She Defended Her Land Against a Mine in Guatemala. Then She Fled in Fear for Her Life.
Alleen Brown. Video by Martyna Starosta.
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.
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.
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.
A name for people like Muñoz has emerged over the last decade: land defender. The term encompasses not only environmental activists defending their communities from contamination and lawyers fighting to enforce environmental regulations, but also peasant farmers attempting to hold on to their livelihoods and Indigenous people organizing to protect spaces that represent an extension of their identity.
The most famous land defender was Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca Indigenous group in Honduras who organized opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam. Cáceres’s murder by the dam’s hired hitmen was preceded by a U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 that paved the way for a wave of mega-project approvals. Now, a global shift toward autocracy is precipitating new threats against land defenders, and Guatemala is a case in point.
Last year was one of the most dangerous for land defenders in Guatemala since the end of the country’s brutal civil war in 1996. According to the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, 18 land defenders and campesino organizers were assassinated in 2018, including Indigenous people fighting to protect their territory from agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and the leaders of peasant organizations fighting to maintain access to land they use to sustain their livelihoods. Ronal David Barillas Díaz, a Xinca leader who organized against the sugar industry as well as the San Rafael mine, was among those killed. Of 392 aggressions against human rights defenders documented by the unit, including threats, assaults, arrests, and unfounded judicial complaints, 184 were aimed at Indigenous people defending their land.
Jorge Santos, the organization’s general coordinator, credits the increase in violence to outgoing President Jimmy Morales’s abandonment of the nation’s lauded anti-corruption efforts. But he finds it hard to be optimistic that the looming runoff presidential election in August holds hope for change. “Guatemala is at an important crossroads,” Santos told The Intercept. “One road is uphill, with many large rocks, but it allows us to build democracy, consolidate mechanisms of equity, aspirations for peace, for social justice, probably very slowly. The other is a road of regression, and it’s a regression that’s taking place at a very fast and accelerated rate. It’s a scenario that is going to put us in a state where it is understood that the only mechanism of exercising power is through violence.”
A Precarious Peace
The roots of the mining industry in Guatemala are soaked in the blood of its 36-year civil war. Beginning in 1960, Guatemala’s military government mercilessly repressed Indigenous-led, leftist opposition movements, killing or disappearing 200,000 people. 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.
The first large metal mine, owned by the Canadian International Nickel Company, arrived in Guatemala in the early years of the conflict, to an area known to be a center of guerrilla resistance. The mining company’s presence fueled a crackdown that cost 3,000 to 6,000 lives, according to some estimates.
Finally, the 1996 Peace Accords brokered a truce between the government and the opposition movements. The heart of the accords was a demilitarization agreement meant to eliminate the paramilitary forces. For the first time in the nation’s history, the accords also recognized the rights of Indigenous people to preserve their languages, practice their religions, and live free from discrimination. Guatemala signed on to the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention the same year.
Beyond humanitarian goals, the accords had another purpose: to signal that Guatemala was open for business. Only months after they were signed, Guatemala enacted a new mining law that allowed foreign companies to wholly own mining enterprises operating in the country, exempted those companies from a variety of taxes, and reduced government royalties on mined minerals. Guatemala became one of the cheapest places in the world to mine.
Meanwhile, members of the old military regime were finding their way into the private sector. In response, the United Nations’ International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the CICIG, was founded in 2006 “to investigate illegal security groups and clandestine security organizations in Guatemala — criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions.” The U.S. would provide $44.5 million in funding over the next decade.
Quelvin Jiménez, a Xinca lawyer, spent the 2000s developing grammatical standards for the Xinca language and working with a federal anti-racism commission to address ongoing discrimination. In 2010, he learned that the Escobal silver mine would be coming to his people’s homeland. He alerted members of the Xinca community. Among the articles of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention was a requirement that Indigenous people be consulted before minerals are extracted from the territory they occupy.
“As we are in this period of reclaiming our rights, the mine arrives,” said Jiménez. “All those processes are stalled by the presence of the San Rafael mine.”
To its shareholders, Tahoe Resources suggested that it had no responsibility to consult with Indigenous people. “According to our understanding, although Indigenous people may have inhabited the site at one time, there are no Indigenous populations that currently live in the immediate area of the Escobal project site,” the company wrote in a 2012 filing.
Land Defenders Under Siege
Muñoz’s home in Mataquescuintla, Guatemala, located a few miles from the mine, was built by her father using adobe that she and her 12 siblings helped mix. Growing up, they spent the mornings making tortillas for the family and the rest of the day playing in the woods and planting or harvesting corn, beans, and coffee.
After her father died, Muñoz took charge of caring for her sister Engracia, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a teenager, and cultivated her family’s land, making cheese out of her cows’ milk to sell.
Muñoz had never been involved in any activism until she heard about the mine at church. “When I learned of the tremendous harms that such a project causes to the environment in these territories, I got worried,” Muñoz said.
She and others began holding referenda on the mine in various communities. The tactic could not legally bar the mine from operating, but it created a public record of the lack of local support. In the eight participating municipalities, more than 90 percent of community members voted against the mine. Meanwhile, protesters began rallying at construction sites where infrastructure was being installed.
In response, Tahoe hired International Security and Defense Management,a private security firm run by a U.S. Special Forces veteran, to assemble a security plan. The company hired Golan Group, founded by former Israeli special forces officers, to carry it out.
Muñoz was one of few women who stood front and center at the anti-mine actions. “They realized I was one of the leaders,” she said.
Advocates for land defenders have observed a pattern in the cases of violence they’ve investigated in San Rafael and across Guatemala. “They start to portray human rights defenders as terrorists,” said Maria Reyes, who worked closely with Escobal opponents as an official with Protection International. Extractive industries push the narrative that “this isn’t a peaceful protest, but rather a blockade that is violating the rights of others.”
“There’s an escalation that begins with the act of defamation,” Santos explained. “It can reach such a level that it ends in the ‘civil death’ of the human rights defender — when they are captured and brought to prison — or with their physical death, when they are assassinated.”
By the end of 2012, events around the mine were escalating. Protests erupted as Tahoe installed high-voltage lines to power the project. A cement plant and a storage facility were set on fire. Then, in January, two security guards were killed in a confrontation with armed men. The resistance movement denied responsibility for the violence and property damage, suggesting that agents provocateur might have been responsible. The mine’s head of security claimed that surveillance cameras weren’t working at the time, and the identity of the perpetrators never emerged. Two months later, four Xinca leaders, including the president of the Xinca parliament, were kidnapped after participating in a referendum on the mine. One of them was killed.
Meanwhile, Tahoe’s pressure campaign on the Guatemalan government was paying off. The National Security Commission decided that unrest against any mine should be considered a matter of national security, according to a report by Plaza Pública, and an opaque interagency group made up of environment, energy, and national security officials was formed to monitor such projects.
Things came to a head in April 2013, when a group of protesters gathered in front of the mine’s entrance. Security guards opened fire, injuring six mine opponents. Protests and road blockades followed, as the Xinca leaders demanded dialogue. The escalating conflict culminated in a midnight standoff near the mine between police and men with covered faces. An officer was shot and killed.
Two days later, Guatemala’s then-president, Otto Pérez Molina, approved a state of siege in four municipalities including San Rafael, deploying thousands of military personnel and suspending constitutional rights. Arrest warrants were issued for more than a dozen mine opponents, including Muñoz, who was accused of being an organized crime leader.
Muñoz was in the middle of taking a shower the following morning when she was alerted that military officials were approaching her home. Other women arrested for mine resistance had reported physical and verbal abuse by police. Muñoz made a split-second decision, putting on her clothes backward in her haste to escape into the forest behind her house. She walked all day through the mountains toward Guatemala City, rushing to avoid ending up alone in the dark. She made it the roughly 40 miles before nightfall.
In the months that followed, Muñoz stayed indoors and adopted a new identity. Her brother Santiago had fled too, claiming asylum in Costa Rica, but she was unable to have any contact with him, Engracia, or the rest of her family. It was difficult to bear. Finally, after seven months, a judge withdrew all allegations against her.
Although returning home was a relief, “Another difficult phase of my life began,” Muñoz said. Her dairy business was destroyed, and she felt emotionally frayed and ill-equipped to manage her mounting debt after months in hiding.
Yet to the surprise of her family, she kept participating in the anti-Escobal movement, even as the mine began production.
By then, its impacts were revealing themselves. Residents of the tiny, intensely poor town of Cuchilla, which sits directly above the mine, were experiencing small earthquakes they said always occurred at the same time of day. Cracks appeared in the foundations of their homes, and the state agency that manages disasters eventually declared the community to be uninhabitable. Although the mine agreed to buy the homes of many displaced residents, it denied responsibility for the seismic activity, calling the purchases humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, Tahoe continued to claim that there were no Indigenous people in the region. The law was clear enough: If the Xinca existed, then the mine had to consult with them in order to operate. But the company’s argument was based on data from Guatemala’s 2002 census, the results of which have been questioned by anthropologists as well as Xinca leaders.
Muñoz’s story offers insight into why the census data is wrong. When asked by The Intercept if she identified as Indigenous, Muñoz said no. But when asked if she was Xinca, she said yes. Jiménez, the Xinca lawyer, explained that community elders see the designation “Indigenous” as a Western imposition and that few identify as such. A report published by Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture and Sports noted that census takers might have asked ineffective questions or assumed subjects’ ethnic identities based on their clothing or language.
The violence continued. In one of the most tragic incidents in the fight against the mine, a 16-year-old artist, musician, and vocal mining opponent named Topacio Reynoso was shot and killed in 2014 as she left a local festival with her father. Reynoso’s case remains unsolved.
Muñoz was run off the road the next year. At first, she tried to hide her injuries, even from her siblings. But she knew that after defamation, criminalization, and assassination comes impunity. “When one wants to access justice, the fact is it’s not on the side of those who defend human rights,” Reyes explained.
Rather than hoping that her attackers would be deterred by Guatemala’s feeble criminal justice system, Muñoz fled to the United States in 2016. At the time, Tahoe was the second-highest producing silver mine in the world.
At a Crossroads
There was a moment, around the time Muñoz left the country, when it seemed to Santos that the cycle of attacks on land defenders might break.
In 2015, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand the resignation of Pérez Molina. CICIG investigators had uncovered a multimillion-dollar customs fraud scheme involving the president, and it appeared that people were finally fed up with impunity and corruption. Pérez Molina stepped down and was jailed.
It was a time of intense relief and hope for the nation. Aggressions against land and human rights defenders dropped. But it didn’t last long.
By August 2017, the anti-corruption commission was seeking to investigate the new president, Jimmy Morales, for possible campaign finance violations. Although Morales had run on an anti-corruption platform, he refused to become the CICIG’s next target and announced that he would eject its commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from the country. It was the beginning of the president’s war against the commission — and what many would come to call a slow-motion coup.
In turn, 2018 became one of the most violent years Santos had observed. Relative to its population, Guatemala was second only to Colombia in the number of land and human rights defenders assassinated, according to Front Line Defenders. The most intense period of violence began on May 9, when two men gunned down Luis Arturo Marroquín in broad daylight in the town of San Luis Jilotepeque before driving away in a pickup truck. Marroquín was a leader of the Campesino Development Committee, or CODECA, which had applied to launch a political party the same day. In a speech that spring, Morales had railed against the group.
By the time the month was over, three Maya Q’eqchi’ members of another prominent campesino organization had been murdered in a region to the north, where palm oil plantations have claimed vast tracts of land. In June, three more CODECA members were murdered, all by machete. And at the end of July, the body of Juana Raymundo, a 25-year-old Maya Ixil woman and rising CODECA leader, was discovered with signs of asphyxiation by some kind of rope or belt.
In the midst of it all, the Escobal opponents obtained an appointment with the head of the anti-corruption commission. They explained to investigators that in addition to police repression and the potential for contamination, they were disturbed by the mining money that was coursing through the community.
Some of the money may have been the kind of legal bribery that every boom town sees. In San Rafael, 36 percent of the $16 million in royalties provided to the town has gone toward local government administration. But Leonel López Díaz, who worked as a driver and security guard for the mine and is now involved in the resistance, said he witnessed checks being passed to local officials that he believed to be separate from the royalties. A spokesperson for Pan American Silver, which purchased Tahoe Resources in 2019, did not respond to a question from The Intercept about the allegation. When he worked for another mine, López Díaz said, he used to go to church and record the priest’s Masses, listening for anti-mining rhetoric.
The concerns were enough to pique the investigators’ interest. It was bad timing. In August, Morales officially announced that he would end the CICIG’s mandate.
When Pérez Molina threatened to shut down the commission in 2015, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden threatened to withhold aid, and Pérez Molina backed off. But this time, Donald Trump’s administration remained silent, perhaps encouraged by hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lobbying from anti-CICIG politicians and businesspeople, or Morales’s attempts to curry favor by opening a Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem days after the U.S. did the same.
“What is happening in terms of the democratic regression of the United States since the arrival of Donald Trump has also played a fundamental role in the aspirations of the fight against corruption and impunity in [Guatemala],” said Santos.
It’s a problem that goes beyond Central America. “There is also a global expression leaning more and more toward the extreme right,” he said. “We feel this more in the countries that historically have shortfalls in democracy and human rights.” In many such places — such as Brazil, the Philippines, and Colombia — the shift is expressed in violence against land defenders.
Even in the U.S., as Indigenous people and environmental activists gear up to stand in the way of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, many wonder how a law enforcement response under Trump might be even worse than Standing Rock, an oil pipeline fight that was violently repressed under President Barack Obama.
And in the background, the effects of climate change are putting new pressure on land disputes across the globe, including in Guatemala.
Morales will be out as president following a runoff election on August 11. But on the question of uprooting corruption, the two candidates that survived the first round of elections in June are unpromising. Both have already found themselves in the crosshairs of the CICIG. After former first lady Sandra Torres announced her candidacy, she was granted immunity from prosecution for alleged campaign finance violations in the 2015 election. The anti-corruption commission sought to lift her immunity, a request that remains stranded in legal proceedings. And former prisons director Alejandro Giammattei was jailed in 2010 in the wake of a CICIG investigation into the murder of seven prisoners by security officials. Charges against him were eventually dropped. Neither candidate has committed to support the commission.
In 2019, the assassinations of land defenders and campesinos have only continued. The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala has documented six so far. Four of those killed worked with CODECA. Two more were conservationists for the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation. They worked in protected areas in eastern Guatemala, including a reserve home to a dozen threatened species of frogs and salamanders whose habitat has steadily been deforested by agribusiness and the timber industry.
Teresa’s brother Miguel Ángel Muñoz begins his 24-hour shift in the community of Casillas at 5 p.m. once a week. As he sits on the side of the highway, he sips coffee and chats with the other dozen or so people keeping watch. Every so often a large truck rolls by, and that’s when the action begins. The men rush to the road and place cones around the vehicle. Most drivers agree to allow them to inspect what is being carried.
“Our job is to stop the trucks and check them to see if they carry mining products or if they’re bringing fuel or cement to the mine. We stop them here, and we register them,” Miguel Ángel said during an October shift. “If they’re not carrying anything, we let them pass.”
The checkpoint in Casillas was set up in 2017, shortly before a court ordered the mine to suspend production, pending litigation over the Xincas’ existence in the area. Law enforcement attempted to evict them that first year, shooting tear gas that billowed near a school and a health center, but they failed. A similar checkpoint has since been set up in the family’s home community of Mataquescuintla.
Despite centuries of efforts by the church, the state, and a private corporation, the Xincas have refused to die. In September, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled against Tahoe Resources, affirming that the Xinca people exist in the area impacted by the mine and must be consulted. Unanswered is whether Xinca consent is required before the project can recommence. “The only proposal we have is that they leave,” Miguel Ángel said.
Tahoe’s share prices tumbled in the wake of the movement’s success in sparking delays. In January, the massive Vancouver-based mining company Pan American Silver moved in to purchase the company for $1.07 billion. “We are working towards building enduring, positive relationships with all stakeholders in the region, and to establishing a reputation as an honest, credible partner. At this stage, we are focused on actively listening in order to create a space for dialogue and to gain a deeper understanding of people’s expectations and concerns about the mine,” Siren Fisekci, Pan American Silver’s vice president for investor relations and corporate communications, told The Intercept in an emailed statement. She said the company is not setting any timeline for the mine’s potential restart.
On the ground, the change in ownership meant little. The in-country staff remain the same, according to the nonprofit Earthworks, and aggression toward the resistance has continued.
Jiménez, the lawyer representing the Xinca people, received death threats over the phone in February. He’s noticed people following him in cars and watching his house. Amnesty International has urged Guatemala’s attorney general to investigate and provide protection.
Asked for comment, Fisekci wrote, “We adhere to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. We do not tolerate threats or any forms of violence.”
In March, Guatemala’s University of San Carlos, along with the local anti-Escobal organization CODIDENA and Virginia Tech researchers from the same lab that exposed lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, published a study on the impacts of the mine so far.
In San Rafael, arsenic has been detected in tap water. Its origins are complicated, according to Guadalupe García Prado, the study’s coordinator. Demand for water after the mine began operations required the city to drill a new water well. The San Carlos researchers traced the arsenic to the new well and found that a water treatment plant is making little difference.
The study found that at least 12 springs have dried up since the mine arrived. Possibly to blame, the researchers argue, is a process called dewatering, where the mine perpetually pumps water out of its tunnels — approximately 255 million gallons per minute — into treatment ponds, before releasing it into the Los Esclavos River. The process is necessary even when the mine is out of production to keep the tunnels from flooding.
The expected productive life of the mine is 18 years, and much of the risk of contamination will arise after it is closed. Newly exposed sulfide minerals in mining areas often react with water and air to form acid mine drainage, which can dissolve other metals, like arsenic, from the surrounding rock, contaminating water. It will fall to the Guatemalan government to manage the risk — a task the researchers argue it lacks the capacity to carry out. In fact, the researchers confirmed that an old artisanal mine in the area that ceased operation 40 years ago was still leaching into water systems, contaminating natural springs with cadmium and lead.
In the end, the mining executives will move on, and the hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in royalties that Tahoe used as bait to hook Guatemala’s government will disappear.
“Guatemala has built a model of such a nature that it exploits, excludes, or exiles,” as Santos put it. “What’s installed is a spurious private investment in which the guarantees of labor rights and social welfare are not exercised.” He added, “What this is going to produce are large contingents of migration.”
If the conflict against the mine heats up again, Miguel Ángel says he’s willing to die if he has to — migrating to the U.S. is not on the table. He tried that already.
In 1995, Miguel Ángel joined his brother Santiago in the U.S. and got a job at a doughnut bakery in Virginia. He hated almost everything about it. He hated being trapped indoors and the way people looked at him like he was a burden. Remembering riding his bike on a path near the mountains is the only thing that lights up his face when he talks about Virginia. He came home to stay.
Teresa’s sister Salomé Muñoz returned too, after eight years of working long night shifts and selling tamales in the U.S. to get by. Her three children are U.S. citizens, but given the opportunity to go home to the mountains, she opted out of the United States. “Here, I walk barefoot in the mountains. Here, you go along singing; there’s no penalty for making noise. My life was very confined there,” she said. She’s caring for Engracia in their father’s home in Teresa’s absence.
Teresa Muñoz packages bacon on a frigid, fast-moving assembly line 10 hours a day. Her lawyer says hers is a textbook asylum case, yet proceedings have been stalled for months. Still, she’s building a life for herself. Although she has few friends, she attends church on Sundays and goes to the gym. Her studio apartment is surrounded by large trees.
Muñoz can’t imagine a scenario in which she’ll be able to return to Guatemala. But she’s found small ways to continue to defend her land, even from thousands of miles away. “I’ve managed to form a little group of people here in the United States,” she said. Over the phone, she’s coordinating friends of the Escobal resistance now living across the U.S. to raise money for meals for mining opponents during their 24-hour shifts. “We’ll send it to the mountains, to my town.”
Reporting for this story was supported with a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.