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Speeding over to a muddy bank of Peru's Madre de Dios river in a motorboat, Karina Garay pointed to a small wooden structure.

"Bingo!" exclaimed Garay from behind her designer, diamante sunglasses, an environmental prosecutor for the Amazon rainforest region at the centre of Peru's gold rush.

In the middle of a floating raft was a diesel-powered water pump attached to a sluice of plastic piping.

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Environmental prosecutor Karina Garay along the Madre de Dios river during an illegal gold mining raid, Peru, November 27, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Max Baring.

The rudimentary dredger was used by wildcat miners to suck up river silt which they mix with mercury to extract up to 15 grams of gold grain a day - worth about $600 at current prices - while dumping toxic waste in the river. 

Peering through telescopic sights on their rifles, two marines flanking Garay could see the dredger's operators and illegal miners fleeing up the river bank and into the dense lowland jungle in southeastern Peru's Amazon Basin.

A navy captain hacked at the hand-made sluice with a machete as one of the marines prepared rounds of dynamite.

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The Peruvian navy patrol the Madre de Dios River looking for illegal mining activity, Peru, November 26, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Dan Collyns.

"Working with explosives, your first mistake is your last. You don't get to tell the tale," he said, before moving the speedboat to the opposite riverbank and yelling: "Fire!"

A flash of rising flames, a cloud of black smoke, then a sonic boom ricocheted across the river and bounced off the forest canopy, sending screeching parrots into the air.



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A view shows an illegal gold mining camp in Madre de Dios, Peru, February 19, 2019. Picture taken February 19, 2019 Cristobal Bouroncle/Pool via REUTERS

OPERATION MERCURY

It was just another day's work for Garay, 35, who is on the frontline of government efforts to seize control of vast jungle areas of Madre de Dios - the scene of a modern-day gold rush after global prices spiked a decade ago.

Wearing brightly-coloured trainers, gold jewellery and colourful dresses, Garay cuts a singular figure in the male-dominated world of law enforcement in the region dubbed Peru's 'Wild West', home to about 150,000 people.

Video report: Inside The War Against Illegal Gold Mining In Peru's Amazon

"It became no-man's land," Garay said in an interview in her office where, next to a tome of Peru's penal code, sits her collection of Wonder Woman dolls that started after colleagues gave her a birthday cake decorated with the fictional superhero.

"The state didn't have control over it," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Asked about the doll collection, she said she drew inspiration from the character she saw as a local heroine

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Environmental prosecutor Karina Garay poses in front of her collection of Wonder Woman figures in her office in Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru, November 25, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Dan Collyns.

Rather than the stars-and-stripes wearing U.S. figure, she admired comic creator Stan Lee's lesser-known re-imagining of a Peruvian Wonder Woman - Maria Mendoza - given special powers by the Inca Sun God.

"She's an Andean Wonder Woman named Maria de Amazonas, who fought the mine looters in the time of the Inca Empire," explained Garay.

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Peru is the world's sixth largest gold producer, partly fuelled by the illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios that has become a multi-billion dollar black market.

Nearly one third of Peru's gold exports are illegally sourced, according to a 2016 report by Swiss think-tank, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Tens of thousands of miners have flocked to Madre de Dios, mainly from Peru's poor Andean highlands, hoping to earn a living, while playing a cat-and-mouse game with authorities who have struggled to combat the illegal trade.

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A view shows an illegal gold mining camp during a police operation to destroy illegal machinery and equipment used by wildcat miners in Madre de Dios, Peru, February 19, 2019. Picture taken February 19, 2019. Cristobal Bouroncle/Pool via REUTERS

As illegal mines emerged across Madre de Dios, the region became a magnet for crime rackets involved in smuggling diesel, equipment, and mercury used to extract gold, along with sex traffickers working in and around the town of La Pampa.

But the tide has slowly started to turn since Peru's military launched the biggest-ever crackdown on illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios in February 2019, dubbed Operation Mercury, putting the region under a state of emergency.

Garay was appointed chief environmental prosecutor when Operation Mercury began and has become a fixture of the regular raids and the driving force behind a steady rise in prosecutions for illegal mining and the first prison convictions.

Under her watch, at least 20 people have received prison sentences for illegal mining and more than 100 have been convicted for smuggling diesel.

In the past, intermittent raids did little to control the onslaught of illegal miners and frustrated the government enforcers who wanted to do more.

"I felt helpless because I'd go and do a raid against illegal mining, and a few days later the miners would come back," said Garay, who was born in the Andean highland tourist city of Cusco.

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But this time the state was here to stay

The government has set up six military and police bases in La Pampa, a city of some 25,000 people and a hub of sexual exploitation of women and girls in the dim bars and brothels popular with local miners.

"During the first 15 days of the first stage, we actually managed to clear out whole cities that had grown within the reserve," said Garay, referring to the shanty towns of clapboard and corrugated iron shacks mingled with dingy bars and brothels.

GOLD BOOM

Miners have flocked to Madre De Dios for decades in search of gold but two factors sparked an explosive boom.

The global financial crisis in 2008 - and the completion of a long-awaited road cutting through Madre de Dios's forest, connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic across Peru and Brazil.

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A view of the Interoceanic Highway under construction in the Andean region of Cuzco May 6, 2007. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo (PERU)

The 1,600 miles (2,600 km) Interoceanic Highway has transformed the lives of residents in one of Peru's most isolated corners - but not always in a positive way.

The road fuelled the exponential growth of illegal mining in La Pampa that grew into a lawless no-man's land marking the entrance point to a treeless moonscape verging on the Tambopata National Reserve, Peru's most-visited Amazon park.

"About five years ago this was a place that was a couple of miners, a couple of tents," said Luis Fernandez, an expert on the toxic fallout caused by mercury on the environment.

"The price of gold started to rise and in 2008 it sky-rocketed. That created the unprecedented gold boom in which tens of thousands of miners ... started to take the forest apart," said Fernandez, who heads the locally-based non-profit Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA).

The gold rush has destroyed swathes of once pristine forest in one of Peru's most biodiverse regions, leaving in its wake a desert-like landscape strewn with lifeless craters and fuelling the devastation of the world's largest rainforest.

Since 1985, gold mining has destroyed nearly 960 sq kms (370 square miles) of rainforest in Madre de Dios - an area the size of Berlin - more than two-thirds between 2009 and 2017, according to CINCIA.

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An aerial view shows a deforested area of the Amazon jungle in Madre de Dios, Peru, February 19, 2019. Picture taken February 19, 2019 Cristobal Bouroncle/Pool via REUTERS

The gold rush also sparked trade in sexual exploitation of women and girls, driven by demand from local miners who once frequented La Pampa's bars and brothels and now go to dozens of others in forest mining camps and on the Interoceanic Highway.

Sex traffickers often prey on women and girls from poor indigenous farming communities in the Andean highlands, promising them false jobs with high wages to work as waitresses, cooks or dancers in mining areas, but they end up in sex work.

Last year, government raids across Madre de Dios found dozens of women and at least 50 girls sold for sex in rooms in the back of bars separated by plastic sheeting.

Since 2017, prosecutors in Madre de Dios have convicted at least 22 people for human trafficking, mostly involving child sexual exploitation.

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A poster warns of the dangers of false offers of work and child sexual exploitation, Puerto Maldonado, Peru. November 29, 2019. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Anastasia Moloney

CORRUPTION

The fight against illegal mining is part of a wider drive against corruption led by Peru's President Martin Vizcarra that dominated local headlines until COVID-19 hit this year.

For Garay, being an anti-corruption crusader is a key part of the job, and the fight against illegal mining has been hampered by corruption.

She noted that "neither the police nor the prosecutor's office are the exception".

Garay said miners in La Pampa would tell officials: "Let me work. I'll give you some money, but don't blow up my motor."

And officials would tell the miners: "If you don't give me money, I will report you."

"So, from the first moment Operation Mercury started, I made things clear. I wasn't going to accept any act of corruption," said Garay, who trained as a lawyer and previously worked as a criminal and environmental prosecutor in Cusco.

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Peru's President Martin Vizcarra attends a swearing-in ceremony at the government palace in Lima, Peru October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

As a young prosecutor, Garay rose to prominence leading successful investigations against illegal logging in the Amazon.

A single mother, she left her young son with her mother in Cusco in 2018 to take up the prosecutor's role leading Operation Mercury from Puerto Maldonado, a six-hour drive away and capital city of the Madre de Dios province.

Despite the sacrifice, she said it was worth it.

"I'm happy doing my job because I know that I'm not defending just an individual," Garay said, who also studied in El Salvador. "I'm defending everyone. Everyone's resources, everyone's livelihood .. everyone's forest."

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Environmental prosecutor Karina Garay during an illegal gold mining raid, Madre de Dios, Peru, November 27, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Max Baring.

WONDER WOMAN

When Garay is not in the field, she works out of two small offices in Puerto Maldonado with two assistant prosecutors and intern law students who plough through piles of case files.

Also at her disposal are helicopters and satellite images to monitor forest cover and illegal logging in real-time to help her trace the criminal networks who launder tonnes of dirty gold largely through neighboring Brazil and Bolivia.

"There are many people in Madre de Dios who say it's impossible to fight against mining because it has taken over the local culture so strongly so we can't say no to mining," Garay said.

"What we should say is yes to mining but to a mining that fulfils environmental agreements."

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Gold mining deforestation is seen from a satellite image in the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios, Peru. Handout photo provided by Matt Finer, obtained by Reuters June 21, 2018

It's an approach that has resulted in a "big win" for conservation, according to environmental group, the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

Since Operation Mercury started, deforestation caused by illegal mining has dropped by 92% in La Pampa - from 173 to 14 hectares a month, according to MAAP satellite images.


"BURNT THE LOT!"

Garay is often to be found racing along the Interoceanic Highway in a caravan of military pickup trucks leading anti-mining operations flanked by the armed forces.

In one raid late last year on an illegal mining camp which the Thomson Reuters Foundation joined, she encountered a desolate scene.

All traces of vegetation had gone. In its place were rolling hills of sand and stagnant, polluted ponds dotted with makeshift wooden chutes and plastic tubing.

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Peruvian army officer Col. Gonzalo Cordova shows a discarded bottle contained mercury used for illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru, November 27, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Dan Collyns.

On arrival, there was a flurry of action as troops armed with semi-automatic rifles took positions under torrential rain.

Four miners were caught red-handed and, arms handcuffed behind their backs, forced to lie face down in the dirt puddles.

"We've been here four times and this is the fourth time we find whole dredges. The workers that we were lucky enough to catch today will be prosecuted," said Colonel Luis Guillen, a police officer and chief of operations for Operation Mercury.

From under a ragged tarpaulin the miners used as a shelter, Garay found a small, opaque ball of mercury and gold amalgam.

"It's about 13 grams – $700, more or less," she calculated.

Authorities aim to disrupt mining operations, making it more costly for the gold miners' financial backers to continue than to cease, said Gonzalo Cordova, a veteran army colonel.

"This business of illegal gold is as profitable, or more, than drugs," said Cordova, with gold prices soaring to a record high in August, passing $2,000 an ounce for the first time.

In Peru and Colombia - the world's largest cocaine producers - the value of illegal gold now exceeds the value of cocaine exports, according to a 2016 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

Back at the raid, soldiers found three more miners who offered no resistance.

"We bring charges against the people we find working. They only get paid a small wage for the work they do and the bosses, the financial backers, are the ones who earn more," Garay said.

"What we're trying to do is get to those people (the hirers) and arrest them, and carry out an investigation."

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The army platoon peeled off to find two wooden shacks and a dirt track leading into the mining area.

Inside soldiers found the tools of the trade - a plastic basin used to separate gold from the silt and a fuel cannister, along with an old mattress and a new moped.

"Burn the lot," said Garay, from the backseat of the pickup, while chewing on a mango.

At an army base, soldiers carried seized items down a jungle path that ended at a place they call the 'cemetery' - an enormous junkyard of confiscated machinery ranging from motorbikes to motorized pumps to fuel tanks.

Explosive experts laid dynamite charges and returned to base.

As dusk fell, an enormous mushroom of flames and black smoke appeared above the treetops followed by a deafening boom as dogs barked for miles around.

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An illegal gold dredge burns on a river near the Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado February 19, 2011. REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

FORMAL MINING

Alongside the military crackdown, regional governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Hidalgo Okimura, is also fighting his own battle watched over by several bodyguards having received threats in the past for trying to stop illegal mining.

More than half of Madre de Dios is covered by national parks and indigenous reserves, including tribes living in voluntary isolation or with little contact with the outside world.

Hidalgo wants to put the region's biodiversity and sustainable tourism and farming at the centre of its economy and reap the economic benefits from mining.

"Unfortunately, the gold has left nothing for us. None of this stays in Madre De Dios. The gold is taken out as contraband and goes to Brazil or Bolivia," said Hidalgo, a medical doctor of Peruvian-Japanese descent who was born in Puerto Maldonado when it was little more than a jungle outpost.

About 70% of the local economy is based on mining, and Madre de Dios should receive between $70 million and $120 million a year to pay for needed hospitals and schools, Hidalgo estimated.

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Members of the Mashco-Piro tribe observe a group of travelers from across the Alto Madre de Dios river in the Manu National Park on October 21, 2011. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Van Belle

"We have the gold. We can't continue being a beggar sitting on a golden bench," he said, citing a Peruvian maxim first coined by the 19th Italian naturalist Antonio Raimondi.

This expresses the long-held sentiment that Peruvians rarely get rich from their country's vast natural resources.

Hidalgo replaced a pro-mining governor in 2018, promising Madre de Dios a green future and shift away from illegal mining.

But about 30,000 miners, many small-scale and working illegally, have lost their jobs following the closure of mines due to Operation Mercury, causing widespread unemployment and some miners to return to their native Andean highland villages.

And Hidalgo acknowledged that other mines - and resulting deforestation - had since sprung up elsewhere across the tropical wilderness, deeper into the forest outside of La Pampa.

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A general view of a deforested area near an illegal gold mine at Puerto Luz in the Amazon region of Madre de Dios, September 11, 2012. REUTERS/Miguel Bellido/El Comercio

"There's been a balloon effect," he said, referring to the idea that squeezing the air out of a balloon in one place only makes it reappear elsewhere.

For it remains a major challenge to bring illegal miners in the formal fold. A total of about 250 small-scale miners have been granted formal permits since Hidalgo came to office.

Miners have been given a 2021 deadline to apply for permits allowing them to work within a dedicated "mining corridor", to stop using mercury, pay taxes and reforest the land they clear.

"In the legal zone, the zone of the mining corridor, a whole process of formalisation is going on ... (it) implies the use of clean technologies," Hidalgo said, adding that the goal is to have about 1,500 miners formalized by the end of 2020.

To fill the gap left by ending so many mining jobs, farmer cooperatives, forest restoration programmes, and fish farms have been introduced to encourage wildcat miners to switch livelihoods and to legal sources of income, Hidalgo said.



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Illegal gold miners work in a mine at a deforested area in Puerto Luz in the Amazon region of Madre de Dios, September 11, 2012. REUTERS/Miguel Bellido/El Comercio

FEW OPTIONS

But former miners, like Reynaldo Saavedra, say Operation Mercury has left them with few options to earn a living.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the government offered temporary work to thousands on road building projects but most of those jobs have dried up.

Saavedra, who is now a taxi driver, said the government should try to make a "truce" with the miners.

"It's just as if you were taking the bread out of someone's hand and repaying them with nothing, not even crumbs to eat," he said.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic hasn't stopped raids against illegal mining or Garay's determination - despite the prosecutor getting infected with COVID-19 herself in July.

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An aerial view shows a deforested area of the Amazon jungle in Madre de Dios, Peru, February 19, 2019. Picture taken February 19, 2019 Cristobal Bouroncle/Pool via REUTERS

About 270 raids have been carried out in Madre de Dios since the pandemic began in mid-March.

Garay believes she is on the right path in the battle against illegal gold mining.

"With a little more perseverance, without stopping our operations, I'm convinced that we'll win this war," she said, clasping a Wonder Woman-themed rucksack on her lap.

(Reporting by Dan Collyns; Anastasia Moloney; Max Baring; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith
Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)