LIMA – Peruvian police on Friday arrested the main leader of protests against Southern Copper’s Tia Maria mining project in the southern province of Islay, authorities said.
Pepe Julio Gutierrez is accused of extortion and criminal conspiracy for allegedly soliciting a bribe in exchange for ending more than 50 days of protests that have left three dead and more than 200 injured.
Gutierrez was arrested while riding by car in Cocachacra, the epicenter of the protests against the copper mine project, National Police director Gen. Jorge Flores told RPP Noticias radio.
The suspect is under preliminary detention, meaning authorities have 24 hours to present evidence in support of their accusations, although an Interior Ministry official told RPP that prosecutors can request that he be held for a longer period.
Peru’s government said Tuesday it had suspended talks with Southern Copper, a unit of Mexican mining giant Grupo Mexico, over suspicion of possible secret negotiations between the mining company and protest organizers.
It also said it has called for Grupo Mexico Chairman and CEO German Larrea to travel to Lima to clear up allegations that the company offered to pay mine opponents to halt the protests in Islay.
Willax TV on Thursday broadcast an audio recording in which Gutierrez, president of the Tambo Valley Defense Front, appears to ask a lawyer working for Southern Copper for a bribe in exchange for ending the demonstrations.
Southern Copper on Monday said it is regrettable that that “wrongful action was carried out by third parties outside the organization” and stressed its commitment to upholding Peruvian law and its code of ethical business conduct.
Energy and Mines Minister Rosa Maria Ortiz, however, said Peru’s government will investigate a possible cover-up by the company and could initiate legal action.
Protest leaders said Monday they will continue an “indefinite strike” in Islay even though the government last weekend ordered soldiers deployed to that province, located in the Arequipa region.
Over the past three days, violent demonstrations also have spread to the southern city of Arequipa, the regional capital.
Southern Copper plans to invest some $1.4 billion in the construction of Tia Maria, which is projected to produce 120,000 metric tons of copper cathodes annually from the start of operations.