Guatemala: kingdom of impunity

Given that mining companies are required to respect the laws of the country in which they carry out projects, why wouldn’t we rely on the Guatemalan justice system to rule on crimes that may have been committed by the mining industry? In reality, there are too many obstacles to justice in Guatemala to offer victims any real possibility of defending their rights. In Guatemala, the vast majority of violent crimes are never punished by the justice system.46 Impunity reigns supreme  becaue of corruption and the power and control a small group of people have in the country. Victims, witnesses, and justice officials are persecuted so the judicial system cannot help. At the same time, mining companies have used the court system to attempt to criminalize individuals who oppose their projects.47

International law also fails in breaking generalized impunity because of a lack of political will in Guatemala. The most striking example is undoubtedly that of a decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington. In 2010, alarmed by the serious violations of rights and environmental damage, the Commission ordered the Guatemalan government to suspend the mining permit for Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine to allow time to conduct impact studies.48 The Guatemalan government ignored the order and the mining activities were never suspended.

The mining industry lobby is also suspected of having a great influence on legislative matters in Guatemala. In 2012, the government proposed to reform the Mines Act, which would have, among other things, quadrupled the fees that mining companies would have to pay to the government – from 1% to 4% of profits earned. The reform project was quickly abandoned and some believe that a meeting between Goldcorp lobbyists and the Legislative Commission on Energy and Mines largely contributed to that decision.49

In terms of democracy, Guatemala ranks 82nd in the world and resembles an authoritative regime with some elements of democracy. This position is measured based on several criteria, including justice, rights and freedoms, political participation and the existence of an active civil society free of persecution.50

In Guatemala, human rights violations are not limited to the damage caused solely by mining activities. In fact, individuals or groups that oppose mining projects face the violation of several civil and political rights, including the right to life.51 We note that a large proportion of attacks is directed towards opponents of mining projects. In 2012, 178 individuals defending native rights and natural resources were victims of assault due to their activism.52 Persecution comes in many different forms, from verbal threats or threats by letter or telephone, to break-ins and murders. Many activists blame the Guatemalan government for its lack of action to address the incessant persecution of the defenders of rights, but also for the repression that it also exerts.

In some instances, employees and security guards hired by the mining companies are suspected of carrying out attacks against communities or individuals opposed to mining projects. For example, even though there has been no charges laid, community and rights defence groups say that Tahoe Resources employees are responsible for the removal of four Xinca community leaders and the assassination of a fifth one in March 2013. Witnesses and the organization RightsAction highlight that the victims had come from attending a townhall meeting on the mining industry in their region when the events took place.53

“Human rights defenders in Guatemala live precariously and are under constant attack. We call what they are experiencing a state of terror.”
-Claudia Samayoa, UDEFEGUA54

In effect, the government ignores its citizens’ rights in order to silence opposition. Community leaders are often the target of arbitrary arrests and detentions; the police and the army intervene brutally during peaceful demonstrations; the country is gradually and selectively being militarized, particularly with a view to exercising stricter control on social movements. One alarming trend is that from time to time the government decrees “emergency measures” in regions where the opposition grows too strong. Those measures, which are often accompanied by an increased military presence, suspend several constitutional rights, prevent meetings, including citizens’ meetings and demonstrations, and allow the authorities to detain anyone without a legal warrant. In May 2013, emergency measures were decreed in four regions where communities opposed the Escobal project of Canadian company, Tahoe Resources.55 The measures were decreed when several townhall meetings were to take place allowing the population to vote on mining projects. According to community leaders who were leading opposition to mining, the emergency measures were enforced to “stall the social protest and criminalize the movement.”56

Public policies should oversee mining developments in an appropriate manner and should allow the people to reject mining project plans that are inconsistent with those policies. Today, the level of intensity of mining industry resistance in Central America shows that local communities feel that the costs of mining projects largely exceed the benefits. (Oxfam)

The Guatemalan government’s brutal participation in the establishment of mining companies and the repression of opponents is nothing new. One of the first bloody demonstrations of this complicity took place in the 1960s at the start of the armed conflict. After having issued a mining permit to Inco for the Exmibal project, the government proceeded to carry out violent evictions and even murders and death squadrons to silence the citizens, lawyers and intellectuals that criticized the mining project.57

Today, just like at the time of the armed conflict, Guatemalans almost always suffer the same treatment from their government when they demand that their rights be respected and their living conditions improved, and that is particularly true for the indigenous peoples who constitute the majority of the population. Recent history and the current reality seem to indicate a cycle of brutality. The violence of the Guatemalan government was “fundamentally directed towards the poor, the oppressed, the Mayans and all those who fight for a fairer and more equitable society. A vicious circle has formed in which social injustice leads to opposition and political instability, to which the government still offers two choices: repression or military coups.” 58


  1. Human righs watch, World Report 2011 : Guatemala, en ligne : http://www.hrw.org/es/world-report-2011/guatemala-0 et Commission internationale contre l’impunité au Guatemala, en ligne : http://www.cicig.org/ 

  2. USAC, Mara Luz Polanco, “La mineria en Guatemala, el caso de Goldcorp: de la mina Marlin al Escobal”, Guatemala, février 2012, en ligne: http://www.albedrio.org/htm/documentos/MineriaGuatemalaMaraPolanco.pdf 

  3. Commission Interaméricaine des Droits Humains, Mesures préventives MC 260-07, 20 mai 2010, en ligne : http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/decisiones/cautelares.asp 

  4. Mining Watch Canada, Guatemala’s Goldcorp Law, 26 novembre 2012, en ligne: http://www.miningwatch.ca/article/guatemala-s-goldcorp-law, page consultée le 20 novembre 2013. 

  5. Analyse du Freedom House pour le Guatemala, page consultée le 2 novembre 2013, en ligne : http://www.freedomhouse.org 

  6. Americas Policy Group’s Briefing Note: Mining, Avril 2012, en ligne http://www.ccic.ca/working_groups/apg_e.php 

  7. Unité de protection des défenseurs et défenderesses des droits humains (UDEFEGUA), Quitemonos el Tabu, defendemos nuestros derechos. rapport annuel 2012. 

  8. Rights action, Goldcorp and Tahoe Resources linked to assassination of Exaltacion Marcos Ucelo, 27 mars 2013, page consultée le 20 novembre 2013: http://rightsaction.org/action-content/goldcorp-tahoe-resources-linked-assassination-exaltacion-marcos-ucelo 

  9. Claudia Samayoa, Unité de protection des défenseurs et défenderesses des droits humains du Guatemala in « En toute solidarité », film documentaire, Productions Réalités Cachées, 2006. 

  10. El Periodico de Guatemala, Gobierno declara estado de sitio en 4 municipios , 2 mai 2013, en ligne : http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2013/05/03/planeta/145137-guatemala-excepcion-4-municipios 

  11. Plaza Publica, Las mentiras del Estado de sitio, septiembre 2013, page consultée le 23 novembre 2013 : http://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/las-mentiras-del-estado-de-sitio 

  12. CORDAID, Mining Conflicts and Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala, septembre 2009 et OXFAM America, rapport Metals Mining and Sustainable Development in Central America, Thomas M. Power, 2008 et El Observador, Industrias extractivas, despojo y destruccion, No. 40-41, mai-septembre 2013, Guatemala. 

  13. Comission d’Éclarcissement historique in Quiet Genocide Guatemala 1981-1983, Etelle Higonet Editor, 2009