The causes of violent deaths in Azuay are mainly associated with illegal mining. The province has four conflictive points in Ponce Enríquez, Sígsig, Pucará and the Molleturo parish (Cuenca).
The fight against illegal mining will be the priority issue of the Azuay security plan for 2023. This was stated by the governor of the province, Matías Abad, who explained to that this decision was made when analyzing the crime rates of 2022.
“This is the main issue we have, because many things derive from illegal mining: organized crime, money laundering, drug trafficking, robberies, people are even recruited to provide security for the mines,” he explained.
One of the most worrying consequences of this illegal activity is the instability expressed in the increase in violent deaths. Azuay closed 2022 with 61 cases, 25 more than the previous year.
Most of these crimes are linked to illegal mining and fights between gangs over drug micro-trafficking, says Abad.
“If we manage to stop irregular mining and micro-trafficking, we will significantly lower the rates of violent deaths in Azuay,” said Matías Abad, Governor of Azuay.
The authorities defined four points in which the operations will be prioritized: Ponce Enríquez, Sígsig, Pucará and Molleturo (in Cuenca). “In those four places we have more complaints, and the progress of mining is evident,” according to Abad.
According to the governor, joint operations will increase in these areas, involving the Ministry of the Environment, the Agency for the Regulation and Control of Energy and Natural Resources, the Police, and the Armed Forces.
There is also a provision for the Armed Forces to carry out frequent control operations for weapons, ammunition and explosives in the areas of influence of the conflictive points.
One of the goals is to increase the number of arrests to find the leaders of criminal gangs. The Azuay Police Chief, Hugo Arroyo, warned that “many times those involved are alerted to the operations.”
This explains why when the control authorities arrive at these conflict sites, they only find machinery and equipment. For this reason, a few days after the controls, the illegal miners return to work in the same places.
Another objective is to prevent the activity from advancing to other sites where there are mining deposits, as is the case of Loma Larga, a large-scale project that awaits authorization to start operations.
Ponce Enríquez, the most violent canton
Of the 61 violent deaths registered in Azuay last year, 33 occurred in Cuenca and 25 in Ponce Enríquez. In the latter canton, those 25 deaths were more than triple the seven crimes in 2021 and five times more than the five that occurred in 2020.
In Ponce Enríquez, violence is closely linked to illegal mining. The number of crimes is worrying, explains the prosecutor Leonardo Amoroso, considering that it has only 36,000 inhabitants.
In this canton, which borders Guayas and El Oro, assassinations and attacks on the mines are frequent. In December 2022, the Police transferred personnel from the Special Operations Group and the Order Maintenance Unit, to control the violence.
“We are already seeing the first results this year. In two weeks, we have seven detainees, we have retained machinery, weapons and blocks of dynamite,” said the Azuay Police Chief.
Social conflicts in Molleturo
The second most conflictive point in Azuay is Molleturo, located in the west of the Cuenca canton, where the Río Blanco mine is located. This has been closed since 2018 by court order.
In October 2022, there were several armed attacks, in one of which a 24-year-old woman was killed. The young woman and her brother were moving in a crane from Guayaquil to Molleturo.
Unknown people who were in a truck loaded with gold material intercepted them and asked to help them with the tow. The young people did not accept and were shot.
“There was a problem there: the residents did not allow State institutions to enter, but after that crime we were able to work in coordination with other entities,” the officer says.
Arroyo maintains that the conflicts have been controlled, but the presence of illegal miners remains, and this will be worked on with the Energy Regulation and Control Agency and other competent entities.
Government offers more police
In the planning of the Government of Azuay there is also the control of micro-drug trafficking and the prevention of crimes that had an increase in Cuenca last year. For example, robberies at homes, shops, economic units and others.
For this, the Government offered to increase the number of police officers to work in these areas.
Currently, Azuay has 850 police officers, including the 160 that joined in 2022. The idea is that 200 more will arrive in April and another 200 in November, so that the province is left with 1,250 uniformed officers.
But the ultimate goal is that by 2024 there will be 1,850 police officers working in Azuay. In addition to a significant investment in logistics and equipment.