Topacio Vive! Guatemalan youth fight for the living and their dead

Written by Tracy Glynn on June 23, 2016

Franklin in PEI

Franklin Valenzuela in Prince Edward Island on June 20, 2016. Photo by Lisa Rankin.

Fredericton –  When 17-year-old Franklin Valenzuela is not in high school, he is organizing with other youth in a life and death struggle against a Canadian-owned mine in his rural Guatemalan community.

Valenzuela, who dreams of being a lawyer, was in Fredericton and other Canadian and Maritime communities in June to tell Canadians about how mining by Canadian corporations has brought conflict and grief to his homeland.

At every stop from Toronto to Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, Valenzuela tells the story of how much one youth activist meant to his community and how she was murdered on her way home to Mataquescuintla, a small town southeast of Guatemala City, from an organizing meeting on April 13, 2014.

Topacio Reynoso Pacheco was 16 years old when she was fatally shot in an attack that also left her father, Alex, in a coma for seven months. The attack was linked to their activism against Tahoe Resources’ Escobal silver mine, the world’s third largest silver mine. Alex Reynoso survived being shot again in October 2015. The attack that killed Topacio has never been investigated by the authorities. Security now guard Topacio’s family home.

Valenzuela has a sticker with Topacio’s face on it for every audience member. The sticker says, “Rest In Power.” He also sells t-shirts with Topacio’s colourful drawing of butterflies and mother earth on them and passes around his cell phone to show the audience a picture of a mural made of Topacio’s artwork and words. He reads a poem by Topacio’s younger brother Edwin, leaving many audience members in tears.

Valenzuela also shares the story of his friend, 18-year-old Luis Fernando Garcia Monroy. Fernando was shot in the face while peacefully protesting outside the mine in 2013. Alberto Rotondo, head of security for the mining company, was arrested for the attack that wounded Fernando and six others but managed to escape custody and flee to his home country of Peru before standing trial. Rotundo was captured in Peru and Guatemala is in the process of trying to extradite him. Meanwhile, in Canada, a civil suit against Tahoe Resources for the shooting incident is ongoing in British Columbia.

Franklin and Jeremias

Franklin Valenzuela and Jeremias Tecu (left to right) take part in a social media campaign that is collecting messages of support for the youth organization, JODVID, in Fredericton on June 19, 2016. Photo by Lisa Rankin.

After Reynosa was murdered, Valenzuela and Fernando founded an organization of youth to resist the mine. They called the organization, JODVID (Organized Youth in Defense of Life). Valenzuela says the youth are using the arts to creatively resist the Escobal silver mine in their communities.

The Escobal mine is approximately three kilometres from San Rafael las Flores, a town of approximately 3,000 people, and about 70 kilometres from Guatemala City. The mine’s owner, Tahoe Resources, is based in Vancouver.

Foreigners came to Valenzuela’s community looking for gold and silver but told the community that they were looking for dinosaur fossils, recounted Valenzuela. Later, they gave people $750 to dig boreholes on their plots of land. Struggling farmers were initially excited about the money, said Valenzuela, but a few years later, silver was being mined through tunnels in a large-scale mining operation that was just five kilometres from their homes and fields.

As the mine developed, so did conflict and resistance from the indigenous Xinca and Ladino communities in the area. Some were in favour of the mine while others were opposed. Farmers became worried about water contamination and shortages. They grow corn, beans, onions, tomatoes and coffee there.

Results of a 2012 plebiscite on the mine in Mataquescuintla revealed strong opposition, with 96 % of voters casting a ballot rejecting the mine. The Constitutional Court of Guatemala then landed another blow to the company and the government when, for the first time in Guatemala’s history, the court said that the consultation and plebiscite results were binding and there was an obligation by the State to comply with the results.

Six municipalities surrounding the Escobal mine have also rejected the mine through referenda and opponents of the mine are getting elected including Roberto Pivaral, member of the Committee in Defense of Life and Peace who was an early victim of Tahoe’s strategy to criminalize opponents. He won the mayoral race on a pro-referendum platform in San Rafael Las Flores.

For their opposition, residents of Mataquescuintla have endured a state of siege and have been targeted with violent repression, criminalization and stigmatization.

Valenzuela’s father, uncle and neighbours have been the subject of bogus charges that were later dropped when it was too obvious there was no evidence. Their homes have been searched and ransacked by the authorities on multiple occasions.

Canadian mining companies in Guatemala have long enjoyed the support of corrupt politicians in Guatemala, including former President Otto Pérez Molina who was indicted on charges of illicit association, customs fraud, and bribery. An international warrant has been issued for the arrest of Erick Archila, the Minister of Energy Mines who granted the mine license to Tahoe Resources. He is facing charges of money laundering and conspiracy. Archila approved Tahoe’s exploitation license in 2013 despite 250 individual complaints concerning the project’s impact on water and health.

Valenzuela tells Canadian audiences that he has only shared part of the story of his community’s struggles against Canadian mining.

The youth organizer joins many other Guatemalan activists who have visited Fredericton and other communities across Canada in just over a decade. Crisanta Perez spoke of the criminalization that she has suffered for resisting the Goldcorp mine in San Marcos highlands last summer. Before Perez, Javier De Leon, a community organizer, and Juan Tema, a farmer from Sipakapa, spoke of their community’s resistance to Goldcorp. Angelica Choc has made several trips to Canada, including to Rexton and Elsipogtog, site of a violent break up of a camp against shale gas in 2013, to share the story of how her husband, Adolfo Ich, an opponent of the HudBay nickel mine, was murdered by the company’s security guards.

The speaking tours have been organized by the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network. Breaking the Silence has been supporting communities in Guatemala affected by on Canadian mining companies since 2004.

Lisa Rankin, a coordinator with Breaking the Silence, reminded the Fredericton audience that the violence of Guatemala’s 30-year old civil war did not really end but rather took on a different form and Canadian mining companies are implicated in that violence.

Similar to Guatemala in 1968 when Mama Maquín was slain with 51 other Maya Q’eqchi peasants in the Panzόs Square while rallying against a Canadian-owned nickel mining operation, bullets continue to be deployed on opponents against various forms of resource extraction, sometimes killing them. Revived efforts to mine nickel in eastern Guatemala were linked to rapes and murder committed in 2007, charges Maya Q’eqchi women and men are presently bringing to court in Canada in one of several historic lawsuits that involve a Canadian company going to trial for the actions of its subsidiary abroad.

The nature and extent of capitalist resource exploration and extraction seen today in Guatemala and other Latin American countries is referred to as extractivism and the fight against it is considered a life and death struggle for indigenous and rural communities that need healthy lands and ecosystems to grow food.

Marlon García, an artist who worked in Guatemala City’s archives collecting evidence of massacres, visited Fredericton and other Canadian communities in 2007 to exhibit his paintings of the Panzόs Massacre. Valenzuela and the youth of his organization share García’s determination to never forget those who died defending their communities by memorializing them through their paintings, poetry and performances. Their political art makes them an enemy to the powerful.

Ben McLaughlin, a student entering Grade 12 at Ecole Ste-Anne in Fredericton, met Valenzuela at the St. Mary’s First Nation Powwow on June 19: “It was great to see what other youth activists from around the world are doing. There was an exchange of knowledge and ideas which will be really useful. Franklin’s group wants to start talking about sexism and gender, and I’ve done a lot of work with that. Franklin has done a lot of work on the environment. He gave me new ideas and tricks for how I can better myself as an environmental activist. It was amazing.”

“It gives me hope when I see youth organizing,” said Jeremias Tecú, a member of Breaking the Silence and a refugee from Guatemala who works with young newcomers as a settlement worker in Fredericton.

Tracy Glynn is a member of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network.

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