With Newmont-Buenaventura set to resume building operations at the controversial Conga mine site this year, the Peruvian government has passed a new law granting legal immunity to security personnel who injure or kill protesters.
The promulgation of Law 30151, which was officially gazetted on January 14 after being signed by President Ollanta Humala, indicates the state and its transnational corporate backers are planning an expanded campaign of repression against Peruvian communities resisting their neoliberal development model.
Since late 2011, protests in and around Cajamarca in Peru's northern highlands forced the Humala administration to suspend US-based Newmont’s building of Conga, a US$4.8 billion extension of the existing Yanacocha gold and copper mine.
Other partners include Buenaventura, a Peru-based metals company, and the World Bank. The bank has backed the project with relatively small but symbolically important funding.
At stake is the future of a chain of highland lakes, which will be converted into toxic tailings ponds if the project goes ahead. This would radically degrade the regional environment, making agriculture unsustainable.
Since then, a tense stand-off has prevailed at the threatened lakes. It has involved frequent harassment of the volunteers, who maintain a vigil to prevent the company illegally proceeding with development work, by police and paramilitary units acting at the behest of Newmont.
Serious human rights abuses have occurred. In July 2012, five residents of the village of Celendin were shot dead by a police unit. Since mid-2011, at least 34 civilians have been killed and nearly 1000 wounded in social conflicts in Peru, mostly involving clashes between police and anti-mining protesters.
One of the most prominent cases is that of Elmer Campos, a 34-year-old farmer from the hamlet of Bambamarca. Campos received severe spinal injuries after being shot in the back by police during peaceful anti-Conga protests on November 29, 2011. Doctors say he will never walk again.
Campos has filed a civil suit against the police in Peru. He is represented by Max Perez of the National Human Rights Coordinator.
“We seek justice, accountability, and greater protection for human rights,” said Perez, “and to end a culture of impunity for police repression of legitimate protest activity.”
Campos is also represented by US-based NGO Earth Rights International. On January 2, it filed a federal court motion on his behalf in Denver, Colorado Newmont's home town.
The motion is aimed at making Newmont hand over internal company evidence that it has so far refrained from submitting to Peruvian authorities over the events of November 29 when at least 24 protesters were injured.
Campos said: “Justice means first that there is a real investigation to determine who was responsible, and that they pay for their crimes, and second, that the government fulfils its responsibility to protect its citizens and the environment, rather than forcing a destructive mining project on its citizens through abusive police conduct.”
This campaign of judicial activism, sponsored by progressive lawyers and a network of NGOs, has ensured the victims of state repression have not remained entirely voiceless. The road to justice is a difficult one but, until now, Peru’s legal code has at least offered the possibility of some form of redress.
Such lawsuits have angered police and military, and alarmed international mining interests. Law 30151, which will apply retrospectively, is clearly aimed at removing checks on the state's capacity to carry out violent repression.
Peru's Office of the Public Defender said: “It is necessary to remember that a democratic state must take all necessary measures to ensure that its agents use force in a proportional manner, doing everything possible to avoid the sorts of deaths and injuries to civilians and innocent persons that have lamentably occurred in our country …
“The new law weakens protections for the citizenry and may prove counter-productive in the fight against delinquency.”
The new law represents a green light for repressive acts, including murder.
The passage of the law has horrified many who remember Peru’s recent past. More than 60,000 civilians were killed by the state during the troubles of the 1980s and '90s.
In the name of combating a violent leftist insurgency, the Peruvian military engaged in its own form of terrorism. In the highlands of Ayacucho, torture of suspects and Vietnam War-style mass killing of villagers by military units became commonplace.
Washington provided extensive support for these operations, which were routinely accompanied by CIA advisers. The perpetrators of these atrocities have never faced justice. Law 30151 represents a reversion to these dark days, a huge setback to the emerging rule of law in Peru.
Supporters of the law claim it will give the authorities more power to deal with violent criminal gangs. Yet it is clear from the context of recent events that the real targets are environmental activists.
Worldwide, the neoliberal development model, which largely consists of the plunder of Third World natural resources by First World corporations, tends to be accompanied by repression.
As significant segments of the population turn against the destruction of their environment and livelihoods, Western-backed neoliberal regimes use repression to quell dissent.
Peru, which remains a strong ally of the US in the Andean region, conforms to this international trend. The irony is that Humala was elected on a left-leaning nationalist platform, promising to respect the right of local communities to oppose resource extraction projects.
The people of Cajamarca have spoken, yet the government ignores them.
With the passage of the new law, which has been condemned by several domestic and international groups as well as sparking divisions in Humala’s cabinet, the question of how far the security forces are willing to go in crushing the environmental protest movement is becoming critical.