On October 22, thousands of Guatemalan security forces–both national police (PNC) and military–arrived at the peaceful resistance to an illegal nickel mine in El Estor, Izabal. Security forces fired tear gas on Indigenous Q’eqchi’ community members and fishermen blocking the passage of mining equipment. Videos recorded by witnesses revealed the excessive use of force, including beatings, threats, and use of tear gas against protesters; police also fired teargas into community members’ homes and were reported firing teargas canisters directly at people’s bodies, rather than lobbing them into the crowd. Journalists were also intimidated and prevented from documenting the situation.
The next day, President Giammettei enacted Decree 09-2021 to establish a state of siege in El Estor, claiming, “The declaration of the state of siege is established upon consideration and determination that actions affecting the order, governability, and safety of residents have been committed in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal.” The state of siege–which requires an approval from Congress–imposes checkpoints and grants police access to search houses and enforce a dawn-to-dusk curfew. The police, however, began enforcing the state of siege before its approval. Police raided the homes of several leaders and community journalists and have begun to make arrests. So far, three arrests have been confirmed of two community members and a journalist. As the situation progresses, community members fear more arrests could occur in retaliation for their resistance and documentation of the events.
Peaceful Resistance to an Illegal Mine
Three weeks prior, Indigenous authorities in El Estor established a peaceful encampment to the nickel mine that impacts their way of life and the surrounding environment. The Fenix Mine has been a contested project for decades. In 2019 the Constitution Court ruled that the mine must suspend operations, in response to an injunction filed by Maya Q’eqchi’ fishermen and Indigenous authorities. The Court found that the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN) had been illegally operating the mine since 2005, that a legally required consultation process was never carried out with the impacted Q’eqchi’ peoples, and that a proper Environmental Impact Assessment was never conducted. The Constitutional Court in 2020 confirmed this ruling. Once a subsidiary of Canadian mining companies, CGN is now a subsidiary of a Swiss-Russian consortium–the Solway Group.
The Constitutional Court ruled that mining operations could not continue until a community consultation process could take place. Mining operations have continued nonetheless throughout the past year. The Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) has begun the consultation, but the consultation excludes impacted communities and, according to indigenous authorities, is being carried out in bad faith. The Ancestral Council of Maya Q’eqchi’ Authorities filed an appeal on September 27 of this year against Minister Alberto Pimental–head of MEM–for his mismanagement of the pre-consultation process. After exhausting legal avenues to block the mine, the resistance established an encampment to block the passage of mining materials three weeks prior to Giammattei’s declaration of a state of siege.
Concerns and Condemnation
In a statement, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office voiced concerns about the excessive use of force used by the police and called upon “the President and Ministry of Mines and Energy to comply strictly with the Constitutional Court Resolution.” The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Guatemala in a tweet expressed its “concern about the events of the last few days in El Estor” and called “for calm and dialogue, recalling that the State has the responsibility to protect human rights, including the right to life, and facilitate the exercise of free and peaceful assembly.”
Meanwhile, outside of Congress, Indigenous and ancestral authorities organized a demonstration against the state of siege–which needed to be approved by Congress before coming into full effect–and demanded the resignation of the Minister of the Interior, Gendri Reyes, for the repression against the Q’eqchi’ communities in El Estor. Their protest notwithstanding, Congress approved the state of siege on October 25; it is now in effect for the next 30 days.
In response, Indigenous Authorities presented an Act of Unconstitutionality against the decree on October 27. Ivan Velasquez, former commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala–the UN anti corruption body that was expelled from Guatemala in 2019 by the previous administration–condemned the state of siege, stating “In El Estor, public forces were sent in order to suppress the protestors, who were demanding the right to consultation, which is provided in Convention 169; but no reaction was seen from the ex-militaries who have taken Congress. Through this differential treatment, one can see the degree of Giammatei’s of commitment to the mining projects in El Estor.”
Human rights organizations denounced the repression that occurred this weekend and the ongoing aggression against the community, as well as the threat posed by the imposition of the state of siege. Along with other human rights organizations, GHRC released a joint urgent action demanding that the state “stop the excessive use of force and respect the human rights of the community.” GHRC continues to monitor the worrisome situation, providing support to community members at risk, including Abelino Chuub Caal, whose house was surrounded by police on October 26. We condemn the excessive use of force and support the right of community members to peacefully defend their ancestral territories.