By Mitra Taj
CAJAMARCA, Peru (Reuters) - Forty years ago, peasants in rural Peru banded together as "ronderos" - Spanish for "people who make the rounds" - to curb cattle rustling.
Today, squads of these ronderos are working toward a different aim - thwarting an American mining company's planned $5 billion gold mining project that they contend would spoil lakes vital to the local population high in the Andes.
Operating according to Andean customs, the squads act as a de facto judicial system in places where public institutions are weak and policing is scant. They have become potent political players in remote provinces, weighing in on disputes over natural resources and causing headaches for the central government.
In the northern region of Cajamarca, they helped stall U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp's proposed Conga gold mine last year by summoning thousands of people from Andean villages to protest. Now ronderos are making a new push to demand that President Ollanta Humala scrap the project, which has obtained a series of government permits and would create thousands of jobs.
Humala has broadly backed Conga, potentially the most expensive mine in Peruvian history, since taking office in 2011. The dispute has rattled his government. He reshuffled his cabinet twice after violent protests - first to crack down on Conga opponents and then to promote dialogue after five deaths.
"The government doesn't represent us anymore," Cesar Angel, a member of one of the squads, said last week at a rally against the mine near Lake Perol, one of several Andean lakes that would be displaced to mine ore. "But we're strong and will fight this until death."
Angel stood by his horse chewing a wad of coca leaves overlooking riot police near the lake.
The rally was the biggest since Newmont and its Peruvian partner, Buenaventura, put construction of the mine on hold nearly a year ago. At the time, the companies tried to defuse tensions by starting work on a series of large reservoirs to guarantee water supplies for local communities.
The companies plan to transfer water from the lakes to four reservoirs that they say would end seasonal shortages and guarantee year-round water supplies to local towns and farmers.
But many peasants who have crops and livestock near the mine still say they fear it would dry up or pollute lakes and rivers, despite the firms' lengthy environmental remediation plan.
Conga, which holds 6.5 million ounces of gold and 1.7 billion pounds of copper, would essentially extend the life of the two companies' nearby Yanacocha gold mine.
'GUARDIANS OF THE LAKES'
Ronderos calling themselves "the guardians of the lakes" say they are camping out at Lake Perol to keep Newmont from eventually moving its water to a new reservoir - thus snarling any attempt in the future to build the mine.
"The peasant squads used to be worried about petty crimes - a stolen cow and things like that - but now they are defending our land and water from multinational companies," said Milton Sanchez, an activist who works closely with ronderos.
The project's most high-profile opponent, Cajamarca Regional President Gregorio Santos, rose to power through the ranks of Cajamarca's squads of ronderos and is now seen as a long-shot candidate for the national presidency in 2016.
Santos, a member of Peru's communist Patria Roja party, often accuses Humala of putting foreign firms ahead of local people.
"We still see him more as a rondero than a politician," said Roger Ponce, a provincial head of the peasant squads, referring to Santos.
The attorney general's office said there are more than 200,000 ronderos in Cajamarca - vastly outnumbering police.
"They're one of the few organizations that really work in this country," said Tomas Galvez, an official in the national attorney general's office. "They blow their whistle and the entire community gathers. They make a decision and it's executed. The problem is their objectives are not clear."
Speaking in May, Buenaventura Chief Executive Roque Benavides said ronderos can complicate mining in Peru.
"You go to the top of a mountain and ask yourself: who should I talk to - the democratically elected mayor or the head of the peasant squad?" Benavides said. "And often it is the peasant squad that holds the real power."
Omar Jabara, a Newmont spokesman, urged dialogue among all sides, saying by email last week: "We respect all of the social institutions in Cajamarca, including the Ronderos."
Ronderos have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the national government. In the 1990s, former President Alberto Fujimori armed many of them to help fight Maoist Shining Path rebels. Peru's truth commission recognized their role in helping defeat the guerrillas, but also blamed them for human rights abuses like those committed by insurgents and the military.
Subsequent governments have encouraged them to focus on fighting petty crime, but Peruvian law guarantees ronderos considerable autonomy in rural areas.
This month, Peru's attorney general forged a cooperation pact with representatives of Cajamarca's ronderos - aiming to limit their occasional excesses by having them promise to protect human rights, report crimes and undergo training.
Some ronderos supported the pact but key ronderos squad leaders who are against the Conga project refused to sign it.
"The government wants to domesticate the peasant squads because we oppose Conga," said Ydelso Hernandez, a close ally of Santos and the head of a national group of ronderos.
The attorney general's office, which operates independently of the national government, denied that it aims to sideline Conga foes.
There are no statistics on crimes committed by members of the peasant squads, but local media from the provinces often describe their involvement in violent incidents.
"We are trying to teach them what their role is and how to respect human rights," said Luis Alberto Pacheco, an official in the attorney general's office who handles training.
"This is not the Middle Ages when people run around solving their problems with torches and lynchings," he said.
Ronderos in Cajamarca say they stopped carrying guns years ago. Punishments they mete out draw on traditional Andean practices, ranging from push-ups to lashings with cow whips.
One of the most severe sentences is the "rondero chain" that requires offenders to toil in fields by day and parade barefoot through frigid villages by night, some ronderos said. It can go on for days or weeks as people are handed off from one village squad to another.
Referring to Mines and Energy Minister Jorge Merino, a laughing Ponce said: "We would make Merino carry out a rondero chain for three or four months. Humala would get six months."
(Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Terry Wade and Will Dunham)