PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru — For more than a decade, authorities turned a blind eye to the sprawling illegal gold mine in southeastern Peru that had become a national embarrassment but fueled the local economy.
The area, known as La Pampa, stretches across 40 square miles of what used to be old-growth Amazon forest. Now it’s a desertlike wasteland, gouged with toxic mud pits.
It’s a place where some 30,000 to 40,000 people dug through the muck in 24-hour shifts looking for gold to feed the bullion and jewelry markets of Miami and Europe. It was a place ruled by criminal gangs and warring clans, where workers toiled under slavelike conditions and police rarely entered.
Earlier this year, the government finally had enough. In February it launched “Plan Mercury,” moving 1,500 military and police into La Pampa and shutting down the gold fields. In the process the operation unveiled just how addicted the region is to illegal mining.
Madre de Dios Gov. Luís Hidalgo Okimura estimates that about 80% of local businesses are tied to the gold trade one way or another. Shutting La Pampa has left a $69 million hole in the economy.
“We’ve gone into recession,” Hidalgo said on a recent weekend, taking a break from lobbying the central government for money it had promised to help mitigate the economic pain. “The hotels don’t have any clients, commerce has fallen. … We are seeing all sorts of social problems.”
Among the most worrisome: a spike in crime that is bleeding to other parts of the economy.
In April, a tourist bus was held up at gunpoint near Madre de Dios’ capital, Puerto Maldonado, and in February, a nature lodge, full of Japanese sightseers, was robbed and one of the workers was murdered. Hidalgo said that 40% of all the tourism packages planned for this year have been canceled due to the surge in violence.
“We’re seeing robberies on the streets almost every day,” he said. “There’s no doubt that there’s a direct link between the violence and the closing of La Pampa,” as tens of thousands of onetime miners are now adrift.
The local police department wouldn’t provide crime statistics, but multiple officials said the crime surge was undeniable.
Edison is one of the exiles of La Pampa. For three years he made a living running contraband fuel to mining operations. Even after generous bribes at police checkpoints, he made enough money to buy a small fleet of smuggling cars and keep his wife and children fed.
But since February, his vehicles have been impounded, he’s burned through his savings and hasn’t been able to find a job. He blames environmental groups and their foreign backers for “caring more about birds and trees than they do people.”
“All of these problems are because foreigners want to protect the jungle,” he said, asking to speak anonymously for fear that he’d be punished for his wrongdoings. “They’re all brainwashed. Mining isn’t the problem; it’s out-of-control mining that’s the problem.”
The central government had initially pledged more than $160 million to create new opportunities for people like Edison. But it has only approved $64 million, and only a fraction of that has made it into the hands of local government, officials said.
Wulliton Camala, the mayor of Inambari, which incorporates much of La Pampa, said his municipality would have undoubtedly gone on strike — blocking the sole road into and out of Madre de Dios — if the region hadn’t been militarized and put under a state of emergency.
“People are getting desperate because they have no way of making money, and so some of them are considering crime and theft,” he said. “It’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s true.”
La Pampa has been on the global radar for years, as it sits inside a protected area — the buffer zone of the renowned Tambopata National Reserve, teeming with unique plant and animal life. But just beneath the pristine surface, researchers say rivers and watersheds are laced with mercury that has seeped from the illegal mining areas and is transmitted up the food chain.
When Pope Francis visited the region in 2018 he called gold a “false god that demands human sacrifice,” because it chews up people and nature and “corrupts everything.”
While closing the mine was a victory for the central government and environmental groups, stopping illegal operations entirely is another matter.
Just across the highway from La Pampa is the “mining corridor,” a swath of land where gold mining is allowed, as long as operators have their permits.
While hundreds of miners have tried to legalize their operations, few have been successful. During the previous 16 years, only two miners were given working papers. In the last six months an additional 35 miners have been “formalized,” but that has left tens of thousands working outside of the law.
David, a 34-year-old miner who declined to give his name because he’s working illegally, said that when he was run off La Pampa by police he took his equipment across the road and started prospecting in the mining corridor.
David said legalizing his operation required too much paperwork, brought few benefits and exposed him to the tax man.
“We’re all out here because there’s nothing else to do and we have to have a way to make money,” he said. “Why should I give the government taxes when I’m the one working like a dog? It doesn’t make sense.”
David said he was making between $150 and $200 in a 24-hour shift working in La Pampa — almost the monthly minimum wage.
Dante Gallardo, the head of the Environmental Police force for Madre de Dios, said his department is solely focused on clearing out La Pampa, not cracking down on illegal miners like David who have moved into other areas.
Until the reinforcements that came with Plan Mercury, Gallardo had just four officers on staff who shared a single motorcycle. When they did venture into La Pampa it was at great risk.
The miners had their own armed security that kept outsiders, including the police, out. Two years ago, a police patrol in the area was ambushed and one officer died. In 2015, two officers went so deep into the wasteland on foot that they died of thirst and heatstroke, surrounded by pools of mercury and cyanide-contaminated waste water.
“What could we do with four people and a motorcycle?” Gallardo asked. “And it wasn’t just gold mining, we were supposed to fight illegal logging and everything else as well.”
But President Martín Vizcarra insists that the government will chase illegal miners to wherever they might move next.
“Our goal is not just to liberate La Pampa,” he said during a recent visit to the area, “but to fight illegal mining.”
Many locals say they’ve seen this all before. In the past, officials have led high-profile raids into La Pampa, only to have miners move back in once the police left.
This time the government says is different. It plans to keep the area militarized for at least two years as economic aid and development projects trickle in to create alternatives for the miners.
Gov. Hidalgo acknowledges the remaking of La Pampa will be a herculean task. He’s an advocate for bringing in sustainable timber to help create an income for the area. There are also plans floating around to fill the barren wasteland with solar cells to give Puerto Maldonado energy.
Miguel Herrera, a legal miner since the 1970s, is skeptical of ideas hatched in Lima and the boardrooms of environmental groups.
He said there’s simply too much untapped gold in La Pampa for it to remain undisturbed.
“The politicians talk about putting agriculture in La Pampa but beneath whatever they decide to grow will be riches,” Herrera said. “People will wait for some time to pass, for the governor to change, and then they’ll go back to mining in that area.”