Peru on Tuesday launched a new, "sustained" effort to uproot illegal gold mining in one of the Amazon's most biodiverse corners, sending 1,500 police and military officers to the region after deforestation from wildcat mining hit a new high last year.
The government of President Martin Vizcarra said it was suspending civil liberties and tasking the armed forces with restoring the rule of law in districts rife with illegal mining in Madre de Dios, or Mother of God, a low-lying rainforest region known for its high biodiversity, carbon-rich forests and indigenous tribes that shun contact with outsiders.
The state of emergency will be in place for 60 days, the defense ministry added in a statement.
The operation got off to a rough start, with two police officers and a prosecutor killed when a bus transporting security forces flipped over, the interior ministry said.
If successful, the operation would mark the first time Peru has been able to stop an illegal industry responsible for releasing tons of mercury into the environment as well as supporting sex trafficking and child labor in mining camps.
The crackdown might also impact the production and shipment of gold from Peru, the world's sixth-largest producer, as illegal ore often makes its way into the legal supply chain through middlemen and shell companies. Previous crack-downs in Madre de Dios have spawned contraband smuggling into Bolivia.
High gold prices during the 2009-2010 global financial crisis fueled an illegal gold rush in Madre de Dios that has continued to expand.
"It's been growing for better part of a decade," said Luis Fernandez, a Wake Forest University ecologist who has been studying the issue since 2007.
"In every town there are little shops that buy gold from miners that emit levels of mercury from coal-fired power plants," Fernandez said. "We're just starting to learn what the impacts will be on the population."
Wildcat miners in Madre de Dios are often tipped off about government plans to destroy illegal mining camps in the jungle, allowing them to hide expensive machinery and flee. They then regroup once security forces leave the region.
Environmentalists say criminal groups that finance the mining are now better organized and more violent than ever.
In 2018, deforestation from wildcat mining in southern Peru, where Madre de Dios is located, peaked at 9,280 hectares (22,931 acres), topping the previous high of 9,160 hectares in 2017, according to a January report by Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which uses satellite images to track deforestation for the NGO Amazon Conservation.
The defense ministry said the current operation, which it dubbed "Mercury 2019," will be an "unprecedented" and "sustained" crackdown on illegal mining. Three temporary military bases with 100 military officers in each are being set up in the region to oversee efforts, it said.