The leak reveals pollution not only of the lake but also of local politics. Documents show Solway’s subsidiaries have long used financial incentives to secure support from communities around the mine. When a court ordered the government to suspend the company’s extraction license pending consultation with Indigenous communities, the company stepped up its underhanded manipulation of local actors.
A lack of consultation and consent when it comes to extractive industry in Guatemala has been a driver of social conflict for decades. In 1994, the country ratified an international convention requiring consultation with Indigenous peoples whose lives and lands could be impacted by natural resource development. But the government never fulfilled its duty to consult prior to issuing mining licenses, including for the Fenix project. So fishers guild members and El Estor residents took the government to court.
In 2019, Guatemala’s highest court ruled in favor of Indigenous residents, ordering the Ministry of Energy and Mines to suspend Solway’s extraction license pending a consultation process. After long delays and another ruling reiterating the order, the ministry finally complied in February 2021.
But the ruling did not lead to the free and fair consultation El Estor plaintiffs demanded. The government-led process relied heavily on leaders of recognized Maya Q’eqchi’ Councils and did not offer Indigenous residents any real veto power over the future of the mine’s operations. Meanwhile, nickel-processing operations, subject to a different license, continued apace. The fishers guild and other residents excluded from the consultations formed their own ancestral councils in January 2021 to push for broader representation, while the company refocused its attempts to influence local politics.
A spreadsheet in the leak breaks down a “Social investment plan for the community pre-consultation stage” for 46 neighborhoods and villages in and around El Estor. The document suggests that CGN and Pronico planned to allot each community funding for improvements to water systems, sewers, roads, schools, and street lighting. But in two El Estor neighborhoods, Sinaí and La Coroza, Pronico instead earmarked $390 for “compra de líderes”: buying leaders.
Méndez, Pronico’s administrative director, stated categorically that no leader in either neighborhood had been paid prior to consultation.
But in the Q’eqchi’ community of Las Nubes, leaked emails describe payments that weren’t just planned but carried out. Las Nubes residents live on top of key nickel reserves that CGN has pursued for at least 15 years, including under the mine’s previous Canadian ownership. (Solway created Pronico as a second subsidiary two years after acquiring the project.) The community of several hundred people, who farm cardamom, maize, and other subsistence crops in the mountains, has faced eviction attempts and other displacement efforts. CGN and Pronico have also invested in the community — and apparently individual leaders — to secure access to mountaintop areas with extraction potential.
“Through the investment carried out and the buying of leaders, access to blocks 215 and 216-east is achieved,” the head of Pronico’s translation bureau wrote in a 2020 email. “In 2018, using the same strategies of social investment, buying of leaders and the case for road improvement, negotiating area 216-west is achieved,” another 2020 email reads.
When asked about these payments, Méndez responded: “This information does not correspond to reality.”
Community leaders and fishers guild members in El Estor also contend that the company has attempted to use power and coercion to exert influence. The Intercept spoke with several people in El Estor who said they were approached — nearly always by individuals they suspected to be acting on behalf of the company — and offered money or a job for a relative in exchange for supporting the mine or formally withdrawing from legal proceedings. Two people said they were directly approached by people in power within Pronico. One of those two people was Enrique Xol.
Xol wears many hats. He is a member of the newer ancestral council. He is an educator and one of the leaders of a local teachers union. And he is a coordinator with the local Catholic parish. But he was previously active in local politics, where his dissent could impact mining company plans.
It was back when Xol was a multi-neighborhood delegate on the Municipal Development Council that he says he was approached, which he attributes to the fact that he always spoke his mind about the Fenix project. The record of a 2016 meeting between company representatives and community leaders at a tourist property east of town substantiates his claim of voicing concerns. That is where Xol said Pronico president Kudryakov asked to speak with him one-on-one, with the help of his translator.
“He said, ‘What do you want? Do you want a project? Do you want something?’” Xol recalled. Xol said he replied that he did not want anything. Asked whether Kudryakov offered a community leader enticements in exchange for support, Méndez said the company complied with international standards in its activities with stakeholders.
Xol also said that at one point, Pronico’s community relations manager Maynor Álvarez showed up at his home and said Xol could be thrown in jail or see his house burned down if he kept speaking out. “I was a nuisance for them,” said Xol, shrugging slightly. Méndez denied the allegation that Álvarez had issued threats of violence or criminalization.
“There Is No Consultation”
When the new Community Development Council took office in the San Jorge neighborhood of El Estor at the beginning of this year, they discovered some irregularities. A document in the neighborhood book of records indicated that previous San Jorge leaders had signed off on proposed agreements in the court-ordered consultation process behind residents’ backs.
“They said they did consultation … but the consultation they did is no good,” said Carlos Yat, the new vice president of the San Jorge council. “For us, consultation is done in an assembly.”
By law, a Community Development Council includes both the assembly — residents of a given neighborhood or village — and its elected coordinators. In practice, council leaders sometimes disregard the assembly and act on their own.
Several dozen people, more than half of them women, arrived on foot at the open-air neighborhood meeting site: a cement floor with a roof offering protection from the drizzle. It was late January, and the new leaders in San Jorge had called an assembly to disclose what they had found. It lasted three hours. The large neighborhood has a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, so the council members explained things in both Q’eqchi’ and Spanish.
Afterward, people stayed to chat while they waited to sign the assembly record. As is the custom, everyone confirms their attendance with a signature or thumbprint. It’s what made the irregularity of the previous council’s record immediately evident. It was only signed by a handful of the 13 council members. Community Development Council documents were included in a report that the Ministry of Energy and Mines submitted to the court to demonstrate fulfillment of the consultation process, which officially wrapped up in December.
San Jorge was far from the only neighborhood with discontent over the actions of previous leaders. In another neighborhood in El Estor, the assembly ousted the entire council last year when people found out they had quietly signed support for the company.
Even more objectionable to many residents was the key role that leaders of the government-recognized Council of Maya Q’eqchi’ Communities, or CCMQ, had in the consultation process. The grassroots formation of ancestral councils in January 2021 was in large part due to concerns about CCMQ leaders, who critics claim are in the pocket of mining companies.
In 2020, the company’s “expenses with the CCMQ” amounted to $79,000, according to a Pronico summary.
It turns out those concerns were well-founded. Documents in the leak show Pronico supported, promoted, and funded the CCMQ ahead of the consultation, with the goal of strengthening the image of the council in the eyes of the government institutions and communities that would be participating. In 2020, the company’s “expenses with the CCMQ” amounted to $79,000, according to a Pronico summary authored by administrative director Méndez.
In spite of all the controversy over representation, the Minister of Energy and Mines signed a resolution on January 6, 2022, to reinstate the Fenix mine’s extraction license. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
“We are not looking for a fight,” said Paulina Coc, sitting with a few of her grandchildren outside her family’s home earlier this year. “What we want to discuss is … why are we not taken into account?”
She is now part of the ancestral council, but Coc and much of her family have been involved with the fishers guild since the beginning. Her husband and son rarely fish anymore, though. Their catch and income had been dwindling so they turned to woodworking. But they never stopped taking part in the struggle for the lake.
Ancestral council and fishers guild members took to the street again last October over exclusion from the consultation process. A round-the-clock protest camp prevented the passage of mining trucks heading to and from the Fenix project, including trucks hauling coal needed to fuel the ferronickel processing plant. When the protest was approaching the three-week mark, the government cracked down and police cleared the road, tear-gassing protesters and anyone living nearby. Police officers jogged alongside trucks carrying coal to secure their passage.
“They brought their trucks like a procession. They came in by sheer force,” said Coc. “The government does not want to hear anything” about the lake pollution, she added, “so they sent the police.”
During the crackdown, four police officers were shot in the leg. According to the government, they were shot by armed protesters. According to ancestral council members and other protest participants, the assailants were local criminals who had nothing to do with the protests. The government decreed a monthlong state of siege in El Estor — essentially martial law — and sent in hundreds of military troops and police. Security forces lined the streets in front of the homes of mine opponents, while prosecutors and police conducted raids that, according to a warrant seen by The Intercept, were for the search and seizure of weapons and stolen property.
A Legacy of Violence
The state of siege was just the latest episode in decades of crackdowns by government security forces working in concert with extractive industry. The Mining Secrets investigation uncovered new details about Pronico’s funding of the national police force as well as ties between corporate executives and the Guatemalan military. The leak also reveals that a former CGN security manager remained on the company payroll for years after killing a mine opponent during a protest over land rights.
Rosa Elvira Coc and other women from the mountain village of Lote Ocho came down to El Estor last October to support the protests. Lote Ocho lands have nickel extraction potential and inhabitants have been terrorized. During an eviction operation in 2007, before Solway acquired the Fenix project, Coc and 10 other women were allegedly raped by soldiers, police officers, and CGN security personnel. The use of tear gas and low-flying helicopters during the crackdown in El Estor brought up the trauma all over again.
“For those of us women who participated, it was like what we suffered before,” said Coc. “Sometimes I feel like I cannot breathe. I was sick for one or two weeks because of the fear I felt to my soul.”
Last year’s crackdown also evoked decades-old memories of violence. The history of the Fenix mine is intertwined with that of Guatemala, and for many Q’eqchi’ communities in the region, that history has been one of wartime atrocities.
“That persecution that we experienced before in the time of the war has not ended,” Coc said. “We feel deep pain over what the company is doing to us.”
A former security manager remained on the company payroll for years after killing a mine opponent during a protest over land rights.
Nickel exploration in the region picked up after a U.S.-backed military coup in 1954. Military rulers granted mining and land rights to CGN’s precursor, EXMIBAL, a joint venture between the Canadian company INCO and the Guatemalan state, at the outset of a 36-year civil war between the military and leftist guerrilla forces. An estimated 200,000 people died, most of them Maya civilians killed by military forces that committed acts of genocide. In the 1970s, leading up to the Fenix mine’s initial operations, a congressman and lawyer investigating EXMIBAL’s acquisitions were assassinated in the capital, and local Q’eqchi’ leaders were abducted and disappeared. EXMIBAL security personnel shot at Q’eqchi’ villagers on their way to a land rights protest in 1978 and those who made it were gunned down by the army — the first of many large-scale massacres of civilians.
The Mining Secrets consortium sent questions to Solway, Guatemala’s Ministry of Defense, and the national police to clarify various aspects of the relationships between the company and state security forces. The police did not respond to the consortium’s request for comment. Méndez, Pronico’s administrative director, did not fully answer questions about monetary and in-kind donations to police. Instead, he highlighted the company’s role in founding the Municipal Violence Prevention Commission in 2015, which along with Pronico includes representatives from the police, the army, El Estor’s municipal government, and local NGOs.
According to documentation in the leak, however, Pronico’s donations to police preceded and extended beyond the violence prevention commission. In May 2017, general security manager Roberto Zapeta emailed a few of his colleagues asking for feedback on a presentation. The last page of the presentation concerned “expenses in support of PNC,” the acronym for the national police. Expenses in the “violence prevention programs” column represented roughly two-thirds of the total, but other columns detailed fuel, food, rent, and miscellaneous expenses. According to the table, the company supported police to the tune of $140,000 in the first three years of mine production under Solway ownership. A line underneath the table noted that “support provided to the army” was not included.
Meanwhile, documents suggest that company security personnel blamed the killings of mine opponents during police operations on mine opponents themselves. “One of the oldest and most-known strategies of opponents is provocation and killing their own comrades on site of social conflicts,” stated a 2020 report prepared by Pronico’s general security management concerning roadblock actions by villagers. The report cited as examples the “fishermen case” and the “Mynor Padilla 2009 case.”
Mynor Padilla, a retired military officer, was CGN’s former head of security. In 2009, during an eviction attempt in Las Nubes and protests over land rights in El Estor, Padilla and other CGN personnel attacked and killed a teacher named Adofo Ich and injured several Las Nubes residents. Padilla also shot El Estor resident German Chub, paralyzing him from the waist down. At the time, CGN was owned by Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian corporation. In January 2021, Padilla was convicted of homicide and several counts of aggravated assault.
“When I heard the verdict, I will not say I was happy, but it moved me to the bottom of my heart,” Angélica Choc, Ich’s widow, said. “It was a struggle of many long years in search of justice here in Guatemala.”
Media reports had previously indicated that Padilla stayed on the CGN payroll for at least a year after a warrant was issued for his arrest. But as it turns out, Padilla remained on the company payroll for nearly eight years after Ich’s killing. He earned more than $4,000 a month while he was a fugitive, after he was taken into custody, and throughout an initial trial and acquittal that was later overturned. Padilla’s termination was eventually ordered in August 2017, the documents show.
Méndez confirmed that Padilla’s employment continued until 2017, noting that pretrial detention is not cause for termination under labor law. But Padilla was not in pretrial detention when Solway acquired CGN in 2011. He was a fugitive with an outstanding arrest warrant for homicide.
The day after Padilla’s initial acquittal in 2017, Pronico’s then-administrative director emailed two of his superiors. He floated the idea of having Padilla stay on but transferring him either to Guatemala City or another mining project, “away from the attention of people and organizations from El Estor.” He also recommended negotiating with Hudbay Minerals, which faces ongoing civil lawsuits in Canada for the 2009 crimes, to recuperate the money later paid to Padilla. Neither of those recommendations were acted upon, according to Méndez.
Like Padilla, Pronico’s current head of security, Zapeta, is a former military officer. A retired captain with special forces training, Zapeta has participated on behalf of the company in courses at the Army Intelligence School, according to leaked documents. In one case, the topic was “Participation and contribution in national development projects and obstacles that arise to achieve them.” For mining companies in Guatemala, “obstacles” are usually Indigenous villagers who do not see extractive projects as “development.”
In February 2017, Zapeta and Pronico’s then-administrative director enrolled in a series of seminars on “Geopolitics, Strategy and Analysis of National Power” for high-level corporate executives at the Army Intelligence School. One presentation by a corporate sector consultant implied social movements resisting energy and extractive projects were the ideological continuation of guerrilla forces — a dangerous implication in a country where the military committed crimes against humanity in the context of counterinsurgency.
In response to questions about Pronico executives attending events at military intelligence facilities, a Ministry of National Defense spokesperson stated that “the respective archives were checked and the requested information was not found.” Documentation in the leak, however, includes official, signed defense records.
In Guatemala, bonds forged among classmates in military officer training are often lifelong. Anti-corruption prosecutors have uncovered high-level government corruption schemes that had roots in networks established within the military during the 1960-1996 armed conflict. Links between military officer classmates have often facilitated access to power down the line.
Zapeta attended officer training in the early 1980s, during the height of military atrocities. He and his classmates became the officers of Class 103 — a powerful force during the first half of Jimmy Morales’s presidency, in 2016 and 2017, when Zapeta fielded invitations for Pronico’s participation in courses at the Army Intelligence School. At the time, Class 103 officers included the minister of defense, the military’s director of intelligence, and two presidential security advisers.
At a Municipal Development Council meeting in January, Zapeta asked for a round of applause to give thanks to God. At tables arranged in a U-shape, 50 council members were in attendance. Zapeta was there on behalf of Pronico to donate two bicycle carts to the violence prevention commission for its work with local youth — and to take part in the corresponding photo op with the municipal government.
“We are one family. We are one homeland. And we are one great nation,” said Zapeta, flanked by the mayor and municipal council members.
Almost a year to the day earlier, Cristóbal Pop, Paulina Coc, Enrique Xol, and dozens of other community members held an assembly in the same place to form the ancestral council to push for inclusion in the government’s consultation process about the mine.
The state of siege and raids targeting mine opponents had a chilling effect on community action. The government, on the other hand, has been moving forward. On February 16, the Ministry of Energy and Mines held a meeting more than 30 miles away from El Estor with representatives from the company and the Maya Q’eqchi’ Councils that validated the consultation. They will now monitor implementation of the agreements. But resistance will continue, according to some local leaders.
“We are not going to let ourselves be manipulated,” said Pop. A few feet away from where he sat, a large wooden frame held the orange, green, and blue beginnings of a woven hammock — something he learned in jail a few years ago after he was arrested on charges related to the 2017 protests. He had to sell his boat motor to help feed his family, and threats make it unsafe for him to move about freely, so Pop and his sons now sell the hammocks until they can get back to fishing. He has also taken up woodcarving, whittling figurines of fish, turtles, and manatees.
“I have no regrets,” said Pop. “I know that what I am doing is for the good of my children, for the good of the future children of every one of the fishers and people of El Estor.”