New Internationalist

Police beat up Peru’s green priest

On Wednesday 4 July in Cajamarca, Peru, renowned environmentalist Father Marco Arana was arrested and beaten by a dozen police officers while sitting peacefully on a bench in the city’s main square. Videos (see below) and photos taken on the scene show police forcing Marco to the ground and dragging him off by the neck.

Surrounded by a squadron of riot police, Marco was taken to the central police station where he was again beaten and refused communication with his lawyer. He is out of custody now but is in hospital getting treatment due to injuries received during his arrest.

Marco managed to send this Twitter message from inside the station: ‘They detained me and they beat me a lot. Inside the station they continued to beat me, punches in my face, kidneys, insults.’ (Marco is recovering from a serious bout of pneumonia and has suffered kidney stones and kidney infections for over a year).

Father Marco and other regional leaders have declared an indefinite state-wide strike against the proposed Minas Congas gold mining project, which would destroy four sacred lakes in the province of Celendin. On July 3, the evening before Marco was attacked, Peru’s government declared a state of emergency in the region, suspending civil liberties. The pronouncement came shortly after a violent encounter between police and protesters that resulted in the death of 5 civilians, including a 17-year-old boy and at least 36 wounded.

Minas Congas is a massive expansion project owned by Yanacocha, South America’s largest gold mine, located in Cajamarca. Yanacocha is owned by Newmont of Colorado and Peru’s Buenaventura with minority shares held by the World Bank. Farming communities accuse Yanacocha of contaminating their water supply and the mine was responsible for a mercury spill that poisoned more than 900 people – the focus of our first film: Choropampa, The Price of Gold.

We met Father Marco during the filming of Choropampa, 12 years ago. In the immediate aftermath of the spill, he visited the affected villages and published the first independent study on the devastating impacts. But Marco insisted on remaining ‘behind the scenes’ and doesn’t appear in the film. ‘The farmers are the real heroes of this story,’ he told us.

Over the years, Marco and his group of young activists known as GRUFIDES continued their defense of farming communities affected by the mine and we were honored to film them in their labours. In 2004, Marco was awarded Peru’s most prestigious human rights award and in 2009 was declared an Environmental Hero by Time magazine.

Marco’s defense of farming and indigenous communities has also earned him powerful enemies. In 2006, he and other Peruvian activists were victims of a spy-ring called ‘The Devil Operation’. One of Marco’s main farming allies was assassinated and Marco and other activists were harassed, photographed and video-taped.

Determined not to be victims, the activists launched a counter-espionage campaign, and captured two of the spies, along with photos, videos and detailed reports of the operation.

This evidence became the basis for The Devil Operation, a real-life suspense documentary that has won multiple awards, including the International Human Rights Film Award sponsored by Amnesty International and given by the Cinema for Peace Foundation at an event parallel to the Berlin film festival.

Infinity humble, Marco didn’t want to be the film’s protagonist, but the importance of the case for Cajamarca's farmers, and people around the world suffering abuse at the hands of transnational corporations, convinced him to participate. And, as we reminded him, it was Marco’s enemies who labelled him ‘The Devil’, making him the hero of the film.

In solidarity with Marco during this new assault, we have put The Devil Operation on Vimeo and YouTube, for free public viewing:

Our allies have created a petition for you to sign, demanding Marco’s release. Please also circulate this note and the link to the film.

With Independence Day having just passed in the United States, where Newmont Mining is headquartered, I’ll sign off with a 170-year-old quote from American philosopher and father of civil disobedience Henry David Thoreau:

‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.’

Stephanie Boyd is a journalist and documentary film maker who has been living and working in Peru for the past 15 years. You can email her here.

Marco Arana featured as one of our ‘Nature’s Defenders’ in an award-winning issue of New Internationalist. Buy a copy here.

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