Mining, repression and the rhetoric of democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala – by Grahame Russell ( – August 13, 2012)

Increasingly, over the past few years, information has been published about serious human rights violations and health and environmental harms being caused in Guatemala by (mainly) Canadian mining company operations: Goldcorp Inc, Radius Gold, Tahoe Resources, Hudbay Minerals, Skye Resources, etc.
It is not possible to understand how these violations and harms occur, and will continue to occur, without understanding the political context. In short, global mining companies profit financially and benefit directly from the fundamental lack of democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala, both historically and on-going today. (This is true, in varying degrees, about global businesses and investors operating in many countries around the world.)
Rhetoric aside about respecting the sovereign democratic will of the duly elected officials of Guatemala, about abiding by the laws and regulations that govern the country and the mining industry, impunity and corruption are the norm in Guatemala. The wealthy elites in Guatemala, including international companies and investors, act with a huge amount of impunity and have almost complete immunity from legal or political accountability.
The roots of Guatemala’s impunity and corruption go back 500 years to the European invasion of the Americas. In recent history, Guatemala’s impunity and corruption are rooted in the 1954 military coup, and in the State repression and genocide of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.
Military coups and mining
While Guatemala has the formal structures of a democratic country — political parties, elections every 4 years, ostensible separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, etc. — the country is deeply characterized by historically rooted racism, exploitation and poverty, repression and the impunity and corruption with which the powerful sectors act.
Most Guatemalans refer to 1944-54 as their only time of real democracy, when successive civilian governments came to power and actually started to bring about positive reforms as to how the country operated. This “democratic spring” was ended brutally in 1954 when the U.S. government orchestrated a military coup against the government of President Arbenz. The North American media played its role supporting this illegal intervention using the ‘Cold War’ propaganda of “fighting communism” to justify the unjustifiable. U.S. allies, notably Canada and western European nations, turned a blind eye to yet one more U.S. led intervention.

Soon after the 1954 coup, global nickel companies — notably the Canadian mining giant INCO (International Nickel Company) — set up shop in eastern Guatemala, in the Mayan Qeqchi territories of El Estor (department of Izabal) and Panzos (Alta Verapaz).
The fundamental point to understand, with respect to the next 60 years of nickel mining related harms and violations (that continue today), is that INCO received its concession and actually purchased a huge swath of land from the post-military coup regime. Since INCO’s arrival in Guatemala, these concessions and purchases have been challenged as illegal by the Qeqchi people who have lived in this region for 100s of years … to no avail. The post-1954 military regime was certainly not going to respect the democratic will and human rights of the Guatemala population, particularly of the Mayan majority.
Ignoring that it acquired its concessions and land from a repressive, post-military coup regime, INCO (and other nickel companies since then, including Skye Resources and Hudbay Minerals) have always referred to the local indigenous populations as “illegal squatters.”
Genocide and mining
Flash forward 20 years. The same military and oligarchic sectors that collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the 1954 military coup, and were thus brought back to power, collaborated with the U.S. government in the worst years of State repression and genocide in the late 1970s, 80s and early 90s. Again, the justification of the unjustifiable was the “war on communism.”
In 1999, the United Nations ‘Truth Commission’ published its “Memory of Silence” report about the atrocities committed in Guatemala during the ‘Cold War’ years of repression and genocide, concluding that at least 250,000 mainly people were killed or disappeared and that in certain Mayan dominated regions of the country, genocide was planned and carried out against the local Mayan populations. While the Truth Commission did not go into depth examining the role of other governments and international actors in supporting or participating in the State repression and genocide, it did conclude that INCO (via its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMIBAL) collaborated with the Guatemalan military in the El Estor region in the 1970s and early 80s, in the carrying out of human rights violations, including killings and disappearances, against the local Qeqchi population. No justice was ever done for these crimes; INCO was never held accountable, neither in Guatemala nor in Canada, for its collusion with successive military regimes in Guatemala.
The point to highlight, again, is that while cloaking its operations with the rhetoric of democracy, the rule of law and helping bring development to Guatemala, INCO was directly partnered with military regimes that were brutalizing their own population, acting with absolute impunity.

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