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Congress Rebels against States of Siege in Guatemala

Guatemala’s congress and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina are at odds on how to deal with the ongoing violence between mine security guards and the public in two Guatemalan departmentos.

Tension in the two departments of Jalapa and Santa Rosa prompted Pérez Molina to declare a state of emergency in four towns in early May, with the president claiming that organized criminal groups were causing trouble. "I took the decision with ministers who have been on the ground, not MPs who sit at a desk, who do not even know what goes on inside the country," said Pérez Molina. "The statements of the deputies did not influence me, absolutely not. Nor do I care about their opinion.”

However, the Guatemalan congress rebelled against the enforcement that would remove constitutional rights for citizens.  With Congress’s refusal to ratify the States of Siege, Pérez Molina ordered states of prevention to be issued in the four municipalities. States of prevention allow the government to militarize an area, prohibit or prevent strikes or work stoppages, limit outdoor gatherings, use force to break up a meeting or demonstration, prohibit parking in certain areas and require broadcasting bodies to avoid inflammatory or inciting material.

"I am not going to allow this to continue," Pérez Molina told reporters. "We have conducted a six-month investigation in this area with the attorney general's office for various criminal activities."

At the end of April, hostilities between a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned Tahoe Resources Inc. silver mine and San Rafael’s population deteriorated after the company’s security guards shot and wounded six demonstrators that were protesting that the Escobal silver mine would contaminate their water supply.  In response, locals kidnapped 23 police officers and an attempt to free the hostages left a police officer and demonstrator dead.

The San Rafael mining company’s head of security, Alberto Rotondo, was arrested at Guatemala City’s La Aurora Airport attempting to board a flight to Peru.  He has since been charged with attempted murder.  Although security officers used rubber bullets, two protesters were seriously wounded and were transferred to hospitals in the capital.  Locals claim they were staging a peaceful sit in; Rotondo contends that there were reports of razor wire being cut, and, fearing a land invasion, he allegedly gave security forces the order to open fire.

There have been at least 14 arrests since then, with the government promising that investigations into the violence will continue.  The minister of defense, Ulises Anzueto, confirmed that 2,500 military personnel will remain in place during the operation.  Tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters were in position, with locals admitting they felt intimidated by their presence. One unnamed resident said, “It gives the impression that the government protects the mine more than the people.”

The president of the Xinka Parliament, Roberto González, warned that events could escalate if members of the armed forces and police continued their search and seizure policies, which El Periodico, a national newspaper, noted could be illegal.  “I will not repeat what happened on Tuesday because what is coming could be worse,” said González.  “The people do not want the mine and I owe it to the people and what they have decided for what we will do next.”

Yuri Melini, of the Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social (Center for Legal, Environmental and Social Action—CALAS) said, “The government is achieving its objective so they can generate the conditions so that the San Rafael mining company, who obtained their license illegally, can operate.”

The mine has yet to open, but received permission to do so during the religious holiday of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in March.  In November 2012, a local community consultation resulted in 98 percent of the population rejecting the presence of the mine because of fears that it will further contaminate the water supply. A recent study into Guatemalan water by health professionals at the College of Engineers concluded that 80 percent of the country’s water supply is contaminated by bacteria and chemicals.  The contamination can cause diarrhea, the third leading cause of infant mortality in Guatemala.

Events at San Rafael have forced the government into an embarrassing climb-down, one highlighted by the increasingly poisonous atmosphere in Guatemala’s congress.  At a time when international eyes are on the human rights legacy of Guatemala’s past, any affront to the rights of the present are likely to meet stiff resistance.

*Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina

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