Moquegua protesters release police hostages held for more than 24 hours

Thousands of protesters in the southern mining town of Moquegua have released a police general and 47 of his officers after holding them hostage for more than 24 hours. And while negotiations continue over their demand for a larger share of taxes paid to the government by Peru’s largest copper producer, Southern Peru, President Alan Garcia said criminal charges will inevitably be part of the bargain.

Garcia likened the seizure of the police to the 2005 armed assault on a police station in the remote town of Andahuaylas by ultranationalists led by former Army Maj. Antauro Humala.

“This is exactly like Andahuaylas and it will be treated the same way. They will have to pay for assaulting police and holding them hostage,” said Garcia late Tuesday night, which was widely reported in Peru’s newspapers Wednesday morning. “Everyone who has participated has committed a crime. And they will have to pay for it… There is no going back.”

But what occurred in Moquegua is nothing like the Andahuaylas assault that left six people dead including four police, said lawyer Guillermo Kuong, a member of the Moqueguan Technical Defense Commission.

“Moquegua locals have never used any type of firearm,” he said Wednesday. People reacted after police fired tear gas directly into a crowd of protesters, he argued, and the policemen were allowed to seek refuge in the town’s Cathedral.

“Police used excessiveand irrational force against the population. Moquegua is open, democratic and plural. If all this has happened it’s because there has been an injustice,” he added.

Moquegua, which ironically means “quiet place” in Quechua, has been the theater of violent protests and road blockades for over a week as local population and authorities demand that profits generated from mining be redistributed amongst the region’s poor.

Early Monday morning, after a special anti-riot police task force fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters blocking a bridge, thousands of protesters armed with stones charged police, taking 66 officers and the regional police commander, Gen. Alberto Jordan, hostage.

Later that afternoon, television stations broadcast a distraught Gen. Jordan waving a white flag.

“I ask the people of Moquegua to forgive me. I am sorry… we are policemen, we follow orders. I ordered them not to discharge tear gas, but they disobeyed my order,” he implored. “Forget about it, we will retreat today and we will solve your problem.” he pleaded.

According to Jordan later, his apology was not a willing act of rendition, but rather the only way to save his life and that of his men.

“We were in danger. They were going to hang all of us. The people had ropes,” Jordan told reporters after his release. “They told us that if I asked for forgiveness they would free my officers and only keep me. That’s why I did it.”

The confrontation left at least 20 civilians and 40 policemen wounded. More than a dozen of the injured police were released before Jordan and the rest of his men were let go.

The Moquegua miners’ strike, strongly backed by the local population, began June 10. Protesters have blocked off kilometers 1,142 through 1,147 of the Pan-American Highway as well as access to Southern Peru Copper Corporation’s — the country’s number one copper producer — Ilo smelter and Cuajone mine.

Demands include the transfer of 469 million soles — the equivalent of 52 percent of the mining company’s royalties — rather than the 189 million soles amount projected by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

“What Moquegua is asking for is that they respect the royalty generated by mining last year,” said Martin Vizcarra, President of the Moquegua Technical Defense Commission.

The road blockades, according to Peru’s Ministry of Transportation, have left more than 150,000 people and 3,000 vehicles stranded. They have also left Peru’s southernmost department of Tacna totally cut off, obliging the government to ship food, water and fuel by sea.

Garcia’s Cabinet Chief, Jorge Del Castillo, said Wednesday that he is to resume talks with Moquegua representatives now that the hostages have been freed.

Though mining in Peru accounts for almost half of its annual $8 billion in exports, it has repeatedly failed to invest in mining regions like Moquegua, where the poverty rate hovers close to 30 percent, one of the lowest in Peru.

Minersat Freeport-McMoRan’s copper mine in Cerro Verde also went on strike last week and Peru’s largest federation of mining unions is posed to strike on June 30 if Congress does not approve a bill to improve benefits for workers.

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