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).