Students' struggles pushed Peru teacher to run for president

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Free Peru party presidential candidate Pedro Castillo poses for a photo on his land in Chugur, Peru, Friday, April 16, 2021. Castillo, a rural teacher, who has proposed rewriting Peru's constitution and deporting all immigrants living in the country illegally, will face rival candidate Keiko Fujimori in the June 6 presidential run-off election. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

CHUGUR – As schools across Peru closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pedro Castillo tried to find a way to keep classes going for his 20 fifth- and sixth-grade students. But in his impoverished rural community deep in the Andes, his efforts were futile.

Seventeen of the students didn't even have access to a cellphone. Tablets promised by the government never arrived.

“I called my students who have a basic cellphone, and the father answers you from the farm. You cannot connect with the child," he said. “You call again in the afternoon or evening. The children don't answer because they are exhausted in bed.”

“Where is the state?” Castillo, 51, told The Associated Press after a day of planting sweet potatoes on his own land.

It was the last straw for Castillo, who over 25 years had seen his students struggle in crumbling schools where teachers also cook, sweep floors and file paperwork. He'd already dabbled in activism with the local teachers' union and helped lead a national strike in 2017. But now he went further, tossing his name into a crowd of 18 candidates in Peru's presidential election.

Defying the polls, the elementary school teacher came first in the April 11 voting, albeit with less than 20% of the overall vote. The stunning result gave him a place in June's presidential runoff against Keiko Fujimori, one of Peru's most established political figures and the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori. It is her third attempt to become president.

Castillo's unlikely campaign comes at a turbulent time for the South American nation that has suffered like few others from the COVID-19 pandemic. It recently ran through three presidents in a week after one was removed by congress over corruption allegations. Every president of the past 36 years has been ensnared in corruption allegations, some imprisoned. One died by suicide before police could arrest him.

Fujimori herself has been imprisoned as part of a graft investigation though she was later released. And her father Alberto, who governed between 1990 and 2000, is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and the killings of 25 people. She has promised to free him should she win.