Under the Volcano: Mining Conflicts in Guatemala are Erupting in Violence

Date of publication: 
11 March 2014

In 2000, engineers from Radius Gold, a Vancouver-based mining company, discovered a belt of gold deep inside the Tambor mountains in southern Guatemala. The Guatemalan government promptly issued the company an exploratory license, and for more than a decade, Radius studied the region as a possible base of operations. The proposed mine lies just a few miles from the village of San José del Golfo and from San Pedro Ayampuc, a small city. Few locals, most of whom are of indigenous Mayan descent, were consulted before Radius moved in. Few of them knew anything was happening at all. They certainly didn’t know they were living atop what would become a literal gold mine.

It wasn’t until early 2012 that townspeople began to grasp the scope of what was happening just down the road. They watched as truck after truck, loaded with heavy equipment, rumbled down the winding jungle roads that were normally used as routes for colectivo buses and small pickups carrying crates of chickens. In February 2012, Radius obtained final permission from the government to build its mine, which it hoped would pump out as many as 52,000 tons of gold a year. Fearful of what might happen if a big foreign developer started digging into their soil, the community decided to intervene. They formed a human roadblock, manned in rotating shifts by people sitting on plastic chairs. They held banners, and cooked on-site meals for protesters in a makeshift kitchen under a lush canopy of vegetation. The mine has yet to extract a single ounce of gold, and March 2 of this year marks the second anniversary of this roadblock, known as La Puya, which translates to the Point—as in the tip of a spear.

The human roadblock was the culmination of decades of frustration with the destructive and lucrative mining industry in Guatemala. The industry has benefited the national coffers since the country opened up to foreign mineral extraction in the mid 1990s. But that wealth rarely trickles down to those living in close proximity to the mines, who are the most affected by the damage to the local ecosystem. In San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, where most residents earn a living as sweet-corn farmers or chicken ranchers, the fear was that the arrival of large-scale industrial mining would suck up and contaminate the local water supply, drying up natural springs, depleting the water table, and polluting it with arsenic.

I visited La Puya in July 2013, after hearing about the many attacks the roadblockers had withstood over the course of the previous year. Five months after La Puya was formed, Radius Gold sold its exploratory license to Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA), a mining company based in Reno, Nevada. The human roadblock drastically increased the risk of the investment, but the structure of the sale was such that Radius wouldn’t be paid in full until the mine started producing. This incentivized both companies to get rid of the activists and start digging up gold. In December 2012, the mining companies hired police and private security who arrived en masse at the roadblock and delivered an ultimatum to the protesters: Clear the road, or be removed by force. Steadfast and resolute, the protesters didn’t budge—even when the security detail fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Instead, the roadblockers lay flat on the dirt road, holding flowers up to the riot-gear-festooned police.

That official attempt to move the roadblock was somewhat chaotic but still respectful of the rule of law, oversimplified as a case of the state wielding its power as a cudgel against protesters illegally blocking a road. But months earlier, Yolanda “Yoli” Oquelí Veliz, one of the leaders of La Puya, had gotten a far more acrimonious visit.

On the night of June 13, 2012, as she was driving home from the roadblock, two masked gunmen followed Yoli on motorbikes and shot at her multiple times. “I still have the bullet in my back,” Yoli told me when I interviewed her at La Puya’s camp on a calm, sunny day in July. She craned her neck and pointed at a raised mound of flesh near her kidney.

Although many are undocumented, attacks like the one Yoli survived are all too common. Anti-mining encampments pepper the Guatemalan countryside, and attacks by private security organizations have been reported all over the country. One such case occurred in April 2013, at southeast Guatemala’s Escobal silver mine, which is owned by the Canadian-founded company Tahoe Resources. Tahoe’s head of security gave orders to open fire on protesters who had been blockading the road near the mine, according to an investigation by Guatemalan newspaper Siglo 21 a month later. Six people were badly injured, and the head of security was recorded on tape giving the order to shoot, allegedly saying, “Kill those sons of bitches.”

Following the attacks, people from nearby villages began setting vehicles on fire. Riots broke out. Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, imposed a “state of siege” for 30 days, a legal move that gave the military the right to impose martial law on the areas around the mine. The community’s blockade was dissolved, and Tahoe has been extracting silver on a commercial scale since January 2014, having begun operations in September last year. According to the company’s press materials, Escobal is now poised to become the largest silver mine in the world.

Guatemala sits atop a wealth of natural resources—nickel, gold, silver, and titanium—that lie beneath the country’s rich volcanic soil. In 1960, the Canadian-owned and -operated International Nickel Company (INCO) became the first transnational mining company to arrive in Guatemala. That year also marked the beginning of a 36-year civil war between the government and a slew of leftist guerrilla groups fighting over land distribution, indigenous rights, and economic equality. The conflict ended in 1996, after sweeping neoliberal economic changes were enacted and many regions of the country previously controlled by rebels were opened up to the mineral-extraction industry.

Since then, the government has granted more than 400 licenses to multinational corporations, and the terms for these companies are exceptionally favorable. The government rarely receives more than 5 percent of a company’s earnings, and under the leadership of President Pérez Molina, corporations pay the government only 1 percent of the value of the minerals they extract. They also get to use local water at no cost. Mineral exploitation is a technical term for the process of mining, and in a very literal sense, communities like those near La Puya are being exploited for their gold, their water, and their wealth, with mining often leaving behind a thoroughly pillaged landscape that is utterly bereft and toxic.

On June 12, 2013, I was invited, along with ten representatives of La Puya, to the National Palace in Guatemala to speak with the country’s president and its interior minister. The goal was to strike an agreement between activists and the government. The demonstrators at La Puya are the only community-based activists to have been invited to the National Palace for such a meeting. Unbeknownst to them, however, the president had also invited KCA in an attempt to open up dialogue between the two opposing sides. Yoli was furious and refused to speak with KCA executives. Which made perfect sense, considering her explicitly stated objective was the cancellation of all mining licenses within their territories.

“This decision can only be made by the government of Guatemala and therefore cannot be discussed with KCA,” she told Pérez Molina. He thought about this for a minute before asking members of KCA to leave the room, after which the president, the interior minister, and the representatives of La Puya spoke. One of the main issues discussed was an environmental-impact study previously executed by KCA. The study found the environmental and ecological risks posed to areas surrounding the mines to be of relatively low impact—a conclusion that has since been discredited by several reputable geologists. La Puya successfully argued its case, and the meeting concluded with Pérez Molina’s promising that a second, fully independent study of the effects of mining on the area would be commissioned by the government. In the meantime, KCA was ordered to suspend its operations.

At the moment it felt like a small victory. But as of press time, the promised environmental-impact study has yet to be commissioned, and the scale of attacks against villagers near the mine has increased.

I returned to Guatemala in early December 2013 and visited San José de Nacahuil, a tiny village about 15 miles from La Puya. On September 7, 2013, 11 people were killed and 28 more were injured there when masked gunmen with automatic weapons stormed the village’s main street and opened fire on businesses. Authorities and local newspapers reported that the shootings were gang-related, but the community disputed this charge.

I drove up to San José de Nacahuil on a single-lane road and talked to local residents. They showed me the cafeteria where ten of the victims from the September 7 attacks had died. Bullet holes riddled the wall. Later, an elderly woman led me to a spot where gunmen had allegedly chased a man and shot him before dragging his body back to the café and dumping him with the others.

According to many residents whom I interviewed, police invaded the small community hours before the massacre, to intimidate and harangue them. After the police had left, the gunmen arrived, tracing the same route as the officers and targeting the same businesses the police had visited.

Villagers believed that there had been an escalation of the mining corporations’ intimidation tactics, which now bore all the hallmarks of police collusion and a militia-style subjugation of locals fighting against the degradation of their environment. Their strategy was now one of preemption; police and thugs had shifted their attention from disbanding already-established roadblocks to disrupting nearby communities that might rally to the cause.

It seems that the resistance to mining efforts in this area of rural Guatemala—and the associated violence—won’t be stopping anytime soon. La Puya might be celebrating its second anniversary, but some protesters are facing criminal charges and trials as their attackers go largely unpunished.

Yoli, the woman who was shot in the back near La Puya, went to court in February 2014, along with six of her fellow protesters from the roadblock. They were charged with kidnapping, coercion, and intimidation, allegations that their supporters claim are false. As of press time, a verdict has not been reached, but to the mining companies it’s something of a victory: It has kept Yoli in a courthouse, far away from the roadblocks.