State Of Siege: Guatemala in Turmoil As Violent Mining Conflict Escalates
Special Forces of the National Civilian Police (PNC) of Guatemala.
Photo Credit: Danilojramirez/Wikimedia Commons
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With the world's attention on the on-again off-again genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his head of military intelligence in Guatemala City, there has been little room for international reporting on other events in the Central American nation. But as the trial continues, conflicts involving rural communities and transnational mining companies are escalating, to the point that a State of Siege has been declared.
Fifty miles southeast of the capital, private security guards working for US-Canadian mining firm Tahoe Resources shot and wounded several local residents on April 27 in San Rafael Las Flores, on the road in front of Tahoe’s El Escobal silver mine, currently under construction. A police officer and a campesino were killed during conflicts between April 29 and 30. The mining company’s head of security and two other employees were arrested. Through it all, demonstrations against the mining project have continued amid conflicting reports and government misinformation.
Following a late-night Cabinet meeting on May 1, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina declared a 30-day State of Siege in four municipalities around the El Escobal mining project: San Rafael Las Flores and Casillas in the department of Santa Rosa, and Jalapa and Mataquescuintla in the department of Jalapa The measure came into effect the following morning, on May 2. Suspended constitutional rights include freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and protest, and certain rights of detainees and prisoners.
Even before the measure was declared, communities were denouncing army mobilization in the region. When he announced the State of Siege, Pérez Molina stated that security forces reported for duty at three military bases the night of May 1 and that operatives would begin early the following morning.
“We fear for the lives of our leaders,” stated a message circulated online at the time by the Xinka People’s Parliament, denouncing the mobilization of armed forces in Jutiapa with the alleged plan of arresting Xinka leaders in Santa María Xalapán, Jalapa. “We’re returning to the 1980s, with the persecution of leaders, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearance.”
Two weeks prior, Guatemalan Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla announced that executive and judicial officials were analyzing the possibility of declaring a State of Emergency in at least 30 municipalities throughout the country, due to violence. The government, according to the April 16 announcement, had anticipated finalizing the details of its evaluation of “red zones” within two weeks and implementing the measures suspending constitutional rights possibly within three weeks to a month. At the time, mining was not mentioned.
The suspension of constitutional rights likely did not come as a surprise to Moisés Divas, Coordinator of the Diocesan Commission in Defense of Nature (CODIDENA) in Santa Rosa.
“The extent of the reaction from both the company and the State has completely violated people’s constitutional right to protest,” Divas told Upside Down World in a telephone interview on April 29. At the time, he was in Guatemala City accompanying some of the wounded San Rafael Las Flores residents at the Office of the Public Prosecutor, where they were being seen by a medical examiner.
“They no longer even respect human life. The government officials who should be at the service of the population have now turned against the population to defend a transnational project,” said Divas.
Tahoe Resources owns the El Escobal mine, but Vancouver-based mining giant Goldcorp retained a 40 per cent ownership interest in Tahoe when it sold the project in 2010. Still under construction, El Escobal was granted an exploitation license by the Guatemalan government on April 3 amid widespread protest and threats against opponents. Five days later, the community-based movement against mining in San Rafael Las Flores began an ongoing resistance camp on privately owned land less than 200 feet from the mine’s front gate. Despite a violent eviction on April 11, when 26 people were arrested and held for four days before being released without charges, the resistance maintained its presence at the camp.