Protests over threats to water security at a Guatemalan mine escalate into violent clashes
How did local opposition to a silver mine in southern Guatemala result in violent conflict? What were the chain of events that lead to shootouts and kidnappings in San Rafael las Flores in 2013
The mining of metals is water intensive and associated with water contamination – the metal extraction process leads to the leaching of toxic substances that pollute drinking and agricultural water sources. Indigenous populations across Central America have long opposed mining projects that threaten the security of their water supplies.
Guatemala has a history of foreign corporate interests being placed above those of local communities. A lack of transparency and accountability to this extent can be characterised as corruption and this is congruent with activity beyond mining, such as agriculture and finance (e.g. the United Fruit Company’s influence in the region and the La Línea scandal in 2015). Problems related to the exploitation of natural resources have been exacerbated by Guatemala’s governance style and legal regime. Decisions governing natural resources are made exclusively by central government, not the localities. Collective property rights are not recognised by law, there is an absence of water laws and minimal public participation in mining law.
This situation means that indigenous populations (such as the Xinca people) and local communities in Guatemala are excluded from the decision-making processes governing their land and feel that their grievances are being ignored by central government.
“Water and life are more valuable than gold” - community voices are captured by a roadside sign in the vicinity of the Escobal mine, San Rafael las Flores.
The Escobal mine is situated near San Rafael las Flores, in the Santa Rosa department of southern Guatemala. It contains gold, zinc, and lead deposits, plus the second largest silver deposit in the world. Exploration began in 2007 and Canadian firm Tahoe Resources bought the mine in 2010.
There has been fervent local opposition to the mine from the outset of operations. Amongst various environmental concerns, the key worry for locals is with regards to the security of their water supplies – fears over shortages and contamination of the supply due to mining activities.
Various community consultations and referenda were organised by local government and protest groups between 2011 and 2013, with an overwhelming consensus that this mining operation should not go ahead. However, these were effectively ignored by central government.
Tahoe Resources and the Guatemalan government have used an array of tactics – from criminalisation to militarisation - to try to quell peaceful resistance to mining activities in the area.
April 2011 – Local community groups organised a march to the Escobal project entrance to oppose this work. Later, they organised a march on the Canadian embassy in Guatemala to oppose all mining operations in the Santa Rosa and Jalapa departments.
May 2011 - Tahoe hired a US security contractor to develop a counter-insurgency plan against protesters.
June 2012 - The Centre for Environmental, Social and Legal Action (CALAS) filed a criminal complaint against Tahoe Resources and its Guatemalan subsidiary for industrial contamination of local rivers. CALAS called for the suspension of activities while the investigation took place, but the construction work for the project carried on regardless.
June 2012 – Tahoe's Guatemalan subsidiary Minera San Rafael, S.A. sued the Guatemalan government over security concerns, filing an injunction with the Constitutional Court. They claimed that protests were hindering their operations and that the government was not doing enough to enable the work to go ahead. This lawsuit was dismissed by the Constitutional Court in February 2013.
September 2012 – Townspeople opposed to the mine intercepted mine workers transporting tubes for electrical cables on the main highway in the region. 32 protesters were arrested, but all were later released without charge. The following day, unknown attackers set fire to mine warehouses and a patrol car.
November 2012 – A referendum on mining was held in the nearby town of Mataquescuintla. 60% of registered voters (over 10,000 people) participated and 98.4% of these voters rejected mining in their territories.
November 2012 – Leaders of local peaceful resistance groups are accused of detaining a convoy and stealing dynamite belonging to the mine. Those blamed for the event claimed that it was a set-up by the mining company to frame activists.
January 11th, 2013 – several electrical posts in Santa Rosa were deliberately damaged, plunging much of the Santa Rosa department into darkness. Soon afterwards, shots were fired killing two of the mine’s security guards and a farmer. Six other guards were also injured. It has not been established who was responsible for the deaths.
March 17th, 2013 – Four leaders of the local Xinca Parliament - Rodolfo López Girón, Rigoberto Aguilar, Roberto González Ucelo and Exaltación Marcos Ucelo - are kidnapped on their way home from a local vote on the mine in the nearby community of El Volcancito. 3 of the leaders were released, but Exaltación Marcos Ucelo was found dead the next day. No one has been held responsible for these events.
Tahoe Resources were granted an exploitation license for the Escobal mine two weeks later. Further conflict followed, including Tahoe security forces shooting at peaceful protesters, injuring 7 men.
Operations at the mine have been halted since 2017, when the Guatemala Supreme Court suspended the exploitation licence due to discrimination against the local Xinca population.
The current legal structure in Guatemala allows corrupt government officials to place foreign corporate interests ahead of those of local populations who will be most affected by mining operations. The early intervention strategies that can help prevent conflict of the kind described above mostly revolve around improving the legal system to shift the power balance to allow local communities to protect their own interests.
Water insecurity, Mining, Government, Corruption, Unrest
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