By Grahame Russell, Rights Action, Jan. 28, 2020
In Guatemala it is not possible to operate a large-scale mine (let alone just about any large-scale economic “development” projects in the sectors of hydro-electric dams, garment “sweatshop” industry, ‘for-export’ production of African palm, sugar cane, bananas, and more) without participating in and benefitting from human rights violations and repression, corruption and impunity.
Put another way, violating human rights, using repression and acting with corruption and impunity are how business often operates in Guatemala, particularly large-scale businesses.
The title of this essay is not meant to be provocative. While simplistic, it is descriptive. The title helps explain who global mining companies and other governments are doing business with in Guatemala. It helps explain why mining companies are helping cause and profit from killings, shootings and rapes, forced evictions, community destruction and division, environmental degradation, and a host of individual and collective human rights violations.
As many mining companies operating in Guatemala are Canadian, I focus attention on them and on the Canadian government. In doing business with the genocidal generals, Canadian companies are participating in and benefitting from historic and ongoing exploitation and racism, repression, corruption and impunity. Companies do business this way knowing there is almost no way to hold them legally or politically accountable in Guatemala or Canada. (The Hudbay Minerals and Tahoe Resources lawsuits are hugely important, recent exceptions to this impunity and immunity from legal accountability.)
Caravans of fleeing forced migrants
I re-publish this essay in light of recent media reporting –albeit narrowly– on the tens of thousands of people forced to flee mainly from Guatemala and Honduras, year after year. I say “narrowly” because mainstream coverage in the U.S. and Canada of the Central American forced migrants caravans ignores many of the underlying causes of why people are forced to flee, year and after year, decade after decade.
Most particularly, the media ignores how the Canadian and U.S. governments and private sector interests contribute to why so many flee.
Put simply, violent, corrupt, destructive mining operations across Guatemala are one more reason why people are forced to flee their homes and country.
Corporate criminality / ‘White collar’ crime
I re-publish this now also because corporate criminality has slipped again into the media spot-light in Canada, at least for a little while.
Weighing into the “SNC Lavalin” corporate criminality debate, Conrad Black wrote (“What people are getting wrong about this entire silly affair”, National Post, April 5, 2019) that:
“the law forbidding Canadians, and especially Canadian business people, from doing such things as bribery in foreign countries where such unsavoury practices are a condition precedent to doing business at all, when the individuals are only doing so in the legitimate interest of the businesses involved and at no direct profit to themselves, is nonsense. Canada is a G7 country with a number of distinguished international companies and we cannot expect these corporations to compete with one hand tied behind their backs in much of the world.”
Black goes on: “It is preposterous for, in this case, a Canadian company to be penalized for conduct in Libya …”.
Black is not alone in these views. Sandra Rubin wrote (LEXPERT Special Edition 2018/19 “Leading Canadian Mining Lawyers Go Global”) that:
“In countries where bribes are the norm to facilitate getting rights and licenses, [i]t’s common for Canadian companies to hire local intermediaries to help them liase with the local officials who facilitate these processes.”
As Sandra Rubin and Conrad Black openly legitimize corruption and bribery (studiously not addressing the range of human rights violations and repression that Canadian corporations participate in and benefit from), it is hard to know where to begin to respond to this.
Corporate criminality and white collar crime are so omnipresent and part of the fabric of the elite sectors of Canadian society and economy that corporate tycoons, opinion-makers and “intellectual elites” openly advocate for and defend corporate criminality, helping hide it in plain sight.
Conrad Black (writing in the National Post) and Sandra Rubin (writing in LEXPERT special edition) present, in essence, a balanced assessment of Canadian establishment views that corporate criminal behaviour around the world is normal, to be expected, and should not be punished. I suspect they would come to similar conclusions about the actions of Canadian mining companies – knowingly supported by the Canadian government – that have been ‘mining with the genocidal generals in Guatemala’.
That these explanations about and ‘legitimizations’ of corporate criminality are so openly and clearly stated helps one understand why it is so damn hard to get any consistent, proper media coverage of these issues, let alone achieve any real political and legal oversight and accountability for corporate participation in human rights violations and repression, corruption and impunity.
This essay is based on decades of work and activism in Central America. My aim is to explain, in general terms, why it is not possible to operate a large-scale mine in Guatemala (let alone just about any large-scale economic development projects) without participating in and benefitting from repression and human rights violations, corruption and impunity.
The answer to the question ‘why’ is found in how the unjust global economic, political and military order works, directly benefitting wealthier, powerful countries often at the expense of poor, weak countries.
The fact that there are rich and poor, powerful and powerless countries on the planet is a matter of historic and on-going injustice, inequality and violence. Economic activities – like mining – operate in this context, are part of this context.
The answer to the question ‘why’ is found in history. The causes of current day mining harms and violations, corruption and repression have roots in European colonialism and imperialism.
The answer to the question ‘why’ is also found in the calculated decisions mining company executives and investors make to do business in these conditions, supported by the governments of Canada and Guatemala, by the World Bank and multiple private and public fund investors.
“Polemical, critical, evaluative”
This essay was originally written when I was invited to submit an article from the perspective of an activist to a book about human rights, environmental and justice issues in Guatemala. After a fair bit of back and forth, the editors rejected the early draft, saying it was “polemical, critical, and evaluative”.
I admit to this.
I have worked in human rights struggles in Central America going back to the 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, I have worked extensively in Honduras and Guatemala. Through my work with Rights Action (that began in 1995), I am involved in community struggles in defense of territory, the environment and human rights, resisting harms, violence and violations caused directly and indirectly by Goldcorp Inc. (Honduras and Guatemala), Aura Minerals (Honduras), Radius Gold/Kappes Cassiday & Associates (Guatemala), Tahoe Resources/Pan American Silver (Guatemala) and Skye Resources/Hudbay Minerals (Guatemala).
These mining-versus-community defense struggles are “polemical” by definition. The companies, supported by the Canadian and Guatemalan governments and multiple public and private investors, claim they are “bringing development” to the communities where they operate, that they respect the rule of law, and that they are dealing transparently with the democratic government and institutions of Guatemala.
These claims are misleading at best, or outright false. It is not that I am being polemical. Mining in Guatemala is polemical. The analysis I present contrasts almost completely with the narrative presented on company websites, and in Canadian and Guatemalan government public statements.
Secondly, because of the harms and violence, corruption and impunity characterizing these mining operations, I look very critically at how Canadian companies – supported by governments, the World Bank, institutional investors – go about their business in Guatemala. The work I do with Rights Action is to support communities in their struggles to end human rights violations, environmental degradation and forced evictions. To achieve this, one must address the underlying causes of these violations and harms.
Thirdly, this obviously is my “evaluation”. Companies, governments, investors and other beneficiaries of this mining and so-called development in Guatemala “evaluate” what they are doing differently.
Faces and names
I write this with the names and faces of victims of mining harms, violations and repression in my heart and mind. Since the early 2000s, I have visited mining harmed communities across Guatemala many times – alone, or with visiting journalists, film-makers and hundreds of U.S. and Canadian citizens on educational, human rights fact-finding trips.
I have come to know community defenders and their families who suffer the harms and violations. Some of the people I know and work with have been killed, raped, shot and paralyzed. Many have otherwise suffered serious harms and violations.
Predictable, logical, repetitive harms and violations
There is no easy fix to the harms and violations discussed here – they are predictable, logical and repetitive. The causes are multi-layered: historic and current day; local, national and global.
There will be no end to mining related repression, environmental destruction and human rights violations in Guatemala until there are serious changes in how Guatemala and Canada operate as countries, and how the unjust global economic, political and military order operates.
It is a sorry state of affairs: profitable for companies, shareholders and investors; harmful and deadly for many Guatemalans.
For the sake of Adolfo Ich (a Mayan Q’eqchi’ father, teacher and community leader killed in 2009 by security guards working for Hudbay Minerals), for the sake of Diodora Hernandez (a Mayan Mam woman shot in the head in 2010 – she survived, though she lost her right eye and hearing in her right ear – because she refused to sell her land to Goldcorp Inc.), for the sake of all victims of mining harms in Guatemala (and indeed around the world), and for the sake of Mother Earth and the future generations, we must transform how we do business and live together as humans on the planet.
Repression, violations and harms caused by large-scale economic activities, including mining, are not new in Guatemala. The root causes date back to the time of European imperialism and colonialism that were driven, in part, by the search for minerals. I agree with much of the perspective and analysis set out in Eduardo Galeano’s book “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent”.
Published in Spanish in 1971 and in English in 1973, Galeano’s book argues that in order to understand the racism, economic exploitation and poverty, repression, corruption and impunity that remain entrenched to varying degrees in countries across the Americas, one needs an understanding of the racist, exploitative and repressive nature of European imperialism and colonialism, and of the national elites that took political power during the independence movements in the 1700s and 1800s.
One needs to understand that over the past two centuries the United States has been the dominant power in the Americas, working consistently – invading and intervening – to keep in place, or violently put in place governments that favour the economic and political interests of the elites sectors in Latin American, along with those of the U.S. (and, in important ways, Canada).
With the risk of over-generalizing, from the onslaught of European imperialism through the U.S.-backed military coup in Guatemala in 1954, through the ensuing decades of Cold War repression and genocides, and continuing today in the post-Peace Accords era, the Guatemalan state and society have been characterized by endemic exploitation and racism, violence, corruption and impunity in most sectors of the economy.
“In the way of development”
Violence has almost always been used in Guatemala by the State and wealthy private interests (national and international) against people “in the way of development”, in the way of the dominant economic model – that is, people work in defence of community wellbeing, human rights and the environment, people protesting government and private sector exploitation and repression, people like Adolfo Ich and Diodora Hernandez.
The Peace Process
In 1993, I moved to Guatemala to work with the U.S.-based solidarity organization EPICA (Ecumenical Program on Central America). The main focus of our work was to support civil society organizations during the Peace Process and so-called ‘return to democracy’.
Starting in 1992, and through the signing of the final Peace Accord in December 1996, people from all walks of life came together in an internationally-monitored process to debate much needed reforms to the Guatemalan state and society that were finally set out in the collective Peace Accords:
- Agreement on respecting human rights, with commitments to end impunity and establish a United Nations human rights monitoring programme (MINUGUA), signed March 29, 1994.
- Agreement on resettling hundreds of thousands of people who had been violently uprooted by State repression and genocides, signed June 27, 1994.
- Establishment of the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) to report on human rights violations and war crimes committed over the previous decades, signed June 23, 1994.
- Agreement on the identity and rights of Indigenous peoples, signed March 13, 1995.
- Agreement on socio-economic and agrarian reforms, fiscal reforms, democratization and modernization of the State, signed May 6, 1996.
- Agreement on strengthening civil society and diminishing the role of the army, signed September 19, 1996.
- Agreement on electoral and constitutional reforms, signed December 7, 1996.
- Final Peace Accord, providing for the disarmament and reincorporation to civilian life of the members of the Unidad Nacional Revolucionaria Guatemalteca (URNG; National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity) rebel group, signed December 12, 1996.
Mass grave exhumations: Hope and empowerment
Our work was mainly in support of Mayan communities as they overcame fear and trauma for all they suffered and lost during decades of U.S.-backed disappearances, massacres and genocides. Much of this death and devastation is documented in the United Nation’s Commission for Historical Clarification report (1999), and the Catholic Church’s Recovery of the Historic Memory report (1998).
The most extraordinary work I was involved with was in support of Mayan communities as they courageously advocated for the digging up –exhuming– of mass graves where their murdered loved ones had been dumped during the worst years (1978-1983) of massacres, disappearances and genocides.
It is hard to overstate how moving and powerful the exhumation process is for the surviving family and community members, for the support groups, and for the “exhumation teams”.
The Equipo de Antropologia Forense Guatemalteco (EAFG) – precursor to the FAFG (Fundacion de Antropologia Guatemalteca, https://fafg.org/) – began the exhumation process in the Quiche department in 1991-1992, before moving into the Rabinal region of Baja Verapaz in 1993-94. Collaborating with survivors of the disappearances, massacres and genocides, the Forensic Team digs up mass graves wherein murdered family members and loved ones –women and men, infants, young and old- had been dumped.
The exhumation process, on-going today, is a fundamental part of all efforts to tell the truth about the years of massacres, disappearances and genocides, and to seek justice for these war crimes.
With the Peace Accords debates and discussions, and with the truth-telling and justice work, it was an empowering time to dream out loud again, to remember the only democratic governments Guatemala ever had (during the “Guatemalan Spring”, 1944-54), and to map out a better future for the country.
After 5 years of debate and discussion, the collective Peace Accords represented the racial, economic and political aspirations of a majority of Guatemalans – aspirations that were to be dashed.
Not an “internal conflict”: The inevitable, logical failure of the Peace Accords
To understand why these aspirations were dashed, it has to be understood that the Guatemalan people were not victims only of government repression in the context of an “internal conflict” between the Armed Forces and the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) armed rebels that began more or less in 1961. They were victims of generations of U.S.- and western-backed repression and violence that began before 1944, continued after the 1954 U.S.-backed military coup, and on through the disappearances, massacres and genocides in the 1970s and 1980s.
Government and private sector repression, corruption and impunity have always served to keep in place an economic, racial, social and political order favourable to the interests of Guatemala’s economic elites and their global business partners. The U.S.-backed coup in 1954 was carried out to bring back into power governments that favour these same interests. The U.S.-backed massacres, genocide and disappearances of the 70s and 80s served to keep those same sectors in power.
Mining concession piñata
Thus, while the truth telling and justice work, and Peace Process discussions were going on in the mid-1990s, most Guatemalans and international human rights workers – including myself – had no knowledge of the pro-mining machinations of the Canadian government, companies, the World Bank and Guatemalan economic and political elites, resulting in a major mining law reform in 1997 that kicked off the mining concession piñata of handing out hundreds of mining exploration concessions covering vast swathes of Guatemalan land, affecting mainly Mayan territories.
On December 12, 1996, the final Peace Accord was signed. While speeches were made about how “the conflict was over” and “democracy restored,” virtually no justice was done against the political, economic and military sectors –both Guatemalan and from the U.S.- who were responsible for decades of disappearances, massacres and genocides.
Equally important, no fundamental changes were made –despite the Peace Accords- as to how the exploitative, racist and repressive State and society operated.
The passing of the 1997 mining law reform and ensuing mining license piñata are examples, in just one sector of the economy, of the true intentions of the elites and their global business partners. Similar plans were being made to promote and expand privatization and international investment in other sectors of the economy, including hydro-electric energy, African palm production, oil and gas, etc.
The Guatemalan elites and their international backers (primarily the U.S.) got away almost completely with killing and disappearing over 250,000 people, a majority being Mayan, and kept in place the same unjust socio-economic system that so many people in civil society had been struggling to transform for so long.
Mining with the genocidal generals
Connecting the dots between the repression and genocides of the 1970s-80s and the mining concession piñata of the 1990s-2000s are generals Efrain Rios Montt and Otto Pérez Molina. They were two of the top generals during the worst years of repression and genocides who became, during and after the Peace Process, two of Guatemala’s most powerful politicians.
While many members of Guatemala’s corrupted economic, political and military elites play pro-mining roles in this story, I focus on Rios Montt and Pérez Molina to illustrate the type of people the Canadian government and mining companies knowingly and happily have done business with. (See reference to investigatory reporting by Luis Solano, 2005)
During the years of the mining concession piñata, Rios Montt was the most powerful politician the country. In 1989, he founded the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG; Guatemalan Republican Front). Though he was prohibited from running for president by a constitutional provision barring people who had participated in military coups, Rios Montt remained the leading FRG member of Congress from 1990 until 2004. In 1994, he became President of the Congress.
As Rios Montt’s presidential ambitions were frustrated, the FRG selected Alfonso Portillo as their presidential candidate. Portillo won the presidency in 1999, taking office in January 2000. (He would later spend almost six years, 2010-2015, in jail in Guatemala and the United States on corruption and money laundering charges.) During Portillo’s presidency, Rios Montt was the power behind the throne.
Rios Montt’s star started to fade after 2004. While genocide and other war crimes charges had already been prepared against him, he was not charged until after he left Congress in 2004 and lost his Congressional immunity from prosecution. He returned to Congress in 2007, retired again in 2012, and again lost his immunity from genocide and war crimes prosecution.
Around this time, Otto Pérez Molina began to consolidate his power. In 2001, Molina founded the Partido Patriota (PP; Patriot Party). In 2007, he came second in the presidential elections, which he then won 2011, taking office in January 2012. During his presidency, Pérez Molina continued the pro-mining policies of all post-Peace Accords governments.
Pérez Molina’s career crashed in 2015 when criminal investigators pegged him as the head of a government corruption ring “la línea” that stole at least US$120,000,000 of public funds. In September 2015, Pérez Molina was forced from office and jailed on corruption charges.
As founders and leaders of their political parties, and as president of the Congress and the Republic respectively, Rios Montt and Pérez Molina had extensive dealings with Canadian and U.S. governments and mining companies, from the beginning of the mining concession piñata in the 1990s, until Pérez Molina’s forced resignation in September 2015.
School of the Americas alumni – Genocidal generals
Decades before, generals Rios Montt and Pérez Molina were graduates of the U.S. military training program formerly known as the School of the Americas. Both are suspected of being CIA assets during decades of U.S.-backed repression and genocides. Rios Montt was ‘de facto’ president of Guatemala in 1982-83 when some of the worst massacres and genocides occurred. In the Maya Ixil region of the Quiche department, where one of the genocides was carried out, Otto Pérez Molina was Rios Montt’s highest ranking military officer. (See reference to investigatory reporting by Allan Nairn)
On May 10, 2013, Rios Montt was found guilty by a Guatemalan court of the crime of genocide. His co-accused, general Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez, was acquitted. They had been on trial for genocide, including massacres, rapes, torture and violent displacements of thousands of Mayan Ixil people. Ten days later, the corrupted Constitutional Court annulled the guilty verdict and ordered a partial retrial.
Notwithstanding the controversial intervention of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court’s guilty verdict against Rios Montt for the crime of genocide remains today a stunning achievement of the surviving family members of the victims of the Ixil region, along with their supporters and lawyers. (See reference to “Guatemala Trials before the National Courts of Guatemala”)
Canadian rhetoric and reality
In one sense, it is overly easy to focus on Rios Montt and Perez Molina. They are just two of many members of Guatemala’s economic, military, political elites that made possible, participated in and benefitted from the mining concession piñata of 1990s and the mining operations that began in the mid-2000s. Focusing on them does, however, provide insight into Canada’s role in all this, let alone that of the United States, the World Bank, European Community, etc.
Through the 1990s, Canada said all the right things about supporting the Peace Process, heralding the ‘end of the conflict’, the ‘return to democracy’, etc. In 1999, when the United Nations published its devastating report on the extent of disappearances, massacres, genocides and other forms of repression, the Canadian government hailed the report and endorsed its conclusions and recommendations.
And yet all along, the Canadian government and mining companies were doing business with the genocidal generals and other members of the elites – many of the very same people who, a decade before, had overseen and implemented the widespread U.S.-backed repression.
Specific mining-related struggles
With all governments since 1996 dominated more or less by the same historic elites, keeping in place the same exploitative, racist, violent economic model, it is not hard to understand why repression, corruption and impunity have remained the norm. This is how business has long been done in Guatemala.
While the human rights work I have been involved with in Guatemala dates back to the late 1980s, my work with mining-harmed communities began in 2004. Since then, Rights Action has supported and worked with:
- Mayan Mam and Sipakapan communities harmed by Goldcorp Inc’s “Marlin” mine in western Guatemala;
- Mayan Q’eqchi’ communities harmed by Canadian mining companies (including Skye Resources and Hudbay Minerals) operating the “Fenix” mine in eastern Guatemala.
Since 2012, Rights Action has supported and worked with:
- Ladino communities harmed by Kappes, Cassiday & Associates’ (KCA) gold mining operation, previously owned by Radius Gold, near Guatemala City;
- Xinka and ladino communities harmed by Tahoe Resources’ silver “Escobal” mine in southern Guatemala, now owned by Pan American Silver.
Repetitive patterns of harms, violations, repression
Systemic environmental and health harms, human rights violations and repression have been documented by Guatemalan and international investigators and organizations, including Rights Action, in each of these mining related struggles, including:
- a complete lack of engaging in prior, public consultation with affected communities about the mining operations, let alone asking for and obtaining informed consent to carry out a mining project
- forced and violent evictions of people from their own lands
- environmental harms and destruction
- health harms suffered by people and animals living near mining operations
- repression (including killings, shooting and rapes) against local community members
- criminalization (filing of trumped up charge, and jailing) of community human rights and environmental defenders
- corruption in the political processes at the local and national levels; and,
- impunity for the companies and government forces when community members try and use the courts to defend and protect their rights, or seek justice for harms, violations and repression.
INCO / Skye Resources / Hudbay Minerals / Solway Investment Group
While I focus here on one mining related struggle, much the same could be written about each of the community-versus-mining struggles mentioned.
The oldest mining-versus-community defense struggle in Guatemala –pertaining to international companies- is taking place in Q’eqchi’ territories of the El Estor municipality, department of Izabal, eastern Guatemala. While the other struggles mentioned above began with the piñata of the 1990s, the struggles of the Q’eqchi’ people date back decades.
I began working in the Q’eqchi’ communities in 2004 when it was learned that INCO’s original (ill-gotten) mining license had been renewed as part of the piñata so that mining exploration and exploitation could continue. After starting to regularly visit the region 2004, I learned of the long mining history in the El Estor region.
After the 1954 U.S.-backed coup, the military regime and economic elites (brought back to power by the coup) gave a concession covering hundreds of square kilometers of land to the U.S.-based Hanna Mining Company that, soon after, sold its majority interests to the Canadian International Nickel Company (INCO) and its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMIBAL (Exploraciones y Explotaciones Mineras Izabal). INCO/EXMIBAL didn’t acquire just a mining exploration and exploitation concession; some of the land was sold outright to INCO/EXMIBAL.
From that time forward, Q’eqchi’ communities – who have lived and worked on these land for hundreds of years – have contested the legality of the original concessions and sale.
During the 1960s and 70s, INCO/EXMIBAL built a nickel ore processing plant, along with housing, a health clinic, a sports club and 9-hole golf course for its employees. In collaboration with the military regimes of the day, including the regime headed by general Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982), another one of the ‘genocidal generals’, INCO/EXMIBAL carried out illegal forced evictions, violent community raids, killings and disappearances, all aimed at evicting Q’eqchi’ peoples from their lands. (Charges of genocide were filed in Guatemalan courts against Lucas Garcia in 1999. However, he evaded justice and died in self-imposed exile in Venezuela in 2006.)
INCO/EXMIBAL collaboration with the genocidal regimes included: using company trucks to transport soldiers and company security guards on community raids; allowing the army to set up a military outpost on company property; allowing the military to use the company landing strip for its planes and helicopters.
The 1999 United Nations’ truth commission report directly links INCO/EXMIBAL to human rights violations including murder, kidnapping and torture, in collusion with the Guatemalan military.
On May 29, 1978, hundreds of poor, mainly Q’eqchi’ campesinos gathered in the town square of Panzos, department of Alta Verapaz, to protest the constant, violent land grabs by the wealthy sectors backed by military, police and private security guards. Many were from El Estor communities resisting violent evictions to make way for INCO/EXMIBAL mining.
Soldiers waited for the protesters, surrounded them in the Panzos town square, sealed it off, and opened fire. Estimates range from around 100 to many hundreds of people killed that day; hundreds more were wounded.
Years later, after the 2007 violent, illegal eviction of the Lote 8 community -discussed below- to make way for Skye Resources/Hudbay Minerals’ mining interests, I began visiting Lote 8 and working with the 11 women who were gang-raped. I learned that some of them are children, grandchildren or nieces of victims of the Panzos massacre.
No justice was done for the Panzos massacre. There was almost no media coverage about it in the United States or Canada, though the U.S. was training, arming and funding the regimes, and many of the victims had been protesting the Canadian company INCO’s illegal and violent evictions.
This is how business has long been done in Guatemala.
Skye Resources / Hudbay Minerals
In 1981-82, INCO/EXMIBAL suspended its mining operation but retained its (always disputed) concession and lands. In the early 2000s, former INCO company directors incorporated Skye Resources. INCO was the major investor in Skye and sold its mining operation, concession and lands to Skye. The name of the subsidiary company was changed from EXMIBAL to CGN (Compania Guatemalteca de Niquel). As part of the mining license piñata, Skye acquired a twenty-five-year extension of INCO’s initial concession. In 2008, Hudbay Minerals bought Skye Resources’ properties, assets and liabilities.
Soon after Skye/CGN re-initiated the mining process in 2004-05, repression and human rights violations resumed. As INCO/EXMIBAL had done in the 1960s and 70s, geologists entered Q’eqchi’ communities telling villagers the lands belonged to Skye/CGN. Trucking in equipment, they drilled exploration holes in grid patterns across people’s fields and through their forests, disrupting crops, water sources, wildlife, etc.
Skye/CGN officials began arriving accompanied by government officials, police, soldiers and private security guards. Their message was the same as before – the Q’eqchi’ people were illegally living on company land and would have to move.
The repression and violence that occurred from 2004-2011 was a repetition of much that happened during the 1970s and early 80s:
- aggressive entry at will onto peoples’ lands and communities by soldiers, police and company guards;
- violent evictions and the burning of villages to the ground, destroying homes, crops and personal property;
- repression against villagers, including shootings, killings and the gang-rapes of eleven women in one village, Lote 8.
Deafening silence and denial
Since 2004, I have regularly visited the mining harmed communities of El Estor, bringing educational delegations, journalists, academics and film-makers to document and report on the harms, repression and violations. Rights Action has regularly sent our urgent actions and reports (and those of other groups) to the Canadian media, government and embassy officials.
Since 2004, I have collaborated with Professor Catherine Nolin of the University of Northern British Columbia to bring students on bi-annual and sometimes annual trips to El Estor. Rights Action and the UNBC published a number of reports documenting the growing tensions, harms and repression, corruption and impunity.
Rights Action never received any response from embassy or government officials.
By late 2006, community versus company tensions increased. In late 2006 and early 2007, police, soldiers and Skye/CGN security guards illegally raided a number of communities, burned them partially or completely to the ground, attacked villagers who resisted, and destroyed crops and personal property.
- Some of this is documented in “Violent Evictions at El Estor, Guatemala – updated”, 10 minute film made in 2007 by Steven Schnoor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgwtLuISE1Y&t=10s
The women of Lote 8
While most communities attacked were on the shore of Lake Izabal, along the road from El Estor to Skye/CGN’s processing plant a few kilometres away, one community attacked and burned to the ground was Lote 8, high in the mountains where, not coincidently, a concentrated deposit of nickel ore is located. Lote 8 lies on the border of the departments of Izabal and Alta Verapaz, equi-distant from the towns of El Estor and Panzos.
(The past is close behind! As stated above, many Lote 8 villagers have family members – parents, grand-parents and cousins – who were gunned down and killed in the 1978 Panzos Massacre.)
On January 9, 2007, hundreds of police, soldiers and Skye/CGN security guards drove up into Lote 8 in four-wheel drive trucks. They burned dozens of thatched roof huts to the ground, destroyed crops and property, and attacked villagers until the women and men, children and elderly ran off into the forests.
After the January 9 attack, company helicopters flew over the community on a number of occasions, terrorizing the villagers – similar to Guatemalan air force tactics in the 1970s and 80s – and saw that villagers had come back from the forests and were re-building their homes.
On January 17, hundreds of company security guards, soldiers and police returned, burnt and destroyed any hut being re-built, and gang-raped 11 women villagers. The victims of these gang-rapes are now plaintiffs in the landmark Hudbay Minerals lawsuits in Canadian courts, first filed in 2010. (Addressed below)
After the spate of village burnings, evictions and repression of 2006-2007, there was a lull in company versus community tensions. In 2008, Hudbay Minerals purchased Skye Resources. New ownership, same interests and same actions. Supported by the Guatemalan and Canadian governments, and by the military and police, Hudbay picked up where Skye left off.
Adolfo Ich and German Chub
After the explosion of repression and village burnings in 2007, the communities had re-organized and rallied again in defense of community well-being, lands, forests and water sources. On September 27, 2009, Hudbay/CGN security guards opened fire on a gathering of Q’eqchi’ villagers in La Union, one of the communities burned twice in 2006 and 2007.
As guards – under the command of Mynor Padilla (also a former lieutenant-colonel in the Guatemalan army) – were shooting above the heads of villagers, Adolfo Ich – father of five, teacher and respected community leader – ran forward to calm the tensions and get the guards to stop shooting. When Adolfo identified himself, a guard said “we have been looking for you” and they grabbed him. In front of terrified community members, they hacked him with machetes and shot him. His body was recovered, a little while later, inside a company building.
Just before this, Mynor Padilla shot German Chub point blank and left him for dead. German survived, but lives paralyzed from the chest down, in poor and precarious health conditions.
Again, this repression was documented by Rights Action and a growing number of organizations, and sent to Canadian embassy and government officials, and members of parliament. Again, no response.
Landmark Hudbay Minerals lawsuits
In late 2011, Hudbay sold its mining interests to the Switzerland-based Solway Investment Group at an estimated $250,000,000 less than the purchase price in 2008.
However, establishing a long overdue precedent in Canadian law, three over-lapping lawsuits were filed by lawyers Murray Klippenstein and Cory Wanless in Canadian courts against Hudbay Minerals and CGN. The lawsuits concern the gang-rapes of the Lote 8 women, the killing of Adolfo Ich and the shooting-paralyzing of German Chub.
- Defensora, a 2013 film, documents the struggle of the Q’eqchi’ people for land and life, and for justice for mining related repression: https://vimeo.com/75725049
Even after some 50 years of Canadian ownership and control ended in the El Estor region, none of the underlying problems have been resolved. In March 2012, three Guatemalan university students were murdered on Solway Investment Group/CGN property by company personnel, while involved in an educational exchange programme.
2017 saw another outbreak of mining violence against Q’eqchi’ villagers, including killings and the jailing of people on trumped up charges.
This is how business has long been done in Guatemala
Similar harms and violations have occurred in each of the community versus mining struggles mentioned. There has been no justice for any of this, neither in Guatemala, nor in international forums (ex: Inter-American Commission of Human Rights), nor in the home countries of the companies, such as Canada.
What might change this, in the near future, are the landmark Hudbay Minerals lawsuits (filed in 2010) and the ensuing Tahoe Resources lawsuit (filed in 2014).
In most important ways, these are “Canadian problems” more than they are “Guatemalan problems”. All recent Canadian governments have promoted “free trade” economic policies, pressuring other countries to sign “free trade” agreements that more aptly might be called corporate and investor rights agreements, as they enshrine rights for global companies and investors while excluding even minimal protections for human rights and the environment.
The Canadian embassy in Guatemala City has often acted more as a public relations office for Canadian mining companies than as an agent of a government promoting democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the environment. The embassy has hosted public ‘mining is good for development’ events; embassy officials have appeared with company officials and Guatemalan politicians at ribbon-cutting ceremonies at mine operations; Canadian ambassadors have written op-eds in major Guatemalan newspapers extolling the virtues of how mining ‘brings development’.
At the same time, Canadian government and embassy officials have ignored or denied reports of repression, harms and violations linked to Canadian companies. In my own work, at a given point we stopped sending mining related urgent actions and reports to embassy and government officials – there is seemingly no point.
While the harms, repression and violations occur in Guatemala, all important company operational and investor decisions are taken in Canada; the vast majority of economic benefits and profits go to company directors, officers and shareholders, and to pension fund and private investors in Canada and around the world.
It is incidental to Hudbay, Skye, Goldcorp, Tahoe, Pan American Silver, KCA and Radius Gold that the minerals they covet are in Guatemala. These are Canadian mining operations, supported by Canadian government policies and actions, answering to Canadian corporate and investor decision makers.
With some recent exceptions, the Canadian media does not give proper coverage to the breadth of human rights violations and repression, corruption and impunity that characterize the operations of Canadian companies in Guatemala, let elsewhere around the globe. To get a sense of the extent of harms and violations occurring around the world, people should regularly review the work of MiningWatch Canada, let alone a growing list of Canadian solidarity groups and NGOs. (See list below)
The lack of proper media coverage ensures ignorance amongst the public about Canadian mining harms and violence in Guatemala, and around the world. The lack of reporting and general public ignorance in turn reinforce the impunity of the companies and investors.
This impunity is further buttressed by immunity from legal accountability in Canada. Notwithstanding the Hudbay and Tahoe lawsuits, Canada does not yet have the political will or criminal and civil legislation necessary to enable victims of mining related crimes, harms and violations to seek justice in Canadian courts, to ‘have their day in court’.
This is not a mistake. For decades, Canadian governments, the mining industry, the United Nations, World Bank and more, have promoted codes of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that – based on non-binding self-monitoring and self-regulation – are fundamentally useless in ensuring real oversight, real and binding accountability and enforcement. For a country that claims to respect the rule of law, CSR codes are patently ineffective and present a glaring double standard.
Hudbay Minerals lawsuits
Building on the community, human rights, territory and environmental defense work of our Q’eqchi’ partner groups in El Estor, I have been very involved supporting the Q’eqchi’ people in their landmark lawsuits in Canada, as represented by Murray Klippenstein and Cory Wanless. (www.chocversushudbay.com)
The Hudbay lawsuits are unique and extraordinary. Here, an extensive media list: https://rightsaction.org/hudbay-minerals-lawsuits-media/. At the same time, they remain exceptions to the rule of impunity and immunity from liability in Canada for mining harms and repression in other countries. There should be many more of these lawsuits in our courts related to harms, repression and violations caused by Canadian companies and investors in countries around the world.
Plaintiffs targeted with more repression
Filed initially in 2010, the Hudbay lawsuits are moving ahead – slowly. At every step of the way, there have been threats, acts of harassment and violence against the Q’eqchi’ plaintiffs. On September 17, 2016, unidentified assailants shot up the small home where Angelica Choc – widow of Adolfo Ich, and one of the plaintiffs – was sleeping with two young children.
On March 31, 2018, unidentified assassins brutally killed Angelica’s nephew Hector Choc. Witnesses say they overheard the assassins say they made a mistake, and that they were actually seeking to kill Angelica’s son Jose Ich, of a similar age as his cousin Hector, and who is a witness to the murder of his father.
For many, there is no doubt these attacks aim to terrorize and silence Angelica Choc and the other plaintiffs in the Hudbay lawsuits, let alone any Guatemalans who dare seek justice in any courts for human rights violations and political repression.
The desirable and intentional situation of Canadian impunity
Even as reports of mining harms and repression pile up from around the world, the Canadian government and political, economic and “intellectual” elites have shown little political will to advocate for or pass criminal and civil law reforms to put an end to a manifest double-standard in law whereby if a company commits or contribute to crimes and/or harms in other countries, it is next to impossible file civil law suits in Canada, let alone have the Attorney General’s office consider filing criminal charges.
The Canadian elites have shown no political will to investigate the need for serious reforms to private and public investment funds (including funds such as the Canada Pension Plan), so that ‘maximizing profits’ is not the only investment criteria that fund managers need to pay attention to; so that all investments must, at a bare minimum, take into consideration binding environmental, health, labour and human rights standards.
This is a very desirable situation for Canadian mining companies and investors. It is a completely unjust situation for the victims of mining harms and violence around the world, such as the Q’eqchi’ peoples of El Estor, Guatemala.
The work and struggle continue to hold Canadian companies and investors politically and legally accountable, both in Guatemala and Canada. The broader work and struggle continues, north south east and west, to transform the unjust, unequal and environmentally destructive global economic order.
(The author is a non-practicing Canadian lawyer, adjunct professor at University of Northern British Columbia, and director of Rights Action since 1995.)
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- “Exclusive: Allan Nairn Exposes Role of U.S., New Guatemalan President in Indigenous Massacres.” 19 April 2013. Democracy Now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9YieHwaP4M
- “Fernando Romeo Lucas García, President of Guatemala.” Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Fernando-Romeo-Lucas-Garcia
- Galeano, Eduardo. 1973. “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent”. Cedric Belfrage. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- “Guatemala Trials before the National Courts of Guatemala.” International Justice Monitor. http://www.ijmonitor.org/category/guatemala-trials/
- Klein, Naomi. 2014. “This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate”. Toronto: Knopf Canada.
- Schlesinger, Stephen and Stephen Kinzer. 1982. “Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala”. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
- Schmidt, Rachel, Dir. 2013. “Defensora”. Of Earth and Sky Film.
- Sherburne, Andrew and JT Haines and Tommy Haines, Dirs. 2013. “Gold Fever” (goldfevermovie.com). Of Northland Productions.
- Solano, Luis. 2005. Guatemala. “Petróleo y Minera en las Entrañas del Poder”. Ciudad de Guatemala: Infopress centroamericana.
Across Canada, many solidarity and NGO groups are working on the overlapping issues this essay addresses, including: Honduras Solidarity Network: www.hondurassolidarity.org; Common Frontiers Canada: www.commonfrontiers.ca; Breaking the Silence: www.breakingthesilenceblog.com; Mining Watch Canada: www.miningwatch.ca; Mining Injustice Solidarity Network: https://mininginjustice.org/
Mining Justice Alliance: https://miningjusticealliance.wordpress.com.
Rights Action (U.S. & Canada) directly funds community-based human rights, environmental and territorial defense organizations in Guatemala and Honduras. We provide relief funds to victims of repression, health harms and natural disasters. We work to hold accountable the U.S. and Canadian governments, companies and investors, international actors (World Bank, etc.) that cause and profit from repression, environmental harms and human rights violations.
Posted Feb. 6, 2020