We’ve previously written about Newmont Mining’s proposed Conga mine in Peru, and in January we filed a legal action seeking documents from Newmont relating to violence against anti-mine protestors. On Wednesday, February 19, hundreds of mostly campesino protesters from Celendín, Bambamarca, and neighboring communities arrived at the site of the Conga project to inspect the status of the operations and to demand a halt to all activity.

According to protesters and their supporters, by late afternoon, hundreds of members of the police special forces “DINOES” arrived in mining company buses to disrupt the nonviolent protest activity. They say that police first launched insults at the protesters, and then teargas and pellets. The protesters were surrounded and forced to retreat and seek refuge in the adjacent hills. As of the time of writing, the number of those injured or detained was still unknown. Functionaries from the Regional Government for Cajamarca expressed concern for these attacks, and called for an end to police attacks aimed at impeding the right to protest.

As the protesters stated in a letter addressed to the head of Minera Yanacocha, Newmont’s Peruvian subsidiary, dated February 18, this protest action was necessary to respond to their concern about the activity at the project’s site – including the presence of heavy machinery – that threatens the water, the environment and the rights of the campesino communities that live in the area. The protesters demand the voluntary suspension of all activity and the withdrawal of heavy machinery until the legality of the Conga project is definitively resolved before national and international tribunals.

Yanacocha, for its part, claims that the project has been suspended since November 29, 2011, and while it denies that operations have resumed, it does admit that the company has been moving forward to build the reservoirs that it offers to replace the existing lakes where the Conga mine is to be located. Yanacocha also sought to justify the police intervention on February 19th by saying that the group that was targeted was on company property, was launching fireworks near the police and that they attempted to knock down a utility pole – though they didn’t say how. Yanacocha claims that nobody was hurt, and despite the use of tear gas, “no physical force was used against the protesters.”

As is typical in these confrontations, the official company line regarding the police intervention differs substantially from the experience of the protesters. Getting to the bottom of the use of police force in these situations is absolutely essential to ensure proper protection for the fundamental rights of those participating in social protests. This was part of why we filed our legal action regarding the similar incident of police repression from November 2011.

But regardless of the characterization of these events, what is abundantly clear is that the national police apparatus is being used specifically for the protection of private mining interests, rather than for the protection of the rights of all Peruvians.

Yanacocha’s press releases betray contempt for those protesting the mine, but such contempt is not warranted. The protesters are defending what they see as a threat to water security in the region. The response to these protests should be a thoughtful and critical reflection of the merits of this project by both the company and the entire country – not the mobilization of heavily armed police squadrons seeking to silence the voices of opposition.