Carlos Maaz Coc was an artisanal fisherman who lived in the community of El Estor on the banks of the Lago de Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. On Saturday, May 27, he was shot dead by police in riot gear, while protesting the levels of lake pollution attributed to mining activities in the area. He was 27 and leaves behind his partner and 8 year-old son.
Around midday, the Union of Artisanal Fishermen had blockaded the exit route from El Estor to Panzós, the transportation route to the Fenix Mine used by the local operator Compañía Guatemalteca de Niquel (CGN).
According to the lawyers representing the association, the fishermen had been blocking the highway for two weeks. They were demanding an investigation into the origins of the pollution that threatens their livelihood by contaminating nearby rivers, as well as the lake. They also demanded that the mine be shut down altogether and that measures be taken to curb the existing damage.
Negotiations with authorities were at an impasse but Saturday’s meeting was due to finally bring together the Environment Minister and the union to discuss pollution attributed to mining activities as well as to palm oil processing plant Naturaceites.
“Negotiations with the government authorities were supposed to be renewed last Saturday. But at the last minute they changed the location of the meeting to Rio Dulce, which is 42 kilometers away”, said Victor Maquin of the Defensoría Qéqchi’, the organization representing the association of fishermen. “The fishermen waited for the meeting to take place in El Estor, but the authorities didn´t turn up”. The protesters therefore returned to the blockade.
In the wake of the killing of Carlos Maaz Coc, the government has blamed the breakdown in dialog on CALAS, a renowned human rights and environmental organization, which is an emblematic force in the struggle against illegal mining in Guatemala. But the organization itself has been the object of multiple threats in recent years. Last year, the director’s assistant Jeremy Abraham Barrios was killed and its founder suffered serious injuries following an assassination attempt in 2008. Only last April,12 shots were fired outside the home of Rafael Maldonado, the organization’s director.
Struggle for indigenous land rights
“The government says that the protesters are delinquents, that they are not representative of our community. But indigenous communities have been protesting mining in this area for decades. It is also an attack on them”, said Victor Maquin from the group of lawyers.
This isn’t the first killing of its kind in El Estor over the Fenix mine. In 2009, security forces representing CGN, then a subsidiary of Hudbay Minerals, a Toronto based mining company, opened fire on a Maya Q’Eqchi’ community leader Alfonso Ich, as well as on German Chub, a student who was playing soccer and is paralyzed from the waist down as a result of his injuries. Mynor Padilla, then CGN’s head of security and a retired coronel, was acquitted in April in a local trial, which began in 2015.
The Polochic Valley has a turbulent history. For decades, indigenous ancestral land indigenous has been disputed by non-indigenous investors.
In 2011, with the support of GHRC and four other organizations, communities of the Polochic Valley filed a petition at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) over the issue of land tenure in the area. As a result, the IACHR granted protective measures to communities impacted by sugar cane investments not far from El Estor.
Carlos was buried on Monday. It is yet to see whether his name will be added to backlog of cases that remain in impunity in Guatemala.
In the meantime, the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the UN supported anti-corruption mechanism that originally brought the case against Padilla jointly with Alfonso Ich’s widow, intends to appeal the case almost 8 years after the crimes were committed against opponents to the Fenix mine back in 2009. A lawsuit against Hudby Minerals has also been filed in Canada, where the case may have more chance of an impartial trial.