LIMA, May 14 (Reuters) - Peru is investigating whether Southern Copper Corp knew about but failed to report an extortion attempt by an opponent of its stalled Tia Maria project, the mines minister said on Thursday.
The inquiry comes as the judiciary issued an arrest warrant for Pepe Julio Gutierrez, a lead opponent of the $1.4 billion proposed mine.
Prosecutors say Gutierrez tried to extort money from Southern Copper in exchange for calling off protests against the mine that have turned violent and left three people dead this year.
The government said it halted talks with the company over how to start construction on Tia Maria because of the accusations and may take further action.
“If we receive a notice from the judiciary, we will act,” Energy and Mines Minister Rosa Maria Ortiz told reporters on the sidelines of an event without offering specifics.
Ortiz said she spoke with a vice president of Southern Copper’s parent, Grupo Mexico, to schedule a meeting with a company representative to clarify the matter.
Grupo Mexico and Southern Copper declined to comment but Southern Copper has denied any wrongdoing.
The extortion accusations followed the broadcast on a local television show of phone conversations between Jesus Gomez, a lawyer who has worked for Southern Copper in the past, and a man heard offering to stop protests if the miner pays him and two other mining opponents.
Gomez said he recorded the conversations and claims Gutierrez was demanding $1.5 million from the company. Gomez has said Southern Copper rejected the proposal but encouraged Gomez to continue the discussions. Southern Copper said in a statement on Monday that Gomez was never asked to mediate the conflict.
Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the recordings.
Gutierrez could not be reached for comment. He has previously told local media that the recordings are fake.
Tia Maria has faced delays since 2011, when rallies by farmers who fear mining pollution left three dead. Three people have also been killed in renewed protests this year just ahead of construction.
Calls for the project’s suspension grew in Lima this week, with the head of the mining chamber joined lawmakers on the left and right in advocating for a formal pause to end unrest.
Ortiz said the government has no basis for suspending the 120,000 tonne-per-year project.
“That’s a decision the company would have to make,” Ortiz said.
She also said the miner did not do enough to build local support for the project’s revised environmental plan, which included a desalinzation plant and was approved last year.
Reporting by Mitra Taj and Teresa Cespedes; Editing by Lisa Shumaker