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Gold Output From Peru Illegal Miners Surges After Crackdown Eases

FILE- An area deforested by illegal gold mining is seen in a zone known as Mega 13, at the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios, Jan. 25, 2014.

Gold output from unregulated mining in a rainforest region of Peru is rising sharply, official data shows, a trend the country's top official fighting wildcat miners said was due to a shortage of police to enforce a government-led clampdown.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala launched the crackdown in late 2013 to tackle a decade-long boom in illegal mining that has destroyed swaths of Peru's Amazon forest and laced its rivers with mercury.

Police last year conducted more than a dozen big stings in Madre de Dios to shutdown illegal mines, blowing up machinery at makeshift riverside camps, seizing equipment and shuttering brothels. This year there have been no operations there, official figures show.

Antonio Fernandez, the new anti-illegal mining czar, said he lacked manpower because police were sent to contain protests against Southern Copper's $1.4 billion Tia Maria project.

"Our priority in the second half of the year is Madre de Dios," Fernandez said.

Fernandez said he needs at least 1,000 officers to launch a sting in the Amazonian Madree de Dios region, where wildcat mines typically account for about 10 percent of Peru's total gold production.

Average monthly output in Madre de Dios between February and April was 1.1 tons, 30 percent higher than the monthly average during the same period in 2014, according to government estimates.

In April alone, gold production in Madre de Dios was more than double a year earlier and made up 40 percent of the rise in gold output that month. The gold production surge in April helped Peru post its best monthly economic growth rate in a year.

However, the wildcat mining destroys the environment, jeopardizes worker safety and has links to organized crime and human trafficking, government officials say.

Fernandez acknowledged miners were returning to parts of Madre de Dios cleared last year - a fact which has frustrated some government officials.

Energy and Mines Minister Rosa Maria Ortiz said she had told Fernandez to "get his act together" to halt it.

Last year's crackdown halved output from unregulated mines in Madre de Dios to 8 tons in the whole of 2014 and helped drag down Peru's gold output and exports by 10 and 19 percent respectively, according to official data.

Government officials acknowledged the crackdown, which also included tighter export controls, spawned new smuggling routes through Peru's porous border with Bolivia.

Peru was the eighth top gold producer in 2014. The government expects a 13 percent 2015 production rise.

Newmont Mining, Buenaventura and Barrick Gold are Peru's top licensed gold producers.