She Defended Her Land Against a Mine in Guatemala. Then She Fled in Fear for Her Life.
Teresa Muñoz was riding her motorbike along her regular delivery route on a winding Guatemala road, carrying the homemade cheese she sold for a living, when she saw in her rearview mirror one of the white sedans that employees of the Escobal silver mine drove. Mining company cars had followed her before, but this time, the vehicle swerved. The driver rammed her motorbike, pitching her into the street, and then sped off. Muñoz was left bruised and scraped, convinced they’d meant to kill her.
For years, she had been a leader in the fight against the silver mine, the project of Tahoe Resources, a U.S.-headquartered Canadian company. Located in the southeastern Guatemala city of San Rafael las Flores, Escobal was on its way to becoming one of the largest silver mines in the world. Muñoz and her family helped organize community votes on the mine, participated in rallies to stop production, and educated people about the mine’s potential harms.
Rainfall in the mountains that contain the Escobal mine feeds the Los Esclavos River and a multitude of natural springs, whose waters fuel the production of coffee and onions in the region, grown for export. For sustenance, families grow beans, corn, and squash in the forested hillsides. More than half the surrounding population lives below the poverty line, making them particularly vulnerable to changes in the local hydrology. Mines like Escobal use massive quantities of water and divert flows in ways that can disrupt communities’ access. Such projects have also been known to leach heavy metals into drinking water sources.
The mountains are part of the territory of the Xinca people, an Indigenous group whose language and culture were nearly wiped out by Spanish colonizers and the Catholic Church. For years, Tahoe Resources argued that there were no Xinca people left in the communities surrounding the mine who would require any consultation. They were wrong. In fact, the mine’s denial of the Xincas’ existence fueled a regional reclamation of the identity. “Soy Xinca” — “I am Xinca” — has become the rallying cry under which Muñoz and others fight.
In response to the anti-mining movement in San Rafael, Tahoe hired firms run by U.S. and Israeli ex-special forces veterans to protect the project and lobbied the Guatemalan government to quash the resistance. Over the course of the 12-year conflict, mine opponents have been shot, imprisoned, and even killed.
For Muñoz, the fight meant exile. “I’m sure, as is my family, that if I had continued there, I wouldn’t be alive anymore,” she told The Intercept. In 2016, she abandoned the land for which she’d risked everything and sought asylum in the United States, a process that has stalled since Donald Trump’s crackdown on asylum-seekers began.
A name for people like Muñoz has emerged over the last decade: land defender. The term encompasses not only environmental activists defending their communities from contamination and lawyers fighting to enforce environmental regulations, but also peasant farmers attempting to hold on to their livelihoods and Indigenous people organizing to protect spaces that represent an extension of their identity.
The most famous land defender was Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca Indigenous group in Honduras who organized opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam. Cáceres’s murder by the dam’s hired hitmen was preceded by a U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 that paved the way for a wave of mega-project approvals. Now, a global shift toward autocracy is precipitating new threats against land defenders, and Guatemala is a case in point.
Last year was one of the most dangerous for land defenders in Guatemala since the end of the country’s brutal civil war in 1996. According to the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, 18 land defenders and campesino organizers were assassinated in 2018, including Indigenous people fighting to protect their territory from agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and the leaders of peasant organizations fighting to maintain access to land they use to sustain their livelihoods. Ronal David Barillas Díaz, a Xinca leader who organized against the sugar industry as well as the San Rafael mine, was among those killed. Of 392 aggressions against human rights defenders documented by the unit, including threats, assaults, arrests, and unfounded judicial complaints, 184 were aimed at Indigenous people defending their land.
Jorge Santos, the organization’s general coordinator, credits the increase in violence to outgoing President Jimmy Morales’s abandonment of the nation’s lauded anti-corruption efforts. But he finds it hard to be optimistic that the looming runoff presidential election in August holds hope for change. “Guatemala is at an important crossroads,” Santos told The Intercept. “One road is uphill, with many large rocks, but it allows us to build democracy, consolidate mechanisms of equity, aspirations for peace, for social justice, probably very slowly. The other is a road of regression, and it’s a regression that’s taking place at a very fast and accelerated rate. It’s a scenario that is going to put us in a state where it is understood that the only mechanism of exercising power is through violence.”
A Precarious Peace
The roots of the mining industry in Guatemala are soaked in the blood of its 36-year civil war. Beginning in 1960, Guatemala’s military government mercilessly repressed Indigenous-led, leftist opposition movements, killing or disappearing 200,000 people. Although the rebels were called terrorists, the state and its paramilitary groups carried out 93 percent of the killings, and around 80 percent of the victims were Mayan. The communism-obsessed U.S. government provided political and financial support to the murderous regime.
The first large metal mine, owned by the Canadian International Nickel Company, arrived in Guatemala in the early years of the conflict, to an area known to be a center of guerrilla resistance. The mining company’s presence fueled a crackdown that cost 3,000 to 6,000 lives, according to some estimates.
Finally, the 1996 Peace Accords brokered a truce between the government and the opposition movements. The heart of the accords was a demilitarization agreement meant to eliminate the paramilitary forces. For the first time in the nation’s history, the accords also recognized the rights of Indigenous people to preserve their languages, practice their religions, and live free from discrimination. Guatemala signed on to the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention the same year.
Beyond humanitarian goals, the accords had another purpose: to signal that Guatemala was open for business. Only months after they were signed, Guatemala enacted a new mining law that allowed foreign companies to wholly own mining enterprises operating in the country, exempted those companies from a variety of taxes, and reduced government royalties on mined minerals. Guatemala became one of the cheapest places in the world to mine.
Meanwhile, members of the old military regime were finding their way into the private sector. In response, the United Nations’ International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the CICIG, was founded in 2006 “to investigate illegal security groups and clandestine security organizations in Guatemala — criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions.” The U.S. would provide $44.5 million in funding over the next decade.
Quelvin Jiménez, a Xinca lawyer, spent the 2000s developing grammatical standards for the Xinca language and working with a federal anti-racism commission to address ongoing discrimination. In 2010, he learned that the Escobal silver mine would be coming to his people’s homeland. He alerted members of the Xinca community. Among the articles of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention was a requirement that Indigenous people be consulted before minerals are extracted from the territory they occupy.
“As we are in this period of reclaiming our rights, the mine arrives,” said Jiménez. “All those processes are stalled by the presence of the San Rafael mine.”
To its shareholders, Tahoe Resources suggested that it had no responsibility to consult with Indigenous people. “According to our understanding, although Indigenous people may have inhabited the site at one time, there are no Indigenous populations that currently live in the immediate area of the Escobal project site,” the company wrote in a 2012 filing.