British Columbia

Tahoe Resources, Vancouver mining firm, in court today over Guatemalan workers' lawsuit

B.C. Supreme Court hearings begin today into the case of seven Guatemalan workers seeking to have a civil suit against Tahoe Resources of Vancouver heard in the province after they sustained injuries in their country during a protest that turned violent.

Guatemalan protesters who allege they were shot by security guards want suit against firm heard in B.C.

A controversial mine owned by Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources faces opposition in Guatemala and a potential court case in Canada. Here, a banner reads "Communities in Peaceful Resistance against Escobal." (Giles Clark/MiningWatch Canada)

B.C. Supreme Court hearings begin today into the case of seven Guatemalan workers seeking to have a civil suit against Tahoe Resources of Vancouver heard in B.C. after they sustained injuries in their country during a protest that turned violent.

Their lawyer will begin arguing Wednesday that B.C. courts have jurisdiction, even though the events took place in another country.

The claimants, who describe themselves as farmers and students, say they were taking part in a peaceful protest on a public road outside Tahoe Resources' Escobal silver mine in Guatemala on April 27, 2013. Tahoe is a $3-billion company based in Vancouver. 

They allege the guards came through a gate and started shooting at them, and they continued to fire even as they ran away.

"As a result of the shooting, the plaintiffs suffered serious injuries, including wounds to their backs, faces, feet and legs," says the written statement of facts submitted by their lawyer in the B.C. Supreme Court case.

These two men, shown in 2013, allege they were injured by security guards at the Escobal mine in Guatemala that is owned by Tahoe Resources of Vancouver. (Giles Clark/MiningWatch Canada)

Tahoe's Guatemala security manager, Alberto Rotondo, faces charges related to the incident. He is described as a retired Peruvian navy captain who also has received training in special warfare, mining security and risk management. 

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Court documents allege he assembled the security team and ordered them to open fire on the protesters with shotguns, pepper spray, buck shot and rubber bullets. 

He was also already under investigation at the time of the violence, and Guatemalan prosecutors had tapped his phones. As a result, he was taped talking to various people right after the gunfire. At one point, he told a subordinate to break some equipment to make it appear the protesters had attacked the mine first, according to the court documents. 

A farmer's field in Guatemala near the Escobal mine owned by Tahoe Resources, which is at the centre of a lawsuit filed by Guatemalan workers. (Giles Clarke/MiningWatch canada)

He also allegedly told a subordinate to pick up any shell casings, clean the guns and said, "'They entered and they attacked us. And we repelled them, right?'"

The unnamed subordinate on the phone line replied, "Yes, we're going to do what you say."

'It's with bullets that they learn'

Rotondo appears to have little sympathy for the wounded protesters. He describes them in derogatory terms, saying, "They say that one has a bullet wound to the face and if it exploded in their face, it's with bullets that they learn."

Tahoe Resources fired Rotondon shortly after the incident, saying he had "violated the company's rules of engagement, security protocols and direct orders from management when he ordered the use of non-lethal force to clear the mine entrance."

Tara Scurr, a human rights campaigner with Amnesty International, says the case should be tried in B.C. because Canadian courts are more likely to hold the company accountable than courts in Guatemala.

"We feel it's really important for justice to be served, for the victims in this case to be able to seek justice in Canada."

Jen Moore, the Latin America co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, says head offices of corporations should be "responsible for their operations in other countries given Canada's dominant role in the global mining sector today."

Jen Moore of MiningWatch Canada says the injured Guatemalan protesters are more likely to get justice in Canada. (MiningWatch Canada)

Legal challenges 

However, Tahoe's lawyers are expected to argue that since the incident happened in Guatemala, any court case resulting from the incident should take place in that country.

The plaintiffs will argue the justice system in Guatemala is easily corrupted and the men have little chance against a large, well-financed corporation. 

Recently Tahoe was forced to defend its human rights practices to the Norwegian Council on Ethics for the Government Pension Fund, an independent body that investigates companies and their track records involving Norwegian government funds. 

In its written response to concerns raised by the council, Tahoe stated, "The violent criminal incidents experienced in the vicinity of the Escobal project are largely perpetrated by a few bad local actors and outside groups who financially and politically benefit from causing chaos in and around the San Rafael community."

But the council didn't accept Tahoe's argument and recommended the exclusion of the company from the government pension fund's holdings "due to an unacceptable risk of the company contributing to serious human rights violations."

A spokesman for Tahoe said the company was not commenting on the history of the incident or the current case before the courts. The hearing on whether the case can proceed is expected to last three days.

Read the notice of claim from the injured Guatemalan protesters.