Central America / Environment

“Despite the new government, the advance of mining in Guatemala is already decided”

Roman Gressier
Roman Gressier

Friday, March 22, 2024
Roman Gressier

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“I’m a journalist, not a criminal.” Those were among the first words from Q’eqchi’ Mayan journalist Carlos Choc when we met in Guatemala City for this interview. Intimidation, raids of his home, and legal persecution with the threat of prison time have hung over his head like a sword of Damocles since 2017. At the end of January, a judge finally dismissed complaints of illicit association, threats, and instigation of crime filed against him by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), subsidiary of the Swiss firm Solway Investment Group, in retaliation for a decade of reporting for news outlets such as Prensa Comunitaria from El Estor, Izabal, on the operations of the mine. Choc was never arrested, but a judge ordered him to report to the Public Prosecutor’s Office every month for the last six years.

“I proved my innocence to the justice system and to a Public Prosecutor’s Office that first accuses you and only then investigates,” he says.

Even so, Choc does not rule out the possibility that Attorney General Consuelo Porras, a symbol of the judicial corruption that has roiled Guatemala in recent years, could open a new investigation into him. For his security, he still lives displaced from his hometown, in a place he does not risk revealing. 

A high-profile practitioner of periodismo comunitario in Guatemala —community journalism, produced in this case by Indigenous journalists for and from their communities—, Choc is also the face of Mining Secrets, an investigation published in March 2022 by 17 news outlets on three continents that analyzed leaked documents from CGN, confirmed the mine’s environmental contamination, and revealed the cooptation of the Guatemalan state and intimidation of critics. The U.S. Treasury reacted the following December by placing Magnitsky sanctions on the company, but dropped them five months later. Guatemalan authorities have not opened a formal investigation against the firm.

Last year, while Indigenous movements defended the electoral results in the streets, the winner, Bernardo Arévalo, promised them a moratorium on mining. Since the change of government in January, Choc acknowledges that “there are spaces” where the administration do listen to Indigenous leaders, but he doubts that the president will keep that commitment. “It will be difficult for Arévalo to respect the rights of the [Indigenous] peoples, because there are mining contracts that were already granted,” he says.

He believes that the economic crisis and persecution in Q’eqchi’ territory will continue to advance hand-in-hand with agro-industry: “The Q’eqchi’ people are being dispossessed and expelled from their lands, and what is left is to migrate [to the United States],” he laments.

In what conditions can you personally do journalism now?
I can finally do field work. I no longer have to go on the twenty-second of every month to sign at the MP [Public Prosecutor’s Office] in El Estor. In recent years I would go cover stories in Petén, or in other departments, or for some jobs I would leave the country, because they never prevented me from leaving, but sometimes I was offered 15 days, one month, or two months of work and I would turn those jobs down because I had to go back to sign. There were also topics that I avoided touching, and now I am at total liberty to follow-up on tips from the territories [outside the capital], especially in Izabal, that are greatly affected by extractive industries like oil palm monocrop. Many ancestral authorities are being criminalized for standing up to this particular industry.

What was the personal impact of the accusations against you?
The criminalization left me psychologically very wounded, very messed up. But in Mayan cosmovision the negative is always converted into a positive. I met Forbidden Stories, a network of very professional international journalists, and participated in the five-year investigation that led to the publication of Mining Secrets. And my work was recognized not only by human rights organizations, but also various United Nations rapporteurs. They realized that my work on the Q’eqchi’ Mayan people and the El Estor fishermen’s union reflects a great deal of injustices and environmental harm. At the same time, in Guatemala City the corporate or traditional outlets have an editorial line that made it very difficult for my work to be recognized in Guatemala. My objective was to contribute not only to the community where I lived, but all of society.

A child carries his brother in a blockade of the highway to Panzós, in Chichipate, Izabal, on Oct. 30, 2021, one week after the Giammattei administration enacted a state of siege there. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública
A child carries his brother in a blockade of the highway to Panzós, in Chichipate, Izabal, on Oct. 30, 2021, one week after the Giammattei administration enacted a state of siege there. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública

Has the harassment subsided?
The harassment is a constant for all journalists writing about environmental harms or human rights. There are smear campaigns on Twitter and Facebook and the netcenters [troll farms responsible for them] have ties to criminal enterprises and even to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. In December they defamed me by saying that I am advising communities to invade private land, that I am a guerrilla fighter, a green terrorist, an activist. Now we have a government that has begun a new process, but there are actors like those I mentioned who at any moment could take action against me.

The publisher of elPeriódico, Jose Rubén Zamora, has been in prison for almost two years, and in Guatemala City there has been a permanent climate of harassment of the press in recent years. But how are the conditions for journalism outside of the capital?
We journalists in the territories have been in resistance for many years. I remember the assassination of Orlando Villanueva, a fellow community journalist in the city of Puerto Barrios, Izabal, in March 2022. On his Facebook page he had denounced the corruption of the mayor and said things against the mine and about the state of siege imposed in 2021 by the administration of Alejandro Giammattei. The governor was a representative of the president. The next day, the Public Prosecutor’s Office raided his house. Villanueva filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists, and they archived it without following up. He was later assassinated one afternoon by two people on a motorcycle while he was playing basketball with his son.

There are colleagues who send me stories for me to sign as my own, because they are scared. In Petén, organized crime has silenced not only public officials, but journalists, too. In Izabal there are women colleagues who also are being harassed by the justice system. In Alta Verapaz, in the election of governorships, there are candidates who are part of organized crime. In Huehuetenango I remember that in 2019 a community journalist called me and said he was assaulted for documenting information about the mayor on social media. He told me, ‘I’m going to head out,’ and he’s now in the United States. He migrated and stopped doing journalism. Many colleagues do after spending every day under attack.

Is there a prejudice against journalism done from rural and other territories?
Corporate outlets don’t even see us as correspondents. They call us ‘collaborators.’ They don’t see us as journalists! It’s unjust. Our objective is to break the media embargo or traditional narratives. If it weren’t for community journalism we would only see one side of the coin. The traditional press might tell you about a roadblock, or about a “horde of criminals,” whereas Mayan community journalism will tell you that there is a demonstration in a community. We do journalism with analysis, investigation, and depth.

Does the Guatemalan press have a debt to cover Indigenous communities?
Yes. And the debt is large in terms of freedom of expression, because often our voices are censored. Racism is very strong in Guatemala. In an interview before leaving office, Giammattei called our investigations on the environmental harms of Solway “gossip from the ‘hood.” The current government also has a debt to freedom of expression and the press, to human rights, and to justice. The former administrationsgovernments violated these rights, but it is the Arevalo oney who must take responsibility.

The work of journalist Carlos Choc contributed to the publication of Mining Secrets, a joint investigation published by 17 news outlets on three continents on the abuses of the nickel mine CGN in El Estor, Izabal. Photo Roman Gressier
The work of journalist Carlos Choc contributed to the publication of Mining Secrets, a joint investigation published by 17 news outlets on three continents on the abuses of the nickel mine CGN in El Estor, Izabal. Photo Roman Gressier

Tell me the story behind your famous photograph from 2017, of a fisherman sprawled on the ground in El Estor, murdered by the National Civil Police. That was the picture that unleashed the persecution against you.
To tell that story is to relive the moment. I remember hearing the whistle of a bullet, tsss, and detonations. All that was left to do was document it all with photos and videos. There were moments when I felt powerless, knowing that because I was there they were going to mess with me. The television outlet Albavisión called me for their reporting, and on the other side of the conversation was Estu Velasco, head of the Police in El Estor, saying that there were no deaths and that the Police had not fired a shot, that in fact they were the ones being attacked. When they handed me the microphone, I said: “No, somebody died here. His name is Carlos Maaz and he is ten meters from me. His family is here and they are crying. He has a wife and son.”

That night, May 27, 2017, after the murder of the fisherman, some unknown callers threatened me, saying they wanted to meet with me. In the second call they told me: “Do you want us to come get you?” The third time, they were even more aggressive: “We know where you live, who you are, and where your family is. If you don’t come now, we’re coming for you.”

I called a friend to accompany me and nothing happened that night, but that was the start of the threats and raids of my house by unknown individuals, by the Army, by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and by the National Civil Police.

Was there any impact in El Estor when Mining Secrets internationalized the news?
It had a local and international impact. Despite the fact that in 2019 the Constitutional Court (CC) ordered the suspension of Solway operations in Guatemala, the mine continued to operate as if nothing had happened. Giammattei’s Ministries of the Environment and of Energy and Mines also ignored the order. After the publication of Mining Secrets, in December 2022 the Office of Foreign Asset Control of the U.S. Treasury placed Magnitsky sanctions on Solway and accused the firm’s Russian employees of corruption. The geopolitical factor of Ukraine and Russia also played in. Up until then, the Russians felt at home in El Estor. In Mining Secrets we revealed the environmental scandals of the mine, the political corruption and cooptation, and the ties to organized crime. That U.S. action was favorable for the Q’eqchi’ people.

In April 2023 the United States removed the designation.
Yes. I went to Switzerland and told the government there about the human rights violations and censorship of the press in El Estor. I told them that I had been issued alternative measures to detention because four Russian mine workers from Solway had filed a complaint against me. But they responded, “We the Swiss aren’t the ones responsible, it’s the Guatemalan government who is committing those violations.” And they told me they were fighting for the sanctions against Solway to be removed. Last year, workers from the mine told me, before they fired everyone, that people were arriving at the processing plant from Canada or Germany. The mine is a subsidiary that has received substantial investment and I dare say that it will continue, but not with the Russians.

The Pronico nickel processing plant belonging to Solway Investment Group, located a few miles from El Estor, Izabal. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública
The Pronico nickel processing plant belonging to Solway Investment Group, located a few miles from El Estor, Izabal. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública

The mine is working to scrub its image: “We are friends of the press, we haven’t criminalized anyone,” they say. But my criminalization lasted seven years! You can’t blot out the sun with your fingertip. They say they will defend the environment and human rights. They are also hiring aligned outlets to push a lie: that the suspension of the mine is spurring migration to the United States. Migration was worsened by the pandemic. Then came hurricanes Eta and Iota. The city of San Pedro Carchá, in Alta Verapaz, was underwater for over a month. In the last two governments there were also many evictions. And in Alta Verapaz people’s homes have been lit on fire. The Q’eqchi’ people are being dispossessed and expelled from their lands, and what is left is to migrate. From my own community, many people have left for the United States. Even when the mine was there they said they were going to quit their jobs to migrate.

Will Solway resume operations in Guatemala?
They’re asking the Ministry of Energy and Mines to reauthorize them, and the new government is considering it. The mine is mobilizing workers from other places who say they are from El Estor, but who people from the community itself do not recognize. There is also a legal struggle, because I think Solway coopted the magistrates of the CC, which signed off on the consultation that the business conducted under the state of siege. Until the Inter-American Court acknowledged the human rights violations and in December 2023 ordered the Guatemalan state to conduct a new consultation.

What proof do you have that the magistrates have been coopted?
Their resolutions. The CC approved a consultation carried out under a state of siege! The former magistrates were quite prudent and relied on constitutional law, but the current CC also approved the environmental impact study, giving its OK to the mine. I’m not just saying this myself, or dreaming it up. Mining Secrets found that public officials, judges, and members of Congress had been coopted.

How do you assess the closure of the Magic Carpet case, a criminal investigation into alleged bribes paid by Russian miners to Giammattei in cash, rolled up in a carpet?
We have again fallen into impunity. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has been closing cases and setting public officials free who were accused of corruption or crimes against humanity, like Otto Pérez Molina, who in January was granted house arrest. In the case of the company Mayaníquel, prosecutors closed the Magic Carpet case saying there was nothing to investigate. And Mayaníquel is a low-profile business partner that sells ferronickel to Solway.

One of Bernardo Arévalo’s campaign promises was a moratorium on mining. Do you believe he will fulfill it?
I don’t know if he will, because [the business association] CACIF has very strong political representation. We see that not only in the mining taking place in Q’eqchi’ territory in Izabal, but also in oil palm monocrop, which is aggressively expanding without respect for international environmental standards. Or with the hydroelectric plants. For example, they want to reactivate and put in place a third OXEC plant, even though their license is also suspended. Just recently there were protests in Cahabón, Alta Verapaz, because the ancestral authorities denounced that the current mayor, from Vamos, Giammattei’s party, placed representatives of the hydroelectric plant on the Municipal Development Committee.

Guatemalan police and soldiers search two young men on a motorcycle during an operation in El Estor, Izabal, on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública
Guatemalan police and soldiers search two young men on a motorcycle during an operation in El Estor, Izabal, on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública

Giammattei handed out licenses to miners like they were going out of style, and the current government inherited the pressure to at least not so aggressively fulfill its campaign pledges. It will be difficult for Arévalo to respect the rights of the [Indigenous] peoples, because there are mining contracts that were already granted. In an interview, ministers told me that they cannot say no to rights already granted by the CC. But there is at least a door open for the [Indigenous] peoples, for the government to listen to them.

Do you perceive a change in the relationship between the government and ancestral authorities?
Yes, yes. There has been a change. There are spaces where they do listen now. Before the government would skip straight to criminalization. The Q’eqchi’ authorities say that Arévalo is trying to approach them. The past government rejected the authorities and acknowledged a Council of Indigenous Communities that had nothing to do with the ancestral authorities, much less with the Q’eqchi’ people. This other council presented an amicus curiae in favor of mining, and the communities responded: “You do not represent us.” It is a good sign that the government is trying to become closer to the ancestral authorities.

In Izabal do people feel that change? Has the attitude of the National Civil Police or Army changed, for example?
The attitude of the Police has changed, and even that of the army. They aren’t as aggressive now. In El Estor there have been soldiers in the streets since the first time Giammattei decreed a state of siege, in theory to provide security but in reality to defend the mine. They also installed military detachments in communities resisting oil palm monocrop.

Is the mine courting the support of the Arévalo government?
They are pressuring the Ministry of Energy and Mines, saying: “Hurry up, we need your OK to start working.” The administration is still on standby, but can activate the mine at any moment.

Fishermen leave for work on the lake of El Estor, in the early hours of Oct. 28, 2021. Q
Fishermen leave for work on the lake of El Estor, in the early hours of Oct. 28, 2021. Q'eqchi' communities have denounced the contamination of the lake and the death of many animals living there. Photo Simone Dalmasso/Plaza Pública

You seem to doubt that the government will go further than what the courts decide.
It has to do with what Arévalo can and cannot do in this case. The ancestral authorities might organize themselves, but the CC has signed off on the mine and the Ministry already signed off on all the injustices. The ministers who were just sworn-in, like Energy and Mines, have power on paper, but everything is already decided.

In the past years there have been many reports of rural evictions. You tie this to the extractive industries.
There have been four invasions of Q’eqchi’ land: first the Spanish came, and next the farmers  who were distributed land. Third was the internal armed conflict, which lasted many years and had a great effect because the people’s land was newly seized. The fourth invasion is extractivism, which has caused lots of migration. Peoples homes, their territories, are being invaded. Oil palm monocrop is not being consulted with the communities, either. It is simply imposed, and communities are evicted.

Gold is among the top exports of Nicaragua. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele is considering undoing the ban on mining. In Honduras, Xiomara Castro announced a prohibition, but her administration also granted at least one contract to a gold mine in 2023. Is extractivism making strides in Central America?
I can speak about Honduras. I was there in December and my companions from the Bajo Aguán said that oil palm monocrop continue to be aggressive. And in Guatemala we have lost a lot of ground.

Q'eqchi' Mayan journalist Carlos Choc in an interview with El Faro in March 2024. Photo Roman Gressier

In the Central American capital cities is there still the notion that anti-mining movements are opposed to development?
Those who resist are not opposed to development. People speak of development and anti-development from a city narrative, but to the contrary: In Guatemala City there is so much pollution and they do not care about the environment. In the end they care about having light and powering their home appliances that are produced with processed nickel. You have it in your cell phone, too. Everywhere. They only care about what can be sold.

The ancestral authorities, and not only the Q’eqchi’ from El Estor, have three worries: first, climate change, which troubles them because the rain isn’t arriving in time to plant and harvest. Then there is the pollution caused by the extractive industries. The third is the dispossession of land by violent and arbitrary evictions in which the Army participates. The authorities say that our children are leaving to find work outside Guatemala, but the fact is that in Guatemala we are not experiencing real development. The harvest from the territories comes here, to Guatemala City. You cannot talk about democracy while ignoring the environment.

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