Letter from Cajamarca (2): the rondas campesinas
23 March 2019
Hualgayoc is a cold and rather forbidding town. Its mining traditions are very clear, and it has been the centre of mining activity since colonial times, if not before. It is also a politically lively place where the rondas campesinas loom large in maintaining order and defending local people from banditry.
They are the main form of community organisation across much of Cajamarca region, and the district of Hualgayoc is no exception. According to Pascal Muñoz Ramos, president of the district’s rondas, there are rondas in all 39 of the surrounding communities (caserios) and another three larger and more urbanised spaces.
The rondas campesinas first emerged in the 1970s as organisations dedicated to deterring cattle theft in what (despite mining) is still largely an agricultural area. They remain to this day a unique sort of rural organisation that has been highly successful in organising community affairs. They have played a crucial role in representing community interests in dialogue with local mining operations, helping to build structures that avoid open and violent conflict with mining companies.
There are rondas in other parts of rural Peru, but they tend to be less cohesive and less effective. There is a national organisation of rondas, and they have received legal status under a law dating from 1997.
The PSG first made contact with José Goicochea, the vice-president of the local ronderos, in a workshop in December in Lima in connection with its study on mining and human rights. He invited us to visit his community and to meet fellow ronderos. A key problem facing farmers in this upland region is the contamination of water supplies on which their agricultural activities depend.
The main mine in the region is Cerro Corona, a large open-pit operation producing mainly copper but other minerals such as gold and zinc. Located only 5 kms up the valley from Hualgayoc, it is currently owned by Gold Fields, a South African company. It has managed to avoid the worst sort of violent conflict that typifies other parts of Cajamarca, although Goicochea recounts that the relationship between the rondas and Gold Fields has been far from harmonious.
Goicochea recounts how the ronderos have become an essential part of the political landscape, providing popular organisation that is at once highly effective and which enjoys significant legitimacy. “They’re part of the political culture” he says. In his community, the rondas are made up of 80 individuals, both men and women. In other communities their numbers are as high as 300.
They have proved very effective in deterring theft in their areas of operation, far more so than the local police. According to Goicochea, the police arrest thieves and then set them free to rob again. The rondas also set their victims free but not before they have learned never to commit their crimes again. “We leave our mark”, he says, and “thieves are afraid to reappear in communities where the rondas are strong.
Goicochea insists that the success of the rondas depends on their maintaining their political independence. “The trouble is” he says, “that politicians speak an attractive discourse (hablan bonito) but seldom do what they promise”. He says that he associated with Gregorio (Goyo) Santos but that he let people down when he became regional governor “I learned a lot from him” he says, “but we have to keep out of party politics”.
For Pascual Muñoz, the key to success for the rondero is to “avoid taking bribes and having more than one partner.” Goicochea underlines the importance of maintaining strong families. “Too often” he says, “those who involve themselves as community leaders do so at the expense of their families”.