In 2000, engineers from Radius Gold, a Vancouver-based mining company, discovered a belt of gold deep inside the Tambor mountains in southern Guatemala. The Guatemalan government promptly issued the company an exploratory license, and for more than a decade, Radius studied the region as a possible base of operations. The proposed mine lies just a few miles from the village of San José del Golfo and from San Pedro Ayampuc, a small city.
Few locals, most of whom are of indigenous Mayan descent, were consulted before Radius moved in. Few of them knew anything was happening at all. They certainly didn’t know they were living atop what would become a literal gold mine.
It wasn’t until early 2012 that townspeople began to grasp the scope of what was happening just down the road. They watched as truck after truck, loaded with heavy equipment, rumbled down the winding jungle roads that were normally used as routes for colectivo buses and small pickups carrying crates of chickens. In February 2012, Radius obtained final permission from the government to build its mine, which it hoped would pump out as many as 52,000 tons of gold a year.
Fearful of what might happen if a big foreign developer started digging into their soil, the community decided to intervene. They formed a human roadblock, manned in rotating shifts by people sitting on plastic chairs. They held banners, and cooked on-site meals for protesters in a makeshift kitchen under a lush canopy of vegetation. The mine has yet to extract a single ounce of gold, and March 2 of this year marks the second anniversary of this roadblock, known as La Puya, which translates to the Point—as in the tip of a spear.
The human roadblock was the culmination of decades of frustration with the destructive and lucrative mining industry in Guatemala. The industry has benefited the national coffers since the country opened up to foreign mineral extraction in the mid 1990s. But that wealth rarely trickles down to those living in close proximity to the mines, who are the most affected by the damage to the local ecosystem. In San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, where most residents earn a living as sweet-corn farmers or chicken ranchers, the fear was that the arrival of large-scale industrial mining would suck up and contaminate the local water supply, drying up natural springs, depleting the water table, and polluting it with arsenic.
I visited La Puya in July 2013, after hearing about the many attacks the roadblockers had withstood over the course of the previous year. Five months after La Puya was formed, Radius Gold sold its exploratory license to Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA), a mining company based in Reno, Nevada. The human roadblock drastically increased the risk of the investment, but the structure of the sale was such that Radius wouldn’t be paid in full until the mine started producing.
This incentivized both companies to get rid of the activists and start digging up gold. In December 2012, the mining companies hired police and private security who arrived en masse at the roadblock and delivered an ultimatum to the protesters: Clear the road, or be removed by force. Steadfast and resolute, the protesters didn’t budge—even when the security detail fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Instead, the roadblockers lay flat on the dirt road, holding flowers up to the riot-gear-festooned police.
That official attempt to move the roadblock was somewhat chaotic but still respectful of the rule of law, oversimplified as a case of the state wielding its power as a cudgel against protesters illegally blocking a road. But months earlier, Yolanda “Yoli” Oquelí Veliz, one of the leaders of La Puya, had gotten a far more acrimonious visit.
On the night of June 13, 2012, as she was driving home from the roadblock, two masked gunmen followed Yoli on motorbikes and shot at her multiple times. “I still have the bullet in my back,” Yoli told me when I interviewed her at La Puya’s camp on a calm, sunny day in July. She craned her neck and pointed at a raised mound of flesh near her kidney.
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