Violent protests this week against mining operations of Anglo-Swiss company Xstrata PLC (XTA.LN) have divided lawmakers in President Ollanta Humala’s ruling Gana Peru party, as a small group of legislators called for the prime minister’s resignation.
Protests turned deadly Monday after days of clashes between police officers and demonstrators on remote mountain roads in the province of Espinar, located in southern Peru’s Cuzco region. Two protesters were killed and dozens of others, including police, were injured during the confrontations.
Demonstrators are accused of setting fire to a building, hurling rocks at police officers and temporarily kidnapping a prosecutor.
Protesters initially demanded that Xstrata’s Tintaya copper operation increase funding for local development projects, but they now want that mine closed altogether, alleging it contaminates rivers.
The violence led the government to suspend civil liberties by declaring a 30-day state of emergency in Espinar. On Tuesday, police detained a number of antimining activists, including protest leader Herbert Huaman. Moments before he was detained, Huaman was defiant in saying that the emergency measures wouldn’t deter protesters.
The mayor of Espinar, Oscar Mollohuanca, who also led the protests, was taken into custody on Wednesday after he came out of hiding. Mollohuanca, who has been accused of using public funds to support the protests, told reporters that he went into hiding over concerns of being harmed. Television images showed police storming a local government building to detain Mollohuanca.
The protests in Espinar are the latest in a string of demonstrations that have mired numerous mining projects in Peru. Social conflicts threaten to derail Peru’s pipeline of mining projects, which will require investments totaling $53 billion over the next several years.
Opponents of mining in Peru regularly cite environmental concerns, but analysts also say that protests are driven by political interests.
Gana Peru legislators who represent Cuzco accused Prime Minister Oscar Valdes on Wednesday of neglecting dialogue in favor of hard line actions to quell the protests. Three lawmakers from Humala’s party issued a statement calling for the release of the protesters and for the resignation of Valdes.
“As representatives of Cuzco, we clearly and firmly ask that the prime minister resign immediately,” Congressman Ruben Coa said during a press conference.
The statement was quickly met by a show of support for the prime minister from Gana Peru’s congressional spokesman Fredy Otarola. “We ratify our open and absolute support for our prime minister and the government for the measures taken to confront violence that we did not provoke,” Otarola said.
Valdes, a former military officer appointed prime minister in December, has been criticized for taking a firm stance against antimine protesters. Valdes rejected claims Wednesday that he was being confrontational and that his office has been neglecting dozens of social conflicts around the country.
He said the government was open to dialogue but would not permit violence. “We are responsible to maintain order, and order is maintained with strength and with the arms that the constitution gives us,” Valdes told journalists.