Wednesday 20 March 2013

Tensions rise after murder of Guatemalan indigenous activist opposed to Canada’s Tahoe Resources silver project

The vote (Photo: C.P.R.Urbana)
An indigenous Guatemalan activist opposed to Canadian mining company Tahoe Resources’ plan for a silver mine was found dead on the morning of Monday, March 18.

Four indigenous Xinca leaders, including the President of the Xinca Indigenous Parliament, were abducted by a group of heavily armed men shortly after 8 pm on the night of Sunday, March 17. Two of the kidnapped men escaped, and Roberto González Ucelo, President of the Xinca Parliament, was freed a day later.

However, the lifeless body of the fourth man, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, who acted as Secretary of the Xinca Parliament, was discovered the morning after the kidnapping in a ravine in Mataquescuintla. According to Guatemala’s deputy minister of state, Edy Juárez, the community activist had been severely beaten before being killed.

The abductions and murder came directly after a referendum on Sunday in which 99.2% of the population of the community of El Volcancito, near the proposed mine site and the larger town of San Rafael Las Flores, rejected plans by Canada’s Tahoe Resources to develop its Escobal silver mining project, according to a communique from Congcoop, an umbrella organization for NGOs and cooperatives.

The community consultation is the third in a series of 26 planned in the area. These referenda are regulated by the Guatemalan Municipal Code. Authorities in the larger community of San Rafael Las Flores have refused requests for a referendum at the municipal level.

The four indigenous leaders were allegedly abducted by ten to 12 masked men travelling in a pickup truck in the town of Pino Dulce, Mataquescuintla, in the Jalapa department. The indigenous leaders were returning home after observing the ongoing consultation process.

“At the end of the day we had the civic consultation, then a religious observation and dinner,” Yuri Melini of the NGO CALAS (Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social), told the local Guatemalan press. “Then at 8 pm everyone left to go home.”

At about 9:30 news of the attack broke. One of the kidnapped men, Rigoberto Aguilar, who is the mayor of Santa María Xalapán, managed to untie his hands and eject himself from the moving truck. Later another man, Roberto López, was also able to escape.

The third man, Roberto González, who is not only the President of the Xinca Parliament but also the leader of the Xinca indigenous community of Santa María Xalapán, was liberated Monday evening as a result of an operation by a police anti-kidnapping squad. He was brought to a hotel in Chimaltenango in shock and showing signs of disorientation, according to interior minister Mauricio López Bonilla.

When Exaltación Marcos Ucelo’s body was discovered in the ravine, the pickup truck believed to have been used in the kidnapping was found abandoned only 500 meters away. The indigenous leader had been the Secretary of the Xinca Parliament for almost two years, and had been actively involved in research to establish the historical land rights of indigenous peoples, many of whom were displaced during Guatemala’s Civil War, which ended in 1996.

He was an integral member of a team that had established land agreements last year.  The Xinca themselves are a non-Maya indigenous group, sometimes called the Xinka, which has a core population of about 16,000 people. The Xinca Parliament, however, represents over 14 communities and an estimated 200,000 people.

In response to the attack, a group of residents briefly blocked the entrance to the departmental capital of Jalapa in protest.

Tahoe Resources acquired the Escobal project from Canadian mining giant Goldcorp in 2010, and operates the project via a subsidiary called Minería San Rafael S.A. So far the company does not have a license for mineral exploitation. However, it has been pouring money into the infrastructure required to support the project. In fact, the company is making public statements to the effect that full commercial production is expected to commence in early 2014. That news cheered investors on March 7, when the stock jumped 6%. The company has a market capitalization of $2.3 billion.

The project has seen violence before. In January of this year two guards from the mining company’s private security firm were killed, with Guatemala’s Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla escalating the rhetoric by conflating mining resistance with overall crime, a daily worry for many Guatemalans.

However, at the time Tahoe Resources and the government did not specifically link the attack to community resistance, with the company stating that authorities believed it was “not a local protest but an organized, nighttime incursion by a well-armed group from outside the area.” The attackers left behind numerous automatic weapons and incendiary devices.

Tahoe Resources has made no public comments on the most recent murder. On its website the company states that:

“Through responsible mining practices and close cooperation with community leaders, local governments and business leaders, Tahoe actively contributes to the economic and social development of the communities in which it operates.”

And that:

“Through communications and partnerships with locals to implement community projects, we will continue to demonstrate our commitment to environmental stewardship, employee safety and economic and social development in the communities near the project.”

(For Tahoe Resources' response to La politica, see: March 22, 2013: CEO Kevin McArthur says suggestions of possible Tahoe Resources complicity in murder of Guatemalan indigenous leader “a complete fabrication”).

The violence came as no surprise to many observers of the situation. Last September there was a major conflict when hundreds of demonstrators tried to stop the company from putting in power lines. After that encounter, in which three protestors were shot and wounded by security forces, the mayor of San Rafael Las Flores, Lionel Morales, stated that the demonstrators were not from local communities.

The company then said that “A small group of local opponents has refused to engage in meaningful discussions on the project’s effects in the communities, and has resorted to soliciting outsiders who have used violent tactics on several occasions to intimidate employees, contractors and local supporters of the project.”

In fact, Tahoe Resources and the Guatemalan government have been more specific in naming the enemy. In a press release, the company stated that Guatemalan authorities “identified them as individuals transported into the area from outside regions, organized and funded by local and international NGOs.”  

Nowhere was there mention of the refusal of authorities in San Rafael Las Flores to hold a referendum to gauge support. That, it would seem, would be a sure way to prove that all the resistance is from outsiders, and that local support for the mine is strong, as the company suggests. But, strangely, there is no movement in this area.

After the murder of Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, Alberto Brunori, a representative with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, said "We knew something was going to happen...We had warned of this.”

Even the U.S. Embassy made a statement, saying that the events “once again tested Guatemalan institutions and communities to sustain effective and continuous dialogue, and to ensure the investigation and clarification of these events."

The Canadian government, bizarrely, has been silent on the matter. For years now Canada’s conservative government has tied in development initiatives with extractive projects, particularly in Latin America and Africa.  Most recently it announced that it was establishing the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development under the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA's) Partnerships with Canadians Programs.

The groundwork began when Canada’s Ministry of External Affairs became the Department of Foreign Affairs Investment and Trade (DFAIT). By meshing foreign policy and development with the interests of investors, the country has effectively muted any effective diplomatic response on the behalf of the Canadian people to possible bad actors in the private sector.

The Canadian government does, however, pour money into PR for government-funded initiatives that benefit private interests and groom pre-approved citizens’ groups who want to go along for the ride. There was, for example, the “Mining Sector - Indigenous Capacity Building” grant to enable “two-way learning between Canadian Indigenous peoples and Indigenous partners in Latin American and the Caribbean regarding interactions with mining companies and governments.” This is part of the five million dollar Indigenous Peoples Partnership Program (IPPP), which is operational until 2015.

And for proof of why Canada can no longer respond in an ethical manner to the complicity of Canadian companies in human rights abuses around the world, and how things have been turned on their heads, read a speech from Julian Fantino, Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation, in which he lays out the clear view that CIDA’s primary role is to expand private sector investment specifically to benefit Canadians, and that the agency is “committed to contributing to Canada's long-term prosperity and security”.

In another speech to the United Nations, Minister Fantino emphasized the “importance of transparency in the extractive sector”, stating that it was “an increasingly important driver of sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction in developing countries.”

The depth of the Canadian government’s complicity with mining concerns is hard to underestimate. It compromises the ability of Canadian citizens to determine what is in their best interests. The mandate now is to further corporate engagement through channels that, in the past, were in the hands of the people. The public agenda has been hijacked by those in first class, with the passengers sloshed from an open bar in coach: Canadian retirement and pension funds are heavily larded with resource sector holdings.

No amount of turbulence, it seems, will wake up the good people of Canada. That is, unless and until enough somnambulists with the maple leaf on their backpacks learn that Canada’s national emblem is now receiving, and deserving, more scorn even than the much-maligned stars and stripes.

The bad actors include Hudbay Minerals. La politica was present during a land eviction on January 8 and 9, 2007, when the Guatemalan government brought in hundreds of soldiers to support police evictions of indigenous people so that Canada’s Skye Resources – now Hudbay – could extract nickel from its Fenix property. Canada’s ambassador to Guatemala at the time, Kenneth Cook, claimed that the grief stricken people that appeared in press photographs were “actors.” (They weren’t; he was lying; we were there). Since then, Hudbay has been fighting a lawsuit related to its Guatemalan subsidiary and the murder of one man, maiming of another, and the gang rape of 11 women.

And it includes the Marlin Mine, exploited by Montana Exploradora, a Guatemalan subsidiary of the Canadian-owned mining company Goldcorp. What happens if you want to stay on your land and say no to the mine? You get shot in the face.

The United States may have been complicit in supporting genocide during Guatemala’s civil war; but Canada, it seems, is determined to cash-out on the aftermath.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

January 20, 2012: Guatemala, Mexico, US authorities debate drug war strategies

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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