Federal government must regulate Canadian mining companies operating overseas, says activist
'The company needs to be judged in their own country, not in Guatemala': Angélica Choc
For 13 years, Angélica Choc has been fighting to stop alleged abuses carried out on Indigenous peoples in her native Guatemala by Canadian mining companies and their subsidiaries — and she wants the Canadian government to do its part.
"It's exhausting. I am so tired. And I continue persevering, seeking justice in the Canadian courts," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
In 2009, Choc's husband, Mayan Q'eqchi' community leader Adolfo Ich Chamán, was killed by security personnel working at a Guatemalan mine that he opposed. The mine was owned by a subsidiary of Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals.
Following her husband's killing, Choc and 12 other plaintiffs — who also said they were attacked during evictions allegedly orchestrated by Hudbay Minerals — sued the company and two of its subsidiaries in three separate civil lawsuits in Canadian courts.
The plaintiffs filed claims against Hudbay for negligence, alleging the mine owners had planned and coordinated their expulsions and funded the groups that committed the violence against them.
Hudbay Minerals has denied the allegations in the lawsuits. In a statement to The Current, Hudbay Minerals said they do not believe the accusations made against them to be true, but they are taking them "very seriously."
The company needs to be judged in their own country, not in Guatemala.-Angélica Choc
This ongoing case has set a groundbreaking precedent. In the past, Canadian courts largely ignored overseeing or policing the activities of Canadian-based mining companies and their subsidiaries if they did not take place on Canadian grounds.
But when an Ontario court allowed the lawsuits to proceed in 2013, it marked the first time foreign claimants were allowed to pursue a lawsuit against a Canadian company in Canada for alleged human rights abuses.
"We want reparations," Choc said. "We will wait, but there's also a need for laws to hold companies accountable for what they do in other countries."
Mynor Padilla, the chief of security at the mine, was initially acquitted of charges in 2017 following a three-year murder trial.
But after a Guatemalan court of appeal overturned the acquittal and ordered a retrial, he pleaded guilty to Adolfo's killing in January 2021. He also pleaded guilty to a second shooting that paralyzed another victim, German Chub Choc, who was a bystander when the alleged attacks happened.
When asked about Padillo's guilty pleas, Hudbay Minerals said the new trial "was ordered on questionable procedural grounds," and they believe "the earlier acquittal was a just result and can sympathize with his decision to accept the certainty offered by the plea agreement rather than return to prison pending the outcome of a second trial."
"The plea agreement does not have any impact on Hudbay's view of the facts in these cases and Hudbay has not amended its pleadings," the statement continued.
WATCH: Angélica Choc explains her experience with a Canadian-owned mine in Guatemala
Though she called Padilla's conviction an achievement, Choc said she believes Hudbay Minerals must also take responsibility for her husband's death.
"[Padilla] was a Guatemalan person and the case was held in Guatemala, but he was the chief of security of Hudbay Minerals," she said. "That means that had Hudbay Minerals [was] also guilty about what happened."
"The company needs to be judged in their own country, not in Guatemala."
'A veneer of modernity'
In 1997, Guatemala passed the Mining Law, which was drafted with the assistance of executives working for Canadian mining company International Nickel Company.
This law followed a peace process that ended Guatemala's 36-year long civil war. It also opened Guatemala to Canadian transnational mining corporations, though without substantial protections for Indigenous peoples in the country.
According to Grahame Russell, director of Indigenous rights group Rights Action, this law — and Canada's involvement in it — brought a "veneer of modernity."
"This was how it was pitched as an aid project," he said. "'We want to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala, we want to strengthen good governance, and here's a new law in place that sets out all the rules that they're going to abide by.'"
"But when you have a country that's characterized by impunity and corruption, I think that's just window dressing."
In a statement to The Current, Global Affairs Canada said it expects "Canadian companies operating abroad to abide by all relevant laws, to respect human rights in their operations, and to adopt best practices and internationally respected guidelines on responsible business conduct, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. "
But according to Russell, some Canadian mining companies have actually undermined the possibility of good community development in places like Guatemala.
"They've depleted water sources, they've contaminated water sources, they've forcibly evicted communities and broken the communities apart, let alone the cases of violence and killings," he said.
Russell is the co-editor of a new book on Canadian mining companies' exploits in Guatemala, Testimonio: Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala.
He said allegations, often by Indigenous groups in the regions, usually fall on deaf ears because the federal government and Canadian companies ignore what subsidiaries are doing in other countries under the guise of "respecting the sovereignty of another country."
"I think my experience with that over the last 17 years is there [are] zero resources behind it and there's zero political interest to have prosecutors follow up on some of these allegations," he said.
I believe the Canadian government and our companies know that there's almost no way that any legal accountability can be achieved in a country like Guatemala...-Grahame Russell
Russell, who was living in Guatemala in the early 1990s, points to how he and Indigenous communities in Guatemala have been openly engaging in ongoing but ultimately fruitless discussions with the Canadian embassy following the implementation of the Mining Law.
"I believe the Canadian government and our companies know that there's almost no way that any legal accountability can be achieved in a country like Guatemala that is characterized by systemic corruption and impunity, let alone repression," he said.
In the same statement to The Current, Global Affairs Canada said that the first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise has been appointed, and she's been given "the tools and resources necessary to review human rights abuse complaints and proactively launch reviews."
But Russell believed that appointment is not enough to make any meaningful change.
"There's no teeth there," he said. "Teeth would be at a bare minimum binding criminal law where people actually went to jail if and when it was proved that they knowingly participated in — or by admission or by commission they committed crimes."
"That would put the fear of the rule of law into Canadian companies and investors, whether in the mining sector or not."
A painful struggle
Choc said she's been suffering in the 13 years that have passed since her husband was killed, due in large part to subsequent targeting of Indigenous peoples in Guatemala.
"This has all been traumatizing and it's been traumatizing for my kids and especially for my grandchildren," she said. "It has created a lot of pain."
Yet, she said she carries on — not just to seek justice for the killing of her husband, but to make sure her grandchildren don't have to live with the same fears and hardships that she experienced under the hands of Canadian mining companies.
"What I think is that we not depend on the [companies]. The companies bring destruction to Mother Earth," she said. "If we continue with mining companies, if we continue depending on them, everything will become a desert."
"I do not want my grandkids to inherit a desert."
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by John Chipman.