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Canadian Mining Companies Are Destroying Latin America

Throughout Latin America, Canadian mining companies are acting with impunity and may have used paramilitary criminal organizations to dispose of anyone in their way.

by Joseph Czikk
Feb 12 2015, 9:54pm

A mining facility in Chiapas, Mexico owned by Calgary-based company, Blackfire Exploration, Ltd. Image via Wikimedia.

An employee of a Canadian-owned gold mine in Cocula, Mexico is among two people still missing days after local police freed ten others said to be victims of a kidnapping.

The group was travelling in an SUV about 30 minutes outside of Cocula on Friday when kidnappers dressed as police or military personnel abducted them.

Mexico's interior ministry said Sunday that ten of the victims were "rescued" by local Mexican forces, with one being treated for a gunshot wound. Three of the victims were hired at Media Luna on contract.

It all happened in the troubled Mexican state of Guerrero, where 43 student-teachers were allegedly murdered and burned to ashes in September by Mexican narco-traffickers colluding with state forces. More than 70,000 people have died in Mexico's war with narco-traffickers since 2006, while officials say 22,000 are missing.

The recent kidnapping is just the latest in a dizzying web of corruption, collusion, and human rights abuses that constantly revolve around Canadian-owned mines in Latin America.

And while Cocula is a case unique to Mexico's troubled political landscape, it serves as a reminder for Canadians to more closely examine perhaps the nation's best-kept secret: our mining companies are under accusation of constant human rights breaches.

Canadian mining activity in Latin America has skyrocketed over the past decade. Acting on 1994's North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada signed agreements with several Latin American countries to facilitate easy access for resource extraction. Those countries include Peru (2009), Colombia (2011), Panama (2013), and Honduras (2014). As such, five of the top ten locations for Canada's international mining assets in 2014 were Latin American countries.

According to Natural Resources Canada, the value of Canadian mining assets abroad reached $148.7 billion in 2012, accounting for 66 percent of all Canadian mining assets.

Canadian activities in Mexico are especially pronounced. With nearly 200 companies in operation, Mexico is the top destination for Canadian mining investment outside of Canada. In Guerrero, terror, violence, and intimidation are a daily occurrence and the gold is said to be cheap and easy to mine. Indeed, Canadian companies such as Goldcorp, Newstrike Capital, Alamos Gold, and Torex Gold Resources all have a strong presence there.

Several experts have pointed to the recent incident in Cocula as part of a battle between armed narco-trafficking groups struggling for power. MiningWatch Canada says it's an "all-out war" between these crime groups in nearly every municipality in Guerrero.

Pablo Piccato, a history professor at Columbia University, told VICE that Cocula could represent a situation where one armed group was trying to extort money from Torex, the owner of the Media Luna mine. The group could also be trying to undermine competing groups that might sell protection to Media Luna. As with the Missing 43, though, what exactly happened in Cocula remains unknown.

Unofficial reports claimed that the group responsible for the abduction demanded ransom from Torex, but the company's vice-president of investor relations said it hadn't received threats or been the victim of extortion attempts. In fact, Torex CEO Fred Standford told one outlet that the motives behind the lone employee's extended kidnapping has nothing to do with the mine.

About 200 people work for the company full-time at the site and 1,200 work for contractors.

Neither vice-president Gabriela Sanchez nor Stanford responded to inquires from VICE.

In Mexico, like in other Latin American countries (including Canadian trade partners Colombia and Peru), foreign mining companies indirectly deal with local narco or paramilitary groups for access.

Often those groups work at arms' length with government and military, collusion especially felt after the chilling case of the Missing 43. The crime is still largely unsolved, but it has been established that a local police force was working alongside narco-traffickers the night of the incident.

Countless cases of violence in Mexico are connected to the country's strangling presence of narco-traffickers, but the end result often mirrors that of mineral-rich countries like Colombia, Peru, Honduras, and Guatemala, among others. Locals and activists standing in the way of foreign investment are often met with violence from paramilitary groups.

"In Guerrero these crime groups operate in a highly militarized environment and each one will often have various kinds of relations with state forces," said Dawn Paley, journalist and author of Drug War Capitalism. "Over and over again, the same forces that are supposedly protecting these transnational corporations have also been found to be working closely with these criminal groups."

Though Mexico is unique compared to the rest of Latin America, these same types of groups continue to exert their will. Recent incidents have sprung up all over the country, including in Chihuahua City, Tamaulipas, along the coast, and the Sierra Madre mountain range in the north.

They're all rich in minerals or gas, and as one can guess, Canadian companies have a presence in nearly all of them.

The same trends surface in resource-rich areas across Latin America. In Colombia, Paley has written about the "militarization of the extractive industry," where US-trained energy battalions protected pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure. She says the US-funded "War on Drugs" is used as a pretext to improve conditions for foreign investment.

Headlines seem to spring up every week in Latin America where locals are confronted with danger and Canadian companies are involved. A quick visit to MiningWatch Canada shows news of an indigenous anti-mining leader in Ecuador murdered by a SWAT team and locals from a mineral-rich area near Cusco, Peru facing intimidation at HudBay Mineral's Constancia project. Then there's news of the CEO of Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources being summoned to a Guatemalan court over accusations of criminalizing community leaders. The list goes on and on.

"If you take a map of where a Latin American country's resources are and a map of where that country's conflicts are, they overlap well," said Arno Kopecky, a Canadian journalist and author of The Devil's Curve. In his book, Kopecky examined two separate incidents in Peru and Colombia in which the activity of Canadian-owned mines ultimately led to the displacement, violence, or murder of local and indigenous populations trying to defend their land.

It's a sad but constant reality: for those who decide to resist a given transnational mega-project, violence often follows.

"I've written about cases of activists being murdered for asking for information about a mining project. Not even doing a blockade, but just asking questions," said Paley.

Those who choose to resist such projects do so for many reasons, but often because of a lack of any long-term legacy left by the mines. "The legacy is for the Canadian shareholders and execs who might get a huge payout for overseeing this mine, but it's the locals who pay a very high price," said the Mexico-based journalist Paley.

"Once the mines close, the locals are left with little more than a polluted natural environment," said Paley, referencing Vancouver-based Goldcorp's recent foray into Honduras through the San Martin gold and silver mine.

As a result of all of Canada's free-trade agreements with Latin American nations, Kopecky said companies are entering territories without firm regulatory checks. Social corporate responsibility amounts to little more than propaganda for many of these companies.

"The mine will be building schools and hospitals for local communities only because it makes good business sense. As soon as it stops making good business sense they'll stop doing it," said Kopecky.

Back in Cocula, the likelihood of the truth behind the kidnapping may never surface. As the late celebrated criminal journalist Charles Bowden once said, "Rumours fly across Mexico; facts crawl."

Meanwhile, the idea that Canada treats the rest of the world with benevolent care have been slowly eroding, too.

"I think that there is some conflict around those kinds of Canadian investments that people are not generally aware of," said Eric Olson, the associate director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a Washington-based think tank.

Kopecky argued that a much closer eye is kept on the industry than even just ten years ago, but in the end, agreed with Olson.

"People cannot nearly get away with as much murder and mayhem as they could before, but I would characterize it as extremely naive to think Canada is on a positive footing."

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