Dredgers have been found in several rivers across Peru's northern department of Loreto, confirming that illegal gold mining has been rapidly expanding into previously untapped parts of the country.
During an operation carried out along the Nanay and Napo river basins, in the Amazon department of Loreto on October 3, authorities identified and destroyed four dredgers used for illegal gold mining, according to El Comercio.
In the area of Alto Nanay, authorities reported that illegal mining activities involved child labor. Two wooden boats turned into dredgers were seized alongside a range of equipment needed to extract the precious metal.
In parallel, residents near the Napo River denounced the presence of unknown groups operating dredgers along the river, with authorities destroying two such vessels on the river.
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Preliminary investigations by the Attorney General's Office indicate the groups behind the illegal mining came from the southeastern department of Madre de Dios, which is home to the largest concentration of illegal mining activity in Peru.
Loreto department's environmental authorities have redoubled efforts to capture vessels modified to dredge the rivers, especially given the mining's adverse impact on the environment, reported La República.
Mercury, which is used for the extraction of gold, has polluted water sources in surrounding communities, threatening to affect the health of the local population and that of residents in Iquitos, the most important city in the region.
Local authorities have stated their ability to act has been hampered by the financial and logistical limitations of traveling long distances to the affected areas.
InSight Crime Analysis
The rise of illegal gold mining in Loreto coincides with the fallout of repeated attempts to break up communities of illegal miners in Madre de Dios.
While the latter is a remote region located in the Amazon rainforest in southeast Peru, residents of Loreto have reported the arrival of boats converted into dredgers since April. Authorities suspect these miners are coming from Madre de Dios with experience in how to rapidly set up illegal mining operations in new areas where there are fewer controls by security forces.
More broadly, however, organized crime in Peru has been expanding geographically. Criminal economies such as drug trafficking have extended out from traditional routes along the Amazon or the country's borders with Brazil and Bolivia.
Loreto has been at the frontline of this shift. The department contains several waterways which serve as clandestine highways to transport drug shipments from the interior of Peru to its borders with Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. Its remote location and heavy forest cover also help provide strong protection for criminal groups seeking to evade authorities.
Of all the rivers in Loreto, the Napo may be the most important for the region's criminal dynamics. It has been affected by illegal mining activity, but it has also become a frequent drug trafficking route. In August, security forces seized a ton of cocaine on two boats near the Ecuador border.