Twenty-eight men were rescued from a gold mine in a remote area of western Azuay Province Monday, many of them suffering gunshot wounds and other injuries. National Police say that 10 more are missing, believed to have been kidnapped or killed.
Azuay Police Commander Fausto Salinas believes the attack was carried out by illegal miners angered over being expelled from the Tres Chorreras mine, west of Pucará, by army troops two weeks ago. During that mission, in which a tent encampment was dismantled, a gunfight erupted, injuring a soldier. No arrests were made during the operation as the miners fled into the mountains but several firearms, including automatic weapons were seized.
The military had been called in by Ryreciamining Ecuador S.A., the mine operator that has the government-issued concession for Tres Chorreras.
Jaime Gomez, Ryreciamining manager, says that 43 men were at the mine at the time of the attack, including guards, geologists and other staff. “We were carrying out sampling experiments in preparation for resuming operations,” he said, adding that the mine had been previously worked but was closed several years ago.
Following the closure, he says, illegal miners moved into the area and began working the tunnels. “This is an on-going problem for the mining industry in Ecuador. When mines are temporarily closed but are still under concession, illegal workers move in and take over, often destroying infrastructure.” He added that the miners are armed and violent.
Gomez told Guayaquil newspaper El Universo that eight or nine Ryreciamining employees were killed in the attack but the police command said later that no deaths have been confirmed. “It is possible there are deaths among the 10 missing men but we have not found any bodies,” Salinas said.
As of nightfall Monday, Salinas said the situation at Trews Chorreras was “complicated and chaotic,” explaining that access to the mine is limited. “The area is at high altitude, usually covered in fog, close to the border with El Oro Province and the roads there are in poor conditions. It is very difficult to get vehicles to the site,” he said.
The mine is 122 kilometers from district police headquarters in Cuenca, three hours by car.
He added: “The investigation is just beginning and our first priority is to locate the missing men and then to find the people responsible.”
Those injured in the attack are being treated at hospitals in Cuenca and Guayaquil. No information has been released on their conditions.