Allegations of violence at Guatemala mine filed in Canadian court

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A group of men is suing a Canadian mining company, Tahoe Resources Inc., over injuries they received while protesting at a silver mine in Guatemala.

In a case filed with the B.C. Supreme Court, seven Guatemalan men allege that they were wounded as they protested peacefully outside the Canadian-owned Escobal mine in April of 2013. The statement of claim said that Tahoe Resources' security personnel opened fire on them in close range on a public road. The men say that the company's security personnel used weapons that included shotguns, pepper spray, buckshot and rubber bullets. They allege that Tahoe Resources is legally responsible for the violence they suffered, and are suing the Vancouver-based mining company in a Canadian court, for playing a role in the violence.

Vancouver lawyer Joe Fiorante filed the case with the B.C. Supreme Court on July 18.

"We have alleged that Tahoe either expressly or implicitly authorized the use of force against the protesters," said Fiorante.

This is the first case to be filed in British Columbia over a company's activities abroad, said Matt Eisenbrandt, legal director for the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ), which is part of the legal team supporting the plaintiffs.

The claim argues that Tahoe Resources had committed to work under principles of corporate social responsibility to respect human rights. Therefore, they allege that Tahoe had a "duty of care" to make sure that its employees and contractors operated under those principles. 

"We are drawing on that and using it as an element in our case, to say this company in Vancouver was clearly aware that decisions made in Vancouver about security and community relations have the ability to negatively impact the community in Guatemala," Fiorante said.

CCIJ argues that there is an accountability gap caused by the absence of effective Canadian legislation regulating Canadian corporations' international activities. Although the alleged violence happened in Guatemala, the company's actions and omissions in Canada have led to the alleged shooting. It notes, "Some victims of violence believe their best hope for holding companies responsible is litigation in the courts of Canada and other national jurisdictions."

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for the pain, suffering, loss of income and medical costs they bear because of the incident.

They say Tahoe Resources should be held liable for battery and negligence, and allege that Tahoe authorized the use of excessive force or was negligent for not preventing the violence. 

Plaintiff Erick Fernando Castillo Pérez, was unable to work for five months because of his injuries. Another plaintiff, Luis Fernando Garcia Monroy was allegedly shot in the face and now has trouble breathing, which impairs his ability to work. He has also lost his sense of smell.

The plaintiffs are all farmers except for one, who is a student.

"Not being able to work means their crops are affected and their livelihoods are threatened," said Eisenbrandt.

Tahoe Resources spokesperson, Ira M. Gostin said that after reviewing the notice of civil claim the company believes that it is without merit and "replete with factual errors." He added that Tahoe "deplores violence of any kind in its communities," and that the company provides human rights training to all security providers.

A document from CCIJ notes that the mine's security manager, Alberto Rotondo, was arrested and faces criminal charges for obstruction of justice, causing serious and minor injuries, and mistreatment of a minor.

Last year, three suits were filed against Toronto-based Company Hudbay Minerals, also for alleged violence in Guatemala. The suits were allowed to proceed to trial by the Ontario Superior Court.

Eisenbrandt said he hopes cases like these will make Canadian mining companies operating abroad more accountable. "If you have Canadian companies operating in those environments, then there needs to be some way to regulate their behaviour and ensure that basic human rights are not being violated," said Eisenbrandt.

He added that there is a need for greater attention to this issue in Canada. "There is clearly an issue and there is not enough regulation," he said.  

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Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble's news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats.

Photo: flickr/Géry Parent

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