In a surprise move on March 13, agents of Peru’s National Police arrested three leaders of the struggle against the controversial Conga gold mining project in the northern region of Cajamarca, while charges were announced against some 40 others. Wilfredo Saavedra Marreros, leader of Cajamarca’s Environmental Defense Front, was detained in the southern city of Tacna, where he had been invited to speak by student groups. Nearly simultaneoulsy in Cajamarca, police agents arrested Lucio Díaz Chávez, former regional president of the teachers union SUTEP, and César Tafur Tacilla, secretary general of the local construction workers union. Saavedra was taken in police custody to Cajamarca, where he was freed the next morning along with Díaz and Tafur. All three are charged with obstruction of public transport in connection with last year’s protest mobilization against the Conga mine, and await orders to appear before a judge. The next day, the Cajamarca branch of the Fiscalía, Peru’s attorney general, released a list of 41 activists facing identical charges—including virtually all the prominent leaders of the Cajamarca protest movement.
Most notable among those on the list are the president and vice-president of the Cajamarca regional government, Gregorio Santos Guerrero and César Aliaga Díaz. Santos is the first regional president to have roots in the rondas campesino self-defense movement, and has been a vocal supporter of the protest movement. Also on the list are the regional government’s health director Dr. Reynaldo Núñez Campos, and a Cajamarca city councilor, Elzer Elera López.
In addition to Saavedra, an ex-adherent of the MRTA guerilla movement, protest leaders on the list include the activist priest Marco Arana Zegarra of the local NGO Grufides, and his colleague Sergio Sánchez Ibáñez, who had days earlier released a statement critical of the government-approved environmental impact statement for the Conga project.
Also on the list Ydelso Hernándes, a rondero leader and president of the Cajamarca Defense Front, and the leaders of two provincial affiliates of the Defense Front: Jorge Spelucin (San Marcos) and Edy Benavides (Bambamarca). Also named is hydrologist Reinhard Seifert, a German citizen who has lived in Peru for years, and served as an advisor to the Cajamarca Environmental Defense Front. A final prominent name is Carmela Sifuentes, secretary general of Peru’s main labor confederation, the CGTP.
Jorge Spelucín of the San Marcos Defense Front, who was with Wilfredo Saavedra when he was detained, told Lima’s daily La Republica that Peru’s prime minister and the mining interest that hopes to develop the Conga site were behind the arrests. “This comes from Óscar Valdés with the complicity of the Yanacocha mining company, because they are afraid to the Macro-regional Assembly of social organizations, which we are going to hold unfailingly on March 17 in Cajamarca,” he accused.
The detentions and charges were also protested by Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, which said they “form part of a campaign against social protests.” Ydelso Hernández, president of the Cajamarca Defense Front and one of those facing charges, told La Republica that protests would be held in Cajamarca “to reject the persecutorial intention by the government and Judicial Power against those who defend water and the right to live in a healthy environment.”
On the day of the detentions, this reporter accompanied Ydelso Hernández to a community meeting at the small village of El Alumbre (Bambamarca district, Hualgayo province), in the zone that would be impacted by the Conga mining project. The area is a puna (alpine plain) some three hours by four-wheel drive from the city of Cajamarca. Before the meeting began, village leaders guided us as we drove over unimproved roads to view the several lagunas (small lakes) that would be destroyed by the mining project. Our two vehicles were followed by a detatchment of National Police in a white pick-up truck, clad in camouflage and black ski-masks.
At the meeting back at El Alumbre, village leaders gathered outside the schoolhouse, where a rudimentary sound system was rigged. Chewing coca leaf and occassionally passing around a bottle of aguardiente (cane liquor) to ward off the misty cold, villagers dressed in traditional ponchos and rubber work boots listened as Alumbre’s mayor and the district and provincial leaders, as well as representatives from several outlying casarios (unincorporated hamlets), each took the microphone to pledge their committment to defend the zone’s waters and oppose the mining project. The proceedings were periodically punctuated by chants of “EL AGUA ES UN TESORO QUE VALE MAS QUE ORO” (Water is a treasure worth more than gold) and “EL AGUA ES POR LA VIDA, NO POR LA MINERIA” (Water is for life, not for mining). At the meeting’s conclusion, the assembled dignitaries were served a dinner of rice, potatos and very tasty fried trout—fresh from one of the lagunas slated to be destroyed by the gold mine.
We were driving through the dusk back to Cajamarca when Ydelso received a cell-phone call informing us of the arrests. By the time we arrived in Cajamarca, a candle-light vigil in protest of the arrests had taken over the street on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square. A line of National Police troops with big plastic shields looked on from the sidewalk on the plaza, but did not interfere. Protesters mobilized again the following day, March 14, marching through the city at sundown—led by a giant banner with the ubiquitous slogan “CONGA NO VA”—before settling in at the same spot for what seems set to become a nightly vigil. The Macro-regional Assembly set for March 17 is to be followed by a renewed protest mobilization in the region, to be initiated on March 22, World Water Day. (La Repùblica, March 14; World War 4 Report on the scene in Cajamarca)