The Indigenous Maya Ch’orti’ environmental activist Elizandro Perez, who led a local resistance against a mining company in his community, was found dead Wednesday morning in his home.
Perez, 36, was head of the Indigenous Maya Ch’orti’ Council, a member of the New Day Central Indigenous Campesino Ch’orti’ organization, and one of the most visible faces of the legal battle against Cantera Los Manantiales, an antimony mine just 400 meters away from his house in Olopa, Chiquimula, eastern Guatemala.
He had received death threats since 2016, but these increased during November, so he decided to file a complaint at the Public Ministry. The community and the activist reported that the legal battle had intensified in the days leading up to Perez’s murder, and they held the company responsible for anything that happened to them.
The cause of death has not been revealed by authorities to local news outlets in Guatemala.
He and members of at least 11 Indigenous communities from Olopa claim that the Ministry of Energy and Mines granted Incamin a 30 year license to operate in their territory without a previous informed consultation of the Ch’orti’ people, violating their rights as established by Guatemala’s constitution and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169.
The mining activity, they claim, is polluting the Jupilingo and Zacapa rivers, and affecting their crops and cattle, representing a serious threat to their own health.
Incamin owns 2 square kilometers in the Chiquimula department, with reserves of up to 300 thousand metric tons of antimony. The company defines itself as a “multidisciplinary project, with experts in mining exploration and exploitation, committed to the preservation of the environment.”
The affected communities include La Prensa, Amatillo, Carrizal, Laguna de Cayur, El Cerron, Paternito, La Cumbre, Piedra de Amolar, Tuticopote and Tituque, all mostly inhabited by Maya Ch’orti’ people, who have denounced the company’s lack of respect for local and international law.
The local news outlet Prensa Comunitaria had reported in early November on the community’s environmental and health complaints, interviewing their members about the effects possibly caused by the mining activity.
One of the community leaders told them the fruit trees were dying and that their animals were sick, exhibiting a worrying dermatological epidemic.
“It’s not like before anymore, but the main problem is everybody’s skin, especially the children's. The water we use to bathe and drink is very polluted. Even if we boil it we get weals and ulcers,” he said.
The outlet published images of body parts with signs of Immune thrombocytopenia purpura and the Guillain–Barré syndrome, which they related to the mining activity and the presence of antimony gas in the environment.
During a meeting at the congress on Oct. 30, the Ch’orti’ and Campesino organizations demanded in a special legislative commission that they stop the mining company. The environment deputy minister Julio Recinos declared that in 2017 a delegation monitored the mine facilities and found that they failed to comply with the minimum environmental requirements, but no action was taken.
Energy and Mines Minister Luis Alfonso Chang Navarro declared during the meeting that he ignored the information about the mine because he “had been given the wrong name.”
The mayor of Olopa, Fredy Urrutia, said his government had already filed a complaint for crimes against the environment and declared the municipality never received any kind of economic compensation for the extraction of the mineral.
The ministers agreed to form a new delegation to investigate the case, but on Nov. 17 Perez received further threats and heavy machines were seen on their way to the mine.
The Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas and multiple environmental and social organizations demanded authorities conduct a legitimate investigation on the death of Perez.
During 2018 scores of human rights and environmental defenders have been murdered in Guatemala, sparking outrage from organizations and individuals that have demanded the government respect for their lives and an end to criminalization.