By Eric G. Falls
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra imposed strict quarantine measures and shut down international travel with only 24 hours’ notice. Thousands of Americans enjoying Peru’s world-class tourist destinations—adventure travelers, missionaries, and school groups—were stranded, and the majority of Peruvians were confined to their residences.
Embassy Lima overcame multiple hurdles to open travel options and bring home more than 8,000 Americans in a span of four weeks. A creative, whole-of-government and Mission response to the crisis strengthened the embassy’s capacity to respond.
Even as the flood of American citizen services requests far exceeded normal levels, the quarantine’s travel restrictions severely limited Embassy Lima’s human resources capabilities. Locally employed staff faced strict legal sanctions if they traveled to work without authorization. Anticipating the challenge before the quarantine began, the embassy, through its dedicated Information Systems Center staff, expanded telework options. Subsequently, the management section teamed up with the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) to engage the police for permits for staff whose essential functions required physical presence. Still, only about 5 percent of the staff were able to travel to the embassy compound, with another 30 percent teleworking (nearly half of locally employed staff cannot work remotely given the nature of their jobs). The lack of a cleaning crew required Facilities Management to recruit a volunteer char force.
The consular section fielded more than 10,000 emails and calls from American citizens and converted these inquiries into flight lists prioritizing older and medically vulnerable citizens. At the operation’s peak, manifest, messaging, and call teams reached out to 800 people daily to fill three flights. In addition to repatriation logistics, the team identified and managed complex cases of stranded Americans; connected travelers with local resources for food, medicine and medevac options; and produced emergency passports.
When the operation began to focus on commercial flights, the consular section scaled up its repatriation loan procedures to process more than 100 loans for Americans with financial need. Along the way, consular personnel and volunteers from across the Mission answered questions from travelers and their families as they navigated the uncertainties of the crisis and made the decision to return home. Department of State colleagues in Washington offered a consular flyaway team as reinforcements on the ground, while task force members supported database management, and Mission Brazil’s consular section enabled passenger ticketing through database checks.
U.S. citizens mustered at the embassy to sign promissory notes for their flight and prepare for a bus ride to the military airport north of Lima. They were warmly welcomed by a 60-person team of Consular staff and volunteer employees and family members representing 19 embassy offices and agencies—Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Community Liaison Office, Engineering Service Office, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Economic Section, Foreign Agriculture Service, Foreign Commercial Service, Family Liaison Office, General Services Office, Health Unit, INL, Information Resource Management, Management Affairs Office, Public Affairs Section, Political Section, Regional Security Office (RSO), and USAID. Consular staff triaged urgent cases and created on-the-spot standby lists to ensure more Americans boarded the flights. In Cusco, the embassy’s lone consular agent worked with a few volunteers to board hundreds of passengers on buses and nine charter flights, and negotiate with the airlines to ticket emergency cases.
A bottleneck in international humanitarian flights departing Lima required creative thinking. Although Peru is a valued partner, the requirements for the domestic emergency response to COVID-19, as well as the demands of other nations for exit flights, slowed the host government response. Peru’s desire to bring home its citizens from the United States—through the same airport and sometimes on the southern leg of a U.S. charter—added complexity and logistical challenges. The embassy expanded the options for Peru and the United States by offering INL- and DEA-leased hangars to process passengers. Post’s air attaché and deputy political counselor led the “Embassy Lima Airport” team of volunteers from DEA, the U.S. military, and the Department to revamp the spaces into a waiting and processing area for travelers. Outreach by INL and the Consular, Economic, and Political Sections secured the review of the travelers by migration and airline officials and screening for health, explosives, and drugs. The economic section built relationships with senior Peruvian officials and airline companies to schedule and secure approval for an accelerated pace of repatriation flights, medical ambulances, and movements within Lima to facilitate flights. Their ability to successfully secure permits sooner and for multiple days was a game changer, allowing the Mission to speed up operations to move Americans into Lima for their international flight.
Embassy staff and family members assist vulnerable U.S. citizens at Embassy Lima, before the repatriation flight. Photos by Marine Corps Maj. Matthew Grill
Meeting the needs of thousands of American citizens hoping to go home would have been impossible without the broad support of the embassy community and multiple government agencies. INL devoted its aircraft to the effort and arranged buses and flights that transported American citizens from more than a dozen cities across Peru to Lima. DEA, INL, RSO, and U.S. military representatives contacted security forces and the foreign ministry to ensure approvals for transportation that would otherwise have been barred during the nationwide lockdown. On an ongoing basis, RSO leveraged long-standing relationships with the police for safe passage. The regional buses for private citizens and Peace Corps volunteers ultimately facilitated the repatriation of nearly 1,800 Americans. INL regional flights transported more than 250 American citizens, including many medically vulnerable individuals, from the most remote regions of Peru. One effort entailed the help of a Peruvian navy boat transit for 35 American citizens located deep in the Amazon.
The Cusco region, a primary international tourist destination, presented unique challenges to overcome. Local authorities, operating with considerable autonomy from the national government and fearful of a growing number of COVID-19 cases, maintained more than a dozen Americans seeking to return home under quarantine. The ambassador repeatedly interceded with the Cusco governor to reassure him of both the U.S. commitment to local health restrictions and the importance of resolving international cases to reduce the burden on the region. The embassy ultimately secured the release of the quarantined Americans, as well as the approval of private medevac flights for two gravely ill individuals.
Senior leadership empowered Embassy Lima to get the job done. Working from Washington, Ambassador Krishna Urs drew on his long standing relationships, especially with the foreign minister, to boost repatriation flights in both directions. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Chung visited Lima to support the team. She met with hundreds of Americans returning home and liaised with Washington-based officials to surge task force support and resources for repatriation flights. Chargé d’Affaires Denny Offutt led the operation while addressing the needs of the embassy community and American citizens with regular teleconferences and recorded messages.
Public messaging throughout was critical. The consular and public affairs sections teamed up to dramatically increase the pace of messaging and assumed an approach of full transparency to the public in the face of steep demand for updates from Americans in Peru and their families in the United States. Offutt delivered video messages reassuring American citizens with pertinent information via the embassy’s social media accounts, and the acting deputy chief of mission and acting consul general also recorded short informational videos. Embassy Lima’s updates on repatriation statistics were often cited in American press coverage. Public affairs and consular staff in Lima and Washington monitored social media accounts to gather reports of vulnerable individuals and pass their information to the manifesting team and other consular staff. To provide the most relevant information, the team collected and analyzed citizens’ concerns to prepare responses.
Even as both Peru and the United States confronted life-threatening risks to their compatriots stranded away from home during an epidemic, the governments strengthened their enduring partnership. Most recently, in addition to facilitating the repatriation of Peruvians in America, the United States has provided more than $2.5 million in assistance to support Peru’s COVID-19 response. This continued bilateral engagement in the midst of an unprecedented international crisis underscores the warm and fruitful partnership that both nations have enjoyed for many years and provides hope for a brighter future to come.
Eric G. Falls is the political counselor at Embassy Lima.