A group of eight students and two advisors from the University of Arizona Presbyterian Campus Ministry (PCM) ― along with 13 Peruvian partners and youth and PC(USA) mission worker Jed Koball ― were attacked in La Oroya, Peru March 16 as they painted a mural near the troubled Doe Run Company smelter there.

The 200 attackers were allegedly Doe Run employees.

There were no serious injuries and the student group returned safely to Lima ― four hours west of La Oroya ― the following day. The Arizona students returned to the U.S. March 20.

The PCM group was visiting Joining Hands Peru (JHP) ― a partnership ministry of the Presbyterian Hunger Program ― in La Oroya for a week to accompany JHP youth there.

“This is a week long program that we did last year with a different college group and is similar to previous accompaniment trips from other groups in years past,” Koball said in an email to World Mission and Presbyterian Hunger Program staff here. “Our objective was to learn from the youth in La Oroya about the issues they are addressing, talk with local authorities, visit a local church and paint a mural in the town reflecting a theme that the youth from La Oroya wanted to address. 

Koball said La Oroya government officials gave permission and space for the mural on a wall along the central highway running through La Oroya about 200 meters from the entrance to the Doe Run plant. 

“The theme of the mural was very general about working together across cultures and distances in caring for creation,” Koball said. “The mural and its message had nothing to do specifically with La Oroya nor Doe Run Peru.”

The smelter ― owned and operated by St. Louis-based Doe Run Company ― has been the subject of Peruvian government investigations and protests by humanitarian and environmental groups in Peru and the U.S. for its massive pollution of air and water in and around La Oroya. A St Louis University study found high blood lead levels in virtually all of the children in Old La Oroya in 2005.

The Rev. Elinor Stock of St. Louis-based Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery’s Friends of La Oroya, said in a press release: “The attack on this volunteer group which threatened their lives was unprovoked and outrageous. Human rights lawyers in Lima are presently investigating the case.”

Stock continued:  “Doe Run Peru and its holding company New York-based Renco Group, Inc., owned by billionaire Ira Rennert, are presently lobbying the U.S. government to intervene on their behalf with the Peru government to relieve them of present environmental obligations agreed to be accomplished by the end of 2006 but still not fulfilled, despite at least three deadline extensions."

The attack has received extensive coverage in Peru’s newspapers, including a lengthy video interview with Jed Koball. Doe Run officials were not quoted in the stories.

“I’ve never seen a report like this on the web in Peru or elsewhere,” said World Mission Director Hunter Farrell, who with his wife, Ruth, served in Peru for a number of years and was heavily involved in ministry in La Oroya.

Joining Hands-Peru issued a press release on March 20. The full text:

Ten Americans (8 students and 2 adults) from the Presbyterian Campus Ministry at the University of Arizona, accompanied by two American leaders living in Peru (including a Mission worker of the Presbyterian Church (USA)), were in La Oroya, Peru since Monday the 14th of March, participating in a cross-cultural service-learning experience with Peruvian youth from the organization Filomena Tomaira Pacsi, a member of the Joining Hands Against Hunger network based in Lima. 

Among the activities they carried out together was the painting of a mural in the town of La Oroya that reflected their common interests of protecting human rights and caring for the environment.  To facilitate this activity, the organization Filomena Tomaira Pacsi solicited permission from the Municipality of La Oroya. The Municipality of La Oroya gave the permission and an exact location for the mural on a wall within the property of the Municipality located on a street in the town.

The American and Peruvian youth began painting the mural on Wednesday the 16th of March at 10:00 a.m.  After having advanced on the work, at approximately 12:00 p.m., 4 male adults exited from the Doe Run Peru facility nearby and approached the area where the youth were painting the mural. The men identified themselves as workers of Doe Run Peru. With them was a female reporter. Together, the men and the reporter wanted the youth to stop painting the mural. After a period of conversation with the leaders of the youth, who explained that the mural was merely expressing the dreams of the youth to have a world clean and free of pollution and that the mural was not attacking anyone, they returned to the facilities of Doe Run Peru. Approximately a half an hour later, more than 200 workers walked out of the Doe Run Peru facility and walked towards the youth. Among them was a manager of the plant, wearing a Doe Run Peru jacket. Within this mass of workers, approximately 40 to 50 of the workers began to verbally harass the youth as the other workers stood by and observed. The behavior of the workers quickly evolved from verbal harassment to violent action, as they took the paints, brushes, ladder and stool and threw them into the nearby river. They then began to throw objects at the youth, including rocks, bottles, rotten fruit and paint cans. They also painted on the faces of the youth before they began to push and shove the youth and their leaders.

At this moment, the youth and their leaders began seeking refuge. They walked north up a public street. The group was separated during the confusion, as the workers began trying to steal their belongings. Eventually, the youth and their leaders found a shopkeeper who allowed them to enter and barricade themselves inside.  The workers approached the store and began banging on the door, trying to break it down, all the while yelling for the youth and their leaders to come outside. 

Finally the police arrived at which time the door of the store was opened and the youth and their leaders exited the store. Upon exiting the store, the youth and their leaders, males and females, were beaten, pulled by the hair, kicked and punched before being rescued by the police and escorted away to the police station.

At the police station, the youth and leaders made official statements of what occurred. For fear of further danger, they left the city as quickly as possible without receiving medical attention. They arrived in Lima later that night.