Spies bedevil Peruvian environmental priest

A Peruvian security firm has launched a campaign of spying and intimidation against environmental activists and priests including one who was dubbed "the devil", according to documents revealed by a local newspaper.

Using the codename "Operation Devil", the Peruvian firm, C&G Investigaciones, spied on and filmed staff and sympathisers of the organisation Grufides, a nongovernmental environmental organisation in the northern Peruvian city of Cajamarca that promotes sustainable development, according to a report in national newspaper, La Republica.

The firm reportedly handed over the results of the spying to the security firm Forza, which provides services to Yanacocha, a subsidiary of the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation, which runs Latin America's largest gold mine, 14 kilometres from Cajamarca, the Latin America Press says.

The firm had police-like files on the environmentalists, including Catholic priest and Grufides leader, Fr Marco Arana, who was dubbed "el diablo", or "the devil".

"The object of this operation is personal defamation as well as intimidation, Fr Arana, who supports local farmers in their battle against the mining company, told reporters.

Fr Arana, who won the top Peruvian human rights prize in 2004, awarded by the National Coordinator of Human Rights, an umbrella group of human rights organisations, and his colleague attorney Mirtha Vasquez have been alerting the public to environmental damage caused by the Yanacocha mine for years.

Although the Forza company denied any link to "Operacion El Diablo" or to C&G Investigaciones, Fr Arana insisted that "the evidence shows that Forza had something to do with the spying".

"An infrastructure of agents, camcorders, cameras and computer networks is costly. Forza has that capacity in Cajamarca, and works for Yanacocha," Fr Arana told IPS News.

Violent clashes between Cajamarca residents and Yanacocha erupted in 2004, when the company attempted to explore Cerro Quilish, a mountain rich in gold, but also a key source of water for the town. Protesters succeeded in convincing Yanacocha to back away from the project, but the conflicts are far from over.

Last August, campesino Isidro Llanos was gunned down in clashes between the company and residents of the nearby town of Combayo, following the mine's announcement that it planned to expand operations in the area.

Hostilities toward Fr Arana and Vasquez are part of a string of 16 cases of harassment and threats against environmentalists registered by the National Coordinating Committee of Human Rights, the majority of which have not been made public until now.

Asked by IPS what side is God on in this conflict, Fr Arana responded that "He is not on the side of the gold, because He is a God of the poor".

Environmentalists under threat (Latin American Press, 11/2/07)
UN Mission Probes Private Security Groups (IPS News, 7/2/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Oxfam Partner Honored for Work to Protect the Environment (Oxfam America, 1/11/05)

Melbourne priest joins Columbans in Peru (CathNews, 7/7/0)

12 Feb 2007