Blog Entry

From San Marcos to Colombia: The Regional Integration of Gold and Bullets

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

SUMMARY: Analyzing the role of militarization as an integral part of the control of territory, natural resources and Peoples, this article raises doubts about the so-called war on drug trafficking in mining districts. A comparison is drawn between Plan Colombia in South America and the current situation in San Marcos, Guatemala, where, in the same region where the People of Sipakapa maintain their resistance to Canadian-US company Glamis Gold’s Marlin gold mine, the participation of United States military forces in searches for weapons and opium poppy crop fumigations has recently been announced as part of the Plan Maya Jaguar.

by Sandra Cuffe, Rights Action, caminando27(at)

Just as terrorism apparently abounds around oil fields, it seems as though the worst hotbeds of drug trafficking are located where powerful mining interests are to be found. Whatever the pretext, the recent news from the highlands of San Marcos in Guatemala should be cause enough for reflection about what really lies behind militarization and the so-called regional integration initiatives, which amount to nothing more than the continuation of the historic process of exploitation and control in Mesoamerica: control of territory, control of resources and control of Peoples.

Marlin: Undermining Indigenous Territory in San Marcos

In the highlands municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa, San Marcos, lies the infamous Marlin project, a gold mine that since late last year is being exploited by Montana Exploradora, S.A., a subsidiary of the Canadian-US transnational mining company Glamis Gold Ltd. Supported by the World Bank and the governments of Guatemala and Canada, business as usual continues despite the strong opposition at the national, regional and local levels, reaching its height with the People of Sipakapa’s overwhelming rejection of mining activities in their territory, expressed in a community consultation process that took place on June 18, 2005.

As is pointed out in a public declaration dated March 4 from Sipakapa that is being circulated and supported by numerous organizations (‘We Demand the Closure of the Marlin Mine’), “far from being an issue affecting solely the Mayan Sipakapense and Mam Peoples of San Marcos, the mine will affect the entire western highlands region of Guatemala because this area has been destined to become a mining district.”

According to Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) facts compiled by Luis Solano and the Central American Inforpress Report, in the highlands of San Marcos alone there are currently 16 mining licences (one for prospecting, 14 for exploration and one for exploitation), along with three more exploration licences being processed. Eleven municipalities of San Marcos are directly affected, among them Tacaná, Ixchiguán and Tajumulco.

Chronicle of the Weapons Searches Foretold

On March 7th, the Siglo Veintiuno newspaper published an article (‘En marco de Plan Maya Jaguar, EEUU se involucra en allanamientos’) in which Minister of the Interior Carlos Vielmann announces the ‘support’ of Unites States military forces for the searches planned by various national governmental institutions for Tajumulco, San Marcos. The announced objectives of the actions were to disarm the population, eradicate opium poppy crops and resolve both the problem of drug traffic and the territorial conflict between Tajumulco and Ixchiguán.

According to reports, because of the opposition of the local population, the Guatemalan and US military forces could not enter Tajumulco and had to stay along the road outside of town, conducting useless weapons searches in passing vehicles. Despite this, it is still worthwhile to reflect upon the same issue addressed by a recent communiqué of the National Front in Defence of Public Services and Natural Resources (‘Más cara la cura que la enfermedad’): “First of all, even if foreign troops were not involved, it is quite frankly absurd to announce beforehand where searches are going to take place, because this alerts anyone with something to hide and allows them to hide it somewhere else.”

It is also worth taking a look at the mention of the resolution of the decades old territorial conflict between Tajumulco and neighbouring municipality Ixchiguán as a goal of the military intervention. According to the same Siglo Veintiuno article, because of an eviction this past February in the village Once de Mayo, Ixchiguán, part of the ongoing land conflict, in the same village “a temporary substation was installed by joint forces (95 police and 50 soldiers), with orders to protect the people and keep watch over the conservation and safekeeping of any property that might be at risk.

Perhaps these were the same orders behind the brutal and deadly intervention of military and police forces in Nueva Linda? Will these forces protect the Sipakapense people and keep watch over the conservation and safekeeping of any property that might be at risk due to the mining company? Do they keep watch for all the indigenous Peoples and communities whose territories are at risk because of landowners and transnational companies?

The one thing that is certain is that in Guatemala joint forces have proven their commitment to guard property. This was made abundantly clear on January 11, 2005, when they murdered Raúl Castro Bocel, a local indigenous Kaqchikel inhabitant who had been participating in the protest in Los Encuentros, Sololá, blocking the transport of a cylinder destined for the Marlin mine. More than a thousand soldiers and hundreds of police agents guarded the cylinder, while in a press conference in the capital city, Guatemalan President Berger declared, “we have to protect the investors.”

Glyphosate — ‘Use with Precaution’

Aside from the searches for weapons in Tajumulco, the past few months have also witnessed reports about the so-called US military ‘support’, both in terms of personnel and in terms of small aircraft and other equipment, for the “fumigations” (spraying) of opium poppy crops in the highlands of San Marcos. Although the negative impacts of this spraying on the environment, other crops and health have been documented again and again, reactions to the news have been very scarce.

On February 16th of this year, in El Periódico (‘Combatirán cultivos de amapola por la vía aérea en San Marcos’), journalist Luis Ángel Sas cited Minister of the Interior Carlos Vielmann regarding the imminent fumigations. Vielmann declared that they were just waiting for the arrival of the aircraft from the United States in order to start fumigating with glyphosate some 200 hectares of land. He announced that the poppy crops were identified in the municipalities of Tajumulco and Tacaná during a low flight over the region the previous Friday. National Civil Police director Erwin Sperisen was quoted as warning that if vegetable or other subsistence crops “are found within the poppy plantations, then they will inevitably be affected.”

In the same article, Gustavo Mendizábal, Norms and Regulations unit chief of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock pointed out that the use of glyphosate is permitted, but that “it is recommended that it be used with precaution. It is a chemical that acts upon contact and directly attacks broadleaf plants. It does not cause harm to people.” To his credit, Sas also explained that in Colombia, where the same glyphosate and the same type of aircraft are used to fumigate coca and poppy crops, there have been many denouncements of the impacts the fumigations cause in people, such as vomiting, head and stomach pains, diarrhea and possible long term effects such as cancer and deformities in newborns.

In fact, on June 13, 2003, the Superior Administrative Tribunal of Cundinamarca, the second highest court in Colombia, declared that the glyphosate fumigations to eradicate coca and poppy crops violate collective rights to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment and to public security and health. Both the State Council and the Constitutional Court had already emitted sentences banning fumigations in indigenous territories and demanding the fulfillment of the Environmental Management Plan required by the Ministry of the Environment. These decisions set important precedents, officially recognizing the risks and impacts of glyphosate fumigations on health, the environment and Peoples’ rights.

Nevertheless, on June 14, 2003, in an outright violation of the country’s own judicial system, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced that while he remains president, the fumigations will continue. On another occasion he added that whoever opposed the fumigations anywhere in the country would be considered a sympathizer of terrorism.

Of the few opinions that have been made public in Guatemala, it appears that even organizations that have not been afraid to criticize the government’s position on other issues such as mining have gone mute when it comes to the fumigations. Very few organizations have taken a stance and none have questioned the plans. Without denying the tremendous power and control that the drug trafficking cartels do command, nor the fact that it is probable that the government will accuse anyone who criticizes the fumigations with supporting drug trafficking, is it really possible that no one at all has doubts as to whether asking the United States military to come help dump a bunch of Glyphosate on communities’ crops, negatively affecting their environment and health, is really the best way to combat drug trafficking?

Earlier this year, on February 19th, the issue was taken back up in a Prensa Libre article (‘Tajumulco e Ixchiguán, en la mira’), announcing upcoming fumigations in the municipalities of Tajumulco and Ixchiguán. The news item appeared again on the front page of the same newspaper on March 2 (‘Trasiego de anfetaminas’), quoting, alongside declarations by the Minister of the Interior as to the urgent necessity of a grand scale antinarcotics operative in San Marcos, the director of the US State Department’s Americas Antinarcotics Program, Antonio Arias, about a recent report on the subject and his “fear” that drug trafficking “makes Guatemala’s borders vulnerable due to the traffic of chemical drugs.” Although, according to media reports, the opium poppy plants are bought, transported out of the country and processed in laboratories in Mexico; thus, it is irresponsible to report about a fear of chemical drug traffic (drug trafficking) as a justification for the fumigation of poppy crops (production).

Plan Maya Jaguar — Fumigations, Weapons and Cyanide?

Both the searches in Tajumulco and the fumigations that have been announced for various municipalities of San Marcos form part of Plan Maya Jaguar, a program of joint operations of Guatemalan and US military forces supposedly with the objective of combating drug trafficking in Guatemala.

Established in Guatemala in 1998, Plan Maya Jaguar has been extended several times since the first joint operatives were carried out in the country. At the same time, the Southern Command has also carried out the short-term so-called “humanitarian” New Horizons (Nuevos Horizontes) program in Guatemala, a US military project that has been denounced in several Latin American countries as being an attempt to give the forces a pretty face, so that communities get used to the presence of foreign troops. In fact, that is how Victor Manuel Gutiérrez describes Plan Maya Jaguar in his article Guatemala: Estados Unidos y nuestra política, explaining that the Plan “makes this [military] occupation official and permits the displacement of foreign military and intelligence apparatus throughout our national territory with no control whatsoever.”

On December 6, 2005, the National Congress passed a decree to extend Plan Maya Jaguar until 2008, following another extension years before that prolonged the Plan until 2005. Ever since Plan Maya Jaguar was initially established, it has been for all of Guatemala; however, all of the recent announcements about the Plan’s joint activities have been about operatives located specifically in the highlands of San Marcos.

In its communiqué, the National Front of Struggle in Defence of Public Services and Natural Resources asks about the geographic location of the military intervention: “Why do they come precisely to San Marcos, department in which the population of one of its municipalities, in an open and participatory consultation beautifully demonstrating their dignity, rejected mining exploration and exploitation? What will follow in this interventionist race? The destruction of opium laboratories in Río Hondo, Zacapa?”

Perhaps there will be a different pretext (maybe it’s Osama’s hideout?) for Río Hondo, where last year the population, in another beautiful exercise in dignity, rejected a hydroelectric dam project in their territory, in a locally initiated municipal consultation. Whatever may happen in Río Hondo, it is no coincidence that the zone being militarized is precisely the region for which a mining district is planned.

As Inforpress summarizes in their prologue to Luis Solano’s recent book Guatemala, petróleo y minería en las entrañas del poder, “the extractive industries have been a target of military intelligence worldwide, since two of the most coveted prime materials — oil and gold — are key for the model of the international reproduction of capitalism.” Furthermore, they note, “from the capital invested in these industries, there has been a flow of financing to sustain State terrorism.”

Plan Colombia, Now Playing in a Community Near You

It is clear that the militarization of mining districts is not a phenomenon unique to San Marcos. In fact, this department is only starting to see the beginning of a pattern well-known in Izabal, there from the 1960s to the 80s the International Nickel Company (INCO, at that time with controlling interest in EXMIBAL), together with a series of repressive dictatorships, attempted to continue their mining business at all cost. However, although militarization accompanies mining all around the world, it is worth taking a closer look at the Colombian example for the parallels in the drug war pretext.

Aside from this tie, it is also worth noting that over the past couple of years there have been many signs of closer links between Mesoamerica and Colombia, now more than ever with the naming of Colombia as a country with ‘observer’ status in Plan Puebla Panama. Also, there are frequent joint military operations involving Colombia, the United States and Central American countries under the guise of joint ‘security’, including, of course, the combat of drug trafficking and terrorism. In fact, during the recent visit of Colombian President Uribe to Guatemala this past January, the two governments signed a Security Agreement and decided to create a binational commission to exchange information and coordinate actions within the framework of the global ‘struggle’ against drug trafficking.

According to a CERIGUA bulletin, during his visit in the country, Uribe declared that “in the event that Guatemala should negotiate its inclusion in ‘Plan Colombia’ of US assistance for the combat of drug trafficking and other security problems, the Guatemalan government authorities can count on the collaboration of Colombia.”

“In military cooperation agreements such as Plan Colombia, they prioritize mining and oil exploitation zones for the so-called combat of drug trafficking,” explained Colombian State mining company Workers’ Union (SINTRAMINERCOL) President Francisco Ramírez in a presentation to the Colombian organization CENSAT. “Plan Colombia supposedly combats drugs but really what it does is position military and paramilitary groups that will protect the oil and mining infrastructure of North American and European companies.”

“One thing to highlight is that as part of Plan Colombia they said that three anti-narcotics bases would be constructed. The first is in the South of Bolivar, a so-called anti-narcotics base that protects an oil field belonging to the Bush family, the mine that small miners are disputing with AngloGold and Conquistador Gold Mines, and Oxy’s Caño Limón Coveñas oil pipeline. In the North of Santander and in Tolima [where the other two bases are located], it’s the same story.”

In his book The Profits of Extermination, Ramírez details some of the atrocious human rights violations in mining districts up until 2002, for example the 535 registered homicides and the more than 35 thousand people forcibly displaced by Colombian and US paramilitary operations in the South of Bolivar, home to one of the three bases built ‘to combat drug trafficking’. He points out that since the government of Alvaro Uribe came into power, an indigenous person is murdered every five days, mostly in areas of natural resource exploitation.

“In the mining districts, on average between 1995 and 2002, every year there have been 828 homicides, 142 forced disappearances, 117 wounded, 71 people tortured, 355 death threats and 150 arbitrary detentions. There have also been 433 massacres,” continues Ramírez.

One War, Many Faces

Although these details from Colombia, where an open conflict has continued for decades, may seem to compare more to Guatemala during the 1980s than Guatemala today, the psychological and social effects of military intervention or even just a military presence in the current context cannot be easily discarded, nor can the efficiency of low-intensity war.

“They have programmed our death, studying us, studying when we have gold, when we have minerals, studying our psychology, how we will react,” emphasized Dr. Juan Almendares of the Mother Earth Movement of Honduras during his presentation to the Resistance to Mining working group at the V Week for Biological and Cultural Diversity, a Mesoamerican event that took place in Colotenango, Huehuetenango, Guatemala, this past March 6-9 2006.

In the past few weeks in Guatemala, there have been denouncements and worries in reaction to the news that came out in Inforpress’ Central American Report on March 3 (‘Empresas canadienses inician exploraciones de uranio’), regarding two mining exploration licenses granted by MEM on January 16th to Gold-Ore Resources, a Canadian transnational mining company that has been exploring in Central America for years. According to the syndicate formed by Gold-Ore Resources along with Pathfinder Resources and Santoy Resources, two more Vancouver-based companies, they have been exploring for uranium in Central America since at least January 27, 2005, when a press release announcing the formation of the syndicate was released.

The precise location of their explorations were not known until February 16, 2006, when the syndicate announced in another press release that the companies were exploring for uranium in the municipality of Esquipulas, in the department of Chiquimula, where the two licenses now cover 32% (169 square kilometres) of municipal territory. According to the Inforpress article, Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Jorge García said “that he did not have knowledge of the uranium exploration projects, [although] when he saw a copy of the licences, he expressed his preoccupation for the issue.”

García is not the only one who should be worrying. According to the facts compiled by Luis Solano and Inforpress, the issue is not only uranium exploration in Esquipulas, but also the many mining exploration licences granted in some ten departments of Guatemala for minerals including the platinum group and/or rare earth minerals. Several of these licences are scattered over the highlands of San Marcos, including in the municipalities of Tacaná, Ixchiguán and Tajumulco.

“These companies research gold, but they also research strategic minerals. But they just don’t have any reason to tell us, until now that they have publicly announced it in Guatemala. From Chiapas to Costa Rica, we are countries with strategic resources,” explains Dr. Almendares.

“We are important for war.”

The Diabolical Trinity — CAFTA, PPP and Plan Maya Jaguar

Although it is clear that militarization and mining walk hand in hand, it is also worth mentioning what they have to do with other regional initiatives, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and Plan Puebla Panama (PPP). Continuing to use mining as an example, one can see how the different aspects of regional integration complement each other as tools in a regional control strategy.

“Plan Maya Jaguar, together with Plan Puebla Panama and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, constitute a diabolical trinity,” considers the National Front for Struggle in their communiqué. “The three together form an articulated malignant scheme: CAFTA in the economic aspect, the PPP in infrastructure and the Plan Maya Jaguar as the military component.”

In reality, CAFTA does not only represent the economic component; more than that, it represents the international consensus of the neo-colonial powers, establishing both national and international policies and laws in favour of transnational corporations. Around the world, the Canadian and US governments and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, together with the transnational companies themselves, have driven a series of mining legislation and policy reforms, defining the content in line with the neo-liberal model.

“The traffic of influences for the ratification of laws has been one of the most common forms of impunity of the transnationals involved,” denounces Inforpress in its prologue to Luis Solano’s book.

Free Trade Agreements consolidate this impunity and guarantee, by way of the chapters dealing with the ‘rights’ of investments and the respective supernational tribunals, that there will be serious consequences if any government entity should attempt to change anything that might affect the investments. It is also interesting that while an international movement has been active in opposing the United States’ CAFTA, Canada — home to most of the world’s global mining companies — has been negotiating a Free Trade Agreement for years with four Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

In turn, Plan Puebla Panama is a set of regional initiatives for the construction and integration of the infrastructure needed by transnational corporations. The mining industry requires great quantities of water and energy and good highways that lead directly to good ports. All of these aspects are key components of the PPP, which integrates the infrastructure according to the logic of international trade, business and investment in a series of projects financed by International Finance Institutions. In the end, they are loans that will be paid by the future generations of Mesoamerica.

“The PPP is a strategic plan for the circulation and commerce of material goods, but also of resources (water, genes, etc.). And this always carries along with it a military strategy,” explained Dr. Almendares in Colotenango. “The struggle against mining is within this framework of a military and geopolitical strategy.”

Transnational corporations will gain nothing with all the laws, infrastructure, or even the control of territory and resources, if they do not also control the Peoples. Thus, using once again the example of Colombia, Francisco Ramírez describes militarization as the third phase, “to give a military response to whoever opposes mining exploitation.”

In the case of the highlands of San Marcos, the conclusion here is that the objective of Plan Maya Jaguar is exactly that.