The mining corporation Hudbay, based in Toronto, is facing claims for the death of local activist Adolfo Ich Chamán, killed during demonstrations against mining in the Guatemalan town of El Estor in 2009.
In less than six weeks’ time, two landmark human rights cases have exploded onto the global human rights landscape and into human rights history. The cases are all from the same municipality in the lowland eastern Guatemala department of Izabal.
As reported previously in The Progressive, on February 26 a special three-judge Court of High Risk in Guatemala City sentenced two former Guatemalan soldiers to 120 and 240 years for their roles in murder, mass rape, and enslavement in a small Izabal village in 1982 and 1983, at the height of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. Never before had soldiers anywhere in the world been tried for wartime sex crimes by a national, domestic court—only by international tribunals. The case was known as Sepur Zarco, after the village where the crimes occurred.
Then, on April 2, the neighboring hamlet of Lote Ocho burst onto the front page of The New York Times in an article about Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian mining company that acquired a nickel mine in Lote Ocho after the village's residents were terrorized off their land in 2007. Guatemala's civil war had ended eleven years before, in 1996, but the same methods of extreme violence used in Sepur Zarco were used to clear out Lote Ocho. The widespread burning of homes, mass rape, and murder played out again.
There is as yet no direct link between the Sepur Zarco and Lote Ocho cases, but the similarities between them are striking. Both began with efforts to clear the Maya Q’eqchi off land they had inhabited and farmed for centuries. In Sepur Zarco, the two former soldiers were convicted of one murder and of raping eleven women. In two separate Lote Ocho lawsuits, a Canadian mining company stands accused of negligence in one murder and in the rape of eleven women.
And Mynor Padilla, the Lote Ocho murder defendant, was being defended by Francisco Palomo, a colleague and good friend of Moises Galindo, a high-powered Guatemala City lawyer that represented convicted Sepur Zarco defendant Heriberto Valdez. Palomo worked the Padilla case until he was shot 12 times in broad daylight on a Guatemala City street. Galindo was one of the first people on the scene of the slaying on June 3, 2015.
“It’s about two hours by four-by-four pickup from Lote Ocho to Sepur Zarco,” says Grahame Russell of Rights Action, a Toronto-based nonprofit that has been funding community development, human rights, and environmental work in the Lote Ocho area since 2004. “But the roads around there are terrible, so by bird’s fly it’s not far at all.”
Cory Wanless, an attorney with Klippensteins, the Toronto law firm that brought the Hudbay suit, says the women of Lote Ocho have spoken with the women of Sepur Zarco. “They give our clients strength,” Wanless says. “We talk about Sepur Zarco. We hope it is an indication that more justice is possible in Guatemala.”
As in Sepur Zarco, the stakes in Lote Ocho are high. But this time it’s more than individuals being tried. In a precedent-setting lawsuit, Hudbay, a Canadian mining company with more than U.S. $1 billion in 2015 revenue, is being sued for negligence for the terror allegedly sown by security personnel of HMI Nickel, a Hudbay subsidiary the company bought out entirely in 2008. The suit, filed in Toronto, claims Canadian $2 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages.
In buying HMI, Hudbay also assumed its liabilities. “It’s not even like they bought a separate entity,” Attorney Wanless says. “It’s more like they united and folded into one company.” (Hudbay sold the Lote Ocho mine to a Cyprus-based private equity firm in 2011.)
Canadian mining companies operate in more than 100 countries around the world and in every country of Latin America, according to the Mining Association of Canada. And Guatemala is not the only place where Canadian mining companies have run into trouble. In El Salvador, the financially strapped government is being sued under the terms of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) for blocking a Canadian-Australian mine that ignited mass popular opposition and threatened local drinking water. But only in Lote Ocho has a Canadian mine stood accused of negligence in murder and rape. If Hudbay is found guilty, the case could have global implications.
“The Lote Ocho case puts Canada on the map in a very negative way,” Wanless says. “It is having reverberations in corporate boardrooms in Ottawa. Can corporations be held accountable for human rights violations abroad? This would be, and is, an example to other mining companies of what can happen to them if they don’t get things right. People think of Canada as nice guys, but it’s shocking when you see what they're doing. Go some places in the world today with a Canadian flag on your backpack, and you’re going to get in trouble.”
The Lote Ocho suit alleges that HMI/Sky President and CEO Ian Austin and other HMI/Sky executives and managers knew that in the first round of Lote Ocho evictions in early January 2007, dozens of homes were burned to the ground, but they did nothing. In the week after those evictions, Lote Ocho residents returned to rebuild their homes, and then January 17 hundreds of Guatemalan police, military and HMI/Sky security returned to Lote Ocho, and nine of them—including police, military and security personnel—allegedly held a gun to the head of Lote Ocho resident Rosa Elbira Coc Ich and raped her.
According to the suit, on the day of this rape, Austin released a statement saying, “The company did everything in its power to ensure that the evictions were carried out in the best possible manner while respecting human rights.”
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance writer who splits his time between Maine and Latin America.