In the face of fierce opposition to the Tia Maria copper mine in Arequipa, Peru’s government looks to regain control by arresting key protest leaders and cutting off financing.
Peru’s interior minister and attorney general have signaled the probable arrest of anti-mining leader Pepe Julio Gutierrez for extortion of Southern Copper. At the same time, Peru’s finance ministry has temporarily frozen the bank accounts of Islay province and the Dean Valdivia, Cocachacra and Punta de Bombon districts.
A lawyer for Southern Copper submitted audio recordings of Gutierrez allegedly soliciting $1.5 million to end protests against the $1.4 billion copper mine project. Interior minister Jose Luis Perez said Gutierrez’s arrest was “imminent,” while attorney general Pablo Sanchez confirmed a decision would be made today.
“What we’re doing is evaluating the audio. We have to verify that the audio recorded the voices of those involved, and that is important evidence to request preventative jailing,” Sanchez said.
Jesus Cornejo and Jaime de la Cruz, two other protest leaders, could also be temporarily jailed if a Mollendo judge repeals suspended sentences for blocking a road in the 2011 Tia Maria protests. The judge is under investigation for accepting a bribe from Gutierrez to suspend the sentences, which was also revealed in the audio recordings.
Meanwhile, Peru’s finance ministry has frozen the bank accounts of one provincial government and three municipalities at the heart of the protests. Comptroller Fuad Khoury requested the move because he suspected the funds were being used to conduct protests. He said the four local governments ignored repeated requests from his office for audits.
“We assume that the money is coming out of the municipality in order to finance the demonstrations. So we find ourselves before a completely irregular and criminal use [of public funds],” Khoury said. “We hope that as soon as this situation ends, we can open the books and see what happened. If what happened is what we suspect, the mayors are not going to escape criminal charges, if the public resources were used.”
Pepe Julio Gutierrez was officially suspended from the Land and Freedom political party which opposes the Tia Maria project. Party leader Marco Arana made the case in the press that Southern Copper should also be investigated.
“It’s a shame that Southern is trying to corrupt authorities and social leaders. That’s why we have called for there to be an investigation to establish responsibility. For our part, we have separated Pepe Julio from the movement. We hope that the National Mining Society will conduct its own investigation and expel Southern,” Arana said.
Mining and energy minister Rosa Ortiz has asked Southern Copper to explain its role in the audio recordings. “Those audios could indicate a crime on the part of the company. So I have basically asked the owner of the company, Mr. Larrea, to come to Lima to clear this up. I am waiting for confirmation,” Ortiz said. Southern Copper has denied “unethical or illegal” negotiations with opposition leaders.
President Ollanta Humala deployed the Peruvian military to restore order in Islay province this week after protesters killed a police officer. Protests which have gone on for over seven weeks have led to three deaths and over 200 injuries. Negotiations have failed twice. Opposition concerned for local agriculture demands that Southern Copper abandon the $1.4 billion copper mine. Three died in Tia Maria protests in 2011.