Guatemalan Government, Canadian Mining Industry Responsible for Violent Conflicts

Date of publication: 
2 October 2014

“The Guatemalan government is fueling the fires of conflict by failing to consult local communities before awarding mining licences to companies, effectively raising the risk of bloodshed and bulldozing over the rights of its people,” stated Amnesty International.

The Guatemalan government and Canadian mining industry are responsible for violent conflicts and repression against predominantly indigenous communities in Guatemala, a country just 18 years removed from a 36-year internal conflict that resulted in genocide, a report released in September stated.

Amnesty International’s (AI) report entitled “Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk,” notes that the Guatemalan and Canadian governments, and mining companies from Canada, have failed to properly consult and gain the consent of affected indigenous communities and have thus violated affected populations’ human rights. Furthermore, impunity in both Guatemala and Canada has perpetuated state and corporate violence against communities and individuals resisting mining projects, resulting in murders, assassination attempts, rapes, land grabs, displacements and other forms of violence that were also prevalent during Guatemala’s bloody internal conflict.

“Motivated by fears that mining will contaminate their environment and/or negatively impact their livelihoods, and the enjoyment of their human rights, protests and disputes over such projects have erupted. Years of threats and violence, including injuries and deaths, and division and resentment within communities have been the result,” the report states. “Community leaders protesting against mining are often targeted with threats, acts of intimidation or attacks. In the majority of cases the perpetrators of such acts have yet to be held to account.”

“When you talk to communities, a vast majority of those affected by these mining projects simply say they just don’t want them,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission.

The Amnesty International report commended the Guatemalan government’s 2013 decision to put a moratorium on awarding new mining licenses and emphasized the need for the government to pass legal reforms that enshrine indigenous communities’ rights to free, prior and informed consent.

“The proposed moratorium and the intention to reform existing laws present a window of opportunity for the government to strengthen human rights protections while bringing current mining regulations in line with Guatemala’s international obligations,” the report states.

However, there are criticisms about the effectiveness of Amnesty’s focus on legal reforms.

“The problem in Guatemala is not the laws, per se, nor the structure of the legal system itself, but rather impunity,” said Grahame Russell, director of the Canadian and U.S.-based NGO Rights Action.

Russell, whose community development, environmental and human rights defense solidarity organization has worked with communities highlighted in the report, said what Guatemala needs is not so much mining law reform, but “a fundamental transformation in its lack of democracy, its lack of rule of law, and its corruption.”

He added, “It borders on being counter-productive to urge for legal reform, while ignoring that Guatemala is fundamentally an undemocratic country and impunity and corruption are the norm. Expecting the powerful sectors, national and international, to respect people’s human and territorial rights and protect the environment in a country like Guatemala, is like expecting a tiger not to eat meat.”

No Justice, No Peace

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina serves as an example of the impunity, which Russell mentioned, that operates within Guatemala. Molina represents the country’s bloody, racist past and its disappointing present.

Perez Molina is a former general and head of military intelligence who was trained at the infamous School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Fort Benning, Georgia. He served under former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was convicted last May in a Guatemalan court for genocide and other war crimes that include “1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.” However, Montt’s sentence was overturned on a technicality by the country’s constitutional court just two weeks later.

Victoria Sanford, author of “Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala,” wrote in the New York Times last year immediately following the Rios Montt conviction, “There is serious evidence that the current president, the former military commander Otto Perez Molina, who took office in January 2012, may have been involved in the same mass killings for which General Ríos Montt has now been convicted.”

This would explain Perez Molina’s statements in the press during the trial that he did not believe genocide occurred during the country’s internal conflict, despite the U.N. Truth Commission’s post-conflict judgement that genocide did indeed occur.

Remarkably, Perez Molina has recently received favorable press and has been painted in a progressive light internationally because of some statements he has made that have been critical of the largely U.S.-influenced drug war in the region, as well as Washington’s response to the so-called migration crisis originating from Mexico and Central America. While this media assessment ignores the president’s murky past, it also fails to critically review how his words match up with his present actions.

“There’s definitely a dual discourse coming from the Guatemalan government,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. “Molina’s discourse in international forums is not something reflected in policy proposals inside of Guatemala, in fact, it is often directly contradictory to actions taken by his administration.”

Alford-Jones points to instances where the Guatemalan president has used the drug war – even though he alleges that he supports drug decriminalization – as a pretext for militarizing responses to communities resisting mining projects. She also noted a 2012 massacre where military personnel, sent by the president, opened fire on indigenous protesters who were blocking the country’s Pan-American Highway in Totonicapan, killing six people and wounding 40 others.

“Molina is operating within a very militarized framework. He has used methods that look very similar to those used during the internal armed conflict,” said Alford-Jones. “Majority of affected communities are indigenous and they are also communities that have lived through egregious state sponsored violence over the last 50 years.”

Where Perez Molina’s former boss would accuse organizations like Amnesty International as being part of the “international communist conspiracy,” in this post-Cold War era the new alibi for violence and repression, or discrediting critics, at least in Guatemala, is now accusing them of being narcos or narco-terrorists.

“With respect to President Otto Perez Molina, no justice was done for his role in the war crimes and atrocities committed against the mainly indigenous population during the years of State repression,” said Russell, “and furthermore, he ends up becoming president of the country and openly encouraging the expansion of the global mining industry.”

Past as Prologue

The legacy of Guatemala’s internal conflict and subsequent genocide against the country’s indigenous population, and the methods of violence and repression continue with today’s mining conflicts, although on a smaller scale. Just as critics of the country’s military dictatorships were targeted during the Cold War conflict, especially during the 1970s and early 1980s, human rights, community and environmental defenders resisting mining projects, and as the Amnesty International report points out, mostly indigenous peoples, suffer similar violations.

Furthermore, as in the previous decades, international actors share responsibility.

“Many of the high profile mining companies currently operating in Guatemala are subsidiaries of Canadian companies,” the report states. “Amnesty International calls on all companies to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights in the context of their operations and specifically urges the Canadian government to enact legislation that would establish mandatory corporate accountability standards for Canadian extractive companies operating abroad, as well as legal remedies, in Canada, for non-nationals who are affected by Canadian extractive companies.”

Jennifer Moore, Latin America Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said that Canada’s government has been aiding and abetting crimes against mining-affected communities.

“The Canadian government enables the sort of arrogant and abusive behavior that we observe from Canadian mining companies in Guatemala, and throughout the region through strong diplomatic and political promotion of their operations, as well as through upholding the state of impunity that they enjoy for abuses taking place,” said Moore.

MiningWatch Canada is a research and advocacy organization that works in solidarity with mining-affected communities in Canada and abroad.

Moore added that, “In general, but speaking about Goldcorp and Tahoe Resources specifically, Canadian companies have repeatedly sown social conflict, divisions, insecurity and violence at the community level.”

Both Goldcorp’s and Tahoe Resources’s projects were used as case studies in Amnesty International’s report.

Canadian mining company Goldcorp’s Marlin mine is located in the department of San Marcos in the country’s western highland and affects the municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipacapa, which both have majority indigenous populations. Since its outset, the project, initially subsidized with a World Bank loan, has been plagued with human rights violations and health and environmental harms.

In 2005, then-president of Guatemala Oscar Berger sent in the military to break up a road blockade after giving a speech in the nation’s capital announcing that the government had to “protect investors.” One protester was killed as a result. Five years later another local opponent of the mine, Diodora Hernandez, who refused to sell her land to the company, was shot in the eye.

The Amnesty International report also cited independent assessments of the project which showed systematic failures by the company to uphold local affected Guatemalans’ human rights, as well as address their grievances and concerns, despite a company statement blaming ‘opposition groups’, many of them made up of people from outside the area – successfully disseminat(ing) misinformation campaigns – allegedly responsible for exacerbating tensions.

Another particularly egregious case involves Canada’s Hudbay Minerals, which operates a nickel mine in the indigenous region of El Estor, in the department of Izabal. Members of El Estor’s Maya-Q’eqchi community have filed three separate civil claims in a Canadian court against Hudbay, which acquired Skye Resources in 2008, the company that had been operating the mine previously.

The first of three claims against Hudbay was filed by El Estor’s Angelica Choc, alleging that security guards working for one of its subsidiaries shot and killed her husband in 2009. The second claim was filed on behalf of German Chub Choc, who was subsequently shot that same day, but in a separate incident. Since then, he has been confined to a wheelchair. The final claim was filed by 11 women from a neighboring community claiming that security guards working on behalf of the Canadian company gang-raped them during a violent land eviction.

“The Canadian government is fomenting conflict in Guatemala for the role it plays in pushing for the almost unfettered expansion of Canadian mining interests, ignoring or turning a blind eye to violence and repression, a lack of democracy, corruption and impunity,” said Rights Action’s Russell. “The Canadian government should be held responsible for the predictable harms and violations that occur.”

However, MiningWatch’s Moore believes that this could be a game changer in Canada.

“These cases are resonating in the industry. I think that companies are recognizing that the court system is catching on to the fact that it has jurisdiction here to hold parent companies and their directors to account for abuses taking place in connection with a company’s subsidiary somewhere else,” said Moore.

Russell agrees: “The cases have established a small, but important legal and even political impact in Canada. Because the lawsuits were filed in the Canadian legal system, that is fundamental to the structures of power in Canada, the dominant Canadian economic and political sectors are forced to pay attention,” he said, adding that the lawsuits are “chipping away at impunity and immunity from liability in Canada.”

Moving Forward

“The violence and repression that has taken root around mining in Guatemala cannot continue. The Guatemalan government must ensure that they implement and respect legislation to facilitate dialogue and decision-making between mining companies, state authorities and affected people,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International. “Communities must be provided with full and objective information about the benefits and risks of mining in a clear and culturally appropriate manner.”

But as critics have pointed out, it is not the laws that are necessarily the problem.

“The Canadian government enables the sort of arrogant and abusive behavior that we observe from Canadian mining companies in Guatemala,” said Jennifer Moore, Latin America Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada.

Guatemala’s El Escobal mining project in San Rarael Las Flores, in the department of Santa Rosa, illustrates this point. The silver mine, mentioned in the Amnesty report and owned by Canada and U.S.-based Tahoe Resources, has seen ongoing confrontations between community member and mine security personnel. Not only did Guatemalan President Perez Molina decide to declare a state of siege on four municipalities surrounding the mine, he declared it a national security threat.

Guatemalan news site Pro Publica published an article in July stating: Since March 26, 2013, the government of Otto Perez Molina has given the San Rafael Las Flores social conflict special treatment. The National Security Council (CNS) concluded that the social problems – protests, altercations, provocations, blockades – surrounding the extractive projects should be dealt with at another level, as a problem of National Security, that is to say, against the security of the State.”

As a result, Perez Molina created an “Inter-Agency Mining Affairs Group” run by the country’s National Security Council, to deal with these so-called national security problems – which turns out to be communities defending their land and human rights conflicting with foreign capital.

The Amnesty International report also states, “There has been mounting concern over the last several years that Canada does not have any adequate mechanisms in place to regulate Canadian mining companies operating abroad, even when those companies are receiving State support.”

Moore said that a lot needs to be done, specifically in Canada. “I think that we need to mobilize not just to make Canada open for justice to address damage that has been done, but to build a stronger movement that questions the economic development model Canada is such a part of promoting in Guatemala and the region,” she added. “With criminalization, militarization and violence in Guatemala and the region worsening, we need more people to stand with the many, many Guatemalans who are saying ‘no’ to mining, and to work to give greater voice to them and their struggles.”

And many communities have collectively said ‘no’ to mining. In fact, there have been 73 community consultations held throughout Guatemala where communities voted to reject mining. One voted yes.

“When you talk to communities, a vast majority of those affected by these mining projects simply say they just don’t want them,” said the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s Alford-Jones. “It’s not about the details around the country’s mining laws or policies. It’s about a desire to be able to say ‘no’ or to have veto power over these mining projects.”