Grupo Mexico's Southern Copper Corp on May 15 announced a 60-day halt in its huge Tia Maria project in southern Peru's Arequipa region following seven weeks of escalating protests in which three people have been killed and more than 200 injured. Company president Oscar Gonzalez said in a statement that the "pause" would let all sides air concerns and "identify solutions." Protesters in Cocachacra, the center of the conflict in Islay province, say they have no intention of backing down from their demand that the $1.4 billion project be canceled. Peru's President Ollanta Humala said canceling the project would expose the country to lawsuits and make it less attractive to investors.
That same day, National Police at a Cocachacra road checkpoint arrested the main leader of protests, Pepe Julio Gutiérrez, on extortion and conspiracy charges. He is accused of soliciting a bribe in exchange for ending the protests. The government has called for Grupo Mexico CEO Germán Larrea to appear in Lima to address the claim.
Peru's Willax TV on May 13 broadcast an audio recording in which Gutiérrez, president of the Tambo Valley Defense Front, apparently seeks a bribe from a Southern Copper lawyer. The company protested that "wrongful action was carried out by third parties outside the organization." Energy and Mines Minister Rosa Maria Ortíz pledged an investigation and warned of legal action.
Protest leaders say they will continue an "indefinite strike" in Islay, even though the government has mobilized soldiers to the province. Local farmers fear the mine will contaminate crops in the fertile Tambo Valley. The company says the project would take water from the Pacific Ocean and return it there after processing. Protests against the project in 2011 also claimed three lives.
In Cocachacra on May 14, protesters threw stones at police, who responded with tear-gas. Twelve people were reported injured, and protests spread to other towns and cities, including the regional capital of Arequipa. Popular leaders in the regions of Arequipa, Moquegua, Tacna, Puno and Cuzco have called a meeting for this weekend in Arequipa's capital to discuss an indefinite strike throughout Peru's Southern Macro-Region. (AP, EFE, El Búho, Arequipa, May 15; AP, May 14)