To keep the peace: assassination, bribery and free trade

On August 17, 2009, Mariano Abarca Roblero, a human rights activist in the Mexican state of Chiapas, was picked up by state security forces and held on suspicion of disturbing the peace, and "organized crime.

On August 17, 2009, Mariano Abarca Roblero, a human rights activist in the Mexican state of Chiapas, was picked up by state security forces and held on suspicion of disturbing the peace, and “organized crime.” He had helped to organize a blockade on a public street to prevent Calgary-based mining company Blackfire Resources from running heavy trucks through a school district, disturbing classes and causing houses to crack and crumble.

Abarca Roblero was one of the leaders of a group opposed to a Blackfire mine in the town of Chicomuselo. There was nothing to connect him with organized crime, but adding gangsterism to his charges gave police the power to hold him for six months without charge. They reminded him of this before letting him go after eight days with a warning to keep quiet about the mine.

On November 23, 2009 Abarca Roblero filed an affidavit in Chiapas court alleging that he was arrested at the behest of mine management in order to silence him, and that he and other activists had received death threats which appeared to originate with senior mine officials. On November 27 he was gunned down in front of his house by a man on a motorcycle, who turned out to be a mine employee. A week after Abarca Roblero’s death, Chiapas environmental authorities closed down the mine.

After the assassination, a delegation representing Canadian human rights organizations and the United Steelworkers union visited the area. Speaking for the group, Rick Arnold of Common Frontier said, “What we found during our investigation was a community devastated by the ever-present intimidation, violence, bad mining practices, environmental destruction, and legal harassment.”

On July 20, 2011, an RCMP team raided Blackfire’s Calgary offices with a warrant obtained through the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, based on allegations that the company had bribed a local mayor “to keep the peace and prevent local members of the community from taking up arms against the mine.” The company paid Julio Cesar Velazquez Calderón a bit more than $1,900 over time – a small fortune in Chiapas – but balked when he demanded they buy him a night with his favourite Playboy playmate.

According to Mining Watch, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade records released last week under an access to information request “show the embassy received 1,400 letters expressing dire concern for Abarca’s life following his arrest in August 2009. One month earlier, Abarca had complained to an embassy official that Blackfire workers were armed and intimidating mine opponents. Nonetheless, when embassy officials visited Chiapas weeks before Abarca’s death, they appear only to have inquired into concerns about the security of Blackfire’s investment.”

In fact, Rick Arnold reports, the newly released records also show that “mere days after a damning report about the company was circulated to the highest echelons of the Canadian government, Canadian authorities sought advice for the company about how to sue the state of Chiapas under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for having closed the mine.”

Now Infinito Gold, another Calgary-based mining firm, has announced its intention to sue Costa Rica under a 1999 Foreign Investment Protection Agreement, demanding $1 billion in compensation for a Supreme Court decision to shut down Las Crucitas, its planned open-pit gold mine. The trade protections in a FIPA are more-or-less the same as those in NAFTA.

The mine got the go-ahead from former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias in 2008, just days after his Arias Foundation received a mysterious donation from Canada of $200,000. Arias lost office in 2010, and the current administration doesn’t concur with his view that the Las Crucitas mine is “in the national interest.”

There have been no reports of armed thugs or assassinations connected to the Las Crucitas project – Costa Rica isn’t Chiapas, and the mine doesn’t actually exist – but Infinito has been throwing its legal weight around, allegedly “strong-arming” the judiciary to overturn two Supreme Court decisions upholding a ban on open-pit mining, and using the courts to harass university professors and others critical of the project.

When a Canadian corporation uses violence, intimidation, or legal harassment to bully the government or the people of a poor country, the reputation of all Canadians suffers, unfairly. When our elected government knowingly offers support and advice to a bully company, we are all responsible, and our reputation deserves what it gets. If you would like to travel to Costa Rica some day, maybe today would be a good day to speak out against predatory Canadian corporations abusing trade and investment treaties.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.