Sixteen-year-old Cesar Medina was returning home from an Internet cafe, his mother says, and got caught up in a crowd of demonstrators when police and soldiers opened fire. A bullet tore into his head, killing him instantly.
The youth was among five civilians killed in this month’s outbreak of violence over Peru’s biggest mining project, and while authorities have not said who fired the deadly shots, local journalists say it was security forces.
Civilian deaths are disturbingly frequent when protesters in provincial Peru confront police, whose standard means of crowd control appear to be live ammunition, typically fired from Kalashnikov or Galil assault rifles.
Since 2006, bullets fired by Peruvian security forces to quell protests have killed 80 people and wounded more than 800, according to the independent National Coordinator for Human Rights watchdog. Human rights activists say that reflects a disregard for human life unmatched in the region and argue that the government’s routine use of deadly force against protesters could exacerbate violence.
“These numbers would be a scandal abroad. And I’m not talking about a comparison with Europe, but with Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, where there are protests but not so many deaths,” said Jorge Mansilla, investigator for Peru’s national ombudsman’s office.
By contrast, police have killed 28 protesters in neighboring Bolivia since January 2006, according to its non-governmental Permanent Human Rights Assembly. Police in Colombia, a country plagued by guerrilla and right-wing militia violence, killed just six from 2000 through 2011, according to that country’s human rights watchdog CINEP.
After the July 3 clash in the Cajamarca region in which Medina died, national police chief Raul Salazar commented tersely on the deaths, telling reporters that his officers’ job is to “maintain order with the lowest social cost.”
The protesters were pelting police with rocks and fireworks as they rallied against the $4.8 billion Conga gold mining project, which is majority-owned by Newmont Mining Co. of the United States.
The ombudsman’s office counts 245 social conflicts across Peru, most of them disputes over mining in which fears over water contamination predominate. The mining industry accounts for more than 60 percent of export earnings and has been the engine of Peru’s economic growth, but it inordinately affects the livelihoods of highlands farmers.