Poor Guatemalans Are Taking On North American Mining Companies—and Have the Bullet Wounds to Prove It

Poor Guatemalans Are Taking On North American Mining Companies—and Have the Bullet Wounds to Prove It

Poor Guatemalans Are Taking On North American Mining Companies—and Have the Bullet Wounds to Prove It

As nonviolent protests have spread throughout the country, the right-wing government and the mines’ security operations have responded with force.


A bullet is lodged near Yolanda Oquelí’s liver. It’s been there since June 13, 2012, when two masked men on a motorcycle fired a barrage of bullets into her car as she drove home on a dusty mountain road after attending a protest with friends and neighbors. A ball of hot lead brushed her stomach and barely missed her spine. After the gunmen fled, she was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Oquelí is a leader of La Puya (the Thorn or Point), a prominent protest movement based in the sun-soaked town of San José del Golfo, beyond the outskirts of Guatemala City. For nearly three years, small farmers, merchants and Catholic parishioners have gathered at the movement’s makeshift camp of plywood shacks and populist banners to oppose the Tambor project, an underground and open-pit gold mine being built in the hills nearby. As with most hard-rock mining operations, the waste rock and exposed surfaces it leaves behind have the potential to produce highly-toxic acid mine drainage—the same liquid byproduct that has polluted water and spawned superfund sites across the United States. Local Guatemalan women, worried about the health of their land and families, are the driving force behind the campaign to prevent Tambor. They’ve organized marches, prayer vigils and blockades, and turned La Puya into a national example of peaceful protest.

Oquelí’s advocacy and commitment to nonviolence is part of what has propelled the movement’s success. That’s why she received death threats. That’s why the masked men tried to silence her. But Oquelí, who credits a merciful God for her survival, is still talking.

“[These mining projects] are not development,” she says, defiant though her would-be assassins, like so many violent assailants in Guatemala, are still unidentified and at large. “They are projects of destruction and death and social conflict.”

Tambor is a project of Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA), an engineering firm based in Reno, Nevada. It bought out its partner, Canada’s Radius Gold, in the summer of 2012, shortly after the attempt on Oquelí’s life. The company is one of many North American mining corporations that have swept into this small Central American republic over the past two decades to exploit rich deposits of gold, silver, copper and more. They operate in communities both rural and urban, near the capital city and in the western highlands. They have the backing of Guatemala’s right-wing president, Otto Pérez Molina, whose long military intelligence career includes a stint at the School of the Americas and an active role in the country’s brutal thirty-six-year civil war. And the corporations have recourse to a neoliberal mining law passed in the late 1990s that opened the country’s vast mineral wealth to them and reduced the amount they must pay in state royalties to an historic low of 1 percent (though that rate may soon change).

According to Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, there are 345 approved mining licenses in the country today, with another 592 pending. All this in an area no bigger than Virginia.

But the mining boom has met serious resistance in this land of cloud forests and terraced cornfields, and La Puya is only one example. Other cases, like the resistance to the Fenix nickel project near El Estor and the fight over the Escobal mine in the country’s Santa Rosa region, are equally contentious.

The Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, a government agency, estimates that at least fifty-seven major natural resources conflicts are unfolding across the country today. Indigenous and community groups have initiated waves of demonstration and denunciation from coast to coast, citing as their primary concern the danger mines pose to land rights and water resources.

“We know that when the mining company moves into our area and begins moving rocks and ripping up land, it will contaminate our water supplies,” says Deodora Oliva, a farmer and mother who helps lead La Puya. “We worry that our forests will be destroyed. We worry that human beings will be persecuted and that wildlife will be harmed. That is what motivates us to resist.”

And this resistance has crucial support from one of the country’s most powerful institutions, the Catholic Church. Clergy, from priests to some prominent bishops, are advising anti-mining organizers, leading marches and calling for the reform of relevant laws. The church, at least its progressive faction, has used its material resources and moral force to amplify what is already one of the most significant eruptions of popular protest in postwar Guatemala.

Still, the faithful and their anti-mining allies face many dangers in this battle that pits small farmers against big industry, indigenous groups against local elites and foreign investors, and water quality against wealth. Mining-affected communities have been witness to government crackdowns and police repression. Environmental activists and indigenous leaders have been subject to kidnapping, intimidation, torture, arrest and imprisonment for their outspoken advocacy. And the attack against Oquelí was no anomaly. Guatemala is a country where resistance can get you killed.

* * *

Twenty-four miles southeast of La Puya, the town of San Rafael Las Flores sits in a high mountain valley near a tributary of the Los Esclavos River, a snaking waterway that feeds the region’s many small farms. The river is named after the local Xinca indigenous group, whose ancestors were enslaved by Spanish invaders during their bloody conquest of Guatemala and neighboring El Salvador. Then, as now, the foreigners were searching for gold and silver.

Perhaps there’s something of this bitter memory in the opposition that Tahoe Resources Inc., a Canadian silver company, has met among residents there. The company’s Escobal underground mine—a fence-lined compound of underground tunnels and gray processing plants—received a twenty-year exploitation permit from the Guatemalan government in April 2013. Through its subsidiary, Minera San Rafael, it is currently pulling about 3,500 metric tons of silver out of the ground each day, and it recently announced a mine expansion to increase that number to 4,500. The company also has rights to 2,000 square kilometers of land that it plans to explore. In the first nine months of 2014, Tahoe’s operations earned it more than $100 million.

“Before we got there, there was no mining in the area,” says Ira Gostin, a vice president at Tahoe. “By hiring locals and training them how to be underground miners and process plant workers, we have created a mining culture and a safety culture that did not exist before.” He says he’s seen a “positive and dramatic difference” in the community.

But many residents in San Rafael Las Flores and neighboring towns view the company as an intruder, and an impassioned coalition of community organizations and church groups is peacefully resisting its presence in their territory.

“They say they are welcome here, but no,” says Oscar Morales, an agricultural engineer who leads the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace, a group founded in the parish church in San Rafael Las Flores. “Many, many people have repudiated the construction of this mine.”

Five local municipalities held legally sanctioned referendums asking voters to approve or reject the Escobal project in the months before and after its construction, and in each instance more than 90 percent of participants rejected the mine, according to the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). A series of smaller votes in San Rafael Las Flores produced similar results. Tahoe Resources, according to Gostin, followed the letter of the law. But mine opponents say the Guatemalan government illegally ignored the outcomes of the referenda when it let the Escobal project move forward.

As a result, unrest has riled the region for nearly three years. Father Juan Manuel Arija, a Spanish priest who spent more than a decade in Guatemala, was there during the early years of the anti-Tahoe resistance. As the coordinator of CODIDENA, a Catholic environmental group based in Nueva Santa Rosa, he helped launch the “revolution of flowers,” a series of protests in 2012 that included rallies in front of the Canadian embassy, multiple delegations to the Ministry of Energy and Mines and a massive mid-September march to Escobal. As the protests gathered momentum, lawyers with the Center for Legal, Environmental and Social Action, a well-known human rights law firm in the country, filed a legal complaint against Tahoe following reports by residents that the creeks around Escobal had been contaminated with mine waste. The Guatemalan Public Prosecutor took up the case, and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

Arija says it was during this vibrant campaign that the government and the mining company, perhaps sensing the opposition’s savvy, intensified a campaign of intimidation against movement leaders.

Injured La Puya protester speaks
A woman shows a hematoma caused by a tear gas canister fired by riot police as they evicted a protest against the Tambor mine on May 23, 2014. (Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez)

“The threats not only came directly over the phone or at the front door, but also in the words and actions of those who control the country,” says Arija, adding that protesters were called “eco-terrorists” and slandered in the press. It was like watching “a steamroller that can’t be stopped.”

In late 2012, after receiving a series of unsettling threats, Arija left Guatemala for a new assignment in Colombia. Since his departure, anti-mining activists have been kidnapped, killed and thrown in jail at a disturbing rate.

On March 17, 2013, armed men in masks abducted four members of the Xinca Parliament, an indigenous organization that opposes Escobal, after they attended a community referendum in San Rafael Las Flores. One of the men, the group’s secretary, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, was found dead. The other men survived. Pérez Molina’s administration granted Tahoe an exploitation license two weeks later. The region exploded in protest and the repression grew worse.

On April 27, 2013, armed Escobal security guards fired on a group of men and boys who had assembled on a public road outside the mine gate to demonstrate. According to a civil complaint filed in Canadian court by survivors, the guards were acting under orders from Alberto Rotondo, then head of mine security at Escobal and a former Peruvian naval officer trained in counterterrorism by the US military. A farmer named Adolfo Augustín García says he was shot in the back. Luis Fernando García Monroy, his 18-year-old son, took a bullet to the face. When the gunfire died down, seven people, including two teenagers, were wounded.

After the attack, Rotondo tried to flee the country, but police intercepted him at the Guatemalan airport. The company issued a public statement after the incident and claimed rubber bullets, rather than live ammunition, were used. Nevertheless, it relieved Rotondo of his duties and he is now awaiting trial, charged with obstruction of justice and other crimes.

The campaign of criminalization, as activists call it, reached its apex in May 2013, when Otto Pérez Molina’s government instituted a thirty-day “state of siege” in and around San Rafael Las Flores, outlawing public demonstrations and suspending constitutional protections there. The government justified the move after one policeman was killed and others injured during a series of protests, road blockages and riots, largely in response to the shooting outside Escobal. In an earlier incident in January 2013, an unknown group of armed men attacked the Escobal mine and killed two security guards there. Pérez Molina, in a statement to the press, said the region had descended into “anarchy.”

In the end, more than 8,000 military and policemen poured into the territory, erecting bases, setting up check points and issuing arrest warrants for resistance leaders.

“This house was surrounded for fifteen days by the army,” said Oscar Morales at his Spanish-style home in San Rafael Las Flores. “They were here day and night. They searched my home. They said they were looking for guns and explosives.”

Ellen Moore, a human rights observer who lives in Guatemala City and works for NISGUA, says authorities searched a dozen homes and jailed at least five movement leaders around the time of the siege.

“There has always been, on the part of the mining company, a desire to stifle the voice of the people here,” says Quelvin Jiménez, a young law student from the Xinca town of Jumaytepeque who helps lead the Catholic environmental group CODIDENA. He says the company and the government repudiated all of the community referendums in the region and found ways to “criminalize” the communities directly.

The shadowy attacks, the criminalization and repression, the countless stories of unsolved killings and kidnappings make people afraid. Almost all of the mine opponents interviewed for this story had received some sort of threat or feared that the government or the mining company was watching them. The psychological impact is chilling, and though the siege has long since been lifted, violence continues.

A 16-year old girl, Merilyn Topacio Reynoso Pacheco, was shot and killed in the streets of Mataquescuintla, a town where anti-Escobal sentiment is strong, on April 13 of last year. She was a leader of a local youth movement, and her father Edwin Alexander Reynoso was an outspoken opponent as well. A bullet damaged his lung and shattered his ribs.

Reynoso has a hard time talking about his daughter, but he can talk about Escobal. He believes the attack was a direct result of his family’s opposition to the mine. “Automatically, the day after the attack against us, friends of mine, the people most active in the resistance, received death threats telling them that they were next,” says Reynoso. “But the authorities do not want to investigate.”

Tahoe has a different take on the matter.

“We find it repugnant that anyone would try to align that tragic incident with anything to do with the mine,” says Tahoe’s Gostin. “It is totally unconnected and unrelated, and we send our sympathies to the family.” He says linking other violent incidents with Tahoe’s presence in the area is “reckless” and “completely ridiculous.”

Though badly shaken, the peaceful resistance persists. Human rights groups like NISGUA are calling on Tahoe investors, including California’s largest public pension fund, which owns more than $4 million in company stock as of its latest annual report, to relinquish their holdings. A similar movement is underway in Canada. Amnesty International, in a May 2013 public statement, denounced the “failures of the Guatemalan state obligation to protect the human rights of local communities, and Tahoe Resources’ failure to respect those rights.” In September 2014, it issued a more comprehensive report on Guatemala that called on the Canadian government to “enact legislation that would establish mandatory corporate accountability standards for Canadian extractive companies operating abroad.” And in July of last year, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed its “concern for the vulnerability [of] human rights defenders” in Guatemala, particularly those working on issues of “natural resource exploitation.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, a trusted institution in the communities, an institution whose priests and laymen were assassinated in droves trying to defend Guatemala’s poor and oppressed during the war years, has tried to shore up the faith of those living through these dangerous times. In June 2014, the church held a large public mass and rally in San Rafael Las Flores, attended by well over 1,000 people. Clergy from the United States arrived to learn about the conflict, and Bernabé de Jesús Sagastume Lemus, the bishop of Santa Rosa de Lima and one of the region’s highest Catholic officials, came to show his support.

“Sometimes plain and humble people are not listened to, they are not paid attention to, they are marginalized,” Lemus says, echoing the language of Latin American liberation theology, with its powerful faith-based call for solidarity with the poor. “The role of the church is to be the voice of those who do not have a voice.… The goods God created for the service of all cannot be monopolized in the interest of a few.”

Meanwhile Tahoe, with its single mine, is committed to exploiting the silver under Guatemala’s green hills.

* * *

During a visit to La Puya last June, the intense presence of Guatemalan police was a startling reminder of how the government views dissent. Men wearing black uniforms and carrying heavy weapons lined the road, outnumbering the peaceful protesters by two to one.

It had been that way since May, when residents opposed to Tambor blocked access to the mine in an attempt to prevent KCA from moving construction equipment onto its property.

“It’s a concern,” says Carl Defilippi, a KCA engineer. “But it’s not just us, it is all over Guatemala. The NGOs are all over Guatemala.” He believes environmental nonprofits are paying local organizers to “cause unrest,” and calls La Puya’s roadblock illegal.

Police broke the blockade on May 23, 2014, using tear gas and batons to disperse the crowd. Photographs of the assault show women kneeling and standing in the street, reading from Bibles, as a line of men dressed in riot gear descend upon them.

Yolanda Oquelí was there, encouraging the crowd, before the police arrested and removed her. In an era when environmentalists worldwide are being murdered at an unprecedented rate, she is a survivor, and a brave one at that.

“We are in this peaceful resistance for one reason,” she says. “To defend life, to defend our lives and the lives of our children.”

KCA, for its part, hopes the Tambor project will be fully operational by early 2015, before the price of gold falls any further.

Additional reporting by Cassidy Regan.


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