Power, Violence and Mining in Guatemala: Non-Violent Resistance to Canada’s Northern Shadow

Source: ReVista

It was another cold summer’s night in the Guatemalan highlands when my colleague, Rev. Emilie Smith, received a devastating phone call. “Yoli has been shot!” said a voice on the other end. Frantically, we gathered all the information we could: Was she alive? Where is she now? By the time I went to bed—not that I could sleep—I knew human rights defender Yolanda (Yoli) Oquelí Veliz was stable and safe, at least for the time being.

I first met Yoli at a community blockade known as La Puya in May 2012. Named after a thorny tree that grows in the area, La Puya translates to “a thorn in the side,” a name somewhat emblematic of the movement’s mission. La Puya is a space of non-violent resistance about thirty minutes outside Guatemala City. When Canadian mining company Radius Gold Inc. acquired an exploitation license from the Guatemalan government in early 2012, the company began moving large equipment into community territory. By March 2, locals from the municipalities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc assembled a roadblock at the mine’s entrance. La Puya’s participants are protesting what they say is the company’s lack of transparency, as well as patterns of impunity and corruption within the Guatemalan government. The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA has expressed worry over Radius’ environmental impact assessment as the company “recognized that air quality would be affected, as well as flora, fauna, top soil, and the available quantity of water.” Communities in this area have access to water once, sometimes twice a week, making water a primary concern for locals.

Radius’ attempt to establish the El Tambor Mine was met with powerful peaceful resistance by members of La Puya. Two months after Yoli’s June 2012 shooting, Radius sold what it called a “problematic asset” to a Nevada-based company Kappes Cassidy and Associates (KCA). Riot police then occupied La Puya at the demand of the Guatemalan government and in response to pressure from KCA. Despite the overwhelming temptation to react with violence, La Puya has not thrown one stick, not one stone. “We may be meek, but we are not stupid,” Yoli says. “We know our rights and we are going to fight for them.”

Although El Tambor Mine is no longer Canadian, what happened to Yoli is emblematic of the experience with some Canadian companies in Guatemala. Canada has the leading number of mining companies in the world, controlling more than 8,000 exploitation and exploration projects in 120 countries worldwide. However, the Canadian government prefers that mining companies adopt voluntary policies rather than accept formal regulations and legal liability. Mining companies are left to police themselves regarding respect for human and environmental rights. Between 1999 and 2009, Canadian corporations owned 33 percent of the global extractive companies involved in mining conflicts, trailed by Australia and India at eight percent each.


Yoli’s shooting was an act of rage by pro-mining advocates who saw her as a threat to economic growth through resource extraction. Her case is not an unusual one. The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA reports more than 2,000 assaults against human rights defenders between 2000 and 2010 and the murder of 118 defenders during the same years. Attacks are directed principally against individuals and groups who are indigenous Maya, community leaders, environmentalists, activists, academics, lawyers, journalists or union representatives.

Mining companies are often abetted by the Guatemalan government, the military and police as they attempt to control those who speak out against extractive industries because of environmental or community control issues. Physical and psychological terror often seeks to divide and dismantle campaigns against unequal forms of “development” and further marginalize those already disenfranchised. In Guatemala’s post-conflict environment, Canadian mining companies have been able to gain legitimacy for the use of force by the Guatemalan state and perpetrated forms of violence for the benefit of the company’s bottom line.
Yoli is one of many human rights defenders attacked in recent years. A non-governmental organization, Rights Action, reported the attempted assassination of another anti-mine protester, Diodora Antonia Hernandez Cinto, at her home near Goldcorp Inc.’s Marlin Mine in 2011. Rights Action explains that Diodora was shot “because she would not sell her plot of land to Goldcorp.” She was hit in the face and as a result lost her right eye. Documentary photographer James Rodríguez says: “One year after her miraculous recuperation, Diodora continues to reject offers to sell.”

In 2011, indigenous Q’eqchi’ communities took legal action against HudBay Minerals Inc. in Canadian civil court for the murder of an indigenous Maya leader, the rape of 11 indigenous women and the unprovoked shooting of a young man, all by HudBay security. These cases are precedent-setting, and as communities inch closer to justice, plaintiffs face increased attacks by pro-mining personnel in an effort to have the suits withdrawn. Rights Action reports that the company is providing small sums of money in an effort to “‘convince’ the other women-plaintiffs that they all drop their lawsuit.” Despite the peaceful means of pursuing the legal justice, intimidation tactics against the indigenous Q’eqchi’ communities have not subsided.

Locals hold signs that read: “In San Rafael Las Flores and my house, the mine does not pass!”In April 2013, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) publicized the shooting of six community members from the San Rafael las Flores area around Tahoe Resources’ El Tambor Mine. The assaults were ordered by Tahoe’s head of security Alberto Rotondo, who is now facing criminal charges for attempted homicide. Shortly after, the Guatemalan government declared a state of siege in the municipalities surrounding the mine and deployed 8,500 military personnel to control the conflict with what NISGUA calls a “conflict with the repression of communities opposing large-scale development projects and the stigmatization of community leaders and human rights defenders.”

Abroad, the extractive resource industry is promoted as the latest cure for development shortcomings, while failing to acknowledge practices detrimental to the self-determined development sought internationally by local communities. Canadian extractive industries receive extraordinary amounts of government support from Export Development Canada (EDC), the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) now a part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and Canadian Embassies, as well as the World Bank.

While mining is a fundamental part of Canadian culture, the Canadian press largely ignores reports of human rights abuses. Few Canadians are aware of the mining companies’ actions and local communities’ reactions to them. The detrimental environmental, social and economic influence caused by Canadian mining companies is staggering. As accusations of human rights and environmental violations pour in, Canada is quickly losing its humanitarian reputation.


In 1997, one year after Guatemala’s civil war ended, the national Mining Law was updated to further attract foreign companies to invest in the country’s rich natural resources. Changes included a reduction of royalty payables from six percent to a minuscule one percent, unlimited use of local water supplies and duty-free imports for operation. Guatemala’s Mining Law is an exemplary neoliberal strategy that promotes economic growth through a “race to the bottom” between countries in the Global South. As Catherine Nolin and Jaqui Stephens (2010) explain, “mining companies are guided by global and national policies, but the strongest impact of mining practices is felt in the local cultures and environments.” This opens Guatemala to plunder and limits the power of HRDs to reject mining companies from their territory.

Both indigenous and non-indigenous communities have reacted to the proliferation of extractive industries in Guatemala. Since 2005 more than 65 community consultations have been held across the country, with a majority of the one million participants voting “No” to invasive forms of development on community lands. However, in an attempt to delegitimize the efforts of human rights defenders, the Guatemalan government ruled that consultas are not legally binding. This contradicts Guatemala’s 1997 ratification of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Convention No. 169, legally preserving the rights of indigenous peoples. Non-indigenous communities rely on their constitutional right to consultation through their municipal government, which is frequently blocked by corruption.

Efforts to assemble peaceful demonstrations and resistance across Guatemala have been met with endless incidents of force. In 2004, former President Óscar Berger dispatched 1,200 soldiers and 400 police officers to forcibly end a highway blockade assembled by indigenous communities affected by Goldcorp Inc.’s Marlin Mine. Tear gas and bullets left one protester dead and injured several others in an effort to “protect the investors” (Mychalejko 2005; Nolin & Stephens 2010).
This year, Tahoe’s Escobal Mine at San Rafael las Flores was responsible for the murder of an indigenous Xinka leader, the kidnapping of locals, threats, harassments and illegal detainment of human rights advocates. President Otto Pérez Molina responded by imposing a state of siege terrorizing communities with military personnel occupation. This mine is not yet operational and is already the center of social conflict.

On July 9, 2013, Pérez Molina attempted to further discredit efforts of human rights defenders in his nationally televised show “De Frente con el Presidente” by promoting metal mining as positive for Guatemala economically and safe environmentally. Pérez Molina now has proposed a two-year moratorium on mining. Some critics say the proposed moratorium is an effort to quell opponents, while other Guatemalans believe he is reforming the Mining Law. Current mining projects will continue to operate despite community efforts to have their voices heard.

The financial, political and judicial pressure brought to bear against communities resisting Canadian mining companies is enormous. Communities desire respect and dignity; they believe in a self-determined way of life in harmony with the earth rather than extracting precious metals from it for short-term gain. Those who benefit from mining are not locals but corrupt government officials, the Guatemalan elite and transnational mining companies, all of whom strengthen their financial and political power under the guise of development. Jobs are limited and temporary, corporate “gifts” of healthcare or education dry up after the mines close, ecosystems are left in perpetual reclamation and community divisions are irreparable.

Alexandra Pedersen is a Ph.D. Candidate in Geography at Queen’s University, Canada. She can be reached at <a.pedersen@queensu.ca>.

Photos by James Rodríguez, www.Mimundo.org.