villagers of the usefulness of the internet. “We heard on a social network that they’re going to install a 5G antenna,” national broadcaster RPP reported Chopcca Community President Escobar as saying soon after the hilltop confrontation unfolded. “We’re not going to allow it.”
On June 13, three days after the standoff began, the delegation from Lima sat down with Chopcca authorities in the village of Chuñunapampa. The ensuing five-hour meeting was “very uncomfortable,” one participant from the delegation recalled. Younger villagers — digital natives who often worked and studied outside of the community — had convinced some of their elders that the supposed link between the internet, 5G, and Covid-19 was spurious.
But many locals were still angry, feeling that they had not given informed consent to the engineers’ presence. “Out of ignorance, we can end up taking many actions,” said one resident. “That’s why we need you to explain it to us in a timely manner. Learn to respect the community.”
Rohrstock, the Gilat general manager, explained that the company’s antennas in Peru employ point-to-point microwaves to connect police stations, schools, and health centers in the region. “It’s not cellular technology at all, not 2G, 3G, 4G, or 5G,” he emphasized to Rest of World.
Peru’s Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC) has since broadcast messages in indigenous languages, including in Quechua, detailing the benefits of new telecommunications technology, while cellphone providers have sent out text messages explaining the importance of building new antennas.
After the meeting, the eight workers were allowed to leave, having spent the intervening days quarantined in a local household. Speaking to Rest of World a month later, Escobar was upbeat and keen to put the incident behind him. When asked whether fears about 5G spreading Covid-19 had informed his neighbors’ actions, he initially seemed to agree, before saying that he couldn’t hear the question over the crackly phone line, and redirecting the conversation. “We’ve just this week arrived at a mutual agreement so that the engineers of the company Gilat can keep working here,” he said, before adding, “We want the internet for the good of our students.”