Operation Mercury 2019 Counters Illegal Mining

Operation Mercury 2019 Counters Illegal Mining

By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo
May 01, 2019

More than 1,500 military and police personnel join efforts to restore government presence in the Peruvian Amazon.

The Peruvian Armed Forces Joint Command (CCFFAA, in Spanish) and the Peruvian National Police are in the midst of Operation Mercury 2019 (Mercurio 2019) since February. The mission is to execute the Comprehensive Plan against Illegal Mining and recover protected natural areas illegal gold mining devastated in La Pampa, Madre de Dios, Tambopata province.

The first stage of the plan, intervention, was carried out in February. The second phase, consolidation, began March 5 and will last six months. “The government will employ all of its Armed Forces’ capabilities in the consolidation stage,” Peruvian Minister of Defense José Huerta Torres told the press. The last stage will be maintenance.

“In addition to the financial factor, illegal mining is catastrophic for the environment,” Peruvian Army General Cesar Astudillo Salcedo, head of CCFFAA, told Diálogo. “Tons of mercury are discharged into Peruvian rivers to extract gold in off-limit areas. To preserve health and the environment from mercury emissions, Peruvian authorities will ban its use in La Pampa, hence the name Operation Mercury 2019.”

The strategy

The Peruvian Armed Forces set up four highly mobile temporary mixed bases in the buffer area at Tambopata Reserve, to rid the zone of illegal miners. Each base is home to 100 soldiers of the Army’s Amazon Protection Brigade, which patrols the area; 50 security agents and eight Public Ministry representatives also take part in the operation.

“The consolidation stage has two purposes: The first is to detect and disable all dredges in the area. There are many dredges that [criminals] left covered in the woods, in the water, or in the ground. The second is to prevent illegal miners from reentering the national reserve to exploit the ecosystem, an 11,000-hectare area,” said Astudillo. “The affected area comprises more than 6,000 hectares. So far [as of March 29] we destroyed 63 dredges.”

Service members seek to curb those who exploit mineral resources, most of whom are linked to criminal groups that don’t follow security and protection norms against pollution. These groups irreversibly damage natural resources and commit human rights violations such as violence, threats, and extortion against workers. The operation will enable authorities to be permanently stationed in the area to monitor activities, including street traffic.

“We won’t leave until we see all this area green again, as it used to be, and give back to Madre de Dios the beauty it always had,” Huerta said. “The maintenance phase will come in September and will last two years, in which the region will be reforested.”

Joint, interagency work

“The comprehensive approach used against this threat is also to legalize more than 4,500 miners, in coordination with Madre de Dios regional authorities,” Francisco Ísmodes Mezzano, Peruvian minister of Energy and Mining, said in a press release. “The ministries of Production and the Environment will promote initiatives to support these citizens and recover deforested areas.”

The Navy took part in the multi-sectorial mission with riverine traffic-control tasks on the Malinowski and Inambari rivers. The Air Force carried out transport, surveillance, and reconnaissance maneuvers. The central government declared a state of emergency in several districts of Tambopata province to carry out these activities.

In 2017 and 2018, illegal mining caused the deforestation of more than 18,000 hectares of forest, according to a gold mining report from the South American association Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, published in January 2019. South America is a region with a high rate of illegal gold extraction: Venezuela leads the list with 90 percent; Colombia comes next, with 80 percent; Ecuador with 77 percent; and Peru and Bolivia account for about 30 percent, according to the Organized Crime, and Illegally Mined Gold in Latin America 2016 report of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, based in Switzerland.

Courage and bravery

The Peruvian Armed Forces’ work is challenging. Soldiers face adverse weather conditions, challenges such as clearing an entire area, dealing with a shortage of basic resources, and coordinating routes to supply food and water for personnel.

“Troops are up to the task; they operate with strict respect for human rights. The operation is a success; We expect it to continue that way,” said Gen. Astudillo. “We are proud of the courage of all personnel participating in and leading Operation Mercury 2019. There is nothing that can’t be achieved with willpower and love for your country,” he concluded.