Lima’s Wall(s) of Shame

Leigh Campoamor
Lima’s Wall of Shame separates the Agrupamiento Familiar Nadine Heredia from the wealthy Casuarinas (Leigh Campoamor)Lima’s Wall of Shame separates the Agrupamiento Familiar Nadine Heredia from the wealthy Casuarinas (Leigh Campoamor)

After turning off the main avenue in San Juan de Miraflores, Lima, the combi bus wound its way up a partially-paved hill, leaving minidust storms in front of the tightly-packed unfinished brick homes. Such constructions were typical of the lower portions of Lima’s outer hills, neighborhoods that migrant squatters have settled since the 1950s. Many of the homes were originally constructed by their owners out of cheaper materials like straw and plywood, and had been improved over time, a result of family and community efforts. After about ten minutes, the fare collector opened the sliding door, indicating that we had reached the end of our route. But I still needed to get further up, to the hill’s most recent residential expansion.

I quickly boarded another combi, which for an additional fare took me up a dirt road for five minutes, and then stopped where the road did. The desert landscape was bleak and lacked vegetation, but some murals and brightly-colored homes cut the grey and brown. A cement basketball court a few meters away from where the bus dropped me was the only wide expanse in the neighborhood. It sat below eight steep levels of one-to two-room plywood, tin-roofed homes that formed a semi-circle. As if I were on the stage of a huge amphitheater, I could see everything and everyone around and above me, and everyone around and above me could also see me. Nearby, two children playfully maneuvered their bodies to both squeeze onto a single tricycle, and a teenage boy kept a watchful eye on them while smoking on the concrete bleachers that lined one of the short sides of the court. But most of the neighborhood activity on this Sunday morning in November 2018 took place above me, near the homes. Men gathered water from the communal tanks while women washed clothes.

I made my way to the court, where I was to meet a community organizer in his early thirties whom I will refer to as Carlos. As I looked upwards, a man standing outside his house on the third terraced level yelled “Carlos,” pointing to another man walking up towards the court. Carlos greeted me with a smile. A gregarious and contemplative guy, he was on his day off from the factory he had worked at for 12 years. Carlos’s neighborhood, Agrupamiento Familiar Nadine Heredia (Nadine Heredia Family Grouping, AFNH), located in the municipality of San Juan de Miraflores, or San Juan, consists of 250 households headed primarily by second-generation migrants who grew up nearby and have started their own families. In a process resembling the development of most poor neighborhoods on Lima’s outer edges, AFNH was settled through squatting and eventually formalized in 2012. It was named after the first lady at the beginning of Ollanta Humala’s presidency (2011-2016), when there was still a certain hope that the new administration was committed to structural changes that would improve the conditions of Peru’s economically marginalized citizens. Unfortunately, Humala’s progressive nationalist platform fell short on its promises, upholding neoliberal policies that favored big business and placated the political right while further alienating Peru’s poor.

Carlos explained the lay of the land. He pointed out the community center and basketball court, which residents— with the f inancial help of an NG O —had constructed themselves. “That was made with the leftover cement from the wall,” he noted of the bleachers where the teenager had been sitting. The wall he referred to was the three-meter high concrete structure topped with barbed wire along the hill’s ridge. In recent years, it has come to be known as Lima’s Muro de la Vergüenza, or Wall of Shame.

On the other side of the hill sits Casuarinas, part of the municipality of Santiago de Surco, or Surco, and one of Lima’s most exclusive gated communities. Shortly after the settling of AFNH, Casuarinas residents commissioned the wall. For decades, residents of Casuarinas had interacted with residents of San Juan only insofar as they employed them as maids, nannies, security guards, and gardeners, who were required to enter through the neighborhood’s front gate at the base of the hill in Surco. With the top part of the San Juan side of the hill now occupied, Casuarinas residents panicked about the risk of overflow into what they had until then experienced as a secure community, socially and physically insulated from the realities of the majority. AFNH residents only found out about the plans for the wall when cement trucks showed up offering to hire them to help build it.

In a city where even middle-class neighborhoods often have some sort of gate, Casuarinas is known for its particularly elaborate security apparatus. Three distinct checkpoints—one for residents, one for visitors, and one for pedestrians—ensure that only authorized individuals gain entry. The day I met with Carlos, I tried my luck at getting into Casuarinas immediately after visiting AFNH, but failed to make it past the multiple security guards. Despite being turned away at the gate, my journey to Casuarinas was instructive. First, it took almost an hour on two separate buses to arrive, a testament to how two adjacent spaces can be simultaneously proximate and distant. Second, the contrast between one side of the hill and the other was startling. After getting off the combi at the stop closest to the Casuarinas gates, the delivery man at a corner KFC informed me that there is no public transportation that goes directly to the community and recommended that I take a taxi. Instead, I walked ten minutes past gated streets and an impeccably maintained grassy park with its own state-of-the-art security kiosk. The automobile traffic, in contrast to the rest of Lima, was sparse, but when I noticed two lines of five cars at a traff ic light, including two identical white BMW SUVs among other luxury cars, I knew I was nearing the gates.

Pioneers and Invaders

The concrete border between AFNH and Casuarinas has provided journalists with a jumping-off point to report on economic inequality, discrimination, and uneven development in Lima and beyond as they relate to questions of infrastructure, security, and private property within urban spaceThe concrete border between AFNH and Casuarinas has provided journalists with a jumping-off point to report on economic inequality, discrimination, and uneven development in Lima and beyond as they relate to questions of infrastructure, security, and private property within urban space. However, the wall that separates AFNH from Casuarinas is just the latest extension of a 10-kilometer barrier whose construction commenced in the mid-1980s and has continued for three decades. At present, the wall in its entirety constitutes a border between the well-off municipalities of Santiago de Surco and La Molina on one side, and the poorer municipalities of San Juan de Miraflores and Villa María de Triunfo on the other.

The wall began as a means of cordoning off the elite Jesuit school, La Inmaculada, from its surroundings in 1985. First constructed in Lima’s historic colonial center in 1878, in the 1960s the school moved to its current location on a Surco hillside bordering San Juan. I interviewed an administrator from La Inmaculada, who I’ ll call Mr. Hernández, in December 2018. When I questioned him about the move to Surco several decades earlier, he described the school as a “pioneer,” one of the only institutions in what was then an unoccupied area, with the exception of a handful of farms and country estates. The location was so unusual for an institution serving Lima’s elite families, who at the time resided in the districts of San Isidro and Miraflores (not to be confused with San Juan de Miraflores) that the school had to provide private transportation for its students in order to retain enrollment.

When I asked Hernández what provoked the construction of the wall more than 15 years after the school’s move to Surco, he said, “since the 1960s, there was a heavy wave of migration from the countryside to the city, and there were also a lot of invasiónes.” In Peru, the word invasion is commonly used to refer to squatter settlements. Hernández went on to clarify that “in the ’60s there was migration, but it wasn’t so resounding. Afterwards, there was a really heavy [wave of ] migration.” By the 1980s, he noted, “terrorism in the countryside”—a reference to the Shining Path insurgency—became an additional push factor for rural Peruvians fleeing danger. This migration, he explained, was accompanied by illegal land trafficking—a practice associated with the squatting-to-owning process in districts like San Juan, whereby substandard lots that are not integrated into the formal real estate market are sold to poor, often immigrant families—in areas surrounding the school. Though he didn’t directly state that Lima’s new inhabitants were themselves threats, he explained that the wall was necessary to protect students from Lima’s swelling population, which consisted mostly of poor immigrants from the Andes. La Inmaculada thus initiated the process of building a concrete border between Surco and San Juan.

Hernández’s account is a euphemistic version of the story of Lima’s unequal growth. His narrative, while sympathetic to the need for people from Peru’s provinces to migrate to the capital, highlights a key way that Lima’s rich have historically reinforced race and class differences through the manipulation of urban space. After establishing Lima as the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru in the 16th century, colonists designed the city to ensure separation between elite authorities and the large Indigenous and Black slave population, who they depended on for labor. When La Inmaculada was founded in the late 19th century— just five decades after Peru’s independence from Spain— Lima’s social geography roughly followed colonial patterns of segregation.

The 20th century witnessed the ballooning of the city driven by the massive migration from the countryside that Hernández referenced. Elite residents began to move towards the coast, into the districts of San Isidro and Miraflores, as well as to seaside neighborhoods that had previously functioned as resort towns. Reading between Hernández’s words, then, the school’s move appears to have been part of a larger elite exodus from the city center.

Around mid-century, as migration from Peru’s provinces accelerated due to increasing urban labor opportunities, Lima’s new residents began settling in the surrounding hills and building homes out of straw and plywood. The urban population increased from 111,000 in 1876, a half-century after Peru’s independence, to two million in the 1960s. San Juan was formalized as a municipality in 1965, after being initially settled in 1954. While Surco was initially founded in the 1920s, its construction as a suburb with gated streets, commercial areas, and other amenities sought by well-off families did not begin for several decades. A good indicator of the changing residential patterns of Lima’s elite is the fact that, today, La Inmaculada draws its student body not from the more traditionally elite municipalities of San Isidro and Miraflores, as it did in its early days on the hillside, but from Surco itself and the adjacent district of La Molina.

The significance of the border wall between rich and poor turns on an important question: what makes certain groups of people “pioneers” and others “invaders,” to use Hernández’s words, if their occupation of Lima’s edges took place simultaneously? The answer, of course, is in the process of occupation. In Hernández’s rendering, pioneers are those who, having followed formal legal processes, represent a force of good, whereas invaders—a curious term for people whose ancestors, Peru’s original inhabitants, were colonized—are those who have engaged in informal and extra-legal practices to claim space to which they are not entitled. The continued use of these terms in this context demonstrates the power of language in reproducing classist and racist assumptions about illegality, informality, and differential entitlement to common space, making the need for a concrete border between the two social groups seem natural. Moreover, such characterizations gloss over how the neoliberal policies that serve the interests—and f ill the pockets—of the “pioneers” force the “invaders” to participate in an informal and extra-legal land settlement system rather than opening legal ways for them to access fair housing.

Producing Legal and Illegal Lima

A security discourse grounded in the idea that Andean “invaders”—even if propelled to migrate by structural factors beyond their control—constitute threats to the urban order justifies borders such as the Wall of Shame. Concerns about issues including terrorism, petty crime, and illegal land acquisition are expressions of this broader anxiety concerning where Andean migrants and their descendants move and live. In the 1980s, when the wall project began, the Shining Path had expanded its activities from the provinces to Lima’s shantytowns, contributing to insulated limeños labelling anyone of Andean origin, including those who had come to capital to flee the war, as terrorists.

Though such stereotypes have largely dissipated since the internal conflict’s end in the 1990s, many of Peru’s elites and middle classes continue to imagine inhabitants of Lima’s hilly shantytowns as lacking respect for formal legal processes, whether by “invading” the sidewalks of Lima’s middle-class neighborhoods as vendors and pick-pockets, or by acquiring land through extra-legal processes. The issue of how land is acquired is crucial for understanding the raced and classed dimensions of property development in Lima, which occurs in two ways. One is the formal process, where legal ownership is established ahead of construction. Then there is the process whereby legal title to land is sought after a period of squatting and construction—a process that has created the conditions for what Peruvian social scientist Julio Calderón calls “the illegal city.” Although corruption and other forms of illegality pervade the formal process in veiled ways, maintaining a dichotomy between legal and illegal land acquisition cements the security discourse that allows “pioneers” to justify their need to protect themselves from “invaders” through borders such as gates and walls.

Criminalizing the poor for trying to secure housing in the only way available to them is part of a scapegoating narrative that conceals how the Peruvian state’s neoliberal policies have cemented the need for extra-legal activities. These conditions have led residents to have to build their own precarious homes in locations that early immigrants to Lima considered uninhabitable. Neoliberal policies began under Fujimori’s authoritarian regime in the 1990s with the dissolution of the state housing authority, which eliminated housing subsidies and contributed to the tripling of the number of residential neighborhoods lacking basic services, infrastructure, and solidly-built homes nationwide. Furthermore, the privatization of industries such as water, electricity, and telecommunications made basic services prohibitively expensive for many.

At the same time, Fujimori took steps to gain the favor of the poor. First, he credited himself with ending terrorism, thereby restoring relative peace to people’s everyday lives—a gross distortion of facts considering he had overseen a violent counterinsurgency that resulted in his later conviction for crimes against humanity. In addition to manipulating the security discourse, he practiced a brand of populism that involved handouts, which could make a big, if short-term, difference for poor families struggling to get by day-to-day. However, when some of the failures of his deregulation policies became clear even to his own economic team, Fujimori began handing out property titles en masse to squatters to maintain their support. The economist behind this strategy, the Milton Friedman-influenced Hernando de Soto, famously argued that access to private property would convert the inhabitants of “illegal Lima” into rational market actors. Instead, this discourse of market fundamentalism freed the state of its responsibility towards these new, but still poor, property owners, leaving them to their own devices to deal with lack of infrastructure and basic services. Fujimori’s clientelism thus came alongside a broader structural transformation that exacerbated poverty. In the aftermath of his regime, when his corruption and human rights violations came to light, the transitional government made efforts to redress key aspects of his legacy, including the normalization of informal and extra-legal processes.

Almost 20 years later, the results are bleak. Neoliberalism remains hegemonic and Lima continues to be marked by extreme inequality. Even with the return of subsidies, 70 percent of Peru’s homes exist outside of the formal financial system, and the post-facto land-titling characteristic of “illegal Peru” remains dominant. As the number of neighborhoods lacking infrastructure, basic services, and securely-built homes has risen, the landscape of Lima’s middle-class and wealthy zones transformed in the wake of the 2004-2012 real estate boom. Once known for its quaint homes, districts like Miraflores have been converted into ongoing construction sites for massive apartment buildings, confirming Peru’s international reputation as a site of miraculous economic growth.

These coexisting realities demonstrate how the uneven nature of real estate investment solidif ies borders and reproduces inequality. In the case of Lima’s real estate boom, private developers with financial incentives from the state and technical assistance from engineers and architects, eagerly extended credit to individuals deemed financially solvent in zones where property would appreciate in value. Today, 25 percent of Lima’s new real estate exists within three of the city’s 43 districts (including Surco), while poor neighborhoods, often participating in the informal housing sector, consume 60 percent of the nation’s cement and steel. Yet they remain marginalized from the market, even when their residents receive post-facto land titles. In other words, the private investment this new market produced only further exacerbated longstanding inequalities within the urban landscape, rather than extending opportunities to a wider segment of the population. Meanwhile, the continued distribution of land titles has failed to prove the merits of free market capitalism.

Another concrete example of how private capital and the state work together to intensify disparities is that in Surco and other neighborhoods targeted by the real estate boom, new homes include basic services such as water and electricity. In contrast, in poor districts such as San Juan, such services are largely absent, and often only obtained through residents’ physical labor, financial investment, and bureaucratic haggling. Carlos explained to me that the residents of AFNH were able to obtain electricity through a government initiative at the beginning of Humala’s presidency (2011-2016). However, water is still not a state-given right. As a result, while Casuarinas residents enjoy their private pools, Carlos and his neighbors pay ten times more to have water delivered to their communal tanks, which are not always properly sanitized. Other infrastructural improvements—such as terracing the hills, building retention walls, and constructing staircases to connect homes on different levels—occur thanks to community members pooling their meager resources and participating in faena, an Andean word that refers to collaborative community work days.

A recent study published by the Lima-based research institute Centro de Estudios y Promoción de Desarrollo (Center for the Study and Promotion of Development, DESCO) demonstrates some of the long-term material effects of this state-propelled uneven economic development. In Surco, the average per capita income is almost three times more than that of San Juan, though in Casuarinas that difference is likely exponentially greater. As a result, there is a major disparity in the tax base each municipality has for infrastructure and basic services. In Surco, the average municipal investment in each inhabitant was 639 soles per capita in 2015 ($192 USD), while in San Juan it was 172 soles ($51 USD), almost four times lower. Because homes in Surco include basic services and infrastructure, the municipal government can prioritize issues like parks and sanitation, which are considered luxuries to the great majority of San Juan residents.

Tearing Down the Wall(s)

In November 2018, Peru’s main newspaper announced that Álvaro Paz de la Barra, the newly elected mayor of La Molina, the wealthy municipality adjacent to Surco, planned to “tear down” the Wall of Shame—in this case, referring to a different wall, a 4.5-kilometer stone and barbed wire wall constructed in 2011 as a barrier between La Molina and Villa María de Triunfo. When asked what he would do about security, he cited the dangers of “informal demographic expansion” in neighboring districts and suggested building “ living borders” (fronteras vivas), which means foresting all of the hills. We will also open various assistance and surveillance posts, which means increasing the security budget by 10 percent and reducing current expenses.”

Tearing down the wall, a clear physical manifestation of the spatial exclusion that characterizes Lima and other large cities, is a nice idea. But demolishing it will not address underlying systemic inequalities nor will it draw attention to the less obvious borders that permeate the city. In other words, the wall is merely a concrete border in a city replete with invisible but palpable barriers to opportunities and services that should be available to all.

In my meeting with Carlos, he focused less on the wall controversy and more on pointing out the various improvements the residents had made to the neighborhood. When I asked him about the infamous wall, he said that his neighbors didn’t talk much about it until people from the “outside” came and asked how the residents felt about the “discrimination.” When I initially contacted him for an interview, he accepted but explained that he was very busy with work and family responsibilities and thus had very little time. “Really what we want is fewer interviews from outsiders and more help with our projects,” he texted. Back on the hill, he told me that the residents have more pressing issues to worry about, such as getting running water and sewage. Given the state’s negligence with regard to such projects, Carlos and his neighbors have been left to seek donations to supplement the funds they can bring together. This seeming lack of concern with the wall does not mean that Carlos and his neighbors accept being objects of discrimination, or that all residents of AFNH agree with the construction, but rather that what seems so urgent to well-meaning outsiders is but one manifestation of a deeply flawed system in which symbolic borders mediate social relations. Examples of profiling and outright racism by middle- and upper-classes abound in Lima’s public spaces and commercial establishments, and are often met with both short-lived public outrage and impunity for their perpetrators. In addition, such practical manifestations of the security discourse often require the complicity of the poor and working class. Just a few days before I went to visit Carlos to learn more about the wall, my godson’s mother arrived at the apartment where I was staying in a middle-class neighborhood to have lunch with me, only to be asked by the doorman whose maid she was.

Those of us who write articles about the wall may be part of the problem, just like La Molina’s mayor-elect, the residents of Casuarinas, Hernández, and the well-intentioned middle-class artists and activists who bring concerts to AFNH without accounting for residents’ music preferences. Mr. Hernández insisted that La Inmaculada enjoyed a “peaceful coexistence” with “surrounding areas.” This very well might be true. He f irmly defended the school’s need for the wall, differentiating between “walls that divide entire social sectors,” as in the case of the AFNH/ Casuarinas wall, and the right to protect one’s private property, as in the case of the school, where he argued, there was an even greater concern given the need to protect children. He also highlighted the school’s commitment to helping the less fortunate through volunteer trips to the Andean provinces, and to environmental stewardship, calling the school “an oasis,” in which one-third of its 70 acres is a dedicated tree preserve. This emphasis on doing good, including the La Molina mayor-elect’s proposal to replace the concrete border with trees, ignores and even aggravates the deeper issues. Social and economic justice requires political changes that address structures of inequality inherent to the neoliberal state. It also requires recognizing complicity in such a system that comes from living in apartment buildings with doormen who prof ile visitors while being paid less than minimum wage to work overtime, only to then go home to retrieve water out of communal tanks.

Back on the other side of the hill, Carlos asked if I wanted to walk up to the wall. Panting, we arrived at the top. I lifted my head to see graffiti on the wall. Carlos was unsure whether its author was a community member or one of the visiting activists who had come through. It read:

En Lima, adoran el cemento Que endurecen [sic] la memoria.” In Lima, they worship cement. It ossifies the memory.


Leigh Campoamor is a cultural anthropologist and a Visiting Scholar at the NYU-Gallatin Urban Democracy Lab. Her current book project takes child street labor in Lima as a node for assessing gender and generationality, transnational development, urban social movements, and everyday experiences of poverty. She is also conducting research on corporate social responsibility, digital activism, and consumer-citizenship in Latin America.