Torture at the Río Blanco Mine - A State-Corporate Crime?

Torture at the Río Blanco Mine - A State-Corporate Crime?

Case Study Author

Peru Support Group

Case study published 2012.

Chapter 1: Historical Context - Mining, Development and Río Blanco

The exploitation of mineral resources has long been one of the major economic activities undertaken in Peru. However, it was not until the early 1990s that the extractive industry boom began in earnest. Under President Alberto Fujimori (1990 – 2000) mineral extraction became a central component of the country’s development strategy. Fujimori sought to attract foreign investment by signing a series of ‘stability agreements’ with extractive firms, guaranteeing them highly favourable rates of tax for approximately 15 years. Further, he relaxed environmental regulation and altered laws on land ownership and use in favour of extractive companies. Many of these measures ultimately proved detrimental to the country’s indigenous and peasant population; a traditionally marginalised group, whose territory often coincided with areas of unexploited mineral deposits.

The above reforms were implemented in the context of dramatic expansion in extractive industry investment worldwide. The government thus created a highly favourable environment for investors at a time when they were already shifting their resources into extractive projects. Between 1990 and 1997 investment in mineral exploration worldwide nearly doubled. During the same period in Peru it increased 20-fold (de Echave, 2011).

These new capital flows were accompanied by a dramatic expansion in the total area of Peruvian territory under concession to energy and mining firms. In 1991, 2.3 million hectares were under concession, but by 1997 this figure had risen nearly 800% to 15.6 million hectares (de Echave, 2011). Rapid expansion into new territories brought more of the population into direct contact with the extractive industries. In a number of areas social conflicts developed as nearby communities came to view mining projects as a threat to water supplies and local agriculture. In the majority of such cases Fujimori’s authoritarian government, keen to maintain Peru’s burgeoning reputation as an investor-friendly country, pushed ahead with large projects despite local objections. This was a policy which changed little under the subsequent government of Alejandro Toledo (2001 – 2006).  

During 1994, in the midst of the exploration boom, Australian firm Newcrest Mining discovered one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits in the Río Blanco area of Piura, north-west Peru. During the next few years, options to the site were passed between a variety of companies. In 2001 Monterrico Metals (Monterrico), then a UK-owned mining firm (since April 2007 the company has been owned by Chinese consortium Zijin), acquired a stake in the project, which it eventually bought outright in 2003. Through its wholly-owned Peruvian subsidiary, Minera Majaz SA, Monterrico possessed registered title to eight mineral concessions in the Río Blanco area, covering an area of 6,472 hectares (Bebbington et al, 2007).

The area of exploration and planned extraction was located in a section of primary cloud forest in Huancabamba and Ayabaca provinces. The site was located at the crest of the Andes at altitudes of 2,200-2,800m. Road access was very limited. 



Chapter 2: Early Controversies

One of the first disputes which developed between the local communities and Monterrico concerned whether the firm had the correct permissions to operate in the area. The issue of permits was particularly complex as the concession was located in an area governed by multiple authority structures. 

The existence of such structures throughout the territory meant it was insufficient for the firm to only obtain a license to operate from the generally supportive Ministry for Energy and Mines (MEM). Negotiation with local authorities would also be required. 

Controversy over the issue of permissions began in 2003, shortly after Monterrico began large-scale exploration operations. The firm claimed it had received authorisation for such activities from the Segunda y Cajas community in July 2002. The community, however, argued that the purported agreement was invalid as it had not been approved in accordance with legislation governing the use of community territory (community land use proposals require two-thirds of those present at a special assembly to vote in favour of the motion for it to be passed. The community claimed Monterrico had sought permission only from a few leaders, not the wider group).  

Further, they said the disputed permits were in any case limited to permission to conduct ‘seismic’ tests, not to build permanent structures or to engage in exploration activities (these claims were later corroborated by an independent review conducted by the Office of the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman).  To reiterate their opposition to the Río Blanco project, in a May 2003 communal assembly Segunda y Cajas voted unanimously to ban extractive activity on their territory. This was followed by a similar resolution of the Yanta community in January 2004.

Much of the initial opposition to Monterrico’s operations stemmed from fears that copper extraction would result in significant environmental damage. As the proposed project involved building an open-cast mine and extracting the whole of Henry’s Hill (see source 3) to reach the deposit, the environmental impact would undoubtedly be considerable. Many peasant farmers, whose livelihoods depended on the water captured in the surrounding moorlands, voiced concern about the project’s possible effects on the delicate local ecosystem (CooperAcción, 2006).

Despite the vocal objections of the nearby population neither Monterrico nor the central government seriously considered delaying the project. As the mine was forecast to yield up to 50m tonnes of copper annually (Monterrico, 2008) – thereby increasing Peru’s total copper production by 20% –  both the firm and the government remained committed to beginning extraction as soon as possible. Consequently, the firm refused to accept the community’s decision to reject all mining activity on its territory. 

Chapter 3: Communities March on the Mine

In early 2004, the Segunda y Cajas and Yanta communities forwarded to the MEM signed communal assembly resolutions rejecting mining activity on their territory. Yet the government ignored their demands for Monterrico to withdraw from the area. Consequently, the communities, rondas and other civil society groups organised a protest march to the mine site on 22nd April 2004. Large numbers from a wide variety of organisations and nearby villages participated in this peaceful demonstration. As the marchers approached the mine site, they were repelled by police, who fired tear gas canisters into the crowds. One protestor, Reemberto Herrera Sancho, was killed after being hit in the head by a canister (CooperAcción, 2006).

Relations between the communities on the one hand, and the mining firm and state officials on the other, deteriorated further as a result of this incident. In an effort to find a negotiated solution to the conflict, Piura’s regional government brokered talks between the various stakeholders. By July 2005 however, leaders of the communities and other organisations withdrew from the initiative complaining of state bias in favour of the firm. With talks stalled, the communities announced plans for a second protest march to the mine site in late July. Monterrico’s response was to characterise the planned demonstration as illegitimate and the work of local agitators.

Interestingly, foreign diplomats based in Peru, many of whom enjoyed close ties to mining executives, appear to have shared Monterrico’s negative view of the demonstrators.

From the 28th of July the first groups began their march to the Río Blanco site. As many lived several days walk away from the mine, they did not all reach their destination until the 1st of August.

When the demonstrators approached Henry’s Hill they were reportedly several thousand in number. Police reacted to the march in the same manner as in April 2004, by attempting to disperse the crowds with tear gas. Canisters were fired into the middle of the protestors, and dropped from above by helicopter. A number of people were injured in the resultant confusion. One protestor was shot in the neck (he later died from his injuries) and a police captain was also shot in the leg.   

After being held at Henry’s Hill for a period of three days, the 28 protestors were eventually released and returned to their communities. A number report they continue to suffer psychological trauma from the experience. 

Chapter 4: Who Was Responsible for the Protestors' Mistreatment?

In a series of photographs of the detained protestors (obtained and published by a local journalist in 2009), individuals wearing the official uniforms of the police and special operations force, DINOES, are clearly visible. 

Since the publication of the photos, little doubt remains that the protestors were mistreated in 2005 or that state officials played a key role in these events. What remains a contentious issue is the involvement, or otherwise, of Monterrico  employees and/or security contractors in the incident. For their part, Monterrico managers strongly denied that they played any role in the proceedings, claiming that any abuses occurred within the context of a police operation over which they had no control. The firm also denied that the following apology, issued in September 2006 after its executive team was restructured, related to the August 2005 incident.

The detainees strongly dispute the firm’s version of events. They allege the police operation was conducted with the full knowledge, assistance and complicity of Minera Majaz, and that the mine camp manager, Roman Tirado, was even inciting police to use violence against them. They claim this cooperation took the following forms (see Source 13).

They also claim their captors made explicit reference to the mine’s operations during the time they were detained. 

There is little doubt that the way the protestors were treated would have had the effect of making others more reticent to voice their opposition to the Río Blanco project. It also seems clear that one of the principal beneficiaries of any reduction in levels of public protest in Piura would be Monterrico. That the firm may have benefited from the mistreatment of protestors does not however, constitute definitive proof that it played a role in encouraging the operation. Subsequent efforts to establish, in a court of law, Monterrico’s responsibility for the protestors’ mistreatment have enjoyed only limited success. These will be examined in greater detail in chapter six.  

Chapter 5: The Río Blanco Project under President García

Locals’ complaints about the Río Blanco project and/or the corporate conduct of Monterrico largely failed to produce positive results during the presidency of Alan García. Elected in 2006, García put renewed emphasis on the exploitation of Peru’s natural resources and was generally unsympathetic to the objections of local communities to large investment projects. This doctrine was clearly outlined in the following newspaper article published in 2007. 

From this perspective, those who opposed Río Blanco were doing so out of little more than spite. Accordingly, authorities gave short shrift to the complaints of those living near the project, and to the torture allegations, for the majority of García’s tenure. 

In this political environment Monterrico was well placed to further strengthen its relations with the central government. Perhaps seeking to capitalise on this opportunity in August 2006, Monterrico appointed Richard Ralph, British ambassador to Peru since 2003, as its new executive chairman. Under Ralph’s management the firm developed an informal alliance with the García administration, which helped marginalise opponents of the project (of interest, in 2008 Ralph was fined £118,000 by the UK Financial Services Authority after admitting insider trading in the shares of Monterrico Metals).

Closer relations between the firm and government also served to minimise the negative impact of high-profile criticism of Monterrico’s operations. In 2006, an independent enquiry into the Río Blanco dispute, conducted by the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), identified several failings on the part of both the MEM and Monterrico. The report claimed the ministry had granted concessions to Monterrico even though the firm had not secured permission to operate on community territory. A second Defensoría report, outlining the irregularities in greater detail, was delivered to the MEM in November the same year. Nevertheless, the ministry renewed Monterrico’s exploration permit shortly after. The central government provided further support to Monterrico in August 2007, when it signed stability agreements with the firm, granting it favourable tax and labour conditions for the next ten years.

In response to these moves, the three districts in Piura that would be most affected by the project held a non-binding, voluntary public referendum on nearby mining projects.

Over 90% of those who participated in the referendum voted to ban all mining activity in the region. However, as with previous efforts by communities to stop the Río Blanco project, the referendum result was ignored by the central government.

Chapter 6: Justice Served?

The continuing and expanding ties between the firm and the Peruvian government may also have complicated efforts to bring criminal charges against those responsible for the mistreatment of protestors in August 2005. Despite national press coverage of the allegations, and the emergence of evidence corroborating the protestors’ claims, no serious effort was made to investigate the incident until June 2008.  

Investigations into the protestors’ allegations only began in earnest once Fedepaz (Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Development), a legal NGO, formally accused a number of police officers, Monterrico employees and mine security staff of torture, kidnapping and other crimes. In March 2009 however, most of these cases were shelved by the local public prosecutor in Piura. Fedepaz subsequently launched an appeal against this decision with senior prosecutors, who ruled that local officials had failed to pursue all lines of enquiry and that investigations should therefore resume. The local prosecutor’s office attempted to terminate the investigations on two further occasions since March 2009, only to be later overruled by senior officials on appeal (Peru Support Group, 2011). As of March 2012 none of those investigated over the August 2005 incident have faced trial.

In addition to the seeming reluctance of local prosecutors to fully investigate the complaints, those pursuing legal action against police officials and mine security had also to contend with other difficulties. One of the detainees, Julio Vásquez, reported receiving death threats after lodging a criminal complaint with prosecutors in Piura in early 2009.

At the same time, many have themselves faced criminal investigation for their role in the July/August 2005 demonstrations. In the months after the march, authorities initiated some 104 investigations into demonstrators on charges including inciting violence and disturbing the public order. A number of these were initiated at the behest of Minera Majaz. Later, four technical consultants who advised on the 2007 referendum and 42 other community members/NGO representatives also faced similar investigations. Amnesty International reported that many complaints related to “a series of legitimate activities that are claimed to have incited violence. These included workshops held for community members about mining projects and the right for communities to have the opportunity to genuinely participate in decision-making processes” (Amnesty International, 2009).

 Though legal proceedings in Peru have failed to make real progress, the detainees have had some success outside of the Peruvian jurisdiction. Following the publication of photos documenting the 2005 abuses (see source 11), the protestors, with the assistance of law firm Leigh Day, were able to file a civil complaint against Monterrico in the UK in June 2009. After a series of delays, chiefly caused by legal challenges mounted by the firm, a trial was eventually scheduled for the high court in October 2011. Approximately 80 witnesses were due to travel from Peru to give evidence.

However, no hearing ever took place as shortly before the scheduled trial Monterrico reached an out-of-court settlement with the claimants. The agreement saw Chinese mining consortium Zijin, Monterrico’s owners since April 2007, make compensation payments of an undisclosed size to the victims, but without admitting liability for the events of August 2005. Anxious to distance itself from the company’s previous owners, Zijin released the following statement.

While the payment of compensation to the victims was welcomed by human rights groups, the settlement has not resolved all the outstanding issues related to the Río Blanco project. Many in Piura continue to express concern over the likely environmental impact of the mine and further tensions between the local communities and mine operator cannot therefore be ruled out. It remains to be seen whether or not Zijin will keep its pledges to deal with any such conflicts in a more responsible manner than Río Blanco’s previous owners.   

References and Further Reading

Resource Grabbing

Allan, J. A., Keulertz, M., Sojamo, S., and Warner, J. (eds.) (2013), Handbook of Land and Water Grabs in Africa: Foreign Direct Investment and Food and Water Security, Abingdon: Routledge.

Borras, S., Hall, R., Scoones, I., White, B., and Wolford, W., (2011) ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Global Land Grabbing: An Editorial Introduction’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(2), 209-216. Note this edition of JPS contains a collection of papers on land grabbing.

Borras, S., and Franco, J. (2010), ‘Towards a Broader View of the Politics of Global Land Grab: Rethinking Land Issues, Reframing Resistance’,  ICAS Working Paper Series No. 001, available online.

Bush, R, Bujra, J and Littlejohn, G. (2011) ‘The Accumulation of Dispossession’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol.38, No.128, pp.187-192.

Hall, R. (2011), ‘Land Grabbing in Southern Africa: The Many Faces of the Investor Rush’, Review of African Political Economy, 38(128), 193-214.

Harvey, D. (2005), The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (2011), Land Tenure and International Investments in Agriculture, available online.

State Corporate Crime

Green, P. and Ward, T. (2004) State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption, London: Pluto Press.

Kramer, R. C., Michalowski, R. J. and Kauzlarich, D. (2002) ‘The Origins and Development of the Concept and Theory of State-Corporate Crime’, Crime & Delinquency, 48(2), 263–282.

Kramer, R. C., and Michalowski, R. J. (2006) State-Corporate Crime: Wrongdoing at the Intersection of Business and Government, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutdgers University Press.

Lasslett, K. (2010) A Critical Introduction to State-Corporate Crime, International State Crime Initiative, Available online.  

Tombs (forthcoming), 'State-Corporate Symbiosis in the Production of Crime and Harm', State Crime, 1(2).

Torture at Rio Blanco Mine

Amnesty International (2009), ‘Peru – Defending Local Livelihoods’, available online.

Blakeley, R. (2009) State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South. London: Routledge. See Chapter 2.

Bebbington, A., M. Connarty, W. Coxshall, H. O'Shaughnessy, and M. Williams (2007) Mining and Development in Peru, with Special Reference to the Río Blanco Project, Piura. London, United Kingdom, Peru Support Group, available online.

Bebbington, A., Hinojosa, L., Bebbington, D., Burneo, M., Warnaars, X. (2008), ‘Contention and Ambiguity: Mining and the Possibilities of Development’, BWPI Working Paper 57, available online.

Bebbington, A., Humphreys Bebbington, D., Bury, J., Lingan, J., Pablo Muñoz, J., Scurrah, M. (2008), ‘Mining and Social Movements: Struggles Over Livelihood and Rural Territorial Development in the Andes’, World Development, Vol. 36, No. 12, pp. 2888-2905

CIDSE (2011) ‘Criminalisation of Social Protest Related to Extractive Industries in Latin America’, available online.

CooperAcción, Informe de Conflictos Mineros: Los Casos de Majaz, Las Bambas, Tintaya y La Oroya (2006) available online.

Coxshall, W (2010), ‘“When They Came to Take Our Resources”: Mining Conflicts in Peru and Their Complexity’, Social Analysis Vol 54, No. 1, pp. 35-51 

De Echave, J. (2011), ‘The Dynamics of Peru’s Extractive Industries’, Peru Support Group Update No. 143, pp. 4-5

Environmental Defender Law Centre, ‘Mining Opponents Tortured in Peru’, available online.

International Commission  of Jurists. (2006) Report of the Expert Legal Panel on Corporate Complicity in International Crimes, available online.

Kamphuis, C. (2011) ‘Foreign Investment and the Privatization of Coercion: A Case Study of the Forza Security Company in Peru’. Brooklyn Journal of International Law, Vol. 37, No. 2.

Low, P. (2012) 'Rio Blanco and the Conga Fallout', Feb-Mar 2012, available online.

Monterrico Metals Investor Fact Sheet, Spring 2008, p. 2 available online.

Monterrico Press Release: ‘Río Blanco Project Update’, 4th August 2005, available online.

Oxfam America (2009), ‘Mining Conflicts in Peru: Condition Critical’, available online.

Peru Support Group (2011), ‘Rio Blanco: Justice Served?’, Update No. 147, pp. 5-6

Zillman, D, Lucas, A and Pring, G. (eds) (2002) Human Rights in Natural Resource Development: Public Participation in the Sustainable Development of Mining and Energy Resources. Oxford: Oxford University Press.