Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tahoe Resources’ Administrative Manager detained on charges of industrial contamination

(Guatemala City/Ottawa) Monday, a Guatemalan judge denied bail to the Administrative Manager and Legal Representative, Carlos Roberto Morales Monzón, of Tahoe Resources’ subsidiary, Minera San Rafael S.A., and ordered him to pre-trial detention on charges of industrial contamination. The Guatemala's Public Prosecutors' Office for Crimes Against the Environment launched an investigation in 2012 into the company’s contamination of water sources near its Escobal silver mine. The trial date is set for June 12.

Tuesday, Tahoe Resources issued a press release downplaying the decision and Carlos Roberto Morales Monzón’s role in the company, referring to him as an “employee”, not the “mine manager”. Nonetheless, a February 2013 Constitutional Court decision refers to Mr. Morales Monzón as the Administrative Manager and Legal Representative for Minera San Rafael. The company also said it will appeal Monday’s decision.

“This is remarkable. Tahoe Resources now has two managers from the Escobal mine in pre-trial detention, beginning two years ago with the company’s former security manager who was detained on charges of assault and obstruction of justice. It will be even more remarkable if these cases continue to proceed,” stated Ellen Moore for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala.

The criminal case, which carries a sentence of up to eight years in prison if convicted, is the result of a complaint that the Center for Social Legal Action in Guatemala (CALAS) filed for contamination of the Escobal Creek and the El Dorado River, located near the community of Los Planes, just steps from Tahoe’s project. The alleged contamination occurred while the project was still in the exploration phase.

The Guatemalan Ministry of Health confirmed that a discharge of water from the mine installations was contaminated with suspended solids. Around this same time, local residents were reporting that contamination was affecting water used for crop irrigation. Since then, community members have been denouncing increasing scarcity of water in the area immediately surrounding the project, similarly believed to be a result of Tahoe’s mine. This latter concern is not part of the legal process.

“With several legal processes underway against the company and its affiliates, along with ongoing community resistance to the mine and its expansion plans, it should be ever more clear to investors that this company is a dangerous investment,” commented Jen Moore for MiningWatch Canada.

The extent of local concern over negative environmental and social impacts, present and future, of the mine on water supplies and community wellbeing has generated widespread community opposition to the project. As of March 2013, tens of thousands had voted against the project in local plebiscites and residents had filed more than 250 specific complaints against the granting of Tahoe’s final permitting license. The Ministry of Mines and Energy dismissed the complaints without consideration immediately before granting the company a license in April 2013. A lawsuit is pending in Guatemala’s Constitutional Court for lack of due process in this regard, which has raised questions about the legality of Tahoe’s exploitation license.

Protests that emerged in the wake of the Ministry’s hasty decision to grant Tahoe's final permit faced police repression and an armed attack by company security guards on April 27, 2013 that left seven men injured. This latter event is the subject of a criminal case in Guatemalan courts against Alberto Rotondo, former security manager for Tahoe Resources, accused of having ordered and then attempted to cover up the attack. The seven men have also brought a civil suit against Tahoe Resources in British Columbia for negligence and battery in connection with the shooting.

In January 2015, the Norwegian Ethical Fund recommended against investing in Tahoe Resources, citing “unacceptable risk of the company contributing to serious human rights violations through its operation” at the Escobal silver mine in southeastern Guatemala.

Contacts:
Ellen Moore, Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), ellen(at)nisgua.org, (510) 868-0612
Jackie McVicar, Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network, jackiebtsguatemala(at)gmail.com, (502) 4824-0637
Jen Moore, MiningWatch Canada, jen(at)miningwatch.ca, (613) 569-3439

For more information about this situation, follow tahoeontrial.net.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Two more human rights defenders from Huehuetenango imprisoned for opposing megaprojects

Since 2011, communities in northern Huehuetenango have organized more than 50 peaceful protests and dozens of community referenda in which they have actively expressed their opposition to the expansion of hydroelectric dams and other megaprojects in their territories.

This demonstration of community strength and self-determination has been met with violence, state repression, criminalization, and re-militarization. Currently, there are seven community activists unjustly imprisoned for their opposition to these projects.

Most recently, on March 24, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, two Q'anjob'al community leaders with the Plurinational Government of the Q'anjob'al, Chuj, Akateko, Popti' and Mestizo Peoples ("Gobierno Plurinacional") were arrested in Guatemala City. Juárez and Baltazar have joined thousands of others in speaking out against the imposition of hydroelectric dams in their territory despite community consultations rejecting them.

They were arrested on 16 charges including threats, coercion and illegal detention stemming from events that took place in 2013. After having many of their rights to due process violated, including the right to a preliminary hearing within 24 hours of arrest, a judge released them on bail. However, as they were leaving the courthouse, both men were re-arrested on new charges of abduction, kidnapping and inciting crime for events that took place on January 23, 2015. To this date, they remain in prison with no scheduled date for their first hearing - adding to the growing list of violations of speedy due process that have already occurred. 

Rigoberto Juárez awaits his preliminary hearing from a jail cell in
Guatemala City.  Photo credit: J. Abbott
The arrests of Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar follow a pattern of criminalization of leaders who have been active in the movements to protect territory against the many threats of resource extraction and other mega-development projects in Guatemala. Leaders continue to face outlandish legal charges – occasionally for events in which they were not even present - in an effort to silence their voices and organizing capacities. As a result, movements are being forced to use much-needed resources to provide legal support to these leaders instead of using them to further strengthen the struggle in defense of life.

In a statement released after the most recent arrests, the Human Rights Convergence - a group of Guatemalan organizations working for social justice and an end to state and corporate impunity - points to a series of other incidences of criminalization that have taken place just in relation to hydroelectric projects in northern Huehuetenango, amongst which are:
  • Rubén Herrera, director of the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango (ADH): charged with kidnapping and terrorism related to events that transpired before the government implemented a state of siege in Barillas, in April 2012. After spending months in prison, he was absolved of all charges for lack of proof. Like him, 30 others have had to go through legal processes only to be absolved at the time of formal accusation. 
  • Rogelio Velásquez and Saúl Méndez, community leaders from Barillas: convicted of the murder of a man and woman in their community. In the verdict reached against them in December of last year, in which both men were sentenced to 33 years in prison, the judge argued, "We cannot prove how the woman was killed. But since they [Saúl and Rogelio] are community leaders, they are responsible." This illegal verdict seeks to hold the human rights defenders legally responsible for the activities that occur in their communities. 
  • Sotero Adalberto Villatoro, Francisco Juan Francisco and Arturo Pablo, community leaders from Barillas: indicted in February 2015 for a kidnapping allegedly committed during 2012, even after the Public Prosecutor asked that the charges be dropped for lack of proof. Not only were they indicted on charges, but also ordered to a prison in zone 18 of Guatemala City, taking them out of their community. The judge soon after withdrew from the bench, leaving those indicted without a trial judge to oversee their case and as a result, no date to appeal the indictment.
In addition to these cases and many more in which leaders have been criminalized for their roles within the movements for the defense of life and territory, at least two leaders have been murdered. Daniel Pedro Mateo, an active member within the ADH and a prominent defender of the 2007 community consultation in Barillas, was kidnapped and murdered in April, 2013. On March 27, 2015, the body of Pascual Pablo Francisco was found. He had been missing for three days, and was another prominent figure in the defense of life in Barillas.

In contrast to the disproportionate amount of charges laid against community leaders, the majority of cases of murder, assaults or threats against human rights defenders have failed to advance in the court system and remain in impunity.

In the department of Huehuetenango alone, communities are facing the expansion of the "Northern Corridor/Franja Transversal del Norte" (a mega-highway set to cut across the northern part of Guatemala), three hydroeletric dams (Cambalam of Hidro Santa Cruz in Barillas, Hidro San Luis of CM5 in Santa Eulalia and Ixquisis of the PDH, S.A., in San Mateo Ixtatán) and other possible mineral extraction in the area. In Huehuetenango, 28 of the 32 municipalities have held referenda in which communities have soundly rejected the presence of hydroelectric dams. Despite this clear message, the government continues to push these projects forward and to grant new licenses.

Given this reality, the Human Rights Convergence has called on the Guatemalan government and judicial system to respect due process and immediately halt the criminalization of community leaders. In a statement released in March, the Convergence urged the government to stop granting licenses for hydroelectric dams in the regions, and called on the companies who are already operating in the area to listen to and respect the decisions made by impacted communities.

It states, "The government of Otto Pérez Molina is using this violence to protect personal and corporate interests. The censorship and attacks - including assassinations - of journalists and other grassroots media is only one example. Indigenous communities who carry out referenda are met with racism and repression by government authorities and from company employees seeking to expand into their territories."

To read the full statement made by the Human Rights Convergence in Spanish, click here.