Peruvian police pacts with Chinese mining company threaten to undermine state authority

Residents near Las Bambas copper mine denounce an agreement they feel pushes public security to take sides

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Since 2006, Peru's police has been permitted to provide security services to private companies (image: Alamy)

Apurímac, the region in Peru's Andes with the most mining investment, is home to the giant Las Bambas copper mine, an ongoing flashpoint between police, local communities and the mine's operators, a consortium of Chinese companies including MMG Limited, Guoxin International Investment and CITIC Metal. But agreements between Peru's police and the mining company threaten to undermine their independence, legal experts say.

In Las Bambas’ hilly surroundings, community members from Apurímac’s six provinces, represented by the Front for the Defence of the Interests and Development of the Province of Cotabambas, await resolution of a lawsuit filed to the Tambobamba Combined Civil Court in Apurímac. In April 2019, they lodged the complaint against the mining company and the national Police who for five years have held agreements to ensure the security of investments, resulting in a deep mistrust of the government.

“When there is no justice, how can they listen to you? How can they talk about democracy if there is no respect? All we can do is protest, but the police can still stop us. They are using the National Police as a form of intimidation,” says Víctor Limaypuma Ccoricasa, leader of Cotabambas Province’s Defence Front.

A six-hour drive from the city of Cusco, the area around Las Bambas has seen several conflicts that have resulted in the deaths of four community members since it was taken over by the Chinese consortium in 2015.

What is basically being traded is the very authority of the state

According to communities, those that live in the ‘area of influence’ around one of the largest copper projects in the world have had their rights to property and prior consultation violated. They say the results of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) were modified following changes to the project under its new owners, and that measures to reduce pollution were not implemented. In protest, communities blocked access routes to the site where the mineral was being transported, generating losses for the company.

Now, the constant police presence in the area has compounded problems and raised serious questions about public security, communities say.

“Whenever we make a complaint, the police tell us we have no rights,” says Ronald Quispe, the 30-year old president of the Defence Front for the Mara district. Quispe is also a member of the Quechua farming community of Miraflores, as recognised in the Ministry of Culture’s official database of indigenous communities.

Mara was initially considered within Las Bambas’ area of direct influence. However, one of the modifications to the project's EIA deemed the district and its more than 1,500 residents not to be in an affected area, despite the company trucks and police vehicles that move around the site on their way to the mine.

The police presence is unsettling for the community, Quispe says. “Children believe there is a war on. They don't really understand why there are so many police.”

Questionable agreements: Peru's police and mining companies

A 2006 change to the Constitutional Law on the National Police explicitly allowed its personnel to provide services to other public and private entities. A decade on, former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski issued Supreme Decree No. 003-2017-IN, which allowed the signing of agreements with extractive companies. For some years prior to 2006 services were provided less formally.

The agreement between the police and Las Bambas’s owners was signed in 2017, authorised by then interior minister Carlos Basombrío.

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police agreements have been signed with extractives companies since reforms enabled the provision of services to private entities

Between 2015 and August 2018, the Macro Police Region of Cusco was paid more than 4 million Peruvian Soles (US$1.2 billion) by the mining company for the protection of its facilities, assets and personnel. Most of the agreements also include logistical support, food, lodging and legal advice when the police needed it.

A report published in 2019 by EarthRights International (ERI), the Institute for Legal Defence (IDL) and the National Coordinator of Human Rights (CNDDHH) revealed that 138 agreements were signed between the National Police and extractive companies between 1995 and 2018. As of March 2020, there are already 167, of which at least 29 are currently in effect.

In December last year, Liang Yu, the new Chinese ambassador to Peru, announced Chinese foreign direct investment in the country had reached US$30 billion. Only Brazil has received more in Latin America. Yet some Asian venture capital companies have the highest rates of socio-environmental conflict.

Source: Ministry of the Interior, ERI, IDL and the CNDDHH Report (as of 31 December 2019)

Several lawyers have said that such agreements have a bearing on the impartiality and independence of the police, creating a link between the institution and extractives companies - and favouring their activities. This adds to the possible violation of human rights of communities in the direct and indirect areas of influence of projects.

“What is basically being traded is the very authority of the state. They are not interested in hiring someone who only ensures the security of the companies, but also bolsters the authority that the police represent,” says Álvaro Másquez Salvador, a legal specialist and researcher at the Institute of Legal Defence.

The Las Bambas’ lawsuit is not the only pending case. In the coming months the Constitutional Court, the highest legal recourse in Peru, will also resolve a request for annulment of an “agreement” between the police and Glencore Antapaccay Mining Company, brought by Oscar Mollohuanca, the former mayor of Cusco’s Espinar province and Carlos Umasi, president of the Association of Livestock Producers of Huinipampa.

The San Martín region’s Bar Association also filed a lawsuit in 2019 arguing that the regulations that make these agreements possible are unconstitutional, and sought to annul all those existing.

Mining corridor disruptions

During the early hours, company tippers and trucks move extracted ore through the mining corridor that runs through the southern departments of Arequipa, Apurímac and Cusco, despite a “double state of emergency” in the area. The corridor has been subject to numerous security measures in light of protests, the latest decree being enacted in early March at the request of the police’s director general.

The parallel emergency declaration was introduced to control the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Themselves prohibited from mobilising by the decrees, communities are also calling for mining companies’ employees to be immobilised. At the request of regional governments, the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC) reclassified what were communal or locally managed roads as national roads, meaning they became subject to different regulations.

The dust and changes to methods of ore transportion have still not been resolved at government-organised negotiating sessions, which are now suspended due to the coronavirus.

Although Peru’s Ombudsman has processed complaints about the use of force in social conflicts, the constitutionality of the police agreements is still pending, according to Alicia Abanto, a deputy for environmental issues at the Ombudsman's Office.

In the last five years, due to states of emergency, the government has suspended constitutional rights to liberty and personal security on twelve occasios in various parts of the mining corridor.

The Public Prosecutor's Office insists on defending the constitutionality of the agreement signed by the National Police and Las Bambas. “This police activity operates within a legal framework currently in force that allows police personnel, on a voluntary basis, to provide protection and security services as complementary to their police duties,” it says in a brief.

It rejects any violation of the fundamental rights to public safety or equality.

Diálogo Chino tried to communicate with officials at Las Bambas by email and phone but a company spokesperson informed us by WhatsApp that it “will not be commenting on the issue”.