Peru’s Andean Mines Take Up Arms Against Shining Path Guerrillas
Every morning in this dusty town high in the Andes, miners head into the shafts amid barbed wire, security towers and guards armed with pistols and shotguns.
Peru’s rich Andean mines bear a growing resemblance to military camps as mining firms arm themselves against attacks by Maoist guerrillas.
Exasperated by what they call a lack of protection from police and the army, mine owners are forming armed security forces to fight a rash of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) incursions.
“Most mines now have their own armed groups and have hired military advisers,” said Luis Rodriguez-Mariategui, president of the Mining Society, an influential business group.
“You might call them paramilitary groups, but (they) act within the law to protect installations,” he said.
Mines form the backbone of Peru’s economy. Metals such as copper, lead and silver brought Peru $1.18 billion in exports last year, nearly half the total export income in this cash-strapped country.
Aware of the mines’ importance, Shining Path has bombed at least 11 mines and metals plants this year as part of its campaign to overthrow President Alan Garcia’s government through economic sabotage.
“Every company is taking matters into its own hands. Protecting ourselves from Shining Path has become a 24-hour task,” said the superintendent at one of five mining companies in Morococha.
Speaking on the condition that neither he nor the company be identified, he said the mine had hired nine new guards trained to shoot to kill in case of an attack.
They could get their chance at any moment.
Shining Path has boosted attacks on Centromin’s vast network of mines, refineries and railways spread across the Andean highlands where the rebels are most active.
A band of insurgents on horseback swept into Centromin’s Yauricocha copper and silver mine in March and shot dead two policemen, a security guard and another employee. Then they dynamited the mine’s machinery.
The attack, which metals traders said cost Centromin millions of dollars, sent shock waves through mining firms.
Six weeks later, the Mining Society publicly requested that army troops guard mines and prevent Shining Path reprisals against miners working in defiance of a general strike called for central Peru by the guerrillas.
Centromin has since sent 40 policemen to guard Yauricocha and army troops patrol the hills nearby, Centromin spokesman Javier La Rosa said.
He said Centromin had also sent reinforcements to its railway between the huge Cerro de Pasco mine and smelter at La Oroya. Shining Path has bombed four out of 12 locomotives beyond repair on the railway, the lifeline for Peru’s most productive zinc and lead mine.
The growing militarization at mines has worried miners’ union leaders, who accuse security forces of abuses.
“All of Centromin’s units have been militarized . . . by troops which harass mines, rob them, spy on them and detain them arbitrarily,” Eliseo Macha, secretary-general of the Centromin Workers’ Union, told Reuters.
“Miners are living in a state of constant fear from Shining Path on one hand and security forces on the other,” he said.
But he said workers and management shared the need for some protection. At least two major union leaders have been assassinated by Shining Path “annihilation cells” since April.
Both labor leaders had resisted Shining Path efforts to infiltrate their unions. At least 250 other miners have been threatened with death by the guerrillas or shadowy right-wing groups, Macha said.
Despite the violence, mine owners say there are limits on how much they can safely arm their own forces.
Said the Morococha superintendent: “If we arm our own people too heavily, then the subversives won’t come just to bomb the mines. They’ll come to kill the guards and take their weapons.”