State Of Siege: Guatemala in Turmoil As Violent Mining Conflict Escalates

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.

On Saturday, April 27, a group of local residents were travelling between the resistance camp and the community of El Volcancito, along the road that passes directly in front of the mine. When they passed the front gate, security guards opened fire on them from the other side.

“The mining company ordered the shooting against people there, injuring more than 10 people with gunshot wounds,” said Divas. “Six of them were taken to get medical assistance in Cuilapa and two to the Roosevelt Hospital in the capital, because they found evidence of serious injury.”

Wilmer Pérez, 17; Antonio Humberto Castillo, 48; Noé Aguilar Castillo, 27; and Érick Fernando Castillo, 27, were all released after medical treatment in Cuilapa. Adolfo García, 57, and his son Luis García, 18, were taken to Guatemala City. Adolfo García was later released, but his son Luis remained in hospital care. The 18-year-old was shot in the face, suffered extensive damage to his jaw, lip and teeth, and required maxillofacial surgery.

Alberto Rotondo, Tahoe’s foreign head of security, was overheard giving the order to shoot, among other comments and insults, and some of the injured have stated that they saw him draw and fire a weapon as well. According to a Prensa Comunitaria article posted that same night, local witnesses said that Rotondo “ordered [the security guards] to shoot, saying that they are fed up with all this garbage, referring to our people. They insulted them, and then they loaded their rifles and began to shoot at them.”

Rotondo was later arrested at the airport attempting to flee the country on April 30, accused of attempted murder for his role in the April 27 shooting of local residents. After his case was transferred from the capital to Santa Rosa, he was sent to the El Boquerón maximum security prison in Cuilapa. According to Prensa Libre coverage, a judge in Guatemala City also issued arrest warrants for three other individuals with regards to the April 27 shooting.

On April 29, Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla confirmed that El Escobal mine security guards had shot at local residents. But he also said that the residents had been attempting to forcibly enter the mine site at the time and, despite all evidence to the contrary, stated that only rubber bullets were used.

Oscar Morales García, a member of the Committee in Defense of Life in San Rafael Las Flores that has been mobilizing against the mining project and organizing community consultations, says the statements are simply untrue.

“There are people who were shot with real bullets. One has a bullet lodged in his body and it was decided that it’s better if it stays there instead of taking it out. And the other youth, the son, whose face was disfigured when he was shot. Those aren’t rubber bullets,” he told Upside Down World in a telephone interview on April 29.

Morales García also says that there may have been less evidence had it not been for the actions of local community residents immediately following the shootings on April 27.

“After the attack against those six people, the national police force and the mine guards came out, intending to remove evidence, to drive their vehicles over the crime scene, and to pick up the bullet casings. But some of the people who were there didn’t let that happen. They told the police to get back and then protected the crime scene,” he said. “After six, eight hours of waiting for representatives from the Office of the Public Prosecutor to arrive, yes, they found evidence. The evidence was there. The crime scene had been protected by civilians.”

López Bonilla’s assertion that rubber bullets were used wasn’t the only government statement to be called into question on April 29. Presiding over the signing of a new royalty agreement between Tahoe Resources and the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said that there is community support for the mine.

According to the new voluntary contribution agreement, Tahoe will pay five per cent in royalties instead of the one per cent required by the country’s mining legislation. The additional funds will be distributed to several different municipal governments in the departments of Santa Rosa and Jalapa. The mayor of San Rafael Las Flores was present at the signing ceremony in the capital along with several other elected municipal leaders.

“I saw the statements made by President of the Republic Otto Pérez Molina, saying that the population of San Rafael supports the mining company,” said CODIDENA Coordinator Moisés Divas. That same day, he said, San Rafael Las Flores residents were out in the streets in huge numbers to protest the agreement. “I don’t know what argument or foundation he used to say that people support the mining company.”

Community consultations are underway in San Rafael Las Flores. Eight have been carried out in as many communities. More than 1,200 people have said no to mining and only eight individuals have voted in favour of mining, said both Divas and Morales García. The overwhelming majority of the thousands of people who participated in municipal-level consultations in other municipalities in Santa Rosa – Casillas, Nueva Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa de Lima – and Mataquescuintla in neighbouring Jalapa have also rejected mining.

Morales García also rejected the allegation of local support. “The government just announced [on April 29] that we’re merely two or three people who don’t want mining in San Rafael, that everyone else agrees with it,” he said. Beyond just marginalizing the resistance, said Morales García, the government was acting in concert with the Minera San Rafael, Tahoe Resources’ Guatemalan subsidiary.

“What actually happens is one thing, and the version managed by the government and the mining company is something else. The best Minera San Rafael spokesperson here is Minister López Bonilla,” he said.

In 1982, then Second Lieutenant Mauricio López Bonilla was part of the “La Juntita” Young Officers Advisory Group working for the military junta led by Ríos Montt. He retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Coronel in 1997, shortly after the Peace Accords officially ended four decades of conflict in 1996. He later became the electoral campaign manager for current President Otto Pérez Molina, whose role in the brutal counterinsurgency campaign of the early 1980s in the Ixil region has again come into question during the genocide trial. López Bonillla was sworn into his Cabinet position when Pérez Molina began his term in January 2012.

A whole new set of statements made by López Bonilla came under fire on April 30, after a police officer was shot and killed in San Rafael Las Flores on April 29. The Minister of the Interior also publicly accused Xinka leaders of orchestrating an operation to take 23 police officers hostage in Jalapa.

Community and regional leaders representing the non-Mayan Indigenous Xinka population in southeastern Guatemala have been outspoken opponents of El Escobal and mining in the region. They have also been subject to threats and attacks. Four Xinka community leaders were abducted by armed masked men on March 17, while on their way home to the neighbouring department of Jalapa after observing the community consultation process in El Volcancito, San Rafael las Flores.

Rigoberto Aguilar and Roberto López, both local leaders of the Indigenous Xinka Community of Santa María Xalapán, managed to escape. Roberto González Ucelo, President of the Indigenous Xinka Community of Santa María Xalapán and of the Xinka Parliament, survived after a police operative was sent in. But Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, Secretary of the Xinka Parliament, was found dead. Six weeks later, the Xinka Parliament denounced that no progress has been made to bring those responsible to justice.

In an atmosphere of heightened tension after the April 27 shooting by El Escobal security forces, communities mobilized in San Rafael Las Flores and Jalapa against the mining project on April 29, denouncing the agreement being signed in the capital between Tahoe and the government and the presence of municipal authorities at the event. Conflicts involving the national police force ensued in both locations. In San Rafael Las Flores, a police officer was shot and killed when police attempted to evict the community resistance. In Jalapa, 23 police officers were detained and disarmed the afternoon of April 29 at a blockade between the town of Jalapa and Mataquescuintla. A massive police response involving some 2,000 officers was sent to rescue the first group. In the process, several police officers were wounded and a local resident was killed. Police vehicles were also torched and destroyed in both locations.

On April 30, Vice Minister of the Interior Edy Juárez publicly stated that community leader Rudy Pivaral was responsible for inciting violence in San Rafael Las Flores, leading to the death of police officer Eduardo Demetrio Camacho Orozco, 40. But a week later, the Guatemalan government announced that two more Tahoe Resources employees had been arrested in the previous few days and that one of them, Cláver Alarcón Lemus, was identified as the person responsible for the fatal shooting of the police officer.

Also on April 30, Minister of the Interior López Bonilla publicly accused Xinka leaders Roberto González Ucelo and Rigoberto Ucelo of orchestrating the conflict in Jalapa and said he would hold them responsible for any acts carried out with the weapons taken from the police officers when they were detained.

“They hold me responsible for all the problems that occurred,” Xinka leader Roberto González Ucelo told the Independent Media Center (CMI) on May 1. “I have proof that I went to Cuilapa, I was in Cuilapa, so I didn’t organize [anything] because I was on my way to Cuilapa.” There was evidence of the trip, he said, from various receipts and the registration of his visit in the municipal office in Cuilapa.

An outpouring of support for the Xinka Parliament, community leaders and the local resistance to mining came from Indigenous, campesino and human rights organizations following the government accusations.

“The atmosphere is really tense here,” González Ucelo said of Santa María Xalapán, on the eve of the State of Siege. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

On May 1, the Office of the Public Prosecutor requested the arrest of 18 people on charges related to the conflicts in San Rafael Las Flores and Jalapa. However, the suspension of constitutional rights regarding legal detention and interrogation under the State of Siege left community leaders and outspoken mining opponents in the region vulnerable to unchecked repression.

Guatemalan human rights and Indigenous organizations have denounced the persecution of Indigenous and community leaders in military and police operations under the State of Siege, reporting that several outspoken mining opponents’ homes have been among the targets of raids. According to an announcement by Lopez Bonilla, as of May 6, 85 raids had been carried out, 18 arrests had been made and more were planned.

Largely silent throughout the conflicts leading up to the State of Siege, Tahoe Resources issued a statement on May 1, “to clarify inaccurate media reports about violent incidents that have broken out in recent days.” In line with the company’s response after the murder of Xinka leader Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, Tahoe claimed the incident in Jalapa had nothing whatsoever to do with the mine.

Regarding protests against the mining project, Tahoe Resources CEO Kevin McArthur stated that, “while many of these activities have been peaceful and respectful, violence from outside influences has escalated in the past weeks since we received our operating permit,” according to the statement.

“Tahoe’s Guatemala security manager was detained by authorities on Tuesday [April 30],” the company confirmed, but alleged the detention was simply “due to the highly charged atmosphere and inaccurate press reports about Saturday’s [April 27] events.”

Tahoe also stuck to López Bonilla’s initial claim that only rubber bullets were used, adding that the Escobal security force acted to repel a hostile protest of some “20 people armed with machetes” at the mine gate. “We regret any injuries caused by rubber bullets, but we take the protection of our employees and the mine seriously,” said McArthur, according to the statement.

“As a result of the incidents in recent days, work at the mine has slowed and construction and development is expected to return to normal by Thursday [May 2],” continued the company statement.

But if the first few months of 2013 are any indication, there is no real normal when it comes to El Escobal. Normal has been ongoing community-based resistance in the face of violent repression, which has escalated under the State of Siege.

For Oscar Morales García, the “violence from outside influences” has come from Tahoe Resources. “The truth here is that the social peace was shattered when the mining company came to San Rafael,” he said.

Morales García would know. His home was raided by armed forces after the State of Siege was declared, and he has since gone into hiding.

Before the measure was declared, Morales García told Upside Down World that he knew Tahoe Resources’ Annual General Meeting was coming up on May 9 in Vancouver, and he had a message for the company’s shareholders.

“Tahoe’s silver, minerals and gold in San Rafael are now stained with blood. It may be true that the government authorized an exploitation license, but what would be called a social license for Minera San Rafael doesn’t exist here. It doesn’t exist and it never will,” said Morales García.

“The message for the shareholders is loud and strong,” he continued. “You don’t have a social license. The resistance is just beginning. And we’re in it for the long haul.”

Ed. note: Amid controversy surrounding the constitutionality of the State of Siege, which had not been ratified by Congress within the required three-day-period, on May 9, President Otto Pérez Molina lifted the State of Siege. He then immediately declared a 15-day "Estado de prevención," a lower-grade State of Emergency under Guatemalan law.

Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist and editor currently based in Vancouver. You can find her on twitter at @sandra_cuffe. A version of this article was originally published by Upside Down World.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.