It is nearly a year since the government launched the so-called ‘Operation Mercury’ in Madre de Dios.  The programme was planned as a two-year effort to control illegal gold mining and the abuses to which it leads. The name, we assume, is a reference to the large and damaging role mercury plays in illegal gold mining.

The programme was intended to be a new and serious attack on this extraordinarily damaging activity, both to human rights and to the environment. Of particular concern in terms of human rights was the control of the sexual exploitation of women in brothels and bars.

Doubts were expressed a year ago as to how far this programme was in fact anything but a replay of past ineffective efforts. Sadly, a report by Anastasia Moloney, the Thomson Reuters Latin America correspondent, gives a depressing picture of the continuing sexual exploitation of young girls and women without other options or protection, often in appalling conditions.

Based on various conversations, including young women caught up in the sex industry, the author reports on the local view that both illegal mining and the associated abuses have simply been displaced from the main focus of the operation into more remote locations. The regional governor, Luis Hidalgo, describes what has happened as ‘the balloon effect’ – the idea that squeezing the air out of a balloon in one place only makes it reappear elsewhere.

“Women and girls are recruited with false promises of work and then forced to have sex with miners. The younger they are the better as they can charge more.”  So says Mercedes Arce, coordinator at the international anti-trafficking group CHS Alternativo.  Young girls, the locals say, are particularly sought after by the miners, who believe having sex with a virgin brings good fortune.

CHS Alternativo forms part of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.