San Jose del Golfo, Guatemala, a hamlet 19 miles outside of Guatemala City, has been under a veritable siege by the National Civil Police (PNC) and army for the past two days.
The communities around San Jose del Golfo — about 45,000 people — have engaged in a two-year long peaceful resistance to prevent the construction of a new mine by Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA). Now the company is trying to reopen the mine’s access road using the blunt force of the PNC and army.
A rotating cast of 20-odd people from neighboring communities make up the La Puya resistance and block access to the mine.
“The people sit right here in the road,” La Puya protester Antonio Reyes Romero said. “Sometimes if they are coming to bother us, we put a mountain of shit here in the road.”
Groups like the Guatemalan Chamber of Industry have portrayed the protesters as anti-development.
Protesters say the communities’ water is dangerously contaminated with arsenic from prior mining projects.
A Feb. 2013 study found there was a risk of arsenic contamination, which was not adequately accounted for in the environmental impact study.
The mine would produce as much as 52,000 tons of gold a year and a huge quantity of toxic waste.
“There are thousands of families that work in agriculture,” Romero said. “The mine would only employ 70 people.”
Protesters estimate 95 percent of families in the region depend on agriculture, which would be destroyed if the water were further contaminated.
“It’s a lie that it would bring jobs. Absolutely a lie. It would bring unemployment,” Romero said.
Protesters vs. KCA
The protest is supported by virtually all of the surrounding communities. On Wednesday the company, supported by the PNC and army, sought to breach the barrier at the entrance to the mine.
Trucks carrying bulldozers arrived early Wednesday morning with a contingent of police officers, according to the protesters (a KCA representative denies police were present when the equipment first arrived).
The situation escalated and by late afternoon there were between 200 and 300 officers confronting the protesters.
Two truckloads of soldiers were in the town itself as an additional intimidation.
When the police arrived at the mine, protesters issued a cry for help. Church bells rang in the villages, calling people to the protest. When the confrontation ended, 800 protesters had peacefully faced down the PNC force.
“Jesus always opted for non-violence,” Prudencio Rodriguez, a Catholic priest from the nearby town of Durano-Chinautla said. “The people of the communities always come when the church bells ring, like yesterday.”
“We didn’t know their intention,” Romero said, but “it was clearly for intimidation.”
Police are trying to use a law for the removal of speed bumps against the protesters. The law includes a catchall phrase for road obstructions, according to human rights activist Jorge Santos.
The protesters believe Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina is directly involved in the deployment of troops and police.
“The ministers of the interior and defense seek instructions from the president… We believe the president is ordering [the police and army],” Romero said. “He’s able to stop the repression of the police.”
Ryan Adams, a KCA representative denied the company had contacted the PNC or army for support Wednesday morning. Calling the police is “usually the response of the people at the gates,” he said, claiming that the protesters regularly call the police.
Although Adams denied the company requested aid from the PNC or army Wednesday, he confirmed that he is in regular communication with President Perez Molina and that the president supported the project. Adams said his contact with the government has been “very helpful.”
The ministers of defense, interior and mines are appointed by the president.
“My job has been to put every piece of pressure I possibly can on the government to get this resolved,” Adams said.
KCA has threatened to sue Guatemala if the mine is not opened.
“They can’t afford this lawsuit,” Adams said. “We had a big law group out of DC fire off a letter to the mines minister, copied to the president, explaining what we were doing.”
The letter explains the company sued to compel action on its behalf “after six months of inaction by the Civil National Police.”
An appeals court issued a ruling “ordering the Civil National Police to act,” according to the letter. The Constitutional Court later ruled that the PNC had always been under this obligation.
The protesters believe the company or its subsidiary are contributors to Perez Molina’s ruling Patriot Party. Adams denied this.
“There is interest in the government only for the oligarchs…They believe in development without people,” Rodriguez said.
The PNC increased pressure on the protesters again Thursday morning. At 8AM, half a dozen PNC trucks and a bus were parked at the tiny local commissary. The extra officers are brought from the capital. Throughout the morning armed PNC patrols drove through the middle of the protest site.
The spokesperson claimed only 10 officers were in the town. “It’s normal service,” he said. “The police are only here for the prevention of crime.” I counted 14 on the main street, four in a truck, and 24 running a checkpoint.
When asked about the presence of the army the day before, the spokesperson claimed they were in the town for “vacation” and to “play football.”
“These trucks always come… it’s normal,” he said.
A shopkeeper said the soldiers did not play soccer but spent the day walking up and down the main street.
An army spokesperson denied soldiers were on the town’s streets, and said they passed through to a recreational site.
When pushed about why residents said soldiers had been walking around the town, he said, “the mayor can ask for help from the army. It’s natural in Guatemala that soldiers walk with police for security.”
Adams contends KCA did not request the presence of the PNC or army Wednesday, but he admitted “it’s obvious that they’re trying to resolve it on behalf of the company.”