Is Canada to blame for human rights abuses in Guatemala?

Ongoing civil suits against Canadian mining companies reveal the embassy’s role in creating a favourable climate for business in the country.

Photo: Four of the 11 women involved in a multi-million-dollar civil suit against Hudbay Minerals were in Toronto to testify in 2017.

31 October 2021 | ANNIE HYLTON | NOW

Rosa Elbira Coc Ich says she was cooking at home when the men with guns came on January 17, 2007. The women and children of her village were busy preparing food and tending to domestic tasks, while the men farmed in the fields.

In a signed affidavit, Coc Ich describes seeing the men with guns before: about a week prior, hundreds of them swept up the remote region of eastern Guatemala, burning homes down to charred rubble while evicting at least five Maya Q’eqchi’ communities.

Coc Ich’s community of Lote Ocho, a small farming village about a six-hour drive northeast of Guatemala City, had been targeted. The Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), a subsidiary of Canadian mining company Skye Resources, which amalgamated with Hudbay Minerals in 2008, claimed to own those lands.

Coc Ich, a Maya Q’eqchi’ woman, had spent all of her life on those ancestral lands before the mining company security guards, police, and military came to destroy close to 100 wood and thatch houses. She fled with her neighbours farther up in the mountains, to hide in the highlands. A few days after the eviction, when the armed men left, the villagers returned to rebuild. They collected plastic, nylon, string, and bamboo to repair their huts, and they tended to their fields of beans, corn, squash, and cardamom.

The armed men then paid the village a second visit, on January 17. As the vehicles approached, filled with hundreds of military, police, and mining company security guards, some villagers began to run while others tried to gather their belongings. Coc Ich, 22 at that time, says she stayed inside her home, the hut she had begun to rebuild.

Coc Ich describes how the men barged in, and a police officer pointed a gun at her head, asked where her husband was, and threatened to kill her. Coc Ich replied that she didn’t know.

The men began smashing things, including her bowls and cooking utensils. Then she was thrown to the ground, and her clothes, a traditional Maya blouse and skirt, were ripped off. 

She was held down; her mouth was covered. But she says she could see, affixed to some of their uniforms, chest patches that read “CGN” (though Hudbay argues that there were no CGN personnel or private security contractors at the scene that day); others were military men, dressed in fatigues, and national police officers, in black uniforms. 

(Editor’s note: In previous court filings and public relations materials, Hudbay has disputed the 11 women’s claims, arguing that prosecutor and police records show that no CGN or other private security guards were present at the eviction on January 17 — and in fact, that “no illegal occupiers were present.” Hudbay claims that none of the women were there that day).

“I thought only one of them would rape me, but instead all nine men raped me, one after the other, on the floor of my home,” she says in the affidavit.

Coc Ich is one of 11 women in the community of LoteOcho who say they were gang-raped that day, in similar circumstances, and are suing Hudbay Minerals. Two of the women were pregnant – one suffered a miscarriage, the other gave birth to a stillborn baby. Coc Ich had a number of miscarriages, after the rapes, until she was able to conceive a baby daughter in 2017.

Canadian government mining push

Coc Ich lives in the northeast of the country near the Fénix mine, but her story is not exceptional. Diodora Hernández, a woman who lives in the remote western highlands, near Goldcorp’s gold mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, was shot in the head. And seven men from the southwest, near Tahoe Resources’ silver mine, also claim to have been injured when security personnel shot at them.

The year 1996 marked the formal end of three-and-a-half decades of state repression and genocides against the mainly Maya population and a small armed conflict in Guatemala. It also marked the beginning of a more aggressive neoliberal development agenda, partly through licenses with Canadian extractive companies. A year later, Guatemala amended its national mining law to encourage foreign investment, a decision that would fuel conflict between companies and communities for decades to come.

According to geographers Catherine Nolin and Jacqui Stephens, who studied the work of Canadian mining companies in Guatemala from 2004 to 2008, Canada’s “pro-business, pro-mining stance, through its embassy’s activities,” has shaped Guatemala’s development model and, in turn, has helped plunder the resources of Indigenous and local communities.

Documents received through Access to Information requests show that the embassy was active in creating a favourable environment for the operation of Canadian companies.* This included forming ties with Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s president from January 2012 to September 2015 who was imprisoned in 2015 for his alleged involvement in a multi-million-dollar customs corruption scandal.

In 2011, a couple of weeks after Pérez Molina was elected president, an embassy attaché sent an email to then-Canadian ambassador Hugues Rousseau about a meeting with the future Guatemalan mining minister, which included: “The recently elected government and the current conjuncture is being seen by the mining sector as a good momentum to move forward on the discussions about the mining law and its implications. Apparently, the extractive sector . . . is showing genuine interest to initiate dialogue with the government.” 

Rousseau responded: “I spoke with opm [Otto Pérez Molina] tonight about a request [redacted]. I also told him we were eating with his chosen mining minister. Very happy with our approach.”

About a year later, in February 2012, the vice president of corporate affairs of Canadian mining giant Goldcorp – one of the first Canadian companies to operate a mine in Guatemala’s post-conflict period – went before a Canadian parliamentary committee and described what appeared to be the expectation of a close level of co-operation between the Canadian and the Guatemalan governments.

“In Guatemala, I would like to see them modernize their mining regulations. That would add to the stability of the environment within which we deal in Guatemala. Can I go as Goldcorp and start training the Ministry of Energy and Mines? I can’t do that. The credibility behind that is not right. However, I think it makes a lot of sense to have a government institution come in to take our experience here in Canada – Natural Resources Canada in terms of their experience – and bring that experience to Guatemala.”

Documents shared by Shin Imai, an emeritus law professor at York University and director of the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, suggest that the embassy played a key role in these industry gatherings. At one point, over the issue of land confrontations between Maya communities and Canadian companies, the embassy, in its internal communications, even referred to the Indigenous people as “invaders.”

At least four security groups hired at Canadian-owned mining sites in Guatemala have been accused of having questionable human rights records. Some of their members are said to have trained in counter-terrorism, to be operating without weapons licenses or registration with the state, or to have ties to the Guatemalan military during the country’s war.

The UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification, set up after the war to investigate human rights violations, found that state forces and related paramilitary groups committed 93 percent of documented violations during the state-sponsored terror and genocide; now, some of these same forces are working privately in the mining industry.


Excerpted from Testimonio, Canadian Mining In the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala, with permission from Between The Lines. This excerpt has been slightly edited for length.

There are three civil lawsuits against Hudbay Minerals ongoing in Canada. The lawsuit by 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ women; a lawsuit by Angelica Choc, widow of community leader Adolfo Ich who was shot and killed in 2009; and by German Chub, who was shot and left paralyzed in 2009 by Hudbay’s former head of security. The cases are proceeding in Canada. In January 2021, Mynor Padilla, former Hudbay head of security for Hudbay, pled guilty in Guatemalan court to having shot and killed Adolfo Ich and shot and left paralyzed German Chub.

* As part of the author’s ongoing investigations into mining and governance in Guatemala, she submitted a request to Guatemala’s Ministry of the Interior on May 26, 2017 under the country’s Public Information Access Law, and on June 23, 2017 she received documents from several units and offices within the Ministry of the Interior in response to the request. The author has kept copies of all relevant documents.


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