Author: Sandra Cuffe
EL ESTOR, Guatemala — Germán Chub was still sleeping when police and military personnel showed up outside his home. It was the fourth day of a month-long state of siege, akin to martial law, in El Estor, eastern Guatemala, in the wake of the latest flashpoint in a decades-long, multifaceted conflict over a nickel mine.
Chub’s wife went out the door a few minutes before six o’clock in the morning on Oct. 27, on her way to grind the maize she would make into tortillas for the day. Police waiting in the street informed her they were there to search the house and entered with personnel from the country’s Office of the Public Prosecutor. Chub was forced to get up and get into his wheelchair.
“It scared me,” Chub told Mongabay. “They just said they were there for a raid and that they had been sent.”
It was not the first time Chub had experienced fallout from the mining conflict. During protests against the Fenix nickel mine in 2009 over land rights, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down by Mynor Padilla, the mine’s head of security, who also shot dead anti-mining activist Adolfo Ich Chamán. Mongabay first spoke to Chub in 2015 during the trial and again in 2017 when Padilla was initially acquitted. After appeals, Padilla eventually took a plea deal and was convicted this past January.
The Fenix nickel mine has been tied to conflict and violence for more than half a century, when it was formerly owned by EXMIBAL, a subsidiary of Canadian miner Inco. Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ residents were never consulted, and their exclusion from a court-ordered consultation process prompted protests, a crackdown and violence that left four police officers with gunshot wounds in October this year. The ensuing state of siege and raids targeting community leaders, outspoken mine opponents and local journalists — all Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ — have sparked alarm and condemnation in Guatemala and beyond.
“I do not even have the words to express myself about what they are doing,” Chub said. “Everything they are doing in El Estor is unjust.”
Police raided the homes of two journalists and at least nine community authorities, fishers’ guild leaders and protesters during the last week of October. In early November, Mongabay visited several families in El Estor whose homes were raided and spoke with other leaders in hiding. Hundreds of police officers, soldiers and marines were in the area, patrolling and stationed at different points around town, including fanned out along a stretch of road between El Estor and the mining complex 6 kilometers (4 miles) to the west.
The Fenix project is now owned by the Solway Investment Group, a private mining and metals corporation based in Switzerland, after decades of Canadian ownership. When it acquired the Fenix mine in 2011, Solway was based in another tax haven, Cyprus, and widely acknowledged to be a Russian company.
Protests and condemnation related to the state of siege continue to target both the Swiss and Russian embassies in Guatemala. Solway’s press office told Mongabay in a written statement that the company is fully owned by European Union citizens and that there is no Russian capital or investment in the company. Russian is one of the company’s working languages because Solway operated several projects in that country in the past, according to the company. Many high-level employees at the Fenix project in Guatemala are Russian.
The project includes mountaintop mining and ferronickel processing facilities near the shore of Lake Izabal, the country’s biggest lake. The lake, waterways and lands in the region are at the heart of sustained opposition to the mine. Indigenous communities in the region primarily live from subsistence agriculture and fishing, and want to ensure the environment can sustain those livelihoods for future generations.
“That’s why we were supporting the resistance. People want to look out for their children, their grandchildren,” Chub said.