LIMA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - A Peruvian prosecutor said she suspects that U.S.-listed mining company Southern Copper Corp paid opponents to call off protests against its $1.4 billion Tia Maria project while it was waiting for an environmental permit.
Prosecutor Alejandra Cardenas told Reuters on Thursday that bank records show Southern gave a Peruvian lawyer, Jesus Gomez, 1.3 million soles ($387,000) between October 2013 and September 2014. The company has denied any wrongdoing.
In that period, when the government was evaluating Southern’s second environmental plan for Tia Maria, Gomez paid a protest leader, Pepe Julio Gutierrez, 170,000 soles in a lump sum, Cardenas said. Three deposits of 250,000 soles were made before community meetings the company hosted to promote Tia Maria, Cardenas said.
She said both Gomez and Gutierrez told her the money was to buy an onion field, but neither could produce documentation of a land deal.
Neither Gomez nor Gutierrez has been charged with any crime and both men deny wrongdoing. Gomez said he never bribed Tia Maria opponents and declined further comment.
Southern Copper, which is controlled by Grupo Mexico , on Friday declined comment because the inquiry had not been completed.
The miner has previously denied any impropriety and acknowledged it employed Gomez in the past.
Cardenas said paying opponents of the mine would not be a crime unless they included public officials.
It would show, however, the lengths companies go to overcome protests that have derailed billions in mining investments in the world’s third top copper producer. It would also raise questions about the miner’s practices in Peru.
Rallies against Tia Maria in the southern region Arequipa forced Southern to suspend the project in May after three people protesting against the mine on environmental grounds were killed in clashes with police. Three also died in 2011.
In May, Cardenas began investigating whether Gutierrez tried to extort Southern Copper.
In audio from a phone conversation, Gutierrez appears to be negotiating with lawyer Gomez to be paid along with two other protest leaders $500,000 each to halt rallies.
Gomez had leaked the audio to media in April, prompting Gutierrez’ arrest.
Gutierrez’ lawyer, Liliana Laura, said the audio had been edited to frame him but declined to say if he demanded payment from Southern. “Asking for money is not a crime,” she said.
The government rejected Southern’s first environmental plan after protests turned deadly. It approved a revised plan in August 2014. Cardenas said Southern deposited 499,999 soles into Gomez’ account in September 2014. (Reporting By Mitra Taj; editing by Grant McCool)