Authorities in Peru launched a large-scale operation aimed at driving out illegal gold mining and other illicit activities in the Madre de Dios region, where similar, previous operations have had little lasting effects.
A force of some 1,800 police and military officers were sent to Madre de Dios -- a region of Amazon rainforest bordering Brazil and Bolivia -- to take part in Operation Mercurio 2019, El Comercio reported.
The operation seeks to remove more than 5,000 illegal miners and evict thousands of merchants that capitalize on other criminal activities in the area, such as sex trafficking. Already 40 women considered to be trafficking victims have been rescued, according to a local news report. Authorities have also dismantled about 30 illegal mining camps in the area during the first week of the operation.
The second phase of the operation will last 180 days, during which three military bases will be installed. Each base will staff 100 soldiers from the army's newly created Amazon Protection Brigade, as well as 50 police officers. The first base has been set up in the zone of "La Pampa," government officials said in a news release on March 5.
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The government of Peru has dedicated $60 million dollars to the operation, which also plans to formalize and reintegrate illegal miners.
InSight Crime Analysis
Peru’s recent assault on illegal gold mining in Madre De Dios is just the latest in a string of similar operations that have failed to stop the practice’s expansion.
In 2014, police raided the town of Huepetuhe, destroying $20 million worth of mining equipment. Then in 2017, officers destroyed 83 mining camps in an operation also dubbed Mercurio.
Yet from to 2009 to 2017, the Madre Dios region saw more than 64,000 hectares of Amazon forest destroyed by illegal mining and logging. In 2018, deforestation from wildcat gold mining, which strips the land and leaves behind pools of mercury, peaked at nearly 10,000 hectares.
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Stopping the illegal gold trade in Peru has proven to be nearly impossible. The gold ore is easily bought and sold by a network of middlemen, known as “acopiadores," who also provide false receipts, allowing large-scale buyers and export companies to buy the ore, which is then refined abroad.
Six years ago, Peru’s illegal gold trade was estimated to be worth more than $3 billion, and it has likely only grown since then.
Illegal gold mining also brings with it a number of other criminal activities, such as forced labor. The mining sites have also long been hotbeds for human trafficking and prostitution.
Peru’s government has tried to toughen illegal mining laws, declaring it an organized crime activity, and it has attempted to formalize the industry, by offering incentives to illegal miners to register with the government.
Mostly, though, it has tried to drive out illegal miners through police and military operations, of which “Mercurio 2019” is the latest example. But it’s unlikely that the miners will stay away for long.