By Vanessa Romo
Upon traveling through Lechemayo, a town in the Puno region of Peru, many visitors come to the conclusion that the town is a hub for fuel sales. The strong smell of fuel and the signs hanging on storefronts are just a few clues. The town’s combis, which are vans that normally carry passengers, instead hold barrels of fuel. The barrels are camouflaged because most of them will be transported from this unrestricted area to a region where fuel sales are currently banned: Madre de Dios. This is the region that has been hit hardest by illegal mining in the Amazon.
The route is from Lechemayo to La Pampa, a setting that illustrates the impacts of illegal activity in Madre de Dios, and the vans filled with fuel must navigate through three different checkpoints managed by the police, agents from the tax department (known by its Spanish acronym SUNAT), and personnel from the energy regulator (OSINERGMIN). These obstacles are typically easy for traffickers to bypass.
Although fuel trafficking has decreased since Operation Mercury 2019 and the execution of the Comprehensive Plan against Illegal Mining in La Pampa and Madre de Dios, the Puno region’s town of Lechemayo is the heart that pumps fuel to different arteries where illegal mining continues to devastate and contaminate the land. Furthermore, since the government intervention, new points of distribution have been opened.
The heart of illegality
Like in many other communities in the Puno region, Lechemayo is driven by its fuel business. The problem is that in this town in the San Gabán district, this business often has an illegal destination. This small town, which can be traversed in 10 minutes, is not just a hub that makes fuel trafficking possible. It is also surrounded by a problem that appears much larger: illegal coca crops. On the horizon, along the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, lie acres upon acres of the illegal coca.
On a short tour through one part of Lechemayo, reporters from Mongabay Latam observed that at least 20 families had installed small fuel pumps outside of their houses. Vehicles ranging from vans to large trucks come to these houses to buy fuel for $2.74 per gallon, less than the $3.65 that legal fuel distributors sell it for. According to testimonies from people who sell this fuel, in La Pampa in Madre de Dios, the official price per gallon is about $5.18. It has always been more profitable to buy illegal fuel, and the houses in Lechemayo, which handle about 2,000 gallons of fuel per day to be sold, make the decision easy.
However, the sale of fuel also occurs on a large scale. Just past the row of houses, there are five fuel pumps of varying sizes on a 300-meter (1,000-foot) stretch of the Interoceanic Highway. Tanker trucks, which are typically filled in Juliaca, 12 hours away, arrive there every day to deliver fuel to these illegal points of sale.
Julio César Guzmán, the public prosecutor of the Ministry of Environment, told Mongabay Latam that illegal mining has occurred in the district of San Gabán, including in Lechemayo, for at least a decade. The illegal mining has even grown since the government operations in La Pampa, one of which was in 2014. These operations inadvertently promoted the displacement of groups of miners from Madre de Dios to Puno. Additionally, this growth was accompanied by a ban on the sale of fuel in the Madre de Dios region, which left the door wide open for Lechemayo to become one of the largest fuel suppliers in the area. “At that moment, the first secret fuel pumps were installed, but in the last year, this has increased exponentially, by much more than 100 percent,” said Guzmán.
One of the methods used for fuel trafficking is called “swarming.” For several years, traffickers in the area have been using this method to dodge checkpoints. The driver stops before the checkpoint, and the passengers unload the barrels (each typically holds 13 gallons of fuel) and pass them to each other by hand. The authorities who monitor the checkpoints only inspect the vehicles, so pedestrians are not affected by the search. In Lechemayo, many of the fuel trafficking vans have had their seats removed to allow more room for the cargo.
After passing the first checkpoint, the traffickers reload the fuel barrels without a problem. If they can pass the next two checkpoints, they will likely be able to sell their cargo within three hours of arrival at their destination.
Reporters from Mongabay Latam traveled in one of the vans, which was only carrying one fuel barrel so that only one working passenger was needed for the operation. The driver stopped the van about 100 meters (325 feet) before arriving at the checkpoint, and he and the passenger exited the van and removed the barrel. The driver returned to the van and drove ahead. When agents from SUNAT and OSINERGMIN inspected the van, they found nothing wrong and let the driver continue. Meanwhile, the passenger moved the barrel while walking. Once the checkpoint was out of sight, the van stopped again, the fuel was loaded up, and the traffickers continued their journey.
Trafficking routes: A network of illegality
The vans are just one of the tools used for illegal fuel sales. A group of lawyers specializing in environmental matters in Madre de Dios has determined that four-wheel drive trucks and, to a lesser extent, station wagons, sometimes have modified fuel tanks that can hold twice, or sometimes triple, the amount of fuel.
It is legal to modify the tanks in this way, according to the Ministry of Transport and Communications. “Each time that we conduct operations with the police and SUNAT, the drivers that we have stopped have shown us their permits and their legal proof of modification,” said Karina Garay, the attorney in charge of these investigations.
Garay added that one way to spot illegal activity is to wait for the same vehicle to travel back through the area in a short period of time, generally the day after its first trip. In this way, they confirm that the distance traveled by the vehicle is not proportional to the amount of fuel it holds in its tank.
“If they do not confess to the crime, it should be verified that the driver does need the modified tank — for example, to take long trips where they will not easily find fuel. We do a quick verification with the nearby tolls, like the one in [the community of] Unión Progreso. If they have not passed through the tolls and have no proof that demonstrates the need for a modified tank, we assume that they have only stayed in La Pampa,” said Garay.
Garay added that this situation was detected a year ago, and since then, at least 100 traffickers have been given suspended sentences. Although they have not yet begun serving their time, some face up to two and a half years in jail.
Garay has detected that in almost all cases, the drivers have presented permits issued by the Regional Office of Transportation and Communications of Cusco. The majority of the tank modifications are completed at the Túpac Amaru Technological Institute in Cusco. “We are coordinating with administrators in Cusco to conduct preventive operations in that office and in the technological institute to understand the screening processes that they have in place, which end up issuing so many permits that are facilitating the entry of illegal fuel into Madre de Dios,” said Garay.
The lawyers specializing in environmental matters in Madre de Dios have determined that in addition to Lechemayo, there is also trafficking from Mazuco, a district in southern Madre de Dios. Just a few miles away from the Inter-Institutional Complex against Crime (COINCRI) in Mazuco, there is an illegal port where numerous trucks and vans come to transport fuel across the Inambari River. They then deliver the fuel to different points of illegal mining in the buffer zone around Tambopata National Reserve.
Mazuco makes a third route possible. Upon crossing the Inambari Bridge when exiting Lechemayo —directly in the middle of the regions of Puno, Cusco and Madre de Dios— a new path has been opened on the left side of the road. It runs parallel to the Interoceanic Highway until it arrives in Huepetuhe, turns toward Puerto San Carlos, and returns to the Interoceanic Highway at the 130-kilometer (80-mile) mark. In addition to allowing the traffickers to leave fuel along the way, the path also helps them avoid at least two checkpoints. In late January, the police, the Peruvian Navy and lawyers specializing in environmental matters in Madre de Dios carried out operations at an informal port on the Inambari River in Mazuco, where trucks arrive with barrels of oil. These barrels were taken by canoe to areas where illegal mining occurs. Image courtesy of the lawyers specializing in environmental matters in Madre de Dios.
“There is another fuel trafficking route that comes from the Cusco region, from the town of Quincemil, but it is only used at night. The cars leave that area at full speed and slip past the control of SUNAT and the police, taking advantage of the fact that there are not always patrol officers who can follow them,” added Garay.
The scenario since Operation Mercury 2019
On Feb. 19, just after Operation Mercury 2019, when the Peruvian government tried to recover the areas harmed by illegal mining in the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve, the police and the Armed Forces destroyed all the fuel stored between kilometers 105 and 115 on the Interoceanic Highway. The fuel had been stored in concrete buildings between kilometers 107 and 108, which were seen by Mongabay Latam in February.
Although the almost-total takeover this year in La Pampa was a setback for illegal miners in Madre de Dios, there are other nearby areas where they continue to operate and there continues to be a demand for fuel. According to the management committee at Tambopata National Reserve, there is still mining activity in the buffer zone surrounding the protected area.
Meanwhile, the Peruvian government has announced that it will soon lift the ban on fuel sales in Madre de Dios. President Martín Vizcarra said that five years ago, it was believed that prohibiting the sale of fuel would prevent illegal mining. “It affected people who work legally. This measure does not make sense,” said Vizcarra at a press conference in March.
According to Guzmán, it should be kept in mind that this is a very complex problem. “For a comprehensive fight against mining, we need a strategy that prevents the entry of all illegal products: not just fuel and mercury, but also the sale of motors, machinery, and even illegal telecommunication networks in areas such as La Pampa,” he said.
Guzmán added that when the ban on fuel sales is lifted, it should be accompanied by a series of control mechanisms. “Fuel pumps need to be monitored to avoid illegal sales. Anyone who sells fuel to be used for illegal mining should be penalized,” he said. Guzmán said he believes that the control of fuel is the first link in solving the chain of illegality. “The problem starts with fuel. That is why the checkpoints should be mobile, not fixed. If you establish fixed checkpoints, the gangs start to open paths around them,” he said. Six trucks like this were seized in the operation in January. Seized along with them were cellphones, which will be inspected as part of the investigation. Image courtesy of the lawyers specializing in environmental matters in Madre de Dios.
Leonardo Caparrós, an adviser to the Ministry of Environment and creator of the Comprehensive Plan against Illegal Mining in La Pampa, says that the possibility of mobile checkpoints has been considered in the strategy that began with Operation Mercury 2019. One of the organizations mentioned in the plan is the Fuel Control Group, which will be comprised of SUNAT, OSINERGMIN, the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance. As of February 2019, the budget allocated for the Fuel Control Group, set to last until 2020, was $3.86 million.
According to the plan, seen by Mongabay Latam, the government plans to supervise the places where fuel is sold in Juliaca and Puno to verify that the fuel only leaves in authorized tanker trucks. A law is also being prepared that will restrict the transit of vehicles with modified tanks. “This work is already being done by the Ministry of Transport and Communications,” said Caparrós.
The plan notes that, until April 2020, the opening of new points of sale for fuel will not be permitted in the Madre de Dios region, the district of Camanti (in the Cusco region), or the district of San Gabán (in the Puno region), where Lechemayo is located.
Lechemayo is also a potential migration area for illegal miners displaced from La Pampa. This is because of the “balloon effect,” in which pressure put on one area causes the problem to move to another area. Garay and Caparrós warn that the areas of San Gabán and Amarakaeri (in the Madre de Dios region) are places that could see an influx of illegal miners. “They are communities that we have not lost sight of, and we plan to carry out operations there,” said Caparrós.
While there are strong efforts against illegal mining in the buffer zone around Tambopata National Reserve, tanker trucks full of fuel continue to arrive in Lechemayo. New destinations and routes for illegal fuel are constantly being rethought, but are still unknown.