LIMA, (Reuters) – Peru’s counterterrorism police yesterday detained two leaders of protests that have stalled Newmont Mining’s $4.8 billion Conga gold mine project, in a widening crackdown by President Ollanta Humala.
Wilfredo Saavedra, the leader of the Environment Defense Front of Cajamaraca, and Milton Sanchez, the head of a civic association, said they were detained after addressing a panel in Peru’s Congress. Sources at Dircote, Peru’s counterterrorism police, said the two were detained for “investigatory reasons.”
Saavedra – who once spent a decade in prison for belonging to the violent left-wing Tupac Amaru insurgency and has said his past shouldn’t be used against him – has emerged as a high-profile leader in an environmental dispute that has tested Humala’s resolve to govern as a centrist who can simultaneously help Peru’s poor and attract foreign investment.
“We had given a talk about mining and the Conga project in Congress and the police detained us when we left. We don’t know why,” Sanchez said.
Humala, a former army officer who shed his leftist rhetoric and recast himself as a moderate to win election in June, invoked a state of emergency on Sunday to break 11 days of protests that had shut roads, schools and hospitals in Cajamarca.
The special powers suspend freedom of assembly and allow the army to help police end marches and rallies against the proposed gold mine.
An emboldened Humala has also scolded leaders of the environmental protest for being “intransigent” and causing weeks of mediation efforts to fail.
Protesters say the U.S. company’s Conga mine would hurt local water supplies and have demanded the government permanently cancel it. But the government has said the largest mining investment in Peruving history would generate thousands of jobs and generate huge tax revenues.
The Conga project, which Newmont owns with Peruvian precious metals miner Buenaventura, would produce 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold a year and open in 2014. It sits 13,800 feet (4,200 metres) high in the Andes and has reserves worth about $15 billion at current prices.
The impasse has highlighted Humala’s struggle to neutralize Peru’s polarized political environment and some protesters have accused Humala of having moved too far to the right and being too nice to big business.