Conflict over Proposed Dam Flares Up in Guatemala

Community resistance to a hydroelectric project in Guatemala is once again met with government repression; a fourth attempt at dialogue ends with an inconclusive whimper

Community members rally against proposed hydroelectric projects, Oct 2013 (PrensaComunitaria)

Community members rally against proposed hydroelectric projects, Oct 2013 (PrensaComunitaria)

 On September 28, resistance leader Mynor López was walking by the church in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, when he was suddenly seized by men dressed in civilian clothing, taken in a pickup to a waiting military helicopter, and flown to Guatemala City.

Mynor had been active in the widespread resistance movement against a proposed hydroelectric dam. In an already tense atmosphere, the irregular and perhaps illegal capture was seen by community members as yet another attempt by the Guatemalan government to break the opposition through intimidation and brute force.

The response of the population was both immediate and massive. In communities across the region – San Juan Ixcoy, Soloma, Santa Eualia, San Mateo Ixtatán and Nentón – residents took to the streets in peaceful protest, blockading highways and demanding Mynor’s release.

The government responded in its typical heavy-handed fashion. Guatemalan security forces composed of riot police and soldiers were mobilized. From September 28 to 30, remote northern Huehuetenango looked like a war zone: military aircraft circled overhead, white clouds of tear gas billowed, and residents lived in terror.

The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC’s) Guatemala office received periodic updates as rumors circulated:

  • “The military are shooting tear gas from their helicopters…”

  • “The combined forces…tried to leave through a community called La Florida. When the community denied passage to the police and military, police officers opened fire…”

  • “There are unconfirmed rumors of injured persons, amongst them children…”

The conflict resulted in several severe injuries, including women and children poisoned by tear gas, and the still-unexplained death of a soldier. In order to seek a peaceful resolution, community leaders met with high-level government officials and developed a 7-point agreement whereby the government would remove 60 percent of its security forces and the communities would liberate the highways.

Obtaining concrete or verifiable information about what actually transpired, however, has proved difficult. There was no presence of governmental observers such as the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) or the Presidential Human Rights Office (COPREDEH). Government investigators couldn’t get access to the soldier’s body where he was allegedly shot and the forensic report has not been made public.

A cursory investigation into the death of the soldier was evidently enough for Interior Minister López Bonilla to publicly blame community members for the fatality. In a press conference on Monday, September 30, he confirmed “approximately” 13 arrest warrants for “disturbances and the death of the soldier.” Another 40 outstanding arrest warrants, some dating back as far as 2011, were also made public. “Order will be imposed in Barillas,” he emphasized, seated next to the Defense Minister.

López Bonilla additionally threatened to deport any foreigners who might be accompanying or supporting local social movements: “We won’t permit their meddling in Guatemala’s internal affairs,” he said.

Communities in northern Huehuetenango released their own press statement, linking government aggressions to the new wave of officially sanctioned “transnational invasions.” The use of excessive force by security forces, they said, brought back memories of the counterinsurgency strategy of the 1980’s, when military troops and helicopters were used to terrorize and massacre the population. “We won’t allow mining licenses to destroy us or the territory we live in and have cared for over thousands of years,” their statement said. “We demand respect for community referendums and the cancellation of all licenses for all large-scale development projects in the region.”

National and international organizations, including GHRC, immediately expressed concern about the situation, including the lack of transparency in the investigation of the soldier’s death and the alleged illegalities in the detention of Mynor López. A delegation that included a congressional representative and a member of the International Council of Jurists visited Mynor in prison and witnessed signs of physical abuse that he had suffered while in custody of state forces.

President Pérez Molina addresses the public in Barillas on Oct. 8, 2013 (guatemala.gob.gt)

President Pérez Molina addresses the public in Barillas on Oct. 8, 2013 (guatemala.gob.gt)

On October 8, after a week of tense but relative calm, official dialogue began around the proposed hydroelectric projects in Santa Cruz Barillas. This was the fourth attempt at dialogue; past efforts had either been broken off by the government, or the official representatives simply never showed up. If talks failed this time, however, it would not be for lack of high-level participation: President Otto Pérez Molina was present, as well as his Ministers of Defense, the Interior, Energy and Mines, and the Environment. A representative of the Spanish hydroelectric company, Hidro Santa Cruz/Hidralia Energia, was also at the table. Local mayors, the Human Rights Ombudsman, and religious leaders joined representatives from affected communities, filling the room. Thousands more waited in their communities for news from the dialogue process.

Repression against Non-Violent Protesters

This remote region in Huehuetenango – about as far away from the capital as you can get without being in Mexico – is part of the so-called Northern Development Zone. It has been identified as a rich source of metals, hydro power, and petroleum, and successive administrations have courted international investment from Colombia to Canada to Spain to “develop” the region. There are now approximately 15 hydroelectric dams in different stages of planning and development in the area, as well as plans for oil extraction and mining.

Under international law and, by default, Guatemalan law, indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior and informed consent before large-scale projects can be carried out in their territories. The Guatemalan government has consistently and  systematically neglected to implement that law. Instead, local Q’anjob’al, Chuj, and Akateko communities organized themselves and have taken the initiative to consult with the population. In a formal community referendum in 2007, residents in Barillas voted overwhelmingly to oppose to any mining operations or other projects funded by foreign investment.

The Barillas municipal government, respecting the will of the people, refused to grant a license to Hidro Santa Cruz for the Cambalam dam. The company sued to reverse that decision, and ultimately won. As the project advanced, still without proper consultation, opposition increased. Community leaders began receiving threats from individuals linked to the company.

President Pérez Molina addresses soldiers in Santa Cruz Barillas after declaring martial law in May 2012. (PlazaPublica)

President Pérez Molina addresses soldiers in Santa Cruz Barillas after declaring martial law in May 2012. (PlazaPublica)

On May 1, 2012, tension peaked when local community member Andrés Francisco Miguel was murdered and two others were seriously injured, in an armed attack apparently carried out by individuals working for Hidro Santa Cruz. (Residents commented that Andrés had been unwilling to sell his land to the company.) A large crowd gathered and tried to chase down the attacker, who took refuge in the military base.

That same day, President Otto Pérez Molina declared martial law in Barillas, suspending the constitutional rights of the population. Over the next 18 days, soldiers ransacked people’s homes in warrantless searches, dumping food on the floor, stealing identification papers and other documents, intimidating the population, and arresting community leaders.

Political Persecution and Criminalization

In the aftermath of the May 1st events, and under the cover of martial law, the government began arresting community activists opposed to the mine, charging them with a laundry list of crimes such as robbery, kidnapping and terrorism. Nine people were captured on May 2 by men in civilian clothing, much like Mynor Lopez. Two more were detained on May 4th. The arrests of the 11 community members occurred under questionable circumstances, and the months they spent in pre-trial detention (all were denied bail) were fraught with irregularities and gross violations of due process.

It wasn’t until January 2013 that a judge ordered provisional release of all of those detained for lack of evidence against them. In an interview with GHRC, Arcadia, a community leader whose brother had just been released and who was still in hiding to avoid arrest herself, spoke of her conviction to fight for her community.

“They are persecuting me because I am a spokeswoman for the people. I don’t just speak about my rights; I speak out about the rights of the community. I am speaking out for those children who cannot yet defend their rights,” said Arcadia. “I am speaking from the bottom of my heart for a common good. And that is why they persecute me, and not only me, but many others too, such as my friends who have already suffered in jail.”

Barillas has become a paradigmatic example of how the Guatemalan judicial system is being manipulated to target community leaders who oppose “development” projects. As defense lawyer Sergio Vives explained, when the Prosecutor’s office attempts “to charge a community leader with terrorism, simply because he demands his rights, because he exercises a constitutional right to protest, to rally, to express a difference of opinion,” the State is, in effect, taking political prisoners.

Fourth time’s the charm?

Expectations for the outcome of the latest attempt at negotiations quickly dropped. In an interview after the four-hour meeting on October 8, Q’anjob’al community leader Rigoberto Juárez said the conversation had been superficial. The success of the dialogue and the ability to reach a solution, he said, will depend on the political will of the government.

“We still need to get to the heart of the issue…Q’anjob’al communities have been demanding development for many years, but we have been one of most forgotten peoples in the country. It isn’t until companies come, promoting projects in our territory, that we hear about the ‘need to develop,’” said  Juárez. “Development for who? Will the money stay in the community? No, it goes to fill others’ pockets, and we will continue to live in poverty. What we’re asking now is for the government to cancel all the [mining and hydroelectric] licenses that have been granted.”

Few development projects in Guatemala have received as much political support and state resources as Hidro Santa Cruz has to implement their Cambalam Hydroelectric dam. (The 3-week period of martial law in 2012 alone cost the government almost $700,000.)

Unfortunately, the government’s political will seems to extend only so far as the transnational companies will allow. After participating in the dialogue, President Pérez Molina made clear that he would not restrict or cancel licenses to companies that had invested in projects in Barillas. The government, he said, might be open to “other solutions.”

By Kelsey Alford-Jones, Executive Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. First published on upsidedownworld.org on October 10, 2013.

News Update: May 3-22

Genocide Trial Update:  

Ríos Montt Genocide Ruling Overturned

On the evening of May 20th, the historic May 10th ruling that convicted former General Efraín Ríos Montt of genocide was overturned.  The Constitutional Court met to rule on a constitutional challenged raised by Ríos Montt’s defense attorneys at the very end of the trial. The 3-2 ruling in favor of the challenge sets the case back to April 19th, at which point all testimonies had been heard. However, while the annulment does not include the testimonies, it remains unclear whether the trial will be reconvened or repeated altogether.

Overturned Ruling Was Laden With Opposition

Challenges to the conviction do not come as a surprise. Since the trial’s conclusion, business and hard-line military supporters have issued numerous statements calling for its annulment. The Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, and Industrial Finance (CACIF) stated in a press release that the trial was illegal, that “justice had been prey to ideological conflict,” and the conviction of genocide was “an opinion of the court that we did not share.” Ríos Montt supporters have organized demonstrations protesting his conviction. Moreover, presidential spokesman Francisco Cuevas criticized the international community for “driving the polarization” of Guatemalans following the trial. He also claimed that foreign interference from NGOs in the trial court proceedings ultimately influenced the landmark genocide verdict.

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Weekly News Roundup

July 20-August 2

  • Constitutional Court to hear case on constitutionality of mining lawOn Monday July 23rd, the court heard a case challenging the 1997 mining law for the failure to consult with communities. The lawsuit was filed by the Western Peoples Council (CPO) and will allow the Constitutional Court to have 20 days to rule after the hearing. The CPO plans to bring the case to the Inter American Court on Human Rights if the court does not rule in its favor.
  • Eight thousand community members march to oppose miningResidents of Jalapa, Jutiapa, and Santa Rosa protested on Friday, July 27th, in San Rafael Las Flores. In addition to opposing the San Rafael mine itself, the community members were protesting the absence of a visit by a high-level commission to the area, which was supposed to attend meetings on mining exploration. In response to the march, the municipal center was closed and 200 police agents were sent.
  • Indigenous communities and campesinos reject constitutional reformsThe Assembly of the National Indigenous, Campesino and Popular March (Amarc) expressed their rejection of the group of constitutional reforms presented by the executive branch to Congress. They stated that the reforms not only do not express the sentiment of the people of Guatemala, but that they disregard the sentiment and needs of campesino and indigenous communities.
  • Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Prize winner, calls for an analysis of the impact of development on indigenous populationsMenchu proposed an analysis of the impact development and development projects have had on indigenous populations around the world. Menchu called upon the international community to study the effects of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its fulfillment by the governments of the world. She also stated that indigenous communities should be taken into account when studying legislation and projects that might affect them.
  • MSICG denounces attacks on union leadersThe Campesino and Indigenous Union Movement of Guatemala (MSICG) denounced attacks on union leaders and requested that the Inter American Commission on Human Rights grant precautionary measures. The representatives stated that for years the rights of the people have not been respected in Guatemala and that the justice system has failed to protect union leaders.
  • Repression continues in Santa Cruz BarillasThe Court of First Instance in Santa Eulalia reported on July 25th that arrest warrants exist for another 33 people in Santa Cruz Barillas, following the 12 arrests made during the State of Siege in May. The charges include kidnapping, threats, and delinquency; the accused, who are activists and leaders within the community, deny that they have any connection to the crimes. Centro de Medios Independientes also interviewed Sergio Vives, a lawyer for the activists captured in May, about the recent events.
  • Public Prosecutor’s office to appeal Byron Lima decisionThe Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) will appeal the July 13th decision that granted release from prison to retired colonel Byron Lima, who was convicted of the assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998. The MP’s decision is based on the six years that the ex-colonel spent in the military hospital, during which time it was not possible to verify his conduct. Additionally, Prosecutor Jorge Garcia stated that in a previous attempt to seek early release, the authenticity of the documents submitted on behalf of Lima was in question.
  • Inter American Commission takes Guatemala to court. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights announced that it was remitting a case to the Inter-American Court for Guatemala’s lack of investigation into the murder of Florentin Gudiel Ramos, a human rights activist killed in 2004. The case remains in impunity and his family members had to leave their homes as the government could not guarantee their safety after testifying before the authorities.
  • Prosecutor’s Office requests additional charges against Garcia Arredondo The Prosecutor’s Office has requested the judge of the case against former director of the National Police to add the charge of attempt of murder to Garcia Arredondo. Arredondo faces charges of forced disappearance for the case of two students from the University of San Carlos who were kidnapped and murdered when they were coming back from the funeral for 37 Spanish citizens who died during the fire in the Spanish embassy in 1980. Garcia Arredondo is also being investigated for that case, as he is accused of preventing firemen from rescuing personnel from the embassy.

GHRC Stands in Solidarity with the People of Santa Cruz Barillas/GHRC expresa nuestra solidaridad con la población de Santa Cruz Barillas

The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission in Washington, DC (GHRC/USA) wishes to express its deepest concern about the crisis in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango and the excessive and arbitrary reaction of the Guatemalan government.

President Otto Pérez Molina in Santa Cruz Barillas from plazapublica.com.gt

We condemn the attack on May 1 in which Andrés Francisco Miguel was murdered and Pablo Antonio Pablo Pablo and Esteban Bernabé were seriously injured, an attack apparently carried out by individuals linked to hydroelectric company Hidro Santa Cruz SA. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the victims and their families.

In a community meeting held in the town of Barillas on June 23, 2007, the community expressed their opposition to mining activities and other mega projects. From the outset of the proposed project, residents have expressed their rejection of the proposed Canbalam hydroelectric project and have denounced the lack of prior and informed consent.

The government’s decision to declare a state of siege and suspend fundamental rights is ironic given that this conflict arose because of the state’s failure to recognize and respect the collective rights of the community. Far from pacifying and providing a real solution to the conflict, the state of siege only serves to generate more fear, disharmony and insecurity.

We criticize the baseless and defamatory statements of government officials linking social movements to organized crime groups, such as Los Zetas. This attempt to defame and discredit community leaders is a poor pretext to justify the improper use of the armed forces.

We also reject the malicious accusations against international organizations working in Guatemala. We are troubled by this smear campaign because of the negative impact it can have on those who work on behalf of human rights, solidarity, and the development of the country. We ask the media to maintain impartiality in their coverage of the news in order to promote peace among the people.

The actions of military officials and security forces –roundups, home searches, threats, and arrests–repeat a pattern of criminalization of social movements and community leaders who seek respect for their historic rights as indigenous peoples to decide the best use of their land and natural resources.

We are alarmed that the government has given priority to the capture of community leaders over the arrest of those responsible for the murder of Andrés Francisco Miguel.

In addition, we wish to express our concern for the irregular and furtive manner in which 12 community leaders were secretly transferred from Huehuetenango to a high-security prison in Guatemala City. Authorities not only failed to notify family members beforehand, but also refused to answer questions about the detainees’ whereabouts. The community leaders, not convicted of any crime, have been placed in the prison’s general population along with gang members, extortionists, and murderers.

We urge authorities to:

  • Guarantee the safety, welfare, and fully respect the rights of those imprisoned, and to immediately review the charges against them;
  • Investigate the assassination of Andrés Francisco Miguel and prosecute the material and intellectual authors of this deplorable act;
  • Lift the state of siege and demilitarize the response to social conflict;
  • Suspend the Hidro Santa Cruz’s construction license, respecting the community referendum carried out in 2007.

The government has a supreme duty to guarantee the inalienable rights of its citizens. At all times, in peace or in conflict, this obligation must be the guiding force behind every action of the state. The appropriate solution to the conflict in Santa Cruz Barillas can only be found through a respect for the rights of its people, not through the suspension or the violation of those rights.

La Comisión de los Derechos Humanos de Guatemala en Washington (GHRC/USA, por sus siglas en inglés) quiere manifestar su profunda preocupación por la crisis desatada en Villa de Barillas, Huehuetenango y la reacción excesiva y arbitraria del Gobierno de la República de Guatemala.

Estado de sitio en Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango

Repudiamos el ataque del 1 de mayo en cual fue asesinado el campesino Andrés Francisco Miguel y quedaron gravemente heridos los señores Pablo Antonio Pablo Pablo y Esteban Bernabé, un ataque aparentemente perpetrado por personas ligadas a la empresa Hidro Santa Cruz. Nuestras sinceras condolencias están con las víctimas y sus familias.

En una consulta comunitaria celebrada en el municipio de Barillas el 23 de junio del 2007, la comunidad expresó su rechazo a la minería y otros megaproyectos. Desde el principio del proyecto propuesto, los vecinos han expresado su rechazo total al hidroeléctrico Canbalam y han denunciado la falta de consulta previa e informada.

La aprobación de un Estado de Sitio y la suspensión de los derechos fundamentales, es un acto que resulta hasta irónico dado que este conflicto nace por el no respeto a los derechos colectivos de esta comunidad. Lejos de apaciguar y buscar una solución verdadera a la situación conflictiva, solo ha servido para sembrar más discordia, miedo e inseguridad.

Criticamos las declaraciones sin fundamento de funcionarios del Gobierno vinculando al movimiento social con grupos de crimen organizado, como los Zetas. Este intento de difamar y desprestigiar a los líderes comunitarios es un mal pretexto para justificar el indebido uso de las fuerzas armadas.

De igual forma rechazamos las acusaciones tendenciosas lanzadas en contra de las organizaciones internacionales. Esta campaña negra nos preocupa por las repercusiones que pueda tener para las personas que trabajan en pro de los derechos humanos, la solidaridad y el desarrollo del país. Pedimos a los medios de comunicación la imparcialidad de sus notas con el fin de promover la paz en la población.

Las actuaciones de los funcionarios y las fuerzas armadas—redadas, allanamientos, amenazas y arrestos—replican un patrón de criminalización de movimientos sociales y líderes comunitarios quienes buscan cumplimiento con sus demandas históricas del derecho a la consulta y al territorio ancestral.

Estamos alarmados por la prioridad dada a la captura de líderes comunitarios por encima del arresto de los asesinos responsables por la muerte de Andrés Francisco Miguel.

Además, expresamos nuestra profunda preocupación por la forma en que los 12 líderes fueron trasladados desde Huehuetenango a una cárcel de máxima seguridad en la capital, sin previo aviso y de forma encubierta. Las autoridades no solo no avisaron a los familiares, sino también negaron contestar preguntas acerca del paradero de los detenidos. Los lideres comunitarios, no condenado por ningún delito, fueron colocados en la población general de la cárcel, junto con mareros, extorsionistas y asesinos.

Instamos a las autoridades:

  • Garantizar la seguridad, bienestar y el pleno respeto a los derechos humanos de los detenidos, y inmediatamente revisar las cargos contra ellos;
  • Investigar el asesinato de Andrés Francisco Miguel y llevar a juicio a los responsables materiales e intelectuales de este deplorable hecho;
  • Levantar el estado de sitio y desmilitarizar la respuesta al conflicto social;
  • Suspender la licencia de construcción de la Hidro Santa Cruz respetando la consulta comunitaria que se llevó a cabo en 2007.

El Estado tiene el deber supremo de ser garante de los derechos inalienables de sus ciudadanos. En todo momento, de paz o conflicto, esta obligación debería ser la guía primordial para el actuar de las autoridades. La solución idónea al conflicto de Santa Cruz Barillas solo se encontrará por medio de respeto a los derechos de sus habitantes, y no por la suspensión o violación de ellos.

Weekly News Roundup

April 27th- May 3rd

  • Human rights organizations protest against Canadian mining company. On April 27th a group of thirty activists of human rights organizations protested Goldcorp’s mining operations in Toronto while the company was holding its Annual General Meeting in Timmins, Ontario. The protesters hoped to raise awareness of the company’s human rights abuses and environmental violations. The mine has been criticized locally and internationally for contaminating water sources; condoning intimidation, threats and attacks against community members; disregarding community referendums and international regulations, among other abuses.
  • Thousands of workers participate in International Workers’ Day marches on May 1st. Echoing the demands of previous campesino and union marches this month, the International Workers’ Day marchers demanded an end to militarization and exploitative mining projects and criticized the decision by Congress to freeze further dialogue concerning the rural development law. They also asked for higher salaries and an end to high levels of impunity. According to Carlos Contreras, Guatemala’s Employment Minister, seven out of ten companies violate labor rights. In the first months of 2012 more than 4,000 complaints of labor violations have been sent to the Department of Labor.
  • Guatemala declares state of siege in Huehuetenango on May 1st. Interior Secretary Mauricio Lopez Bonilla sent a contingent of 100 military and 160 police forces to Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango to “restore order” after a group of 200 men armed with machetes and guns took over a military base in the area. Security forces arrested nine men involved in the mob after the declaration of the siege. That same afternoon, one community member was assassinated, and two others injured, in attacks by armed men with apparent links to the companyThe village of Santa Cruz Barillas has outspokenly protested against the construction of the hydroelectric company and denounced the lack of consultation. The community is calling for a suspension of the company’s license.  According to Interior Secretary Mauricio Lopez Bonilla the riots were started by a group of intoxicated men who had been celebrating the La Cruz festival. President Perez Molina justified the state of siege on the grounds that the rioters were accomplices of drug traffickers. Human rights and peasant organizations repudiate the state of siege.
  • Former police officer to stand trial for his involvement in Spanish Embassy fire in 1980. On the day of the fire, January 31st 1980, the Embassy was stormed by indigenous protestors who wanted to inform the world about human rights abuses committed during the internal armed conflict. Former police officer Pedro Garcia Arredondo is accused of keeping firefighters from extinguishing the fire and ignoring the ambassador’s plead to withdraw his forces.
  • 5,708 remains of victims of the internal armed conflict unearthed. Juan de Dios Garcia, representative of Adivima, confirms that the exhumation of victims’ remains helps to push the Public Prosecutor’s Office to move forward with their investigations of the massacres, and to bring justice to the victims and their families. He also mentions that finding the remains of the disappeared gives family members the peace of mind to know where their loved ones are and enables them to carry out a proper burial in keeping with cultural traditions.
  • Candidates for the position of the Human Rights Ombudsman summoned to hearing. Candidates were asked to respond to questions and concerns from civil society groups. Most questions were directed towards the current Ombudsman Sergio Morales. The next step in the election process will be a forum discussion to be held May 11. Civil society organization released a public call to the Congressional Commission for Human Rights asking for an evaluation of the immediate necessities of the Office of the Ombudsman to strengthen the institution. With regards to the election of the Ombudsman, they recommend considering candidates whose defense of human rights, academic background, honesty and impartiality have sustained national and international acclaim.