The past week the conflict over mining operations at Las Bambas copper mine reached new heights. Tensions mounted over the detention on 21 March of the president of the community of Fuerabamba, Gregorio Rojas Panuira, and of community leader Carlos Fernando Vargas Arizabal, over charges of extortion. There were also arrest warrants out against Edinson Vargas Huamanga, vice-president of the community, and Nohemi Portillas Vargas, community secretary. Two lawyers with a dodgy reputation, the ‘hermanos Chávez’, were also arrested. They are accused of extortion and organised crime for their alleged role in influencing community members to demand substantial amounts of money for the community from MMG, the Chinese-owned company at Las Bambas.

As of 31 March, Rojas had been released, but the rest remained in custody. Notwithstanding the release of Rojas, community leaders in the area were insisting on the release of the Chávez brothers.

According to reports, Rojas was accused of belonging to a criminal organisation and, as a result, as explained by the OMCT (Organización Mundial Contra la Tortura), “the acts of protests taking place as a result of their demands for reparation are being qualified as illicit activities led by a ‘criminal organization’, and as a tool of coercion against the state and the mining company”.

The charges were reportedly based on taped phone conversations between the community leaders and their lawyers. Charges of extortion carry out sentences of up to 15 years, more than homicide.

For more than 50 days, the community of Fuerabamba has been holding protests and blocking the road by which the mineral is transported. Members demand reparations for the ongoing damages caused by trucks passing through the community, transporting copper from the mine to the port of Matarani in the Arequipa region.

However, as Cooperaccion points out and the PSG has reported in numerous occasions, the conflict is not new. In fact, it started when MMG, the affiliate of China’s Minmetals, arbitrarily decided, with no consultation, to ship copper by road rather than construct a beltway (mineroducto) linking Las Bambas with Matarani as anticipated by the original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) completed in 2011.

The road has since been declared a national highway without the prior consent of the people living there; the community is demanding compensation of US$80 US dollars per square metre for the land being used by the mine. This amounts to more than US$30 million. The company has reportedly said they would give the community 1.9 million soles instead. This has led to many in the press portraying the community leaders and their lawyers as over-ambitious and turning the issue into one about money.

Regardless of the economic compensation, civil society organisations have expressed concern about the escalation of tensions, heightened by the detentions. Accusing community members of ‘extortion’ appears a clear example of criminalisation of protest, a view only reinforced by the continued renewal of a state of emergency along the mining corridor (now in place for over two years) and the presence of troops and the police in the region. Communities have also complained about the sudden and unilateral closure of the Cotabambas dialogue table in December 2018, when discussions were far from over.

In a press release, the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) has expressed its concern over the lack of diligence shown by the government over this conflict, citing the closing of the dialogue table as an example. The communiqué also points to the fact that the community of Fuerabamba has a legitimate demand as it was uprooted due to the mining operations. The CNDH also calls on the authorities to stop using the national police to disperse protest since it only serves to exacerbate tensions and increase the chances of violence. Civil society organisations Red Muqui, Derechos Humanos sin Fronteras and Cooperaccion have expressed similar concerns.

For his part, the newly-appointed president of the Council of Ministers, Salvador del Solar, said in a press conference on 27 March that the executive was not behind the arrests; they were the result of an ongoing investigation carried out by the public prosecutor’s office. In his words, “this is an independent and autonomous process carried out by the prosecutor’s office, that started two years ago, and that at the outset was unrelated to Fuerabamba or its president Gregorio Rojas”.

Meanwhile, leaders of 38 communities from the district of Challhuahuacho in Cotabambas province, have called an indefinite strike (paro indefinido) which started at midnight on 27 March in solidarity with the people of Fuerabamba, demanding the release of Rojas. The regional government of Apurímac as well as the mayors of Challhuahuacho, Abancay and other communities have also expressed their solidarity with Fuerabamba. As we went to press, the strike action continued.