Guatemala: mining companies are dealt setbacks

A panel of Guatemala's Civilian and Mercantile Appeals Court issued a restraining order on July 24 that is likely to keep Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources Inc. from opening its El Escobal silver mine in August as scheduled. The court backed a complaint filed by Kelvin Jiménez, a member of the indigenous Xinka group, that the Energy and Mining Ministry failed to deal with 250 appeals against the operation when it granted a 25-year license for the mine on April 3. The court's decision gave the ministry three days to begin proceedings on the appeals. The Legal and Environmental Action Center (CALAS), a Guatemalan organization that assisted Jiménez in the legal action, said the July 24 decision would suspend operations at the mine; a spokesperson for Tahoe downplayed the ruling, saying the company's Guatemalan subsidiary, Minera San Rafael, would appeal, although the spokesperson admitted that the process might take several weeks.

The El Escobal mine, located in San Rafael las Flores municipality in the southeastern department of Santa Rosa, has been controversial since the first exploration license was granted in 2007; the original license was for Goldcorp Inc., another Vancouver-based multinational, which sold the mine to Tahoe in 2010 while retaining 40% ownership. In September 2012 local residents detained workers bringing materials to the construction site, and unidentified attackers set fire to some facilities and a police vehicle. In November the authorities blocked a meeting of mine opponents; residents reportedly retaliated by setting fire to a hotel and stealing dynamite from the mine. Two security guards and one campesino died in a shootout on Jan. 11 as the protests continued, and in March unidentified armed men kidnapped four members of the Xinka Parliament; three were released, but one, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, was found dead.

Right-wing president Otto Pérez Molina imposed a 30-day state of siege in the San Rafael las Flores area in May, but opposition in the National Congress forced him to back off. On July 9 Pérez Molina announced on his television program that he would seek congressional approval for a two-year moratorium on new licenses for mining. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, July 24, from AP;, July 24)

A July 22 ruling by a Canadian judge, Ontario Superior Court justice Carole Brown, may create additional problems for Canadian mining operations in Latin America. Brown ruled that a lawsuit against HudBay Minerals Inc. by 13 Guatemalans could proceed. The suit, filed in December 2010, charges HudBay with responsibility in abuses, including murder, that the plaintiffs say were committed near El Estor nickel mine by the company's Guatemalan subsidiary at the time, Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel. Lawyers for HudBay—which pulled out of the mining project in August 2011, according to its website—argued that the company couldn't be sued for actions by a subsidiary. Cory Wanless, a co-counsel with Murray Klippenstein for the plaintiffs, called Justice Brown's decision “a wake-up call for Canadian mining companies.“ “We fully expect that more claims like this one will be brought against Canadian mining companies until these kinds of abuses stop,“ Wanless said. (The Globe and Mail, Toronto, July 23)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 28.