Telma Yolanda Oquelí Veliz, who was nearly killed for her activism against mining in San José del Golfo, Guatemala, spoke out publicly Monday morning for the first time since the attack against her in June.
"I want to tell the world that here in Guatemala there is a peaceful resistance that exists, and we are prepared to stay here as long as possible," said Oquelí, sitting upright on a plastic chair inside a permanent camp blocking the entrance to a proposed gold mine about 30km from Guatemala City. "We always hoped no blood would be spilled in this struggle, and personally mine did, but I think it has been a very important test and today I am back in action, and I know that they will not quiet me, while god gives me life I will continue."
While Oquelí spoke, many of those active on the blockade gathered under the cover of the simple roadside shelter to listen. Other men stacked firewood, while children played along the edge of the camp. Some of the women prepared warm drinks and food to feed everyone at the camp, which has been permanently occupied since March of this year.
"I haven't wanted to make statements or give interviews because in truth I didn't want to talk about myself, I want the focus to be on the resistance, on the people who are present here,” said Oquelí.
Banners against mining and in solidarity with the blockade grace the side of the road, while a beat-up gate closes off the main entrance to the concession. Traffic on the dirt road was sparse, as it is well off the main highway, serving community members going from one village to another. Most would honk and wave as they rolled past; others would stop and say “hi” to the people on the side of the road.
Six teams of at least 10 adults take a weekly 24-hour shift and each week one team stays over on Sundays. No one lives permanently at the camp: every night, those who spend the night light a fire and rest, rising again to make breakfast for their whole group in the morning.
"The group leaders meet and they each tell their groups when their shifts will be, what is planned for the weekend, if there are meetings, and if there is new information," said Miguel Antonio Muraller, who has been active in the blockade since the outset. "That's how we communicate so that we're all aware of what's going on."
An eviction attempt by police was thwarted on May 8th, when, in the early hours of the morning, people at the blockade got word that a convoy of police and mining vehicles was headed to the site. Residents from San José and neighboring communities mobilized by the hundreds, and the police withdrew without any confrontation.
Things have been quiet at the camp since the June 13th shooting of Oquelí. She was on her way out of the camp when her vehicle was cut-off by a car and a motorcycle and her would be assassin shot three bullets at her. One of the bullets pierced her abdomen and remains lodged inside her, too close to the spinal cord to be safely removed. Oquelí suffers ongoing pain as a result of the shooting. Her attackers, who she thinks are connected to the municipality of San José del Golfo and to the mining company, have never been identified.
The proposed mine was owned by Vancouver based Radius Gold at the time of the shooting. Radius sold off its stake in the project to Nevada-based Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA) in August of 2012. KCA is a privately held metallurgical services company. No stranger to violence against mine opponents, Simon Ridgway, Chair of the Board of Radius Gold at the time of Orquelí’s shooting, was the front man of Fortuna Silver when Bernardo Vásquez was murdered in Oaxaca in March of this year.
If built, locals say the mine would impact lands previously used for small-scale agriculture.
“We don't fight over the gold – we fight for life, for our water, to keep sowing corn and beans, which is what we campesinos live from,” said Irma Esperanza, who was on shift at the blockade, preparing lunch in the kitchen. Behind her, three huge pots bubbled over small fires. “Here the mining is inside our community and there's many of us who will be impacted,” she said.
Esperanza explained that while some in the community support the mining project, those who are maintaining the blockade of the access road are there with the best interests of their children in mind.
“I'm 83, but here I am in the struggle – fighting for the children, and for our land, on which we were born,” said Miguel Díaz Morales, who says he often spends what would be otherwise restless nights at the blockade. His eldest son stood to his side, nodding solemnly as his father spoke. “We defend our land because we have the right to do so,” said Díaz. “We're free and we have the right to defend our lands.”
Regardless of the threats and the pain, Oquelí made it clear that she takes her strength from the men, women and children who make time to stand guard on the side of the road.
“There are elders here; there are children that together with their moms and dads come to do a shift,” she said. “This motivates us to act in a responsible way, to give a good example to the children, and to support the struggles of our elders.”
The mood at the camp was uplifting, but a sense of unease was clear in Oquelí’s voice when she addressed the army’s massacre of six Indigenous protestors in Totonicapán, in the Guatemalan highlands, on October 4th.
“We’re concerned by what happened in [Totonicapán], we can imagine ourselves in their shoes,” she said. “We are just like them, we are in resistance, and you never know at what moment repression is going to come.”