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.

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