Fishing requires patience and silence. And that was what the fishermen of El Estor lost in May 2017. This is the short story, almost unnoticeable and on the point of being forgotten, of some fishermen who decided to leave their rafts when their lake began to turn red. They blame the contamination of the water on the nickel mine that has operated in this municipality in northeastern Guatemala for the past 50 years. Carlos Maaz Coc, Alfredo Maquín and the other members of the fishing guild were fed up with the neglect and went out to demonstrate on the highway. One of them is dead, another carries a bullet embedded in his body, two more are imprisoned, and five others are facing criminal charges and live in fear.
By: Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán | OCOTE AGENCY
Posted: April 23, 2019
He still had time to go to lunch at his house at noon. He could take a break with Cristina and the little one. The quiet routine of fisherman Carlos Maaz had already been interrupted two weeks before, when a red spot appeared on the lake and he decided to join the protests of the fishing guild.
Carlos Maaz did not have time to scream. Not an exhalation, nor a moan. The bullet lodged in the heart. The fisherman collapsed and was lying on the pavement, while other bullets whistled past the fishermen who had decided to block the road that leads from El Estor to the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), located seven kilometers from the central park of the town – or 15 minutes by car – and, like El Estor, situated on the shore of Lake Izabal.
Everyone runs, they scream, the tear gas bombs rumble. The stones rebound from one side to the other. Meanwhile, the body of Carlos Maaz is frozen, lifeless, in the middle of the Dantesque scene. This is documented in the photos of May 27, 2017.
There are few portraits of Carlos Maaz alive: the photo of his ID and another blurred family photo, which Cristina, his widow, shows to the journalists who appear, although fewer each time, to try to unravel a story that has remained entangled for decades. On the other hand, there are dozens of photos of Carlos Maaz dead, lying on his back, wearing a white polo shirt printed with stars. It is possible to see the pale red stain, the size of a carnation, on his chest.
Little was spoken of this revolt in a municipality of the department of Izabal prone to sporadic uproars. The town functioned for decades as a lake shore port with an exit to the Atlantic Ocean, where a single store supplied the farms of the tropical region, originally dubbed “The Store”. The village founded in 1886 grew and became a municipality of 40,000 inhabitants, which is still the center of trade for the monoculture farms of the area – African palm, bananas and cattle. For fifty years (1971) it has also been ‘the store’ of the nickel mine that operates next to the largest lake in Guatemala, originally inhabited by the Q’eqchi Mayan ethnicity, and in which Q’eqchis, mestizos (mixed race people), and at least 216 foreign workers from the mine now live together.
That Saturday 27, for a few more minutes, they all continued with the choreography of a demonstration, of a blockade, of a police contingent that dissolved the uprising using blows and tear gases… and, possibly, bullets. Hours passed before the body of Carlos Maaz was lifted. The Attorney General’s Office never arrived to collect evidence, take photographs, write down the names of possible witnesses and take the body to Puerto Barrios, the departmental capital, to do the forensic examination.
Almost two years have passed and few people say anything about the case of Carlos Maaz, the 27-year-old fisherman who had been fishing all his life, who, in two weeks, became an activist, an environmentalist, a lake defender and a martyr. The witnesses point to the Police, to the State, but in Guatemala, that is no reason for scandal.
The forgotten of the forgotten of the forgotten
A fisherman’s job requires a lot of patience. Carlos Maaz had to be patient even in death.
Seven hours passed, under the sun, with that tropical heat of around 30 degrees Celsius, until they knew that the Attorney General’s Office would not arrive to lift the body and they took him home. They would bury him the next day, and seven months would pass until the District Attorney’s Office returned to exhume the body, take out the bullet and start forensic work in the same cemetery.
Almost two years after his death, the investigation has turned up no results. The witnesses interviewed, many of them part of the fishermen’s guild, but also workers of the Estor Association for Comprehensive Development (Aepdi), also known as the Defensoría Q’eqchi’ (Qéqchi Defense), assure that the bullets came from the policemen who arrived, along with the riot police, to disperse the blockade. Robin Sicaján, executive director of Aepdi, provides a photo album. Some armed policemen can be seen, although it is not possible to see any photograph in which one is shooting. There is no record of any armed protester.
The press does not publish anything more about the death of Maaz. Except the digital media Prensa Comunitaria, which has one of its journalists, Carlos Choc, facing criminal charges for the same case. The debate which caused the fishermen to come out to protest is also considered closed: the suspicion of pollution. The fishermen are convinced that the water was stained red as a result of the disposal of toxic material discarded from the process of extracting nickel, but the mine assures that it was earth washed away by the Polochic River in winter. The Ministry of the Environment closed the case, giving the same answer than the mine.
Francisco Vivar, the lawyer in charge and member of the Human Rights Law Firm that takes on cases of human rights violations, speaks little of the case of Carlos Maaz. In the interview for this report, he focuses his answers on the two imprisoned fishermen and the five who are on probation.
He says he is confident that the Attorney General’s Office and the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (Inacif) are doing their job. He sneaks away when he is questioned about the delay in resolving a case, investigating, finding those responsible for the shooting against Maaz and Alfredo Maquín and bringing them to trial. He does not want to hinder an open case, says the member of the firm that has taken on cases as important as the genocide trial against former president Efraín Ríos Montt, or the trial against military officers accused of sexual slavery and exploitation of the Sepur Zarco women.
“What happened was that the population did not allow the Attorney General’s Office to do its job. Nonetheless, this can be understoon given the social and cultural context,” said Julia Barrero of that state institution, explaining that investigations on the cases are open and therefore they cannot provide information on them.
The National Civil Police and the Ministry of the Interior refuse information regarding the case. When the request for public information is made, they deny the request for the minutes and reports: “It is not possible to provide the requested information… insofar as the police report contains the name of the police personnel and this police institution is exempt from the obligation to publish the names of the police personnel… by Decree 11-97 of the Law of the National Civil Police all information known by the institution in the performance of its functions must be kept under strict professional secrecy”, says the response to the request. An interview with the Director of the Police was requested and institutional information was requested from the press office, but no response was given.
That is to say, little is known about the state at which the investigation is and the date of a possible trial.
Cristina Xol Pop, the widow of Carlos Maaz, talks about the oblivion in which she finds herself. Her mother tongue is the Q’eqchi and she apologizes for the Spanish she speaks with pauses, as she searches carefully for the words.
“When they killed my husband, we continued reporting that Carlos Maaz died because of the company. Then people from the company chased us in their car, in a car they chase us… It scares me,” says Cristina, 24-year-old, who no longer sells empanadas and toasts that she prepares herself on the road. “Out of fear I stopped selling, because maybe I’ll be sitting there, maybe they’ll shoot me, well, that’s what I think.”
Cristina moved from the house of her in-laws to a house made of wood and lianas, like that of many residents of El Estor, in front of her parents. They are now the ones who support her maintenance and that of her 10-year-old son. They do not know what will happen with the investigation and the trial. Thus, at this distance, with few resources, it is almost impossible to make a call and follow up by telephone, let alone incur the expenses of the seven-hour trip to the capital of Guatemala City. Little is expected from anyone, they never received anything from the State, organizations came and did not return.
“Yes, they are helping me, the lawyers, because the exhumation already took place, and right now we already know it was the police, right now they have not called me but we are going to continue,” says Cristina.
The red drop
A novel could be written in a Stephen King tone about El Estor: the story of a forgotten town, where all of the characters distrust each other, look over their shoulders at each other, and murmur and gossip. A novel where the great chapters to remember are marked by violence. A territory of the tropics that seems built on gunpowder, where a match is enough for an explosion that will vanish as if nothing happened, only for underground tension to remain. There is a timeline of deaths -assassinations – recounted by criminal complaints filed or due to demonstrations that ended in brutal evictions.
A transnational company operates in the neighborhood of a town whose living conditions have improved little in decades. Since before Izabal Mining Exploitations and Explorations (Exmibal) began its operations in May 1971, and later became the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), residents and leaders have confronted and opposed the presence of the mine, have reported contamination, unsafe working conditions (which the mine denies, assuring that it is governed by the standards of the International Finance Corporation, IFC) and, also, a low number of jobs for the locals (the mine explains that it fills the quotas demanded by the IFC. Its press office explains that 51% of the workers are from El Estor and that not hiring more local staff is due to low schooling and scarce specialized training among the locals). Two years after the demonstration by the fishermen, apparent calm has returned. The demonstrations that take place on the road or in the park are again to demand work in the mine. In El Estor, the deaths, the crimes, the complaints, soon sink like a stone to the bottom of the water.
The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), which took place after the 36 year long Guatemalan civil war, records a shady awarding process: the mine’s audit and control methods were not defined, it was not established what would happen with the possession of the lands of those who already lived in the territories and no rules were put in place about possible environmental impact.
There is at least one death related to the this concession process: deputy Adolfo Mijangos was assassinated in 1971 after publicly opposing the establishment of the mine. After the death of Mijangos, the political and intellectual Alfonso Bauer Paiz was forced into exile, after criticizing a precarious regulatory framework and a debate with little clarity about the environmental and social impact that the mine could leave, in addition to the poor benefits for the State or the neighbors of El Estor.
In 2007, eleven women were raped in the nearby town of Lote Ocho and a lawsuit was initiated in Canada against Hudbay Minerals, the company that at that time owned the Guatemalan Nickel Company and had purchased the mining operation from Exmibal. The women pointed to the security guards hired by the mine. In Guatemala, an investigation never started and it was Canadian organizations that pushed for a trial abroad, arguing that the Guatemalan State was not able to investigate and impart justice.
Now, after the march against the contamination of the lake two years ago, fishermen Cristóbal Pop and Eduardo Bin Poou are imprisoned.
The price of not remaining silent
After the demonstrations and blockades in which Carlos Maaz died, the guild’s president and vice-president were accused of threats, instigation to commit a crime, illegal retention, damages and illicit association.
The accusations come from the mine, according to their lawyer Vivar, although the company has tried to extricate itself from the case. “The company filed the complaint and requested the arrest warrants. The municipality, ever accommodating to the company, and the mayor pointed at the leaders for the fire in his house – which the guild declared itself innocent of,” explains Vivar. The defense seeks to demonstrate the innocence of the accused and expose a persecution that seeks to silence the motives of the demonstration for which they are prisoners. On the same day as the demonstration, in the afternoon, a mob set fire to the mayor’s house and the police station. The authorities seek to hold the fishermen accountable, while witnesses and the Q’eqchi Defense claim that it was another group of villagers who took advantage of the confusion to cause chaos.
The guild began to organize itself in May 2017, when the fishermen saw the red lake and began a series of complaints: to the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Energy and Mining, the Departmental Government, the Municipality and the Ministry of Health. The local press recorded that attempt to be heard by the State. However, they did not get an answer. In light of the impenetrability of the authorities, they decided to block the highway that leads to the mine. They were there for fourteen days, until the news reached them: yes, they would listen to them, yes, they would sit down to talk with them.
There is a record of a meeting in the Municipal Palace of El Estor that same month. The mayor made mistakes with the logistics and forgot to place enough chairs. The Minister of the Environment and other officials arrived two hours late, say the fishermen and witnesses. The fishermen interviewed, the Q’eqchi Defender, the relatives do not fail to mention those details, which would seem like mere lapses in etiquette, but for them they were a symbol of something larger: they were not being taken seriously.
A fisherman, who is now in hiding due to criminal charges leveled against him for threats and instigation to commit a crime, assures that the Minister jokingly offered them chickens, to undermine the accusations of pollution and, according to him, to try to bribe them.
From that meeting they left with the commitment that the fishermen would lift the highway blockade, that the Ministry would do the necessary investigations and that they would meet again on May 27, 2017.
But that meeting never happened: the fishermen say that the Ministry of the Environment gave notice of the meeting on the 26th at midnight and gave them an appointment in Puerto Barrios, so it was impossible for them to arrive on time; and the Ministry says that they did not arrive. On May 27, the fishermen blocked the highway again and the Ministry of the Interior sent a contingent of police and riot police from several parts of the country. The quick reaction generated suspicions in the members of the guild, who think that everything was already planned.
(We tried to ask the Ministry how many people it sent, but it refused to answer what was the number of agents sent).
I’m not afraid of the mine, I’m not afraid of the police
The bullet that killed Carlos Maaz was not the only one that was shot on the road that day. The residents collected several casings, which they assure that they have delivered to the Attorney General’s Office.
One of the bullets fired remained in El Estor, stuck inside the body of fisherman Alfredo Maquín.
Maquín lives with permanent discomfort, in constant pain. His anger contrasts with the delicacy with which he sands an oar at his feet. Maquín makes oars because he cannot go fishing anymore. He does not fish, he makes oars and he has a bullet in his buttock. He is furious and feels abandoned.
He spends hours in a hammock, ruminating how much money he needs to buy painkillers, how much to buy food for his family and medicine for his little girl who broke an arm when falling off the bed and for his wife who suffers from a stubborn cough.
Alfredo Maquín is already fed up, too, with giving interviews. Nobody mentions him, he says, his name never comes up, it is never said that from that May 27, in addition to a dead fisherman, there was another fisherman who constantly thinks that it might have been better to die. He says it without shame, in front of his wife and children: “It would have been better to die.”
The guild companions – those who live on a day by day basis, because they still face criminal charges – do not mention it and the lawyer Vivar from the defense firm hardly gives details of how the case is advancing. Yes, it has taken time, but all cases take time and this is just one more.
Hasn’t anyone been able to do anything to extract the bullet from his hip? Does the National Institute of Forensic Science not need proof of the crime? Would it alleviate his pain, would they help reconstruct him? Could he go back to fishing and stop polishing his oars, with beauty but with anger? There are no answers for Maquín’s case. Sonia Montes of the Attorney General’s Office does not respond about the case and the lawyer Vivar prefers to give the investigators time and the benefit of the doubt.
“I threw stones”, he recognizes. He almost trembles when he talks about that policewoman shouting, “Kill them, kill them, kill them!” Nobody responded about here. The police are silent, while the mine explains that the authorities were responsible for something that was never in their hands. Maquín has no doubt that the bullet that killed Carlos Maaz and the bullet that he has embedded in his body belong to the police.
It seems that Alfredo Maquín is no longer afraid of anything. He rants about the media, which he feels only makes him waste time by making him tell him a story that they never publish. He rails against nongovernmental organizations that visit him and offer him help but never return. And he rants about the mine that came to knock on his door, despite the agreement made in the fishermen’s guild. He asked them for work: they did not give him any. He asked them to take the bullet out in the hospital that they have for employees: they refused.
There is Alfredo Maquín, exiled in his own wooden house, with his wife who scrunches up, doubles and unfolds the medicine recipes with her bony hands. There are his children who play on the dirt floor, who laugh, but who also manage to hear that their father would prefer to have died.
– Are you afraid of the mine, are you afraid of the police? – I ask Maquín.
– I’m not afraid of the mine. I’m not afraid of the police. I am afraid of poverty,” says the fisherman.
The hidden ones
“We were not like that,” says Eduardo Bin at that meeting, in May 2017, in the municipality; before being arrested, “my legs were shaking when I came to the Estor”, Bin tells the anecdote to explain what an official told him about the character of the locals.
We were not like that, he says, “our people were not violent, they were not like they are today, why do they think our people became violent? Because these people who run the company when they make a blockade… they bribe them and the thing dies down. And the problem remains the same, as they went bribing one group after another and for that reason there have been so many blockades, because the same company originated them. We are a different organization than the company thought, they thought we wanted money or work. We are not going to ask for work from a company that is doing harm to all, from the smallest to the biggest and those who come from behind.”
They do not think of remaining silent, but now they are. Eduardo Bin and Cristóbal Pop are arrested and other five people linked to the process with arrest warrants.
Despite the fear and mistrust, despite their lawyers in the human rights firm advising them not to meet up with each other and not go to public places so they do not implicate them in any crime, they agree to meet in a small house, on the shore of the lake, far away from everyone. Six people from the guild are in the hallway; two of them have arrest warrants out for the same crimes for which Pop and Bin are imprisoned.
They imply that they have given dozens of interviews and that they have received nothing in return. That just yesterday a Spanish journalist stood them up, just a few months ago they transported some French journalists by boat who did not even pay them for gasoline. That they give their time and that absolutely nothing happens. Something has been told about the two imprisoned fishermen and the other persecuted members of the guild. Prensa Comunitaria recounts it especially, constantly covering the trial and hearings of its leaders, prisoners in Puerto Barrios, where they have a hard time going because they do not have the money for the ticket fare. And foreign journalists arrive. And the fishermen do not find out if they published. They think not, because nothing happens.
“Part of what criminalization and legal persecution seeks is to involve the person in a criminal proceeding. When an arrest warrant is issued, the person is subject to anonymity, the person has to hide, you restrict the person in their rights, the privacy of their family and work relationships, but above all the privacy to protest, to speak out, to oppose, and that leads to a message that says ‘that will happen to you too,’ ” explains the lawyer, Vivar, in the interview in Guatemala City. Vivar is convinced that there is a clear violation of the rights to freedom of expression and the right to information – in the case of Carlos Choc, a journalist who is also accused along with journalists. “The person either has go into hiding or flee,” says Vivar.
In fact, the guild’s board of directors now gives interviews in remote places, requires anonymity, cannot meet in public places, but they are interested in publishing the accusations that they have against the mine. They assert that two investigations showed that the mine was contaminating, but they do not have the documents that prove it. The leaders in prison have them, they say. We tried to find the research that the fishermen quote, but it was impossible to obtain it.
Up until now, there is no definitive investigation to determine what happened at the lake in May 2017. “The Ministry of the Environment must see if everything is legitimate, if everything is in order, is it perhaps the manager of the company?”, they point to the Ministry and the same Presidency for being compliant towards the mining company.
Now, while waiting for the trial and trusting that the seven accused will be declared innocent and the two prisoners will be released, they guarantee that the contamination continues. That they, just as they saw that the lake was dyed red, continue to witness contamination.
“We went fishing early, you saw the dust cloud that the chimney expels! I fish there in front of the company, you see that just like the snow falls, like shhhh, just as the dust cloud falls on the water and as people are sleeping, they do not notice, but we fishermen do not fall asleep. We watch everything,” they say.
They keep fishing, and watching, but, for the moment, they are forbidden to speak and demonstrate. The fishermen returned to the rafts.