The Hidden Story of a Notorious Guatemalan Nickel Mine Otesanya David March 28, 2022

The Hidden Story of a Notorious Guatemalan Nickel Mine

The Hidden Story of a Notorious Guatemalan Nickel Mine


Cristóbal Pop vividly remembers when the lake suddenly turned red. Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ fishermen depend on Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake, for their livelihoods, and Pop had just been elected president of the local fishers guild when the water changed color.

“It had a bad smell,” said Pop, sitting in the shade outside his wooden home in the town of El Estor, nearly 200 miles northeast of Guatemala City. The rust-colored patch of water stretched for more than a mile in front of town. “Our life is fishing, and we did not know what was going on. There were many rumors about whether the fish would be affected by what was happening.”

The Fenix nickel mine, owned by the Switzerland-based Solway Investment Group, is located just three miles from El Estor. The fishers guild demanded answers. “We wanted things to be done transparently,” said Pop, recalling how he and others urged the government to disclose water testing results publicly. When that didn’t happen, guild members began protesting the mine in May 2017, and a Q’eqchi’ fisherman named Carlos Maaz was killed in the ensuing crackdown by national police.

Guatemalan authorities eventually attributed the discoloration to an algae bloom, but the chain of events it set in motion is still unfolding. Legal action by the fishers guild resulted in the court-ordered suspension of the mine’s license pending consultation with affected Indigenous communities. Protests over Q’eqchi’ representation in the consultation last year concluded with a declaration of martial law and raids of the homes of local journalists and outspoken mine opponents, including Pop. Following the contested process, the government reinstated the mine’s extraction license.

That is the known story, but a global investigation exposes another story lurking beneath the surface.

Journalists reporting for The Intercept and 19 other media organizations in Europe and Latin America joined forces to investigate the Fenix nickel mine; Solway; and the conglomerate’s two Guatemalan subsidiaries, Pronico and CGN, by their Spanish acronyms. Coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a nonprofit organization based in France, the “Mining Secrets” partners examined a leaked trove of millions of internal documents and emails belonging to Pronico.

Solway’s subsidiaries failed to report pollution and used a host of troubling methods to exert influence over local politics and repress dissent.

Solway’s subsidiaries failed to report pollution and used a host of troubling methods to exert influence over local politics and repress dissent, the investigation found. Among the contamination incidents documented in the leak was a massive discharge of sediments into Lake Izabal around the time the water in front of El Estor turned red. Company personnel and intermediaries used bribes, coercion, and other tactics to manipulate the positions of community councils toward the Fenix project. The investigation also uncovered details on funding and cooperation between the mine and state security forces, whose roles in human rights violations have often been intertwined.

Solway initially denied any wrongdoing. “Solway Investment Group is operating fully in line with applicable national laws and international regulations,” the company’s board chair, Dan Bronstein, said in a statement. “Our performance is carefully monitored by both national regulatory bodies and international auditing and certification agencies.”

After “Mining Secrets” partners published a series of articles, Solway rejected “false accusations” and questioned the authenticity of source documents. On March 15, the company announced it would launch a board-led investigation into the allegations.

Carlos Ernesto Choc, a local Q’eqchi’ journalist, has been reporting on the mine for years. His ongoing criminalization led Forbidden Stories to include the Fenix project in its 2019 coverage of multinational mining operations in countries where journalists faced persecution for their work. Two years later, a group of hackers provided Forbidden Stories with access to the trove of Fenix records, precipitating the “Mining Secrets” investigation.


Cristóbal Pop, president of the El Estor small-scale fishers guild, boats across Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake, in January 2022.

Photo: Joe Parkin Daniels/The Guardian

A Red-Orange Stain

The Fenix project is comprised of mountaintop mining carried out by CGN and a lakeside processing plant operated by Pronico. Processed ferronickel is trucked to Guatemala’s Caribbean port, exported to Europe and beyond, and used primarily in stainless steel. The mine was briefly operational in the late 1970s and spent decades under Canadian ownership before Solway acquired the project in 2011. At the time, Solway was widely acknowledged to be a Russian company. It is now based out of Zug, a known tax haven in Switzerland, and maintains it has no Russian ownership or capital.

Guatemalan authorities and Solway’s subsidiaries have long denied that mining operations had anything to do with the discoloration of Lake Izabal in 2017. But internal documents included in the leak call this public narrative into question. CGN and government inspectors both documented a flow of rust-colored sediment entering the lake from the mine site around the time the water turned red, and emails exchanged by Pronico managers explicitly identified the mine as the source.

Fishermen in El Estor, many of whom already suspected that mine pollution was affecting their catch, first spotted signs of discolored water toward the end of February. Not long afterward, the discoloration caught the attention of environmental regulators. One of many government documents found in the leak is a March 6 letter written by Maritza Aguirre, director of the agency responsible for monitoring Lake Izabal. Aguirre notified the director of legal compliance at Guatemala’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources that inspectors had found “red-orange color water being discharged” from a mining project exit channel into the lake.

On March 11, CGN issued an internal inspection report complete with photographs. “The release of sediments in the lake was evident due to the reddish color of the water,” the report noted. “The contrast in water color can be seen from far away.”

Within days, Pronico email exchanges identified the mine as a source of the sediments. In a March 15 email to colleagues, Pronico’s then-environmental manager noted that they needed to “work on a proposal to resolve and mitigate the issue of sediments coming from the mine” as instructed by Pronico’s then-general director. An email the following day notified the environmental manager of work plans “to mitigate the pollution coming from [extraction] area 212.”

When pressed, Pronico acknowledged the existence of the CGN inspection report but stated that the sediment did not come from the mine but from rains above the extraction areas that followed their natural course through the Fenix site and into the lake.

The Ministry of the Environment also acknowledged the red-orange discharge but maintained it was not connected to the discolored water along the town shoreline. “It had to do with a type of earth and minerals in that area,” Carlos Castañeda, director of environment and natural resource management, said of the sediment. “It is likely it was due to the reddish color leachates, which do not mean they are pollutants or that they originate precisely from the mine.”

In the end, both the company and government have stuck to the official story: Botryococcus braunii, a micro-alga, caused the discoloration of the water along the shore of El Estor in 2017. Government and university labs found the micro-alga when they analyzed water samples taken by the lake monitoring authority. The studies were never made public, and neither were any of the reports on the flow of sediment into the lake around the same time.

Javier Márquez is not sure he trusts the government lab results. He’s the executive director of Defenders of Nature, an environmental foundation that manages several nationally protected areas in Guatemala, including a wetlands area west of El Estor where the Polochic River feeds into Lake Izabal. Foundation personnel take part in governmental water monitoring and occasional mine inspections. But Márquez said the monitoring is woefully lacking.

While he believes the mine has failed to adopt adequate environmental measures, “the government is more to blame for not demanding implementation,” said Márquez. “The actions of the Ministry of the Environment worry me. They are the ones truly responsible for monitoring and stopping all these bad practices.”

Less than a year after the fishers guild took to the streets over the lake turning red, another swath of discolored water showed up near the mine site. Pronico’s environmental manager attributed it to “a great quantity of suspended sediments” in a report prepared for the company’s general director. The sediment “originating in the mine area” eventually drained into the lake, according to the April 2018 document, which also noted that sediment had been accumulating on the lake floor over several years of mining operations.


Sediments from Fenix mine extraction areas have washed into Lake Izabal, according to leaked documents.

Photo: Joe Parkin Daniels

“No Record of the Spill”

The leak also reveals substantial bunker fuel spills that Pronico kept hidden from government regulators. Executives were aware that the incidents put company representatives at risk of criminal prosecution, internal documents suggest.

Under Guatemalan law, the crime of industrial pollution involves “pollution of air, soil or water” in the course of commercial or industrial activity, including “discharging products that could harm people, animals, forests or plantations.” The crime is punishable by two to 10 years’ imprisonment.

On August 14, 2016, a boiler at the ferronickel processing plant exploded, killing five workers. Pronico addressed potential environmental concerns according to established emergency procedures, administrative director Marvin Méndez told Forbidden Stories partners. “Government institutions visited the facilities in the month of August and did not identify any environmental impact,” Méndez said.

An internal Pronico brief analyzing the company’s legal exposure also stated that government institutions found no environmental impacts, but not because there weren’t any. “Ministries have no record of the spill. They have no evidence,” noted the document, which Pronico’s environmental manager prepared for company president Dmitry Kudryakov. The apparent aim of the October 2016 document was to assess what Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, Ministry of the Environment, and Ministry of Energy and Mines might be able to prove about the incident.

The explosion resulted in a spill of bunker fuel, lubricant, and process water into Lake Izabal, the document indicated, but regulators were in the dark. “Ministries had to have carried out water quality monitoring in Lake Izabal. They did not do it,” the document stated. “Ministries do not have equipment to carry out dust and emission monitoring.” The government agency responsible for monitoring wildlife, meanwhile, “does not have capacity of time or resources.”

The document concluded that prosecutors could attempt to bring industrial pollution charges against company representatives, which could entail a jail sentence and fine.

The details of another bunker fuel spill in November 2020 can be pieced together from several documents in the leak. An estimated 13.5 tons of fuel were cleaned up after the spill contaminated soil and water. At one point, those involved in the cleanup efforts ran out of the absorbent materials used to remove the fuel and resorted to using clothing. Risks associated with the spill included criminal prosecution and fines, according to environmental team presentations in the months following the incident.

Aguirre, director of the Lake Izabal monitoring authority, said she did not think any major environmental incident would escape notice given the vigilance of community residents and civil society groups. Still, companies engaged in industrial activity “have the obligation to report any incident that occurs related to environmental issues to the Ministry of the Environment,” she said.

The environmental crimes bureau of the Public Prosecutor’s Office “is ready to proceed with a pertinent investigation if a new formal complaint is filed or if there is knowledge of possible pollution,” a representative of the office told the Forbidden Stories consortium.


Maya Q’eqchi’ fishermen from the town of El Estor boat across Lake Izabal in 2018.

Photo: Courtesy of Forbidden Stories

“The Buying of Leaders”

The leak reveals pollution not only of the lake but also of local politics. Documents show Solway’s subsidiaries have long used financial incentives to secure support from communities around the mine. When a court ordered the government to suspend the company’s extraction license pending consultation with Indigenous communities, the company stepped up its underhanded manipulation of local actors.

A lack of consultation and consent when it comes to extractive industry in Guatemala has been a driver of social conflict for decades. In 1994, the country ratified an international convention requiring consultation with Indigenous peoples whose lives and lands could be impacted by natural resource development. But the government never fulfilled its duty to consult prior to issuing mining licenses, including for the Fenix project. So fishers guild members and El Estor residents took the government to court.

In 2019, Guatemala’s highest court ruled in favor of Indigenous residents, ordering the Ministry of Energy and Mines to suspend Solway’s extraction license pending a consultation process. After long delays and another ruling reiterating the order, the ministry finally complied in February 2021.

But the ruling did not lead to the free and fair consultation El Estor plaintiffs demanded. The government-led process relied heavily on leaders of recognized Maya Q’eqchi’ Councils and did not offer Indigenous residents any real veto power over the future of the mine’s operations. Meanwhile, nickel-processing operations, subject to a different license, continued apace. The fishers guild and other residents excluded from the consultations formed their own ancestral councils in January 2021 to push for broader representation, while the company refocused its attempts to influence local politics.

A spreadsheet in the leak breaks down a “Social investment plan for the community pre-consultation stage” for 46 neighborhoods and villages in and around El Estor. The document suggests that CGN and Pronico planned to allot each community funding for improvements to water systems, sewers, roads, schools, and street lighting. But in two El Estor neighborhoods, Sinaí and La Coroza, Pronico instead earmarked $390 for “compra de líderes”: buying leaders.

Méndez, Pronico’s administrative director, stated categorically that no leader in either neighborhood had been paid prior to consultation.

But in the Q’eqchi’ community of Las Nubes, leaked emails describe payments that weren’t just planned but carried out. Las Nubes residents live on top of key nickel reserves that CGN has pursued for at least 15 years, including under the mine’s previous Canadian ownership. (Solway created Pronico as a second subsidiary two years after acquiring the project.) The community of several hundred people, who farm cardamom, maize, and other subsistence crops in the mountains, has faced eviction attempts and other displacement efforts. CGN and Pronico have also invested in the community — and apparently individual leaders — to secure access to mountaintop areas with extraction potential.

“Through the investment carried out and the buying of leaders, access to blocks 215 and 216-east is achieved,” the head of Pronico’s translation bureau wrote in a 2020 email. “In 2018, using the same strategies of social investment, buying of leaders and the case for road improvement, negotiating area 216-west is achieved,” another 2020 email reads.

When asked about these payments, Méndez responded: “This information does not correspond to reality.”

Community leaders and fishers guild members in El Estor also contend that the company has attempted to use power and coercion to exert influence. The Intercept spoke with several people in El Estor who said they were approached — nearly always by individuals they suspected to be acting on behalf of the company — and offered money or a job for a relative in exchange for supporting the mine or formally withdrawing from legal proceedings. Two people said they were directly approached by people in power within Pronico. One of those two people was Enrique Xol.

Xol wears many hats. He is a member of the newer ancestral council. He is an educator and one of the leaders of a local teachers union. And he is a coordinator with the local Catholic parish. But he was previously active in local politics, where his dissent could impact mining company plans.

It was back when Xol was a multi-neighborhood delegate on the Municipal Development Council that he says he was approached, which he attributes to the fact that he always spoke his mind about the Fenix project. The record of a 2016 meeting between company representatives and community leaders at a tourist property east of town substantiates his claim of voicing concerns. That is where Xol said Pronico president Kudryakov asked to speak with him one-on-one, with the help of his translator.

“He said, ‘What do you want? Do you want a project? Do you want something?’” Xol recalled. Xol said he replied that he did not want anything. Asked whether Kudryakov offered a community leader enticements in exchange for support, Méndez said the company complied with international standards in its activities with stakeholders.

Xol also said that at one point, Pronico’s community relations manager Maynor Álvarez showed up at his home and said Xol could be thrown in jail or see his house burned down if he kept speaking out. “I was a nuisance for them,” said Xol, shrugging slightly. Méndez denied the allegation that Álvarez had issued threats of violence or criminalization.


Up in the mountains near the mine, an evangelical church stands in the village of Las Nubes, seen in December 2021.

Photo: Julie Pietri/Radio France

“There Is No Consultation”

When the new Community Development Council took office in the San Jorge neighborhood of El Estor at the beginning of this year, they discovered some irregularities. A document in the neighborhood book of records indicated that previous San Jorge leaders had signed off on proposed agreements in the court-ordered consultation process behind residents’ backs.

“They said they did consultation … but the consultation they did is no good,” said Carlos Yat, the new vice president of the San Jorge council. “For us, consultation is done in an assembly.”

By law, a Community Development Council includes both the assembly — residents of a given neighborhood or village — and its elected coordinators. In practice, council leaders sometimes disregard the assembly and act on their own.

Several dozen people, more than half of them women, arrived on foot at the open-air neighborhood meeting site: a cement floor with a roof offering protection from the drizzle. It was late January, and the new leaders in San Jorge had called an assembly to disclose what they had found. It lasted three hours. The large neighborhood has a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, so the council members explained things in both Q’eqchi’ and Spanish.

Afterward, people stayed to chat while they waited to sign the assembly record. As is the custom, everyone confirms their attendance with a signature or thumbprint. It’s what made the irregularity of the previous council’s record immediately evident. It was only signed by a handful of the 13 council members. Community Development Council documents were included in a report that the Ministry of Energy and Mines submitted to the court to demonstrate fulfillment of the consultation process, which officially wrapped up in December.

San Jorge was far from the only neighborhood with discontent over the actions of previous leaders. In another neighborhood in El Estor, the assembly ousted the entire council last year when people found out they had quietly signed support for the company.

Even more objectionable to many residents was the key role that leaders of the government-recognized Council of Maya Q’eqchi’ Communities, or CCMQ, had in the consultation process. The grassroots formation of ancestral councils in January 2021 was in large part due to concerns about CCMQ leaders, who critics claim are in the pocket of mining companies.

In 2020, the company’s “expenses with the CCMQ” amounted to $79,000, according to a Pronico summary.

It turns out those concerns were well-founded. Documents in the leak show Pronico supported, promoted, and funded the CCMQ ahead of the consultation, with the goal of strengthening the image of the council in the eyes of the government institutions and communities that would be participating. In 2020, the company’s “expenses with the CCMQ” amounted to $79,000, according to a Pronico summary authored by administrative director Méndez.

In spite of all the controversy over representation, the Minister of Energy and Mines signed a resolution on January 6, 2022, to reinstate the Fenix mine’s extraction license. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

“We are not looking for a fight,” said Paulina Coc, sitting with a few of her grandchildren outside her family’s home earlier this year. “What we want to discuss is … why are we not taken into account?”


Paulina Coc listens to Community Development Council leaders at a San Jorge neighborhood assembly in El Estor, Guatemala, on Jan. 23, 2022.

Photo: Sandra Cuffe

She is now part of the ancestral council, but Coc and much of her family have been involved with the fishers guild since the beginning. Her husband and son rarely fish anymore, though. Their catch and income had been dwindling so they turned to woodworking. But they never stopped taking part in the struggle for the lake.

Ancestral council and fishers guild members took to the street again last October over exclusion from the consultation process. A round-the-clock protest camp prevented the passage of mining trucks heading to and from the Fenix project, including trucks hauling coal needed to fuel the ferronickel processing plant. When the protest was approaching the three-week mark, the government cracked down and police cleared the road, tear-gassing protesters and anyone living nearby. Police officers jogged alongside trucks carrying coal to secure their passage.

“They brought their trucks like a procession. They came in by sheer force,” said Coc. “The government does not want to hear anything” about the lake pollution, she added, “so they sent the police.”

During the crackdown, four police officers were shot in the leg. According to the government, they were shot by armed protesters. According to ancestral council members and other protest participants, the assailants were local criminals who had nothing to do with the protests. The government decreed a monthlong state of siege in El Estor — essentially martial law — and sent in hundreds of military troops and police. Security forces lined the streets in front of the homes of mine opponents, while prosecutors and police conducted raids that, according to a warrant seen by The Intercept, were for the search and seizure of weapons and stolen property.

Represión en El Estor. Foto Nelton Rivera
Represión en El Estor. Foto Nelton Rivera

Police crack down on protesters blocking mine vehicles in El Estor, Guatemala, in October 2021.Photos: Nelton Rivera/Prensa Comunitaria

A Legacy of Violence

The state of siege was just the latest episode in decades of crackdowns by government security forces working in concert with extractive industry. The Mining Secrets investigation uncovered new details about Pronico’s funding of the national police force as well as ties between corporate executives and the Guatemalan military. The leak also reveals that a former CGN security manager remained on the company payroll for years after killing a mine opponent during a protest over land rights.

Rosa Elvira Coc and other women from the mountain village of Lote Ocho came down to El Estor last October to support the protests. Lote Ocho lands have nickel extraction potential and inhabitants have been terrorized. During an eviction operation in 2007, before Solway acquired the Fenix project, Coc and 10 other women were allegedly raped by soldiers, police officers, and CGN security personnel. The use of tear gas and low-flying helicopters during the crackdown in El Estor brought up the trauma all over again.

“For those of us women who participated, it was like what we suffered before,” said Coc. “Sometimes I feel like I cannot breathe. I was sick for one or two weeks because of the fear I felt to my soul.”

Last year’s crackdown also evoked decades-old memories of violence. The history of the Fenix mine is intertwined with that of Guatemala, and for many Q’eqchi’ communities in the region, that history has been one of wartime atrocities.

“That persecution that we experienced before in the time of the war has not ended,” Coc said. “We feel deep pain over what the company is doing to us.”

A former security manager remained on the company payroll for years after killing a mine opponent during a protest over land rights.

Nickel exploration in the region picked up after a U.S.-backed military coup in 1954. Military rulers granted mining and land rights to CGN’s precursor, EXMIBAL, a joint venture between the Canadian company INCO and the Guatemalan state, at the outset of a 36-year civil war between the military and leftist guerrilla forces. An estimated 200,000 people died, most of them Maya civilians killed by military forces that committed acts of genocide. In the 1970s, leading up to the Fenix mine’s initial operations, a congressman and lawyer investigating EXMIBAL’s acquisitions were assassinated in the capital, and local Q’eqchi’ leaders were abducted and disappeared. EXMIBAL security personnel shot at Q’eqchi’ villagers on their way to a land rights protest in 1978 and those who made it were gunned down by the army — the first of many large-scale massacres of civilians.

The Mining Secrets consortium sent questions to Solway, Guatemala’s Ministry of Defense, and the national police to clarify various aspects of the relationships between the company and state security forces. The police did not respond to the consortium’s request for comment. Méndez, Pronico’s administrative director, did not fully answer questions about monetary and in-kind donations to police. Instead, he highlighted the company’s role in founding the Municipal Violence Prevention Commission in 2015, which along with Pronico includes representatives from the police, the army, El Estor’s municipal government, and local NGOs.

According to documentation in the leak, however, Pronico’s donations to police preceded and extended beyond the violence prevention commission. In May 2017, general security manager Roberto Zapeta emailed a few of his colleagues asking for feedback on a presentation. The last page of the presentation concerned “expenses in support of PNC,” the acronym for the national police. Expenses in the “violence prevention programs” column represented roughly two-thirds of the total, but other columns detailed fuel, food, rent, and miscellaneous expenses. According to the table, the company supported police to the tune of $140,000 in the first three years of mine production under Solway ownership. A line underneath the table noted that “support provided to the army” was not included.


Pronico general security manager Roberto Zapeta, seated, and El Estor’s mayor, left, oversee a company donation during a Municipal Development Council meeting on Jan. 26, 2022, in El Estor, Guatemala.

Photo: Sandra Cuffe

Meanwhile, documents suggest that company security personnel blamed the killings of mine opponents during police operations on mine opponents themselves. “One of the oldest and most-known strategies of opponents is provocation and killing their own comrades on site of social conflicts,” stated a 2020 report prepared by Pronico’s general security management concerning roadblock actions by villagers. The report cited as examples the “fishermen case” and the “Mynor Padilla 2009 case.”

Mynor Padilla, a retired military officer, was CGN’s former head of security. In 2009, during an eviction attempt in Las Nubes and protests over land rights in El Estor, Padilla and other CGN personnel attacked and killed a teacher named Adofo Ich and injured several Las Nubes residents. Padilla also shot El Estor resident German Chub, paralyzing him from the waist down. At the time, CGN was owned by Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian corporation. In January 2021, Padilla was convicted of homicide and several counts of aggravated assault.

“When I heard the verdict, I will not say I was happy, but it moved me to the bottom of my heart,” Angélica Choc, Ich’s widow, said. “It was a struggle of many long years in search of justice here in Guatemala.”


Angélica Choc, at home in El Estor in January 2022, continues to seek justice for her husband, Adolfo Ich, killed by mine security personnel in 2009.

Photo: Joe Parkin Daniels

Media reports had previously indicated that Padilla stayed on the CGN payroll for at least a year after a warrant was issued for his arrest. But as it turns out, Padilla remained on the company payroll for nearly eight years after Ich’s killing. He earned more than $4,000 a month while he was a fugitive, after he was taken into custody, and throughout an initial trial and acquittal that was later overturned. Padilla’s termination was eventually ordered in August 2017, the documents show.

Méndez confirmed that Padilla’s employment continued until 2017, noting that pretrial detention is not cause for termination under labor law. But Padilla was not in pretrial detention when Solway acquired CGN in 2011. He was a fugitive with an outstanding arrest warrant for homicide.

The day after Padilla’s initial acquittal in 2017, Pronico’s then-administrative director emailed two of his superiors. He floated the idea of having Padilla stay on but transferring him either to Guatemala City or another mining project, “away from the attention of people and organizations from El Estor.” He also recommended negotiating with Hudbay Minerals, which faces ongoing civil lawsuits in Canada for the 2009 crimes, to recuperate the money later paid to Padilla. Neither of those recommendations were acted upon, according to Méndez.

Military Powerbrokers

Like Padilla, Pronico’s current head of security, Zapeta, is a former military officer. A retired captain with special forces training, Zapeta has participated on behalf of the company in courses at the Army Intelligence School, according to leaked documents. In one case, the topic was “Participation and contribution in national development projects and obstacles that arise to achieve them.” For mining companies in Guatemala, “obstacles” are usually Indigenous villagers who do not see extractive projects as “development.”

In February 2017, Zapeta and Pronico’s then-administrative director enrolled in a series of seminars on “Geopolitics, Strategy and Analysis of National Power” for high-level corporate executives at the Army Intelligence School. One presentation by a corporate sector consultant implied social movements resisting energy and extractive projects were the ideological continuation of guerrilla forces — a dangerous implication in a country where the military committed crimes against humanity in the context of counterinsurgency.

In response to questions about Pronico executives attending events at military intelligence facilities, a Ministry of National Defense spokesperson stated that “the respective archives were checked and the requested information was not found.” Documentation in the leak, however, includes official, signed defense records.

In Guatemala, bonds forged among classmates in military officer training are often lifelong. Anti-corruption prosecutors have uncovered high-level government corruption schemes that had roots in networks established within the military during the 1960-1996 armed conflict. Links between military officer classmates have often facilitated access to power down the line.

Zapeta attended officer training in the early 1980s, during the height of military atrocities. He and his classmates became the officers of Class 103 — a powerful force during the first half of Jimmy Morales’s presidency, in 2016 and 2017, when Zapeta fielded invitations for Pronico’s participation in courses at the Army Intelligence School. At the time, Class 103 officers included the minister of defense, the military’s director of intelligence, and two presidential security advisers.

At a Municipal Development Council meeting in January, Zapeta asked for a round of applause to give thanks to God. At tables arranged in a U-shape, 50 council members were in attendance. Zapeta was there on behalf of Pronico to donate two bicycle carts to the violence prevention commission for its work with local youth — and to take part in the corresponding photo op with the municipal government.

“We are one family. We are one homeland. And we are one great nation,” said Zapeta, flanked by the mayor and municipal council members.

Almost a year to the day earlier, Cristóbal Pop, Paulina Coc, Enrique Xol, and dozens of other community members held an assembly in the same place to form the ancestral council to push for inclusion in the government’s consultation process about the mine.

The state of siege and raids targeting mine opponents had a chilling effect on community action. The government, on the other hand, has been moving forward. On February 16, the Ministry of Energy and Mines held a meeting more than 30 miles away from El Estor with representatives from the company and the Maya Q’eqchi’ Councils that validated the consultation. They will now monitor implementation of the agreements. But resistance will continue, according to some local leaders.

“We are not going to let ourselves be manipulated,” said Pop. A few feet away from where he sat, a large wooden frame held the orange, green, and blue beginnings of a woven hammock — something he learned in jail a few years ago after he was arrested on charges related to the 2017 protests. He had to sell his boat motor to help feed his family, and threats make it unsafe for him to move about freely, so Pop and his sons now sell the hammocks until they can get back to fishing. He has also taken up woodcarving, whittling figurines of fish, turtles, and manatees.

“I have no regrets,” said Pop. “I know that what I am doing is for the good of my children, for the good of the future children of every one of the fishers and people of El Estor.”


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