Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-drawn-out conflict at the Escobal silver mine in Guatemala — the second-largest in the world — is intensifying.
The Escobal mine is located in south-east Guatemala, outside the town of San Rafael de las Flores, approximately 40 kilometres from Guatemala City. Since the beginning of commercial production, in early 2013, the mine has been embroiled in a conflict wherein the Xinka, a non-Mayan indigenous group and the fifth-largest autochthonous group in Guatemala, has been resolutely resisting extractivist operations.
On August 24, more than 90 Guatemalan and international organisations signed a letter expressing their concern at the persistent impunity for human rights violations against Xinka land defenders.
The letter also highlighted a rise in cases of defamation, threats and criminalisation of members of the peaceful resistance of Santa Rosa, Jalapa and Jutiapa, since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first quarter of 2020, for instance, there were eight cases of criminalisation against defenders from Santa Maria Xalapan.
The increased repression of the Xinka people is a result of the current correlation of forces in Guatemala, which has tilted the balance in favour of the company operating the Escobal mine.
In 2010, Tahoe Resource Group, a Canadian mining company, bought a majority of the rights for three separate exploration and exploitation licenses for gold, silver, lead and zinc in the Guatemalan departments of Santa Rosa and Jalapa from Goldcorp.
The Canadian corporation continued to operate the mine until 2018, when it was acquired by Vancouver-based Pan American Silver - for US$1.1 billion.
Currently, Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei has appointed Juan José Cabrera Alonso, a former General Director for the Pan American Silver company’s Guatemalan subsidiary, Minera San Rafael (MSR), as Special Secretary to the Vice President.
This appointment has translated into a guarantee of investment security for Pan American Silver, which can now firmly rely on state intervention to facilitate capital accumulation through repression. “Now, Pan American Silver has an operator on the inside to protect its interests,” said Quelvin Jiménez, lawyer for the Xinka Parliament (the elected ancestral authority of the Xinka people).
Resistance to the Escobal mine
The situation at the Escobal mine is deeply enmeshed in a history of Xinka resistance, which has ensured that mining operations perennially encounter the powerful force of class struggle.
In 2013, the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) granted an exploitation license for the Escobal mine to Tahoe Resources, after rejecting more than 250 complaints about the environmental risks from the mining project. Instead of processing these citizen complaints as necessitated by articles 46 to 48 of the Mining Law, the Director General’s office at the MEM rejected the processing of the complaints and immediately granted the mining license.
All the while, indigenous communities of the municipalities of San Rafael Las Flores, Nueva Santa Rosa, Casillas and Santa Rosa de Lima in the Department of Santa Rosa, and Mataquescuintla and Jalapa in the Department of Jalapa, maintained that they were not consulted prior to the awarding of the licenses.
Nevertheless, the company decided to push through the anti-extractivist countercurrents and had to use lethal force to continue its operations.
Between 2012-13, seven people were murdered, 29 injured, and 50 community members arrested in connection with operations at the El Escobal mine. Between 2011-15, more than 125 people were criminalised through various legal proceedings.
One particular shooting incident neatly encapsulates the murderous methods employed by mining magnates to operate in the countries of the Global South. Apart from depicting the violence of imperialist extractivism, the case also serves as an example of the revolutionary struggle waged by the oppressed masses of the Global South.
On April 27, 2013, a group of protesters from San Rafael Las Flores approached the entrance of the Escobal silver mine via a dirt road. To suppress these demonstrations, private security guards hired by Tahoe Resources opened fire on the campesinos, injuring seven of the men. Adolfo Agustín García, one of the men shot by the guards, had his nine-year-old son with him at the demonstration.
Tahoe Resources had hired the Golan Group, the same Israeli private security corporation used by HudBay Minerals and Goldcorp, to unleash violence against anti-extractivist social movements.
In response to the violence, the seven men assaulted by the mining corporation filed a lawsuit in British Columbia in June 2014, accusing the company of negligence for the actions of its security personnel.
The case was initially dismissed by Supreme Court Judge Laura Gerow, who ruled that the case could not be heard in Canada due to high procedural costs, and was better suited for Guatemala’s court system. Her decision was overturned on January 26, 2017, by the BC Court of Appeal, which concluded that Guatemala’s corrupt judiciary placed severe limitations on the plaintiffs’ potential to receive a fair trial.
On July 30 last year, the six-year-long legal battle was brought to an end by Pan American Silver which apologised to the Guatemalan plaintiffs and conceded that “the shooting on April 27, 2013, infringed the human rights of the protesters”.
Tahoe’s barbarous policies were lent full support by the Guatemalan state, which went as far as to enact a campaign of terror to consolidate extractive capital’s dominance.
On May 3, 2013, President Perez Molina imposed a 30-day state of siege in the municipalities surrounding the Escobal mine, amid a growing number of community-level consultations and plebiscites against mining operations.
During the siege, 8500 military personnel were deployed in four municipalities and areas of resistance were militarily penetrated by tanks and armoured vehicles. The state of siege suspended basic constitutional rights, barred public assembly, allowed the military to indefinitely detain anyone without charge or trial and lifted restrictions on searches and seizures. However, the siege was never authorised by the Guatemalan Congress.
For Tahoe Resources, the siege was an important measure to temporarily subdue indigenous resistance to its operations. MSR praised the state of siege through a paid advertisement, published in the print media on May 7, 2013. The ad was also signed by 36 construction companies that expressed “respect and support for the government’s decision to re-establish public order and the rule of law in Santa Rosa and Jalapa”.
In spite of this state-sanctioned violence, the Xinka people did not capitulate to the extractive elites and instead, resiliently opposed the mining bourgeoisie through community actions, international solidarity and organisational strategies.
As a result of these efforts, the Guatemalan Constitutional Tribunal was forced to halt the Escobal project in 2017, while it investigated allegations of lack of consultation.
On September 4, 2018, the constitutional court confirmed that the Escobal mining license would remain suspended until a consultation in line with International Labour Organisation Convention 169 was completed by the MEM.
The consultation was to comprise four stages: “1) definition of the area of influence of the project, 2) a pre-consultation phase to determine the process, 3) the consultation itself, and 4) the presentation of consultation results to the Guatemalan Supreme Court.”
Flouting the judicial orders of the court, Tahoe and the MEM declared the completion of stage one of the consultation process on November 15, 2018, without ever informing the Xinka leadership.
On top of the patent exclusion of the Xinka people, the company only included the municipality of San Rafael las Flores — where the mine’s industrial plant is located — as the “area of influence of the project”. In opposition to this definition of the mine’s area of influence, the Xinka parliament has univocally asserted that the all-encompassing impacts of the mine cannot be reduced to such a small area.
It has further criticised the inadequacy of the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in determining the area of influence, with regard to cultural and spiritual impacts.
Right now, we are witnessing the continuation of ceaseless attempts to sabotage the consultation process laid out by the court and undercut Xinka resistance.
"Rather than the open, inclusive consultation promised in the Court ruling, the Xinka have faced threats, intimidation, and an exclusionary, potentially illegal process that seems to have a preordained outcome: the reopening of a mine that the Xinka say will destroy their way of life", said NGO Earthworks.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, attempts are afoot to emasculate the proper participation of the Xinka people.
Pan American Silver recently collected the signatures and identification numbers of community members who received its “donation” to dishonestly demonstrate local support for the mining project.
“COVID-19 isn’t the only health crisis we’re facing,” said Luis Fernando García Monroy, on behalf of the Xinka parliament.
“For a decade, communities surrounding the Escobal mine have fought to protect their health from mining activities. Guatemalan courts ordered Pan American Silver to suspend its operations during the consultation and this includes community outreach, which gives rise to tension and conflict.
“Pan American Silver should tell its employees to stay home and stop trying to buy support for the mine during this significant health crisis.”
While the present-day conflict revolving around the Escobal mine is socially situated in the antagonistic relations between the Xinka community and the mining companies, it is also economically embedded in the structures of extractive imperialism in Guatemala.
Through this extractive imperialism, the country’s natural resources have been laid open for the super-exploitative practices of multinational companies.
The path for this capitalist expansion was paved by the Guatemalan state, which instituted a number of laws to attract foreign investment: the new Mining Law of 1997, which reduced the royalty rate for mining companies from 6% to 1% of production value; the General Electricity Law of 1996, which reduced costs for energy-intensive mining projects; the “Maquila Law” of 1988, which exempted exporters from taxes on inputs, and the 1998 Foreign Investment Law, which expanded rights for foreign investors.
With the help of these laws, mineral and metal exports rose from a low of 0.385% of merchandise exports in 2003 to a high of 9.626% in 2011, ten times the rate of Latin America; and mining concessions expanded by more than 1000% from 1998-2008.
Francisco Mateo, an anti-extractivist in Huehuetenango (a city in western Guatemala), a former member of the Departmental Assembly in Defense of Life and Territory in Huehuetenango and a member of the Huista Council, a local affiliate of the Mayan People's Council, explained how an “integrated” capital accumulation is taking place, comprehensively uprooting entire territories:
“We see here a new despojo (dispossession), because we are not talking about a mining project, nor are we talking about an energy project. It is a total concession of territory.”
“Just in Huehuetenango, there are thirty‐six approved mining licenses. There are twenty energy projects, between small, medium, and large. Then there are three petroleum projects in the northern zone … They try to make it seem like these [energy] projects are independent and that they don't have anything to do with mining. How could that be?" said Mateo.
“Without the energy, there can't be mining. Thus they are completely interrelated. There is a fusion within capital; there are deals.”
Because of the comprehensive consolidation of extractive capital in Guatemala, there has been a heightened internal war against people who oppose mining and energy projects.
One of those targeted is Bernardo Caal Xol, a Maya Q’eq’chi’ teacher and trade unionist who has been defending the rights of the Santa María Cahabón communities for the past five years. These communities have been affected by the construction of the Oxec hydroelectric plant on the Oxec and Cahabón rivers in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.
In response to his activism, companies accused Caal of carrying out acts of violence against employees of Netzone SA, an Oxec contractor, in October, 2015. In November, 2018, a court sentenced him to seven years and four months in prison, on these trumped up charges.
Amnesty International Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas said: “Having reviewed the … criminal proceedings against Bernardo Caal, it’s clear that there’s no evidence of the crimes that he’s accused of.
“On the contrary, the proceedings against Bernardo show the same patterns of criminalisation of human rights defenders that we have documented in the country for years.”
The use of violence against Guatemalan anti-mining activists has also intensified.
On the night of August 5, unknown persons raided the home of indigenous rights defender Ubaldino García Canan in the municipality of Olopa, Chiquimula.
García Canan is a Maya Ch’orti indigenous rights defender and has demonstrated against the operations of the mining company Cantera Los Manantiales. He is also a member of the Maya Ch'orti Indigenous Council of Olopa, and has played an key role in indigenous resistance against extractivism. The attack on Garcia Canan was politically motivated.
Another Maya Ch'orti' indigenous leader, Medardo Alonzo Lucero, also a member of the Indigenous Council and a leader in the opposition movement against the activities of Cantera Los Manantiales, was murdered on June 15 in La Cumbre, Olopa.
The intensification of violence against Guatemalan dissidents is a natural corollary of extractive imperialism, which demands unquestioning obedience to the exigencies of metropolitan capital. For extractive imperialism, the availability of exploitable resources is superior to the existence of human beings.
Correspondingly, the capitalist forces operating in Guatemala have no qualms about commiting violence against those whom they perceive to be hindering the process of accumulation.
This profit-oriented violence will continue to exist as long as we live under the regime of predatory capitalism, which, in the words of Samir Amin, “has become the enemy of all of humanity”.
[Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]