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Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Devil Operation

Documentary pits Peruvian farmers against gold-mining giants

By Drew Halfnight

Directed by Stephanie Boyd

What is a mountain? For the farmers living on Mt. Quilish in the Peruvian Andes, it is the very face of the earth, with eyes that see and ears that hear. For Wayne Murdy, an executive with Newmont Mining Corp., Mt. Quilish is something else entirely.

“We want to give the maximum upside to our investors in a rising gold market,” he says at the outset of The Devil Operation, a scrappy documentary about local resistance to Yanacocha, the most profitable gold mine in Latin America.

At the heart of The Devil Operation is community leader Father Marco Antonio Arana Zegarra, a humanitarian who advances his cause in the tradition of the great Latin American priest-activists. We witness Arana playing peacemaker at a 2004 protest, imploring a general to stop his troops from firing tear gas at the crowd, and then, moments later, pleading with the townsfolk to stop throwing rocks at police. “If we don’t risk our lives to protect life,” the soft-spoken priest intones in an interview, “what sense is there in living?”

For those familiar with the business of mining in Latin America, the story arc in The Devil Operation will be familiar enough. The community speaks out against a huge open-pit mine, is ignored, organizes a peaceful protest, is suppressed by police in riot gear, takes its case to the courts and media, and wins minor compromises on some fronts as new challenges arise on others.

However, the bulk of this film’s 69 minutes is devoted to The Devil Operation, a paramilitary intelligence campaign allegedly ordered by the mining company and exposed by Peruvian newspaper La Republica. That year, 2006, Arana and other activists were subjected to harassment, surveillance, and threats of murder and rape. One farmer-activist was gunned down. The perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.

Ontario-born director Stephanie Boyd’s opposition to the mine comes out loud and clear. “Their metal claws and fangs have eaten the mountains one by one,” she narrates as an excavator scrapes at the ground. 

The film’s flaws — narration and music that are too ponderous at times, a story that often wanders away from its central argument — are easily forgiven. The Devil Operation does what it sets out to do: broadcast the plight of a handful of subsistence farmers as they stand up to one of the world’s biggest gold-mining firms. 

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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