Around the world, mining interests are robbing rural communities of their health, well-being, and rights; in a town in Guatemala, they robbed a teenage activist of her life.
For Alexander Reynoso Bran and Irma Pacheco Reyes de Reynoso, it all began with a worrisome rash: their baby boy had a severe skin condition that no doctor could diagnose. Finally, an allergist fresh off a stint in Chile was able to help; she told them that, while rare in these parts—and untreatable—it was common among families in Chile’s mining communities.
Reynoso Bran and Pacheco are coffee growers who live in Mataquescuintla, a town of 30,000 in Guatemala’s southeastern department of Jalapa. At the time they knew nothing of plans to extract silver from the nearby hills, but when word got out, they were quick to realize what living near a mine could mean for other families.
“When the mayor and the church came to us with the news about the mine,” says Raynoso Bran, “we understood about some of the health risks.”
Their teenage daughter Topacio was incensed about the likely impact of the mine on the environment and communities; when an anti-mine movement sprang up, she became a lively and vocal youth leader.
Lies, trickery, and a state of siege
Perched on a hillside in the rural town of San Rafael las Flores, the Escobal silver mine is poised to become one of the largest of its kind in the world.
To say that its origins are shady is to vastly understate.
“From the start, the company fed us lies and trickery,” says activist Marisol Guerra from the nearby town of Santa Rosa. “They originally bought the land saying they were going to plant orchards and grow vegetables.”
In 2012, when the company—Tahoe Resources—finally got around to asking communities whether or not they supported construction of the mine, 98% of voters in Mataquescuintla said no. Neighboring towns echoed that response, but the company proceeded, anyway.
In 2013, Tahoe received its license to begin extracting the precious ore. Protests erupted and the response was brutal: in one incident seven people were shot and wounded by mine security forces; in another, four men were kidnapped and one was killed.
“The government overreacted to our protests and announced a state of siege,” says Reynoso Bran. “Soldiers would come into our houses and throw things around. They insulted us and beat us. There was a curfew. People were arrested and sometimes spent seven months in jail.”
Topacio urged her parents to take an active role in the movement, and the family became visible members of what came to be known as La Resistencia.
Reynoso Bran and Pacheco can pinpoint the time and place when life as they knew it came to an end.
It was the evening of April 13, 2014, and Topacio and her father were heading home from a community event where she had performed with her marimba band.
“I unlocked the passenger door for my daughter and went around to get in on the other side,” he says. “That’s when I heard the shots and felt the bullets.”
Badly wounded, he struggled to his feet and sought help for Topacio, who was bleeding from the head. Ambulances rushed them to the hospital. He fell into a coma that lasted more than a week, during which he nearly died of a heart attack and internal injuries.
She died that night.
The justice system fails
Nine years later, Topacio is still a visible, palpable presence in the life of her family. A wall of their home is covered with photos—Topacio as a little girl, as a student, as a fifteen-year-old celebrating her quinceañera. She smiles out at the world.
But Raynoso Bran finds little to smile about. He has a grave demeanor that only lifts when he gently interacts with his young sons. His body has never recovered from the trauma of that night; he is minus a spleen, and his left side sometimes just doesn’t work right. For someone whose livelihood depends on physical strength and stamina, that’s a big problem. That he was shot again while driving home one night a year later has taken a toll on his mind and body. But the murder of his daughter is what cast his life into shadow; judging from the way he talks about it, all the rest is mere inconvenience.
The perpetrators have never been caught—one reason Raynoso Bran is pretty sure he knows who was behind it all.
“We found out that instead of carrying out an investigation on the attack, the public ministry in Jalapa was trying to investigate me,” he says.
What’s more, he says, information about local hit men that he revealed in confidence to investigators mysteriously leaked out, putting him squarely in the crosshairs of the most dangerous men in town.
And though the case was transferred to a less compromised venue, and international human rights groups applied pressure for a resolution, the investigation stalled out years ago.
Wins and losses
“After the attack, I spent a year recovering, and then I engaged in a different kind of activism,” says Reynoso Bran.
Mataquescuintla is known as home to some of Guatemala’s highest-quality coffee, but for years the market there was controlled by a single broker—a strong supporter of the mine. Reynoso led an effort to break the man’s monopoly, which he now thinks may have made him a target for the assassins.
In 2017, the story of the attack and protest movement made international news. Lisa Ranquin from the organization Breaking the Silence had connected Pacheco and Reynoso Bran with reporters from the LA Times; the resulting article reached two coffee roasters from Canada—Drew Johnson and Carsen Oglend—and they wanted to lend a hand.
By then, Reynoso Bran had formed a collective of coffee growers who were part of the anti-mine movement. The Canadians began purchasing their top-quality product, paying fair prices and sharing with consumers the story behind the name: Café Colis Resistencia. The tactic is hitting home; the company that acquired the mine in 2019 is based in Canada, where it works hard to cultivate a good-guy image.
“Our focus is on upholding human rights, respecting the traditions and cultures of local communities, and supporting vulnerable groups,” reads its website. It goes on to tout its environmental and human rights bona fides. “We also support access to clean, reliable water supplies for communities around our operations.”
Meanwhile, says Reynoso Bran, “The pro-mining forces are coopting everything—the courts, the state, the Congress.” And the activists understand they are sometimes under surveillance. As for protecting water supplies, the rivers in two towns near the mine—sources of water for crops, cleaning, and cooking—are now contaminated with heavy metals. Ominously, he says, the company has put in requests to the Ministry of Energy and Mines to exploit 11 more sites in the territory.
But there is an upside to this story. Guatemalan law requires that when projects like this impinge on Indigenous territory, the communities have a say—a right articulated in the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989.This region is home to the Xinka population, whose opinions about the mine were solicited but ignored in 2012. In 2017, the country’s Constitutional Court ordered the company to halt its work until it completed a proper consultation with the affected towns. It’s a process that takes time; in fact, the company has not been allowed to remove ore or expand the mine for the last six years. That was a big win, but it is not yet a permanent one.
A bright spot along the way: in June, the Xinka Parliament, the Indigenous organization at the center of the consultation process, won the 2023 RFK Human Rights Award for its defense of cultural and territorial rights.
Oxfam to companies: protect citizen activists
In countries around the world whose resources have been targets of extractive industries like oil and mining, Oxfam has long advocated for community rights to free, prior, and informed consent. Now, the organization is pursuing a campaign to pressure private-sector companies to protect the rights of activists that oppose them.
“Many multinational companies choose to operate in countries and communities where people are not able to freely and safely express themselves or protest decisions that affect their lives,” writes Caroline Brodeur in Oxfam’s Politics of Poverty blog. “By employing subcontractors, they can obscure their roles in intimidating or even terrorizing citizens. And governments, which are duty-bound to protect their citizens, are in many cases perpetrators of the abuses. Often governments and the private sector work hand in hand: companies facing citizen opposition provide authorities with information about their opponents and remain silent when protesters are detained, harassed, or physically injured by the police or other armed groups.”
“We have identified six actions companies must take to prevent threats to human rights defenders,” says Oxfam policy adviser Andrew Bogrand. “If companies don’t want blood on their hands, they must adopt policies that protect the citizens that oppose them, and take the principle of free, prior, and informed consent very seriously. If they are going to weigh in on public policy, they need to refrain from supporting laws that restrict the rights of citizens to protest or that diminish legal protections for rights defenders.” (For more information, read the briefing paper “Threats to Human Rights Defenders” and the blog "Members of Congress call for stronger protection for rights defenders.")
Oxfam has supported the Xinka Parliament in advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C.
Stronger than ever
Efforts to undermine and intimidate the opposition have had a way of strengthening its resolve.
“Our communities used to be isolated from one another,” says Reynoso Bran. “The fight against the mine has united us.
“Some people say we are fighting a seven-headed monster,” he says. “When you try to confront this company, you end up facing a whole lot of other groups—the police, local authorities, rich people, criminal gangs, the judicial system—before you even get to them.”
But the protesters are becoming expert monster slayers.
Given the brutal history, says Raynoso Bran, “the owners of the mine must be wondering how La Resistencia can still be active. Some people have been intimidated, so there are fewer of us than earlier, but now in some ways we are stronger than ever. We are more analytical and better at understanding how to be effective.”
Asked what he thinks the future will bring, Reynoso Bran says, “I don’t know if we will win. What I can tell you is that we are not going to give up.”