She Defended Her Land Against A Mine In Guatemala Then Had To Flee For Her Life

The roots of the mining industry in Guatemala are soaked in the blood of its 36-year civil war.

By Alleen Brown
Video by Martyna Starosta
The Intercept (6/23/19)

TERESA MUÑOZ WAS riding her motorbike along her regular delivery route on a winding Guatemala road, carrying the homemade cheese she sold for a living, when she saw in her rearview mirror one of the white sedans that employees of the Escobal silver mine drove. Mining company cars had followed her before, but this time, the vehicle swerved. The driver rammed her motorbike, pitching her into the street, and then sped off. Muñoz was left bruised and scraped, convinced they’d meant to kill her.

For years, she had been a leader in the fight against the silver mine, the project of Tahoe Resources, a U.S.-headquartered Canadian company. Located in the southeastern Guatemala city of San Rafael las Flores, Escobal was on its way to becoming one of the largest silver mines in the world. Muñoz and her family helped organize community votes on the mine, participated in rallies to stop production, and educated people about the mine’s potential harms.

Although the rebels were called terrorists, the state and its paramilitary groups carried out 93 percent of the killings, and around 80 percent of the victims were Mayan. The communism-obsessed U.S. government provided political and financial support to the murderous regime.

Rainfall in the mountains that contain the Escobal mine feeds the Los Esclavos River and a multitude of natural springs, whose waters fuel the production of coffee and onions in the region, grown for export. For sustenance, families grow beans, corn, and squash in the forested hillsides. More than half the surrounding population lives below the poverty line, making them particularly vulnerable to changes in the local hydrology. Mines like Escobal use massive quantities of water and divert flows in ways that can disrupt communities’ access. Such projects have also been known to leach heavy metals into drinking water sources.

The mountains are part of the territory of the Xinca people, an Indigenous group whose language and culture were nearly wiped out by Spanish colonizers and the Catholic Church. For years, Tahoe Resources argued that there were no Xinca people left in the communities surrounding the mine who would require any consultation. They were wrong. In fact, the mine’s denial of the Xincas’ existence fueled a regional reclamation of the identity. “Soy Xinca” — “I am Xinca” — has become the rallying cry under which Muñoz and others fight.

U.S. and Israeli ex-special forces wage violence against civilians

In response to the anti-mining movement in San Rafael, Tahoe hired firms run by U.S. and Israeli ex-special forces veterans to protect the project and lobbied the Guatemalan government to quash the resistance. Over the course of the 12-year conflict, mine opponents have been shot, imprisoned, and even killed.

For Muñoz, the fight meant exile. “I’m sure, as is my family, that if I had continued there, I wouldn’t be alive anymore,” she told The Intercept. In 2016, she abandoned the land for which she’d risked everything and sought asylum in the United States, a process that has stalled since Donald Trump’s crackdown on asylum-seekers began. …

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