Guatemala: state of siege against protesters lifted

Just one week after imposing a 30-day state of siege on four municipalities in southeastern Guatemala that have been the site of violent confrontations over a Canadian-owned silver mine, President Otto Pérez Molina announced on May 9 that his government was lifting the measure and instead declaring a state of prevention in the area. Under the less severe state of prevention, “some rights remain limited,” the president said, “such as the right to strike, and demonstrations when it’s going to interfere with public services, [along with] the carrying of arms.” Apparently, Pérez Molina had to back off from the May 2 state of siege because the National Congress had failed to approve it within three days, as required by law. (AFP, May 9, via Hoy, Dominican Republic; El Mercurio, Spain, May 11)

The state of siege had restricted individual constitutional rights and put the military in control of Jalapa and Mataquescuintal municipalities, Jalapa department, and Casillas and San Rafael Las Flores municipalities, Santa Rosa department. Indigenous Xinka communities in the area have been protesting for about a year against the El Escobal mine, which is located in San Rafael Las Flores. The principal owner is San Rafael, S.A., the Guatemalan subsidiary of Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources Inc., but Goldcorp Inc., also based in Vancouver, retained 40% ownership after selling El Escobal to Tahoe in 2010. One of the leaders of the protest movement, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, the secretary of the Xinka Parliament, was murdered on March 17; the case remains unsolved.

Protests intensified after the government granted an exploitation license to the mining companies on April 3. Indigenous activists set up an encampment in San Rafael Las Flores near the mine five days later. On April 27 mine security guards fired on a group of the protesters, injuring 10, two of them seriously. Responding to the shooting, protesters in Jalapa captured and disarmed 23 police agents on April 29; a campesino was killed the next day when police tried to rescue the captured agent. Also on April 30, a police agent was killed when police stormed the camp in San Rafael Las Flores.

Under the state of siege, more than 2,000 soldiers and police agents were deployed to the four municipalities in small tanks and in attack vehicles, detaining 16 community leaders. In a May 7 communiqué the Indigenous, Campesino and Popular March, which includes various indigenous organizations, described the state of siege as an act of “criminalization of protest” and charged that the government was carrying out “a brutal and systematic repression” against peaceful demonstrations. (Upside Down World, May 2; Servindi, May 7)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 12.

  1. Guatemala: criminalization of peasant protests
    Justifying the state of siege at San Rafael Las Flores, President Otto Pérez Molina apparently invoked the presence of Los Zetas and other narco gangs in the area. This is refuted by a May 7 editorial in Guatemala’s La Hora newspaper (translated by Upside Down World), “Total: no eran ‘Zetas'” (“So they weren’t ‘Zetas’ after all”), noting that the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General reported after an investigation that they had found no links to narco gangs, and retroactively changed the justification for the state of siege to the supposed theft of explosives from the mine site.