Guatemala cracks down on anti-mine protests
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings Thursday in four townships east of the capital following several days of violent clashes between police and anti-mining protesters.
The confrontations, which included mine security guards, have left one policeman dead, six residents wounded by rubber bullets, and police cars burned. Twenty-three police officers were briefly held by protesters before they were rescued.
The government sent in hundreds of police officers and soldiers, some in armored personnel vehicles. The government says the protesters are armed with guns and explosives.
Residents of the area, mainly members of the Xinca indigenous group, claim the mine threatens their local water sources.
“Investigations have found that a number of crimes have been committed, including homicide, kidnapping, the destruction of government property,” said President Otto Perez Molina. He said ten arrests have been carried out so far “based on arrest warrants issued days ago against suspects in killings and kidnappings.”
Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said Thursday police and soldiers were dispatched to all four towns, but did specify how many. The emergency decree allows the government to temporarily make detentions, conduct searches and question suspects outside the normal legal framework.
The clashes began over the weekend as residents held a series of protests at the Canadian-owned Escobal silver mine, known locally as the San Rafael mine, about 40 miles (70 kilometers) east of Guatemala City.
The mine’s owner, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Tahoe Resources Inc., said protesters armed with machetes “turned hostile” at the gate on Saturday, and security guards fired tear gas and rubber bullets to ensure the security of mine personnel. Six protesters were wounded by rubber bullets.
Other protesters temporarily detained 23 police officers, seizing their firearms before releasing them. Later, in a nearby town, another officer was shot and killed in a confrontation possibly related to the mine clashes.
Residents have said they fear the underground mine will dry up local springs and other water sources. The mine has received permits to operate but is not yet operating.
Ira Gostin, vice president of investor relations for Tahoe Resources, said complaints that the mine could affect the springs “are totally unfounded.”
The emergency decree covers the townships of Jalapa, Mataquescuintla, Casillas and San Rafael Las Rosas.
Yuri Melini, the director of the Legal Action Center for Human Rights, said “we believe that if crimes have been committed, they should be prosecuted, but the community’s legitimate right to oppose the mine should not be criminalized.”