Mining and Imperialism in Guatemala

opposition to escobal mine
Protesting the Escobal mine in Guatemala. Photo:

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 southeast Guatemala, outside the town of San Rafael de las Flores, approximately 40 km 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 24 August, 2020, more than 90 Guatemalan and international organizations signed a letter, expressing their concern at the persistent impunity for human rights violations against Xinka land defenders. The letter also highlighted an increase in cases of defamation, threats and criminalization 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 8 cases of criminalization against defenders from Santa Maria Xalapan.

The increased repression of Xinka people is a result of the current correlation of forces in Guatemala which has tilted the balance in favor of the company operating the Escobal mine. In 2010, Tahoe Resource Group, a Canadian mining company, had bought a majority stake 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 Pan American Silver – a Vancouver-based company – for $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 believe that the state would intervene to facilitate capital accumulation through repression. Quelvin Jiménez, lawyer for the Xinka Parliament (the elected ancestral authority of the Xinka people), says, “Now, Pan American Silver has an operator on the inside to protect its interests,”.

Resistance against the Escobal Mine

The contemporary 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 of 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 Ministry of Energy and Mining rejected the processing of the complaints and instantaneously granted the mining license. All this 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 ram through the anti-extractivist countercurrents and had to consequently use lethal force to continue its operations. Between 2012 and 2013, seven people were murdered, 29 individuals were physically injured, and 50 community members were arrested in connection with operations at the El Escobal mine. Between 2011 and 2015, over 125 people were criminalized through various legal proceedings. One particular incident of overt shooting 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 protestors from San Rafael Las Flores approached the entrance of the El Escobal silver mine using 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 26 January, 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 30 July, 2019, the six-year long legal battle was brought to an end by Pan American Silver which apologized to the Guatemalan plaintiffs and conceded that “the shooting on April 27, 2013, infringed the human rights of the protestors”,.

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, 8, 500 military personnel were deployed in four municipalities and areas of resistance were militarily penetrated by tanks and armored vehicles. The state of siege suspended basic constitutional rights, barred public assembly, allowed the military to indefinitely detain anyone without charge/trial and lifted restrictions on searches and seizures. However, the siege was never authorized by the Guatemalan Congress. For Tahoe Resources, the siege was an important measure through which indigenous resistance to its operations was temporarily subdued. MSR praised the state of siege through a paid ad published in the print media on May 7, 2013. The ad was additionally signed by 36 construction companies which expressed their “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 state-sanctioned violence oriented towards capital accumulation, the Xinka people did not capitulate to the extractive elites and instead, resiliently opposed the mining bourgeoisie through community actions, international solidarity and organizational strategies. As a result of these revolutionary efforts, the Guatemalan Constitutional Tribunal was forced to halt the Escobal project in 2017 while it investigated allegations of lack of consultation. This judgment was upheld on 4 September, 2018, when the constitutional court confirmed that the Escobal mining license will remain suspended until a consultation in line with ILO convention 169 is completed by the MEM. As per the constitutional court, the consultation comprises of 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 constitutional 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 has 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 criticized the inadequacy of the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in determining the area of influence with regard to cultural and spiritual impacts.

In the cotemporary period, we are witnessing the direct continuation of ceaseless attempts to sabotage the consultation process laid out by the constitutional court and undercut Xinka resistance. Articulating these regressive efforts aimed at weakening Xinka community’s political potency, a blog post by the NGO Earthworks states: “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”.

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, attempts are afoot to emasculate the proper participation of the Xinka people. Pan American Silver recently collected signatures and ID numbers from community members who received their donation to dishonestly demonstrate local support for the mining project. Commenting on these manipulative tactics, Luis Fernando García Monroy – on behalf of the Xinka Parliament – said: “COVID-19 isn’t the only health crisis we’re facing. 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,”.

Extractive Imperialism in Guatemala

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 over-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 increased 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 over 1000% from 1998 to 2008.

As Guatemala was imperialistically pillaged by transnational companies, a “generalized” atmosphere of extractive capital accumulation was generated. Francisco Mateo, a protagonist of anti-extractivism in Huehuetenango (a city in western Guatemala), a former member of the Departmental Assembly in Defense of Life and Territory in Huehuetenango (ADH) and a member of the Huista Council, a local affiliate of the CPO (Mayan People’s Council), explains 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? 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. To take an example, Bernardo Caal Xol is a Maya Q’eq’chi’ teacher and trade unionist who, for 5 years, has been defending the rights of the communities of Santa María Cahabón who 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 alleged acts of violence against employees of NETZONE SA, an OXEC contractor, on 15 October 2015. On 9 November 2018, a court sentenced him to seven years and four months in prison based on trumped up charges. Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, says: “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 criminalization of human rights defenders that we have documented in the country for years.”

In a similar manner, violence against Guatemalan anti-mining activists has solidified. On the night of 5 August, 2020, 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 facilitated the organized articulation of indigenous resistance against extractivism. Attacks on Garcia Canan are politically patterned with 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, having been murdered on 15 June, 2020, 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 are having no qualms about enacting 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 an independent writer from Aligarh, India

Originally published in GreenLeft



Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News