Peru swept by protests, new premier Yehude Simon’s “honeymoon” over

Mass protests have swept across Peru this week, with protesters threatening politicians and torching a police station, in what local media has dubbed the end of premier Yehude Simon’s “honeymoon.”

Thousands flooded the streets Thursday in the southern province of Tacna, blocking strips of the Pan-American highway and torching the governor’s office, after local media reported that Congress approved a bill that would reduce Tacna’s share of mining royalties, to the benefit of neighboring Moquegua.

Seven people, including three journalists, were arrested by Chilean border police after a group tried to invade the Peru-Chile border in an area known as Cristo de la Concordia.

The bill, most controversial in southern Peru, was approved 51 to 2 with 18 abstentions in a first-round vote in Congress. Though it could be amended in the pending second-round vote, it proposes that taxes, or mining royalities, be determined based on the value of the extracted minerals. The current system fixes taxes based according to the quantity of earth moved.

It is the third day of protests in Moquegua and Tacna, which have been locked in a long-term dispute over how to divide mining taxes paid by Arizona-based Southern Copper.

The company operates the Toquepala and Cuajone mines in the Andes mountains, and a smelter and refinery in the coastal city of Ilo, Peru. It also engages in open pit operations, and underground mining operations, which includes five underground mines that produce zinc, copper, silver, and gold, a coal mine, which produces coal and coke, and various industrial processing facilities for zinc and copper. It is one of the world’s largest mining companies.

On Tuesday, police and Moquegua protesters demanding a bigger share of mining royalties clashed violently at blockaded Montavlo bridge. Three officers were taken hostage, then released late Wednesday night.

Tensions have been boiling since June, when protesters in Moquegua held a police general and 47 of his officers hostage for more than 24 hours to pressure Congress to pass the bill approved Thursday morning.

President Alan García swore in a new Cabinet this month, replacing seven of 17 ministers, and appointing a popular leftist regional leader as premier to shore up an administration rocked by an oil concession kickback scandal.

But, beyond the “petrogate” corruption scandal that led to the Cabinet shakeup, Garcia’s low approval ratings and an increasing number of protests and strikes clearly meant that Garcia had to consider charting a new course.

Simon, who has earned a reputation for honesty, transparent governing, and improving health care and education standards in Lambayeque, was chosen to bring together disenchanted conservative and leftist political opponents, regional governments, and union leaders who feel they have been plowed over by García’s my-way-or-the-highway style of governance.

But Simon will have his work cut out for him, as social discontent has been brewing for a long time in Peru.

In spite of record economic growth, more than 27 million Peruvians live below the poverty line, and critics claim that García has not done enough to spread wealth to the poor.

According to the IMF, “Peru’s economic performance has been one of the strongest in Latin America as a result of nearly two decades of sound economic policies.”

Yet, “poverty remains widespread,” the IMF says.

The poorest of the poor live deep in remote rural areas — especially in the southern highlands — where approximately 73 percent of indigenous Quechua and Aymara communities live below the poverty line.

According to Rural Poverty Portal, “people born in Lima can expect to live almost 20 years longer than people born in the southern highlands,” where poverty is a structural problem and where food insecurity is often chronic.

A large part of the problem is also due to Peru’s centralized administrative structure, and the government’s tendency to provide little information and to ignore problems or not seek solutions in the regions until unrest reaches boiling point.

Endemic poverty in the south, added to strong regional discontent and widespread misinformation, paves the way for a politically-motivated minority – eager to get the local people involved in radical protests – to push ahead with their anti-foreign capital or anti-mining agendas.

Mounting unrest and clashes with police have spread to four other provinces this week.

Protesters in the northern Amazonian province of San Martin torched and sacked a police station Wednesday, barricading 25 police officers inside. Police Colonel César Gonzales Romero was also taken hostage after he tried to initiate dialogue with protesters. Before being released, Gonzales was severely injured by protesters who lynched him with stones and debris.

Police reportedly threw tear gas to vacate a squated building adjacent to a school, affecting hundreds of children who suffered from shock, gas inhalation and wounds sustained as they hurriedly exited their tear gas-filled school.

Angry parents, tipped off by five local radio stations, spontaneously formed a more than 1,000-strong mob. The Fernando Belaunde Terry Highway was blocked, and police and protesters exchanged crossfire, Radio Programas radio reported.

According to local mayor Eddy Marcelo Tirado Ramos, whose intervention and that of the local priest’s was crucial in avoided a slaughter, residents were egged on by armed delinquents. The attack was followed by plunder, and several commercial buildings were looted.

“The eviction was carried out, in my opinion, at an inadequate time,” said Tirado. “It could have been planned for a weekend and wouldn’t have caused the problem with the children.”

“But some people took advantage of the situation. I understand that some headed directly (for the police station) to burn police records,” he added. “I wonder who is interested in burning police files, if not someone who is currently under investigation.”

In the northern highland town of Cajabamba, local residents have been on strike for the past six days, demanding that the Cajamarca-San Marcos highway be asphalted and, among other things, that school breakfast programs be maintained.

On Wednesday, approximately 10,000 protesters took three government representatives hostage when they tried to explain why the asphalting and electrification projects in rural areas have been delayed.

Though local mayor Carlos Urbina claims the strike was lifted Thursday, daily El Comercio reported that protestors are on stand-by, and that their leaders are unclear about who is to head to Lima on Friday, for talks with the premier.

In the southern highland town of Sicuani, protesters finally agreed to a truce after Simon promised to travel to the area on November 4.

Unrest has been building up since at least early September and Sicuani has been the hub of violent protests and road blockades since October 20, when residents organized by campesino organizations began to protest the construction of the 200 megawatt Sallca-Pucará hydroelectric plant, claiming that it would cut off their water supply and thus reduce crop yields. Protesters have also demanded that mining concessions not be granted in the region, that local mayor Mario Velásquez be ousted and that a loan awarded by a Japanese bank to allegedly privatize the water distribution system be cancelled.

Last Friday, 75 people were injured after a violent confrontation broke out between 2,500 protesters and 150 police.

Molotov cocktails, stones and broken glass bottles were hurled by protesters at police, who tried to control the mob with tear gas and by firing shots into the air.

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