Authorities have extended a state of emergency in Peru’s illegal coal mining heartland, already mired in criminality, following a sharp rise in killings as gangs battle for control of lucrative mine operations.
On May 10, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo signed a 45-day extension to the state of emergency order that has been in place in five provinces of La Libertad Department, on the country’s western coast, since March 25.
The extension was made after regional leaders requested help to stop a wave of gang violence that president of La Libertad’s Energy, Mine and Hydrocarbons Council, Greco Quiroz Díaz, told local media was behind at least ten slayings this year.
Among the recent victims was 35-year-old Cleimer Andrade Bello, who was shot dead on April 17 in the hamlet of Lajón in Otuzco province, La Libertad. According to local residents, Andrade Bello worked at a local illegal mine, Diario Correo reported.
Gang violence was likewise blamed for the murder of 45-year-old Jhony Arqueros Obeso and his 13-year-old son, whose bodies were found on February 1.
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In addition to the killings, Quiroz Díaz said that students in the area are unable to go to school for fear of being threatened by gang members, and in Lajón, the group’s tyrannical control over coal extraction is reportedly so tight that some residents are effectively confined to their homes so as to avoid interfering with the passage of coal trucks.
La Libertad Governor Manuel Llempén Coronel was cited as saying that the source of the hike in violence is the gangs that illegal mine operators originally contracted to provide security. Now, however, the gangs are “working in association” with illegal mining, and are also involved in other illicit activities including human trafficking. The governor also said that he regretted that the state of emergency extension didn't cover all affected areas of La Libertad, and that without increased funding to confront criminal organizations, the extension would be an empty gesture, La República reported.
According to News Trujillo, a Peruvian news platform, illegal mining has been going on in Lajón since at least 2012.
Eduardo Mas Ganoza, police commissioner of Otuzco, claims to have already identified key figures behind illegal mining in the area and has requested that La Libertad’s police chief carry out an operation to shut down the activities taking place.
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Although illegal miners may have sought the help of gangs to provide protection, communities in and around the mines often find that ridding themselves of these groups is a difficult task.
Much of the mining, both legal and illegal, that takes place in Peru focuses on gold, as is evidenced in Madre de Dios. In La Libertad, however, coal has a central role.
With the coal processing plant in La Libertad’s port town of Salaverry, the gangs have a ready location where they can easily offload their goods, and every day 80 to 100 dump trucks travel the route between there and the mines.
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Madre de Dios provides a bleak example of what can happen when mining mafias manage to establish control over an area. Mining gangs there have set up sex trafficking rings and drug operations, and been accused of exploiting child workers. Those who speak out against what goes on face violent reprisals, such as environmental defender Juan Julio Fernández Hanco who was murdered on March 20.
Complicity between authorities and criminal gangs may well be foundational to this rise in violence. Though Otuzco’s police commissioner may claim to have identified the ringleaders behind mining in the area, police have been criticized in the past for their weak response.
In December 2020, Quiroz Díaz had previously requested that the national police officers assigned to the district of Huamachuco in Otuzco, be changed, criticizing their “passivity” in relation to illegal mining, and alleged that authorities in the region may have been bought off, Energiminas reported.
In addition, News Trujillo reported that locals have previously complained about those in power being compliant with the mining gangs. When the community formed a committee to address the problem, the committee’s vice president was shot.