Guatemala: state of siege declared as Army, police crack down after protests against Canadian-owned mine

Photo: Troops entering the region around a disputed mining site, shortly after the declaration of a State of Siege by the government of Guatemala. Photo:

Photo: Carlos Andrino. "Caserío los Lopez. Santa Lucia Xalapan. Jalapa." May 2, 2013, Guatemala.

[Posted from Guatemala City]

Residents of four towns east of Guatemala's capital woke up to news that their communities had been placed under a 30-day State of Siege by the administration of President Otto Perez Molina, following anti-mining protests that turned violent. One policeman was killed, six civilians were wounded by rubber bullets, and a number of police cars were burned and overturned on roadways. Here is the government's official public announcement. Public gatherings in the area are banned for 30 days.

According to Guatemalan Defense Minister Col. Ulises Giron Anzueto Noah (shown at right, photo today by Carlos Andrino), 3,500 total personnel participated in operations to bring the "estado de sitio" (state of siege) into effect. Some soldiers entered the areas in armored personnel vehicles and tanks. Hundreds of police officers were involved, as were private security officers for the Canadian-owned Escobal mine at the center of the controversy.

Escobar (San Rafael) Mine: Fine Crushing Plant, March 2013, courtesy Tahoe Resources.

The mine at San Rafael Las Flores is known locally as the San Rafael Mine, and has been in conflict for years. It is owned by Tahoe Resources Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, and is located about 70km (or 40 miles) east of Guatemala City. The communities who live nearby, many from the Xinca ethnic group, have long argued the mining operation threatens to irreversibly contaminate their water sources. The mine is not yet operating, but the Guatemalan government has granted the permits needed to open.

Photo: Carlos Andrino. May 2, 2013, Guatemala.

During a televised press conference this morning, Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina said the State of Siege was necessary because the protesters—or organized crime groups like the Zeta drug cartel who have taken advantage of instability to operate in the area—are armed with heavy weapons and explosives.

"Investigations have found that a number of crimes have been committed, including homicide, kidnapping, and the destruction of government property," said Molina in the press conference. He added that ten arrests had been carried out "based on arrest warrants issued days ago against suspects in killings and kidnappings."

"There are other interests mixing with those of the civil population, 'other interests' that are behind this situation," Molina told reporters today. "[The administration] maintains a neutral position regarding the mine… our goal is to ensure the peace and tranquility of Guatemala. The majority of the population of the municipalities under a state of siege are against these recent acts of delinquency."

Guatemala's Minister of the Interior Mauricio Lopez Bonilla followed the President in the press conference, explaining that an undeclared number of police and soldiers had been dispatched to the four communities. The state of siege, he said, has "nothing to do with the mine," and any claims that the government is effectively criminalizing protests were "false."

Lopez Bonilla described the anti-mining protest groups in the area as "Merchants of Conflict," and vowed to reveal "the criminal structures behind this recent activity" in raids to be carried out today.

President Molina heads to Costa Rica tomorrow for the two-day Presidents' Summit of the Central American Integration System, an annual conference for Central American heads of State. United States President Barack Obama will be present, and cooperation between US and Guatemalan security forces around anti-drug trafficking and anti-terrorism efforts is expected to be central to the agenda.

There is precedent for declaration of a "State of Siege" here in Guatemala: In 2010, for instance, the government of former president Alvaro Colom made the same declaration in Alta Verapaz (a "department," or county), claiming it was necessary to restore government control in an area that had been effectively taken over by the Zeta cartel.

During a "State of Siege" in Guatemala, which is more restrictive than a "State of Emergency," law enforcement has a number of broad rights outside of the normal legal framework, and the constitutional rights of affected citizens become limited.

For instance: the government has the right to seize weapons; arrest or detain citizens for unlimited periods of time without appearing before a judge and with no guarantee of an attorney to represent them during interrogation. The state can also restrict or deny access to areas or people.

All public gatherings or protests in the area around the San Rafael mine are understood to be banned, under the emergency declaration.

The mine's owner told the Associated Press that local protesters "armed with machetes 'turned hostile' at the gate on Saturday, and security guards fired tear gas and rubber bullets to ensure the security of mine personnel."

Other protesters temporarily detained 23 police officers, seizing their firearms before releasing them. Later, in a nearby town, another officer was shot and killed in a confrontation possibly related to the mine clashes. Residents have said they fear the underground mine will dry up local springs and other water sources.

Ira Gostin, vice president of investor relations for Tahoe Resources, said complaints that the mine could affect the springs "are totally unfounded."

• A copy of the emergency declaration is here: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 [JPEG].

It affects the communities of Jalapa, Mataquescuintla, Casillas and San Rafael Las Rosas, and lasts for one month.

Here is the government document explaining what an "estado de sitio" means [PDF].

•Also today, US Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) visited with Guatemala's president and other government officials. The senator is on a tour of Central America to review "US counter-terrorism and narcotics efforts," and work with heads of state in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala "to improve Central American security.

• Freelance journalist Sandra Cuffe has analysis here, and a brief history of the Xinca community's efforts to protest the San Rafael (Escobal) mine:

"We fear for the lives of our leaders," stated a message circulated online by the Xinka People's Parliament, denouncing the mobilization of armed forces in Jutiapa with the alleged intention of arresting Xinka leaders in Santa María Xalapán, Jalapa. "We're returning to the 1980s, with the persecution of leaders, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearance."

Related Boing Boing coverage today: "Rios Montt genocide trial struggles toward completion as confusion reigns in courtroom."

Escobar (San Rafael) Mine: "First Simba," courtesy Tahoe Resources.