It has been 15 years since the anti-mining activist Patrocinia Mejía was forced to hide in the forest to avoid being detained by police, but the shame has never gone away.
Mejía was among scores of Indigenous environmental and land defenders criminalised for opposing a sprawling Canadian gold and silver mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, a rural Indigenous municipality in the western highlands of Guatemala, which divided the community and crippled the social movement.
“Neighbours accused us of being bad wives who neglected our children, of being anti-development. Even my mother turned against me. I was sick with stress for months, it was very hard,” said 63-year-old Mejía, who farms a handful of cows and sheep close to the now deforested mountain.
“We were so scared of being captured that we didn’t hold our meetings any more, and I was too afraid to show my face at protests.”
The Marlin mine was built in the early 2000s after the end of Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war as part of a wave of internationally financed extractive projects agreed, critics say, without proper consultation, environmental safeguards or economic benefits for local communities.
Natural resources on Indigenous lands have been exploited since colonial settlers first attacked Latin America, creating wealth for a few while fuelling violence, displacement and poverty for most. But the Marlin mine, which made its owner, the Canadian gold-mining firm Goldcorp, billions of dollars before closing in 2017, was one of the earliest documented cases of a transnational corporation – and its state allies – weaponising the legal system against environmental defenders.
Mejía and seven other women from their community had organised a peaceful protest in support of a neighbour, Crisanta Pérez, who in 2008 short-circuited the mine’s power after the company refused to take down an electricity transmission pole installed on her land without permission.
Pérez was forced to leave behind five children as she fled the country to avoid capture for charges including aggravated theft, inciting to commit a crime, and disobedience. She eventually left the social movement. The women say they were ostracised and insulted, even after the arrest warrants were rescinded four years later.
“The company dried up the wells, and now it doesn’t rain like before. Even now the mine is closed, it’s not the same. There is so much to fix but the community is still divided,” said Mejía, pointing to large cracks in her walls from the mine’s explosives.
Experts say that what happened here helped to establish criminalisation as a go-to tool for polluting industries and governments seeking to discredit and silence activists. Guatemala was a textbook example of a draconian crackdown, becoming a laboratory of sorts, with arbitrary charges used against countless community leaders opposing environmentally destructive projects.
It proved to be so effective that criminalisation spread across Latin America and is now deployed globally as part of a playbook of tactics to divide communities, and detract attention away from legitimate debate and protests about environmental and climate harms.
“We’ve seen an explosion of arbitrary investigations and charges [since the Marlin mine] because the tactic works. Criminalisation silences human rights defenders and terrorises a community, making others scared of speaking out – which has a huge impact on freedom of expression and democracy,” said Jorge Santos, the director of Udefegua, a Guatemala-based rights group tracking attacks on defenders.
“We see this pattern replicating around the world because repression is part of the DNA of the extractive economic model which has no borders … The relentless exploitation of natural resources is destroying the environment and climate,” Santos added.
‘A model for how to do business’
San Miguel Ixtahuacán is a collection of lush green agricultural Maya Mam villages in the department of San Marcos, where almost one in three people live below the poverty line. A snaking road offers glimpses of Central America’s tallest volcano and connects the bustling central market to the gated mine site.
The Marlin mine was licensed under the pro-business 1997 mining law, legislation reportedly drafted with the help of Canadian mining executives, which failed to include adequate protections for Indigenous rights.
At first the mine was broadly welcomed amid promises of jobs and development, but community concerns spread as health impacts, water and land contamination and structural damage to houses became evident.
As opposition grew, so did the violence.
In late 2004, armed troops were deployed to suppress protests by neighbouring Indigenous communities, who had blocked equipment from reaching the Marlin mine as anger grew at the government’s refusal to disclose details about new mining licences. A local Indigenous mayor was among more than a dozen people charged with crimes including terrorism and sabotage, while 20 others were injured and one protester killed.
In 2007, seven male community leaders in San Miguel Ixtahuacán were charged after organising a roadblock to demand the company pay a fair share for the land it had bought years earlier. Fighting the charges put considerable financial and emotional strain on their families, community leaders say, and most gave up.
Diodora Hernández Cinto, who had refused to sell her plot of land to the mine, was shot by two men who were never arrested, causing her to lose an eye. Hernández, now 68, later lost her hearing on the same side. “She was so strong, but has never been the same [since],” said her daughter Maria.
Between 2005 and 2011, several other people who spoke out against the mine were beaten, injured, shot or killed.
In June, the Guardian met about a dozen community members who were criminalised or threatened for organising against the mine. Many had sold land to the company or worked at the mine before becoming organisers and activists. All reported long-term consequences such as mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, alcohol addiction, water scarcity, forced migration, family feuds and unresolved community divisions.
“The violence and the criminalisation caused terror and put the brakes on the social movement at a critical moment. We were fighting against a huge monster, and we couldn’t stop them,” said Salomón Bámaca, who worked as a community promoter for the mine before organising against it. He was fined and sentenced to 24 months’ house arrest for coercion and instigation to commit a crime, among other charges. “My life was prejudiced for ever.”
As the wells ran dry and dirty, many farmers travelled to Mexico or the US looking for work. After the mine closed, some former workers who had sold their farmland used their savings to pay people-smugglers to reach the US.
“The Marlin mine was emblematic and became a model for how to do business all over the place, and the use of infiltrators, violence and criminalisation became key to that,” said Jackie McVicar, an organiser working with grassroots movements in Canada, Honduras and Guatemala who volunteered to accompany the men and women prosecuted in San Miguel. “The mine has gone, but the community and how it connects to the land changed for ever”
San Miguel Ixtahuacán is still dotted with cantinas, down and dirty drinking spots, which along with prostitution, drug misuse and violence were reported to have proliferated after the mine was built.
The Canadian government was accused of lobbying on behalf of Goldcorp as community opposition and violence against activists grew. In one example, documents uncovered through freedom of information requests by Canadian lawyers showed how government officials secretly “undertook extensive lobbying of Guatemalan and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decision makers, and assisted Goldcorp in doing likewise”. Embassy officials apparently intervened after the IACHR ordered the immediate suspension of the mine and safe water supplies for the surrounding communities – neither of which happened.
“Criminalisation was just one tactic in a broader strategy that made the social movement self-destruct while the company kept making money,” said Maudilia López, a parish nun and vocal anti-mining and human rights activist. The Catholic church spoke out against the mine, while evangelical church leaders mostly spoke in favor, causing further community division.
McVicar added: “There was so much stigma – especially for the women who as caretakers of the land and water are often at the forefront of environmental struggles. The collective trauma and community division remains.”
Canada has more than half of the world’s publicly listed mining firms with operations in almost 100 countries. Numerous investigations have found widespread environmental and human rights abuses linked to Canadian mines.
In 2015, a report by MiningWatch Canada into criminalisation linked to Canadian mines across the Americas found “a concerted attack, oriented to avoid and limit debate on serious economic, social and environmental policy questions, and to stop any meaningful challenge to established power and practices. It may be deliberately planned or opportunistic, but it is neither capricious nor accidental.”
Documents uncovered by the Toronto-based Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP), a volunteer-driven legal clinic, purport to show that Canadian government officials have lobbied on behalf of Canadian mining and fossil fuel companies facing community opposition, litigation and tax rises in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Tanzania, Sudan, Madagascar and Burkina Faso.
“There’s a clear international pattern to do what it takes to keep making money by getting oil, gas, and minerals out of the ground … and for this the nexus between corporations and governments is very important,” said Shin Imai, an emeritus professor at the Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto and a JCAP member.
The Canadian and Guatemalan governments did not respond to the allegations.
‘The most important thing is to stay united’
At the mirador overlooking the former open pit and underground mine, small clusters of wilting trees are scattered across the parched and heavily patrolled razed mountain, which the community once relied on for food, traditional medicines and clean water.
A road sign claims 859,000 trees have been planted as part of the reforestation and cleanup project by Newmont, which acquired Goldcorp in 2019 and did not grant the Guardian immediate access to the site.
The company did not respond to specific allegations but in a statement said: “When Newmont purchased Goldcorp, Marlin was already in closure and reclamation. We continue to meet our post-closure commitments and obligations and will do so until they are completed.”
Patricio López’s father was among the roadblock organisers to face criminal charges in 2007, after which he started drinking heavily and died a few years later. Since then, López has dedicated his life to educating communities about the dangers of mining and other extractive projects.
“If our people don’t know their own story, or understand how big corporations and the government work together, they’ll be manipulated and divided again and again,” López said. “No matter where you are, the most important thing is for communities to stay united.”
Over the course of the next few months, the Guardian will be reporting on the criminalisation of climate and environmental activists globally.