Mining, militarization and criminalization of social protest in Latin America

Police line up against protesters
Cesar Padilla

It is not news to say that extractivism in Latin America has been imposing an increasingly deeper model of extraction and export. The competition to be a destination of mining, oil-reserves, forestry or fishing investment is a characteristic of the majority of the countries in the region.

However, extractavism is receiving increasing criticism from broad sections of society including academia and social movements.

One of the most important criticisms says that extractavism not only fails to relieve poverty and dependency, but it actually perpetuates these conditions. This has come to be known as “the curse of abundance”1.

This curse has nothing to do with “living seated on a bag full of gold” and remaining poor2. That which reigns in the economic programs of the Latin American governments is the deepening of extractavism, to achieve more growth or to pay social debts by means of various types of bonuses. This bonusocracy (a term used to describe countries which grant bonuses to the most vulnerable sections of society) has become a way of perpetually sustaining progressive sectors in governments. By capt

During the majority vote in this way, they have said goodbye to using ideological support in order to gain executive power.  It has even, on occasion, generated conflict with the social movements, as is the case of the Government of Correa in Ecuador, who they initially brought to power.

This curse of abundance has transformed into the curse of extractavism. The imposition of mining projects for example, has resulted in an increasing conflicts with local communities. So much so, that today in Latin America no new mining projects have been developed without socio-environmental conflicts and community resistance.

It is said that the mining sector faces three principle conditions: The difficulty in finding new reservoirs, the increase in the costs of production and the growing lack of social licence and increasing community rejection3.

The first two conditions have technical solutions. The third has been addressed with different approaches, all of which have been unsuccessful to date. The initial attempt was Social Corporate Responsibility (SCR) through the creation of foundations and hand-outs to the local communities, conveniently abandoned by the States. Then came the politics of “good neighbour”, accompanied by co-option, corruption, division and social decomposition. The failure of these strategies finally brought business and governments to impose projects in the face of social opposition through the criminalisation of protest.

The allegations of the anti-mining leadership are in the news constantly, with or without foundation, as was the case of Javier Ramirez, anti-mining leader of the Intag community, in the north of Quito in Ecuador. After he was captured unjustly, the community became militarised, using weapons to instil fear. Even though it is certain, as in many cases, that neutralising the community rejections to mining will not be achieved, they achieve self-censorship and fear of openly expressing one’s opinions on the development.

But militarisation is not only part of the politics of progressive governments but also countries that have transformed themselves into mining models as in the case of Chile. Here, a police contingent has virtually held the Caiman community kidnapped, in the east of the port of Los Vilos. It had mobilised and taken the access roads to the Pelambred de Antofagasta Minerals mining installations, for nothing but to demand a judicial decision that determined the restitution of the waters intervened by the mining for the construction and operation of a tailings dam. In the last period of conflict, the town of Caimanes had remained mobilized for more than three months demanding that the highest court be granted to them and that the business refuses to give compensation.

The police force has militarised the zone, dispatching Special Forces to prevent the community, through social pressure, from obtaining their consecrated right for the judicial decision of last resort.

Sadly famous is also the case of Maxima Acuna in the locality of Celendin, Cajamarca, Peru. Here, the Yanacocha mine, known worldwide for its trampling of human rights and the use of force with its group of private guards “Forza”, has managed to circumvent judicial decisions that have been granted in repeated opportunities to the family of Maxima in respect of the ownership of their lands.

Despite the fact that Yanacocha recognised this family’s rights over reclaimed land, in order to develop its Conga Project, the harassment and atrocities continue as if the voice of justice was carried away by the wind.

Maxima was criminalised by the prosecutors, a request of Yanacocha (property of the Newmont Mining Corporation business, the Peruvian national group Cia. National Buenaventura and International Finance Corporation IFC), and condemned in the first instance to prison and payment of an indemnity to the mine. Then at appeal he was absolved of all charges, recognising the rights over his lands. Apparently in Peru, this is not sufficient, and it has become a tendency that criminalisation is one of the last resorts utilised once other strategies of dissuasion and convincing have failed.

In the cases mentioned and many others, criminalisation through juditialisation has been a well-used practice in countries like Peru and Ecuador. In Peru, the majority of the cases of criminalisation are dropped at the higher level, which denotes a complexity between governments, business and some local judges, in cases that don’t stand up legally.

In Ecuador on the contrary, the political dependency and the fear instilled in justice on the part of the central government has managed to incarcerate leaders unjustly and zones are militarised in order to impose extraction projects. The lack of dependency on justice in Ecuador has achieved a high level of self-censorship and the increase of the risks of opposing extractavism generates a great deal of uncertainty and fear in the population.

In Bolivia, for its part, there have also existed episodes of criminalisation. Especially in the case of Cancio Rojas, leader of the Mallku Qota community that opposes a mining Project in Potosi, who was unjustly incarcerated. But perhaps the most serious has been the strategy of division by force of one of the icons of the indigenous movement of the Bolivian Altiplano. We are referring to the Conamaq. Through the medium of violence, and the use of the armed police force, the government decided to collapse the organisation, permitting the assault at its headquarters and the aggression toward its leaders.

The motive of these arbitrary and antidemocratic measures was the non-acceptance of the extractavist model of the government of Morales since the communities affected reclaimed the loss of rights against the mining projects. The fact that a president of indigenous origin uses state violence in order to suppress the indigenous movement and its demands, attracts attention.

We are not talking about countries where legacies of dictatorial regimes are those that criminalise and suppress the population with the use of the armed police force as has been the case in Guatemala and Honduras. We speak of alternative governments, brought to the control of the executive with the unconditional support of social and indigenous movements, and where without them they would not have had the opportunity to govern.

It shows us that extractavism has installed itself in Latin America as an act of faith in Latin American leadership. And as in other eras, it imposes blood and fire, costing sometimes life, freedom and the democracy of our villages. Nonetheless, this has not diminished the resistance that manifests itself increasingly greatly in the defence and the recuperation of essential rights for the support of political projects of justice and equality in the region.




Author information

Cesar Padilla, Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, OCMAL

Police militarisation theme

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About the authors

Cesar Padilla, Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, OCMAL

Cesar Padilla, Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, OCMAL

Cesar Padilla, Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, OCMAL

Cesar Padilla, Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, OCMAL

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