As gold prices have surged so have rates of killings, extortion and violent land invasions in Peru. Criminal gangs have taken advantage of lax law enforcement, unemployment and rising poverty. Where they need land they steal it. In 2019, the authorities launched a clampdown on illegal mining, Operation Mercury. The goal was to raze La Pampa, home to about 25,000 people, from the map. It did get results. Deforestation caused by illegal mining dropped by 92%. But a lack of strategy and political will has undone the advances, according to Karina Garay, a former environmental prosecutor in the 2019 taskforce.\
“We advanced one step with Mercury, now we’ve gone back two steps,” she says. “There have always been mafias here. Now that the illegal miners have returned, so have the criminals.”
There are more than 46,000 people mining in Madre De Dios, according to a recent report, far more than the 2020 report by Peru’s mines ministry, which estimated there were about 50,000 in the entire country.