Murder and mining in Guatemala

Eleanor Millard Special to the News San Marcos, Guatemala At a gold mine site in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, an older Mayan woman reaches into the open window of our small bus and holds both my arms firmly.

San Marcos, Guatemala

At a gold mine site in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, an older Mayan woman reaches into the open window of our small bus and holds both my arms firmly.

Thank you for coming, Diodora Hernandez says in Spanish. “Buena suerte,” good luck, is all I can think of saying to this tiny campesina grandmother.

Her little farm has a few turkeys, one cow, and a small garden. It sits right beside the Canadian mining company Goldcorp’s warehouse. She refuses to sell her land to the mining giant although many have done so around her.

On July 7, 2010, on the pretense of asking for coffee, two men tried to kill Hernandez. The bullet went through her right eye and came out by her ear. It is a miracle that she survived.

After months in hospital, she is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. No one has been charged with her attempted murder although the mine admits that two accused men worked at the mine.

Still today she refuses to sell her small plot of land to the mine, resisting pressure from mine employees, the community she lives in, and even her family.

Hernandez is not alone.

For eight days this summer, I joined a delegation of 18 Canadians and Americans organized by the human rights organization Rights Action. We visited several mine sites, individuals and groups from the eastern coast of Guatemala to the western Highlands near Mexico. We met people committed to the peaceful protection of their communities, resisting the illegal and unwanted entry of huge mining corporations like Goldcorp into their lives.

Most of the protestors are campesinos, peasant farmers. In the Yukon we would call them First Nations. But there are no indigenous land claims or self-government agreements in Guatemala.

Blockades and bullets

Most of the campesinos we met live off the land that has been owned and handed down for generations in their families. Many of the contacts we made required translation not only from Spanish to English, but from the Mam or Qeqchi languages to Spanish and then to English.

In San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayumpac, near Guatemala City, the communities are fighting Vancouver-based Radius Gold. They have been camped out for five months on the main road connecting the two communities, peacefully blocking efforts of the mine to operate its gold and silver mine. Men and women, young and old, stay there permanently, operating a communal kitchen.

On June 13 this summer, on this road, assassins on a motorcycle shot several times at Yolanda Oqueli, a mother of two and one of the outspoken community leaders. One of the bullets remains lodged close to her spine. She is at risk of grave complications. No justice has been done for this attempted murder; no one has been detained or charged.

We visited Mayan Qeqchi communities in El Estor, Izabal, who continue to suffer harms and violations caused by a series of Canadian nickel mining companies dating back to INCO in the 1970s and 80s, and later with Skye Resources and HudBay Minerals from 2004.

In 2011, HudBay sold its mining interest to the Russian company Solway, but the mine retains ownership of a vast sweep of land it is leasing out to a foreign agricultural company, retaining control and reaping economic benefits from land confiscated from campesinos.

In El Estor, German Chub Choc spoke to us about how he was left paralyzed and wheel-chair bound when on September 27, 2009, he was shot by security guards hired by the Guatemalan Nickel company (CGN), a subsidiary of HudBay Minerals. He was not protesting, but was simply watching a soccer game next to the mine.

This young man was left for dead in the soccer field until friends rescued him by motorcycle. After two years of hospitalization and recovery therapy sponsored by the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala, he, his wife and his infant son live with his parents. Very poor to begin with, the family is now in dire poverty due to on-going health needs and the fact that Chub can no longer work as a subsistence farmer or day labourer.

Rights Action helps to fund ongoing expenses for Chub and has financed a small tienda or shop for him. They are currently campaigning for donations for a small home for this family.

We attended a meeting of six communities who were united against nickel mining development in their areas. For the first time in public, Fidelia Caal talked about the massacre of her family on January 23, 1982.

That day, her parents and four siblings were murdered in her home, in the village of Chichipate. Her father – Felipe Caal – was one of the community leaders organizing villagers to oppose the illegal and unwanted entry of the Canadian mining giant INCO.

INCO was found responsible, by the United Nations Truth Commission in Guatemala in 1999, of collaborating with the Guatemalan military regime to commit serious human rights violations against the local villagers, including disappearances and killings. INCO was never held to account, neither in Guatemala nor in Canada, for these acts.

Divide and conquer

Social intrusion from mining corporations in the form of physical assaults and trumped up criminal charges or verbal attacks against protestors cause severe family and community divisions in previously peaceful communities. The disruption of normal life is a divide-and-conquer technique that has profound effects on a people who suffered for decades from civil war and genocidal oppression.

In aggressively pursuing mining development, Guatemala has an abbreviated environmental process for approval. Exploration is done without much more than a cursory permit. What regulation there is, is ineffectual, ignored, or pushed through. Consultation with affected communities is mostly non-existent, and is often done after the mine has done extensive exploration and development.

Mining Watch Canada reported recently from a leaked email communication that members of our Parliament were invited on a junket to Guatemala for three days, with the flight and expenses paid for by Goldcorp Incorporated to view their Marlin gold minesite. The MPs met later with mining officials and Guatemalan government ministers to discuss possible legislation.

Both Liberal and Conservative representatives took up the offer to be lobbied by the mine. We can only speculate how often members of Parliament are given these favours and what further advantages are being negotiated in Guatemalan law for Canadian mines.

Apart from murders, rapes, and physical coercion of landowners by mining companies, the environmental and health harms from the mines are far-reaching. Many serious effects, such as cancers and skin diseases, are caused by the unregulated use of water resources.

We attended a People’s International Health Tribunal in the town of San Miguel Ixtahuacan, in the shadow of Goldcorp’s huge and expanding open-pit excavation, a cyanide-leaching mine. Hundreds of people came from across Guatemala, southern Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador to give testimonies of the devastating health harms and human rights violations they are suffering from mining corporations.

Seeking justice in Canada

A main theme discussed in each of the mining-related struggles we visited was Guatemala’s deeply entrenched impunity from any justice, criminal or civil, for these harms and violations. Cory Wanless, a member of our delegation, is from the Toronto law firm Klippensteins. They do not expect that a court case would be heard with any justice in Guatemala and have filed three civil suits in Canada against HudBay Minerals.

One is for the killing of Adolfo Ich, a protestor, another for the shooting and paralyzing of Chub, and a third is for the gang rape of 11 Mayan Qeqchi women. The law firm is proceeding on donated funds.

Seldom is anyone brought to justice for most crimes against campesinos in Guatemala. But in a promising turn, in Guatemala, Mynor Padilla, the alleged killer of Ich and shooter of Chub and head of HudBay Mineral’s security forces at the time, was detained and charged with Ich’s murder on September 29.

Global, mainly Canadian, mining companies are relentlessly pushing ahead, with the full backing of the governments of Canada, the United States, Guatemala and other governments across the region, backed by the World Bank. Private equity funds and public pension funds across North America are involved. The problem goes to the core of how the global economic model sometimes operates in a profoundly unjust and brutal way.

It is easy to dismiss these horror stories from far away, to think there is nothing we can do, and to feel lucky that we have a somewhat reasonable approach to mining. But Canadians need to remember that we benefit from the deplorable acts of these mining corporations.

Individual Canadians and our own Canada Pension Plan invest heavily in Canadian mines operating across the world. Eduardo Galeano, in The Open Veins of Latin America says, “our wealth has always generated our poverty, in order to feed the prosperity of others.”

For the sake of our own environmental and social health, we must act responsibly by first educating ourselves about the devastation that results from uncontrolled mining activity. Information is readily available from the websites of mining justice organizations like Mining Watch Canada.

Donations to organizations such as Rights Action are a way to help alleviate some of the negative results of rampant mining activity. Funds are used for material assistance to individuals like Diordora Hernandez who persists in refusing to sell her small plot of land despite a murder attempt, and others, and for producing educational materials and documentary films. One documentary is presently being made (See: about Hernandez, her attempted murder, and her ongoing struggle with Goldcorp.

Critical education is, of itself, action.

Eleanor Millard is a Carcross resident and the author of River Child and Journeys Outside and In. She has travelled extensively in Central America for nearly 30 years.