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Extractive Companies Privatize Repression and Counterinsurgency in the Americas

Neoliberal counterinsurgency, an extreme form of waging repression through private means and for private interests, is subtler than judicial repression, and more difficult to trace and hold accountable.

As activists increasingly confront extractive industries, militarized repression of those protests has become a growing and lucrative business. This phenomenon is salient across much of the world, including the U.S., where fossil fuel companies are funneling money to police departments that repress anti-racist and environmental justice movements. However, private security is a particularly growing business in Latin America, which is also the world’s deadliest region for water and land protectors.

Latin America has more private security personnel than police officers. In countries like Peru, where the most common and deadliest conflicts are over mining projects, companies are increasingly relying on both public armed forces and their own private security to protect their investments.

During my long-term field research in Peru, I conducted interviews with several mining company operators at the local-to-executive level. Their surprisingly candid responses revealed the creation of complex systems of private repression most accurately conveyed by the term “neoliberal counterinsurgency”: privatized military industries whose line of business is repressing dissent.

Senior and junior company operators detailed their efforts to infiltrate, record and frame their opponents as corrupt, violent, adulterous, and more.

In an interview, one local manager for a mining company referred to efforts to delegitimize the center-left congressperson and two-time presidential candidate (in 2016 and 2021), Verónika Mendoza. Conservatives frequently frame Mendoza as if she were “linked” to terrorism — a proven false claim, but part of a broader, common fear-mongering tactic in Peru. “There’s a video showing that she’s embedded with the guerrillas,” the manager told me. “We did work similar to that here.”

The priorities of extractive industries have been entwined with the economic and ideological interests of the state apparatus and its violent enforcers since the colonial period, when landowners hired armed mercenaries to protect their “property” (including enslaved Afro-descendent and Indigenous people, as well as stolen lands upon which they built mines, mills and plantations). While they are clear legacies of colonialism, the operations of extractive policing are becoming more secretive and private in a context of so-called liberal democracy and growing public scrutiny over human rights violations.

A mining company manager I spoke with admitted the company had engaged in spying and blackmail.

“There was no other way to deal with these people who were anti-miners and acted violently against whomever disagreed,” the manager said. “In Tía María [a copper mine in Peru], protest leaders were recorded accepting bribes, then blackmailed and exposed by companies. The same thing happened here. We had to show their true face.”

Another middle manager and one low-level executive from the same company confirmed their use of such tactics.

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Access to these revelations seems to have been a direct result of my positionality as a white, non-Peruvian, University of California researcher. Interlocking privileges opened unexpected doors and trust for me among company actors, a traditionally secretive and understudied population, thanks to their assumptions about who I was.

The clandestine operations conducted by extractive companies range from informal to highly sophisticated. For example, the company Miski Mayo (Quechua for “sweet river” ) allegedly armed two employees who were later accused of intimidating project opponents repeatedly with those firearms. Miski Mayo’s parent company, Vale do Río Doce, was investigated for similar repressive practices in its base country, Brazil. It allegedly hired a private “intelligence provider” to infiltrate opposition organizations, pay bribes to civil servants, conduct wiretapping and surveillance, and keep political dossiers on activists.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian National Police signed various security agreements with mining companies. Critics such as the nongovernmental National Coordinator of Human Rights argue that the private contracting of police creates a conflict of interests between social well-being and private interest. Local organizations have unearthed many such pacts, considered unconstitutional until 2006, and still denounced by human rights organizations today as “secretive” and against the spirit of domestic and international law.

The state’s response to protests is overwhelmingly militarized, with various intelligence and special operations organs playing a prominent role in protecting extractive operations and repressing dissidents. However, hydrocarbon and mining firms take additional precautions. Besides contracting off-duty police and collaborating with the state’s armed forces, they also are leading the tremendous expansion of the country’s mercenary and private intelligence industries.

Thanks in part to Peru’s post-war context — marked by a large, unregulated and demobilized military apparatus existing alongside weak state capacity in the countryside — high demand from powerful extractive firms makes private security contracts a lucrative business for both current and former members of the state’s armed forces.

Public Forces Weaponized for Private Gain

These public-private security partnerships are noticeable in countless other cases, in Peru and beyond, often resulting in repressive violence. For example, the security firm formerly known as Forza has collaborated with the Peruvian National Police Division of Special Operations (DINOES) to repress protests in several mining conflicts. Forza and DINOES were accused of kidnapping 29 activists during protests against the Majaz mine in 2005, beating them on a remote farm’s slaughtering platform, committing sexual violence against a young woman and letting one elderly man bleed to death. When the survivors were finally released three days later, all of them were charged with terrorism. They obtained and leaked photos from the kidnapping and sought formal investigations, but they are still waiting for justice.

Forza was only getting started. Nearby, it was providing security for World Bank-backed Yanacocha, Latin America’s largest gold mine. In 2006, the now-congressperson Marco Arana (at the time, a priest known regionally as an environmental leader and critic of Yanacocha) complained to a United Nations mission that members of his environmental and human rights organization, Group for Training and Intervention for Sustainable Development (GRUFIDES), were under video surveillance by people connected to the mine and its security service. Arana also reported that he and a colleague had received death threats.

Weeks after first noticing the surveillance against their organization, Arana and his colleagues managed to capture one of the spies, a 22-year-old from Lima, and seized his camera. The footage revealed meticulous monitoring of GRUFIDES members, as well as images from within an office filled with surveillance equipment and a detective-like wall with their photographs, arrows and illegible notes. Although the scandal forced an investigation, regional authorities pigeonholed the case.

It is no small detail that Forza (now owned by the Swedish multinational security corporation, Securitas) was formed in 1991 by retired Peruvian military personnel who specialized in surveillance and counterinsurgency. This explains its access to the tools and the know-how it needed to conduct high-level espionage and intimidation operations against environmental leaders in Cajamarca and Piura.

Other recent retirees from the state’s counterinsurgency forces include Luis Escarcena Ishikawa, Forza’s chief of private security for the Peruvian branch of the Canadian firm Hudbay Minerals. According to analyst Luis Manuel Claps, Escarcena was Alberto Fujimori’s “aide-de-camp” and one of three pilots aboard the “narco-plane” the Peruvian Air Force detained briefly in May 1996, before allowing it to depart toward Europe with 170 kilograms of cocaine inside it.

In 2015, during protests against the Tía María copper mine, several members of DINOES were caught on video planting a weapon on a protester, farmer Antonio Coasaca Mamani. Before detaining him and allegedly torturing him while in custody, these officers framed Coasaca as a violent protester, with the complicity of a nationwide newspaper, whose frontpage headline read, “This is how the anti-miners attacked.”

Neoliberal Counterinsurgency as a Global Problem

This violence is not limited to Peru. For example, according to Guatemalan activists who sued the Canadian company Tahoe Resources, the private security team at Tahoe’s Escobal mine fired rubber bullets at protesters in 2013, injuring seven people. The Escobal mine’s security team was headed by Alberto Rotondo Dall’Orso, a Peruvian naval officer trained by U.S. special counterinsurgency forces. In fact, Rotondo graduated in 1986 from a psychological operations and low-level terrorism course at the J.F.K. Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Separately, a former Guatemalan army lieutenant colonel who later headed the private security firm at Central America’s biggest nickel mine, Mynor Padilla, was recently convicted of a murder and multiple assaults against Q’eqchi’ Maya community activists who led protests against the mine.

In Honduras, several Indigenous Lenca organizers have been killed over the construction of the World Bank-backed Agua Zarca dam, whose owner is a former military intelligence officer trained by the U.S. military at the West Point Academy. In 2017, Lenca communities publicly denounced the actions of private security agents who had set fire to their crops. The agents were associated with the dam company and a family of local landowners. Lenca leader Berta Cáceres steadfastly defended the river from the dam project until she was assassinated in March 2016. Other members of her organization have also been killed since.

Far from a problem confined to the Global South, evidence indicates that counterinsurgency operations by extractive companies are also becoming commonplace in the United States and Canada. In 2013, documents revealed covert spying by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service against Indigenous groups and environmental allies organizing against the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline, including Idle No More, Sierra Club, and others.

In unceded Standing Rock Sioux territories (occupied by the U.S.), a 2017 investigation revealed how the TigerSwan private military intelligence firm worked with the FBI to infiltrate and stifle opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. The U.S. military was deployed to the region in the early 1800s partly to protect white settlers and their fur and gold businesses. In fact, Fort Laramie was originally built as a private trading post for fur companies. This case therefore shows how privatized repression is not a new problem.

Cases such as these have been abundant and pervasive since colonization, but in a context of privatization and growing media scrutiny, neoliberal counterinsurgency is on the rise. This may help explain the escalating number of people killed for defending the environment, an activity that has never been deadlier or more important.

Extractive companies are increasingly relying on private security apparatuses that go beyond guarding property. In many cases, their tasks grow into complex operations involving espionage, defamation and intimidation — very closely resembling, and indeed deriving their tactics and personnel from, state counterinsurgencies.

Even when privatized, repression is still loosely incorporated with state actions, in coordination with state armed forces, and constituted by actors currently or formerly associated with the state’s military and intelligence apparatus. Private mercenaries, especially those in leadership roles within the industry, tend to be former counterinsurgency operators. They have been highly trained by the state (and in some cases also by foreign militaries like the United States) to use intimidation, torture, and other tactics against “internal enemies” like activists.

Finally, it is crucial to understand that this phenomenon extends well beyond the realm of environmental defense, and beyond extractive industries. According to documents collected by Motherboard, the fast-food corporation McDonald’s hired a team of global intelligence analysts to spy on labor organizers fighting for higher wages at their company. Meanwhile, Amazon grants police departments at the local-to-federal level access to its home surveillance devices, aggravating the systemic criminalization of communities of color, especially Black and Indigenous communities.

Growing privatization of counterinsurgencies unsettle traditional ideas about repression. Dominant models that explain repression as a state-specific practice are becoming less useful in a context of corporate-community conflicts. Neoliberal counterinsurgency, an extreme form of waging repression through private means and for private interests, is subtler than judicial repression, and more difficult to trace and hold accountable.

As the mechanisms of racialized displacement, policing and control become increasingly sophisticated and covert, studying and exposing these dynamics will be useful to resistance movements. These movements’ courageous work to outmaneuver these tactics, hold corporations accountable and protect life on the planet are now more important than ever.

The author would like to thank Kent Eaton, Mark F. Massoud and Eleonora Pasotti for making this research possible.