The humid heat of San Miguel Ixtahuacán leaves me sweat-soaked and out of breath from the steep climb to the house at the top of the hill. A woman opens the door.
“I have an appointment with Sister Maudilia Lopez,” I say.
“Come in. I’m her assistant, Magdalena.”
Magdalena leads me through a dim, cool hall that opens into a rustic dining room where a warped wood table takes up most of the space, surrounded by sagging shelves of spices and canned food and metal bowls, and I follow Magdalena to a back door and a garden. Sister Maudilia stands off to one side with a hose, watering roses. The water splashes her bare feet. She wears a long skirt and a loose blouse patterned with the geometric and floral designs of the Mayan culture. Her dark hair falls between her shoulders. She is short and compact. An indigenous nun, Maudilia does not wear the habit of the sisters I knew from my Catholic upbringing.
“It’s hot and they are dying of thirst,” she says of the roses.
Maudilia shuffles from one rose to the next. Water drips off leaves and creates streams on the dry ground. Palm trees rise above the roses and insects hum in tufts of grass at our feet. Maudilia shifts the hose into her other hand and without intending to sprays a cat. It springs away to take cover beneath a fallen palm leaf and hisses. Maudilia continues watering. The water comes down from rivers that have their source in the mountains above San Miguel, rivers and mountains destroyed, Maudilia told me before my trip, by a gold and silver mine.
Owned by Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Goldcorp, the Marlin Mine began operations in 2005 in the regions of San Miguel and Sipacapa, communities largely composed of indigenous Mayans who still speak their native languages. The Mam, of which Maudilia belongs, is one of many Mayan nations in Guatemala and makes up the majority population. They number more than 600,000 in the western regions of Guatemala. The mine brought jobs and prosperity to some among the Mam, but not all. It generated more than $4 billion in revenue for Goldcorp. It also changed both the landscape and the community.
Sister Maudilia responded politely but without urgency when I contacted her from the States and explained I wanted to write about the mine. Now that I’m here, in May 2016, she speaks little, appears almost indifferent. She just waters while I watch her. I don’t feel ignored but rather accepted into her day as much as the plants she cares for and the humid heat she can do nothing about. She clearly feels no need for niceties, no need to ask, How was your drive? and other polite but rote questions that would hold no interest for either of us. She agreed to meet and put me up in her house but compared to what concerns her––the mine––my presence is negligible.
When she finishes watering, Maudilia winds the hose and I follow her inside. She rinses red beans in a bucket and cuts potatoes. The cat tries to follow her inside but she shoos it away.
“Dinner,” she says of the beans and potatoes.
I tell her I’ve heard she has received death threats. She denies that.
Mine workers have bad-mouthed her for her opposition to the mine. They’ve yelled at her, called her on the phone and said things like, “Why are you doing this? Don’t meddle.” But death threats, no. Not yet.
Before I left Guatemala City for San Miguel, I met with a Goldcorp spokesman and a company lawyer. They assured me the company upholds the law and does not condone violence “whilst committing to the most rigorous respect for human rights.”
However, a 2010 Human Rights Watch report on the mine found that Guatemala “has proven incapable of addressing this violence. There is little effective investigation, prosecution or convictions for violent crimes or human rights abuses. In many instances, members of the State’s security forces are implicated in crime, violence and human rights violations.”
The Goldcorp spokesman and lawyer reiterated their commitment to human rights and had no further comment.
Their office took up most of the ninth floor in a towering glass skyscraper downtown. The spokesman and the lawyer took me into a large conference room with bare white walls. We sat on opposite sides at a long table. They wore matching suits and ties and gold cufflinks. Giving me their business cards, they said their names could not be used. They both hoped I’d visit some of Guatemala’s beaches and historical sites. Enjoy your stay, the lawyer said. Yes, enjoy your stay, the spokesman urged. They spoke in clipped sentences, each rehearsed, precise word anticipating a trap and fencing off all unapproved stray thoughts that might slip out of their mouths. Their forced small talk, I knew, would vanish once I finished the interview and they walked me out with smiles that did not conceal their feeling that all media are suspect. They understood as I did that dozens of studies excerpted in news outlets had found little good to say about the Marlin Mine.
A report by the World Bank’s Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman office in 2005 found a “genuine difference in understanding amongst the parties about the purpose of consultation with and disclosures to local people.” The report says documents submitted to the leaders of indigenous communities “did not at the time have sufficient information to allow for an informed view of the likely adverse impacts of the project,” casting doubt on the appropriateness of the consultation.
“The government of Guatemala has not been able to provide effective guidance about this issue and meet the expectations of civil society with respect to consultation,” the report said. Tensions increased when people who anticipated being hired by the mine were not. Many families sold their land to the mine and bought trucks thinking they would be needed for jobs that never came.
The Goldcorp spokesman said the mine at its peak employed more than 800 people, most of whom lived locally. He insisted that up to 95 percent of its workforce still comes from the local population and no more than 5 percent from outside Guatemala.
“The real problem is that the employment is not sustainable,” economist Edgar Pape, a retired economics professor at San Carlos University in Guatemala City, told me later. “People can’t replicate that kind of income once the mine closes.”
According to the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies in Guatemala City, the entire mining sector in Guatemala paid an annual average of U.S. $50 million in taxes and royalties between 2009 and 2014. This, she said, was equivalent to a tax burden between 3.9 percent and 5.7 percent. For every $100 in profits, the government received only $3.90 to $5.70 in taxes and royalties.
But Goldcorp’s spokesman said the company pays the state nearly 40 percent of the Marlin Mine’s earnings in taxes and royalties, a level that has been verified by independent studies.
“Whether the amount is sufficient is a judgment call for the political leadership to make. It should be their position to add or not to add additional tax,” the spokesman said.
In addition, Goldcorp is registered as a maquiladora. The main purpose of a maquiladora is to increase employment among low-skilled workers, train a workforce and increase exports. The program also can be used by a foreign company to access low-cost labor and favorable duty or tariff rates on imported equipment and machinery. Companies benefit from a lower income tax rate.
The Goldcorp spokesman rejected the characterization because, he said, it suggested a sweatshop.
“It is nothing more than a law that helps with exports,” he said. “It has certain tax-related incentives that make it attractive.”
The Goldcorp spokesman said the company was in regular contact with the Ministry of Energy and Mines. He said the company would pay for the closing of the mine and apply international standards and “best practices.”
A spokesman for the ministry declined to speak with me.
For years, environmentalists have accused the mine of releasing dangerous pollutants. In 2009, the Pastoral Commission for Peace and Ecology found arsenic and other chemicals in the Quivichil and Tzalá rivers downstream from the mine’s wastewater reservoir.
E-Tech International, a New Mexico non-profit that provides environmental technical support to poor communities in developing countries, reported in 2010 that “the mine wastes have a moderate to high potential to generate acid and leach contaminants into the environment.” The Goldcorp spokesman said the company applies “rigorous” compliance and international environmental standards to the mine. He said the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources monitor the mine.
“We have had no judicial process or finding of any sort of irresponsible handling of industrial wastes,” he said. “We have complied with all laws required beyond what local regulations would demand from us. We have had no rulings against us.”
However, anthropologist Regina Solis, at the University of the Valley in Guatemala City, and whom I’d interviewed earlier, told me that the real damage was less tangible but equally important.
“When the mine started the construction process, they built roads, took water from community rivers, and this process caused the Mayan community to feel displaced because their land was being altered,” Solis said. “The Western vision of the land is very different from the Mayan vision.”
Standing in Sister Maudilia’s kitchen, I offer to set the table. She points to the cabinet where she keeps the plates. Maudilia never anticipated that she would become an anti-mining activist, she tells me. She had only wanted to leave Comitancillo, the small village, where she was born about 35 miles outside of San Miguel. Not even a village really. Just a group of houses. Her father beat her mother. As a child she dreamed of liberating her mother from her father, and herself, too. She did not attend school then but worked in a pottery factory making food trays.
She never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. She did not even know those careers existed or anything else for that matter other than farming and factory work. When she was 12, a priest came to Comitancillo and offered religious education to young girls so they could become nuns. Fifteen girls participated, including Maudilia. She saw the classes as a way out of Comitancillo. Maudilia began to dream of joining the church. She did not fully understand what it would take but she wanted a better life. With the priest’s help, she entered a convent at 15. She took her vows in 2003 with the order Hermanas Guadalupanas. The order, she says, allowed her to incorporate Mayan ancestral beliefs into Christian spiritual life.
At the convent she learned about women who studied to become doctors and lawyers, but by then she had set her heart on becoming a nun. She did enroll in school, however, and earned a degree in theology. Now she is studying for a graduate degree in social anthropology in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city and a four-hour bus ride from San Miguel.
Maudilia moved to San Miguel in 1996, becoming the only nun in the small parish. In those days, San Miguel was a very quiet town, but to Maudilia it was so much bigger than Comitancillo, 35 miles away, that it was almost like a city.
About the same time she moved, a company offered farmers in San Miguel seeds and financial loans to grow broccoli. Once the broccoli was ready, the company bought it from the farmers and shipped it to other countries. The farmers did not like this arrangement. A feeling persisted that the company was not looking out for the best interests of the people. Company supervisors would tell the farms to harvest 100 pounds of broccoli by a certain date. They would inspect crates filled with broccoli and if one crate held a bad piece of broccoli, they would reject the entire crate and not pay for it. Soon, the people refused to grow broccoli, and the company left after two years.
In 2003, people started gossiping about another big company coming to town. Rumors suggested it was a cement company. That made sense because San Marcos had big rocks in its rivers. People told Maudilia that rocks were needed to make cement.
Then one afternoon a silver Toyota pickup circled the square. Over a loudspeaker, a man inside the truck invited people to a meeting. He said there would be food and drink. At the meeting, he would inform the people of a new company that would soon establish itself in town. The driver said nothing about the meaning of the colors of the mountains that were home to the people here: Red, the energy of mother earth; white, the spiritual life of their ancestors; yellow, the crops that people eat; blue for the sky and water.
The pickup drove around town for several days, building excitement. Maudilia and others asked themselves, Should we attend? What is this about? They went to see firsthand what was going on now. At the meeting, men in suits revealed their plans. Not for a cement factory but a gold and silver mine. Everything was set. Jobs would be offered. The local economy would prosper. The meeting was not a consultation but an announcement of intentions. The company already had leases. It bought individual plots and told the landowners not to mention the transactions to anyone. Plot by plot, the company took over farms on land it wanted for the mine. It was very clandestine. When opponents of the mine found out, it was too late. The land had already been sold.
Among those who attended the first meeting was Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini.
The slender streets of Huehuetenango, a Mayan settlement before the Spanish conquest and where many people of Mayan descent remain, bustled with heavy foot and car traffic the afternoon I arrived to speak to Ramazzini on my way to San Miguel, about an hour away. Dust black with diesel exhaust layered a scrim of grit on the uneven storefronts grouped like pieces of an ill-fitting puzzle. The one-way streets allowed for little maneuvering and traffic jams turned into screaming matches as drivers refused to budge for one another. I used my moments in stalled traffic to ask directions to Immaculate Conception Parish, where the bishop lived. I drove in circles, detoured from the directions I had been given by one way streets that did not allow me to turn where I’d been instructed. Without knowing how I accomplished it, I found the church by chance when I noticed a steeple rising behind a closed metal gate.
The gate opened to a parking lot and a garage. Behind the garage stood the church and a mechanic took us to it. Inside, the mechanic pointed to a door that led into a large room with open windows. Shadows extended over the tile floor, and breezes removed the afternoon heat.
A sofa and two chairs took up one corner. The spacious room seemed vast compared to the constriction of the streets outside and I felt as if I had to walk a long way just to reach one of the chairs and sit.
Bishop Ramazzini walked in a short time later, a stout man wearing a white gown. His sandals flapped against the tiles and he paused to wipe his glasses. He had been a priest in San Miguel for 23 years before he was named bishop in 2012. He presided over 32 parishes in western Guatemala that include San Miguel and Sipacapa.
Sitting near me, he steepled his fingers beneath his chin and closed his eyes for a moment as he contemplated my questions about the Marlin Mine. He remembered the first days of the Goldcorp mine well, the mystery of it. The people of San Miguel didn’t know anything about the mine when its representatives first came to town in the late 1990s. There had been rumors before then, sightings of outsiders, but nothing concrete. Ramazzini helped organize community meetings with mine representatives to learn their plans. There would be jobs for many people, the representatives said, and there were. More than a thousand at first, Ramazzini said. To function, the mine needed to blast tunnels, level trees and build roads. The community became divided between those who opposed the mine and those employed by it. You had men working in the mine and their in-laws disapproving of it. Ramazzini told mine representatives several times that the mine would produce social conflict and benefit only a few, but they were concerned with the extraction of gold and nothing else.
The jobs carried a price. Streams filled with chemicals, including arsenic. Entire mountains were leveled. Houses developed cracks from dynamite explosions. After the initial buildup, the company laid people off.
As a young priest, Ramazzini had realized he did not know Guatemala. He had spent his childhood in Guatemala City, not the countryside. His first three years in San Miguel taught him what it was like to be poor. He saw malnourished children in homes with dirt floors and no bathrooms. Women working 12-15 hour days in farm fields, earning less than a $1 a day. They had no money to send their children to school. He met landowners who hired these women but who disliked them because they were descended from Mayan Indians rather than Spaniards.
Ramazzini finds little has changed. The needs of the people are the same now as they were then. Only the population is bigger.
Sitting across from Maudilia in her kitchen, my plate of potatoes and beans steaming, I tell her what Ramazzini said. Like him, she tells me, she saw the mine as a threat. She watched engineers and surveyors converge on San Miguel with their big cars and phones and promises of wealth. People who believed those promises applied for jobs. Some were turned away and became envious of those who were hired, many of them farmers who had sold their land to Goldcorp. When the layoffs began after the startup phase, the unemployed left town to find work elsewhere. Families who for generations had lived and worked in San Miguel, gone.
In 2008, a group of friends told Maudilia to join them in a protest against the Marlin Mine. They sat in a line and prevented bulldozers from leaving the mine to dig more land. It was a temporary success. Eventually the mine found ways to move around the women. The action left Maudilia inspired.
At one protest, demonstrators burned mining equipment, infuriating Maudilia. The action only benefited the mine, she told them. Now the mine people could say, “They attacked us. We can use force.”
The last significant protest occurred in 2011. A protester was doused in gasoline and set alight by hooded men who identified themselves as mine supporters. The protester survived but suffered severe burns and left San Miguel.
Perhaps the horror of this act contributed to the decrease in protests in the years that followed, Maudilia muses. Perhaps because the mine had been in San Miguel for nearly 10 years, people had reached a point of apathy. It had become part of their life, like a new neighbor who after a number of years is no longer new and liked by some but not by others.
The mine, Maudilia has concluded, is an assassin. It kills community and family bonds. It kills the spirit.
Maudilia offers me a bedroom by the front door. I stretch out and stare through the dark at the ceiling. I am struck by Maudilia’s phrase, mine people. Like another life form, I think, before falling to sleep.
In the morning, I wake up and look out the window at foggy layers of mist. I dress and wander downtown. Vendors move through the fog erecting white tents. Tables beneath the tents display fruit, meat, chicken, clothes, shoes, and tools, and men hurry past me and unload tent poles from rusted pickups, shouting, Aqui! Aqui! to coworkers, pointing to where the poles should go. The day brightens, easing into itself with a rising humidity that accompanies the calls of roosters. Families converge downtown before the tents have been fully raised, fingering what has been displayed. I overhear conversations about the weather, politics and the mine:
Ernestino Garcia, 28, fruit vendor: I have seen the benefit of the mine myself because some of my family work there. The mine is fine. I’ve not seen any damage.
Maura Diaz, 42, butcher: We’ve lived here all our life. We’ve heard of people being badly affected by the mine but we have no complaints because we don’t know anyone who works there. We are business people. Whatever brings in money is good.
Esperanza de Leon, 43, mother of two: I live three miles from the mine. My house has been cracked by tremors for more than 10 years. Four and 5 in the morning and 5 at night I hear explosions. Some engineer came by last year and said the damages were not the fault of the mine. He had an engineer leave a machine in my house for 15 days to measure the explosions and to see if the explosions caused any damage. An engineer named Nelson. I thought he was an American. He hooked up the machine to a wall socket. It was about the size of a small TV. The machine didn’t make a sound. It had some lights. It didn’t measure anything. It stayed quiet. The lights didn’t blink. The man came back two weeks later. He looked at it and said the machine shows nothing. You don’t have a problem. The thing is, I don’t believe the machine. I can see new cracks and they are growing. I am frightened something might happen when my children are sleeping. I have been told the tremors are due to the explosions. I feel the earth move.
Oralia Velasquez, 26, owner of Tienda Alexis, a convenience store: Before the mine, San Marcos was a lost and forgotten town. Every business has picked up now. I have a brother-in-law working in the mine. My husband tried but couldn’t. He applied for a security job but they did not hire him. I hope the mine stays and I pray to God that the mine hires my husband so we have a chance at a better life. Thanks to the mine, we have new roads and a new bridge. Only a few have not seen its benefit. In many small towns we have cobble streets. They don’t want to change to paved roads. They are simple people.
Ruben Bautista Domingo, 35, unemployed truck driver: I live less than a mile from the mine. Around July 2015 I noticed two big cracks in my ceiling that ran down the wall to the floor. Just two cracks, nothing else. I have been hearing explosions, feeling tremors. It always happens at 5 p.m. and has been going on for months. Nothing like this has happened before. I am fearful because I don’t know to what extent my house has been damaged. Is it unsafe? I don’t know. Nobody from the mine has spoken to us.
I walk out of the bazaar to the outskirts of town where the white building of a hospital funded by Goldcorp sprawls before me, shined in sunlight. A few families linger in the empty parking lot.
In 2012, Goldcorp provided $2.8 million toward the building and supplying of the health facility, which the company called a short-term clinic, one of more than 100 community projects, including computer labs, schools, teacher training, recreation halls, sports fields, roads, water and sewage systems, that Goldcorp had funded. The Ministry of Health took over the facility in 2014 but had not set aside enough money to operate it at full capacity. As a consequence, the facility was all but empty.
“When children are sick they have to go to another clinic,” Pedro Cinto, 40, a father of four, tells me. He brought his children for flu shots but the hospital has no syringes.
“They dispense advice here but not medicine,” he says.
I walk inside. The white tile floor gleams. A man wipes the walls with a sponge. Near him a woman in a blue uniform explains birth control to a man and woman. She offers them a pamphlet with information. The hospital does not have birth control pills, condoms, or anything else, she explains. The man asks if his wife can have an operation to prevent future pregnancies. “Yes,” the woman says, “but not here.”
I follow the couple outside.
The man says his wife does not want any more children. They have three already. He would like more but his wife says no. What can a man do? He thinks the hospital is fine for birth control information. It is elegant but empty inside. Just some secretaries and a policeman guarding the front door and this woman who gave them the pamphlet. The name of the hospital is the Center for Permanent Attention, the man tells me, but he calls it the center for permanent referral. He laughs. For colds, diarrhea and other problems, he takes his children to another hospital more than two hours away. He supposes he and his wife will drive there for birth control.
From the hospital, I return to Sister Maudilia’s house. Her assistant, Magdelina, sweeps the kitchen floor. I offer her some mangos I bought in the bazaar. She puts them on the table. Maudilia is out running errands, she says.
As we share a mango, I tell Magdalena some of the comments I heard about the mine. It surprises her that some people had spoken critically. The mine has spies all over San Miguel. Infiltrators, Magdalena calls them. If they hear someone complaining, they will tell on that person. So with strangers, the people say they like the mine. The people here are very cautious. They took a chance talking to me.
I think her comments a little over the top, even paranoid. I keep my thoughts to myself but she suspects my doubt.
“At one time, I had been a stranger like you,” she says.
Magdalena moved to San Miguel from Guatemala City in 2008 as part of an indigenous women’s group the church had organized to attract more indigenous people to the Catholic faith. In those days, Magdalena would buy peaches and avocados bigger than her hands. These days, peaches and avocados are half that size and have no flavor because the water is polluted, she says. White foam floats on the streams. When it rains, the white stuff carries into town. One time, cattle drank water as the white stuff sat like clouds on top and the cattle died. Before the mine came, the mountains had been a holy place for Mayan people. They held religious ceremonies among the peaks, praying for good crops and health. Now the land has been poisoned and the mountains no longer hear their prayers.
We finish our mangos and as I wipe the table, Magdalena offers to take me into the mountains to see the mine. Driving out of town, we follow a twisting road of broken pavement, passing small houses that lean into the mountain as if seeking a foothold, and dogs watch the car from beneath bowed porches where children sit by outdoor sinks and piles of pots and pans. A few trees grow at a slant and cast a thin shadow across the road. Fallen boulders stand unevenly in the scrub.
As we round a curve, I notice three women outside a small house. We stop and I approach them to ask about the mine. Two of the women refuse to speak to me, but one, Maria Belaskez, agrees. She takes me to a tree away from her friends.
“They work in the mine,” she says, waving a hand as if brushing at flies. She does not care what they think. Let them turn their backs on her and hide in the house. She will talk to whom she chooses. Her concerns center on her grown sons and not on what people think of her talking to an American about the mine. Her sons have teaching degrees but San Miguel has few jobs for teachers. They applied for jobs at the mine, as she and her husband have, but no one has offered them work.
The family owns a small field where they grow corn. After the harvest, they travel by foot to the coast to work the coffee fields, but corn and coffee pay very little. Less than $5 for every 100 pounds. On a good day, Maria can pick 100 pounds of both corn and coffee in two hours. She needs to earn more than that.
“How is it in Guatemala City?” she asks Magdalena. “Any jobs?”
Before Magdalena answers, Maria turns to me.
“How about the United States? Do you know if there would be jobs for my children?”
“How would you get there?”
“If I can walk to the coast for coffee, I can walk to the United States,” she insists.
Magdalena and I drive farther into the mountains until we reach a plateau overlooking a valley. We stop and walk to the edge. In the hazy heat, I see dump trucks and backhoes on plowed ground dried by the sun to a white powder. Sunlight blinks off tin-roofed shacks, and parked 18-wheelers stand idling amid hills of rubble beside a conveyor, the noise of grinding gears rising up to us in faint groans.
Not far from us, two men, one much older than the other, sit outside a house. The younger of the two men offers Magdalena a chair and introduces himself. Cecilio Gonzalez. The older man, Luis Mejia, is his grandfather.
“We were looking at the mine,” I say.
“Ah, yes, the mine,” Cecilio says.
Luis remains quiet.
Some of his cousins, Cecilio continues, work in the mine. Another cousin plants trees for the Ministry of the Environment. That cousin opposes the mine. Preserving nature, making a profit, how do you choose?
“Have you been to the hospital?” Cecilio asks.
“Yes,” I tell him.
“It has no equipment,” he says.
Luis does not stir. He turns to the road, his profile a landscape of shaded wrinkles and lines. He speaks but his gaze remains focused elsewhere. He wonders about the long-term effect of the mine. What will be left behind? No one knows. Whatever the problems, the people will have to deal with them. The mine changed everything. Mountains have been destroyed. What has happened to the soil? Has it been poisoned? Luis drinks the water and has not become ill. However, he knows others who have. He assumes tunnels have hollowed the ground beneath the mountains and that one day everything will collapse. The water will get more polluted or dry up. The mine people insist there will be no damage when they leave, but they have already damaged the land. What if they damage it more?
Miners in orange suits and white helmets trudge along the road as Magdalena and I continue driving, and she raises a hand in greeting, but the miners ignore her. A mud-brick house at the top of a hill looms before us. A woman stands in the door. Wind tugs at her pink blouse, and her black hair blows about her face. She waves to us and we stop.
“You have a flat tire,” she shouts. I get out and look. She’s right. The front left tire is almost out of air. I hadn’t noticed on the bumpy ride. The woman gives me a hand pump and I fill the tire. When I finish, she offers us water and tea and we sit on her porch overlooking the road and she goes back into her house and returns with a tray of crackers and introduces herself. Her name is Gregoria Cristina Perez. I tell her why I am in San Miguel.
“I have much to say about the mine.”
To begin with, she says, it was unbelievable how fast the mine company bought up land. The first people to sell their property received much less than those who waited and negotiated. Gregoria’s parents owned two parcels near the mine and Gregoria owned one herself. The mine people told them they worked for a big Canadian company called Goldcorp that dug for gold and silver. The company needed her land. You need to sell it to us. Her parents went to the mayor of San Miguel. What is this project? they asked. Who is this company that wants to buy our land? The mayor told them not to worry. Nothing will happen. The company specializes in orchids not minerals.
That didn’t make sense to Gregoria’s parents. The mine people said nothing about orchids. They pressed for answers. The mayor, unused to the pressure of constituents who did not accept his word, broke down and told them the truth. You should thank God for this blessing, he said. Make the most of this opportunity and sell. With the money, you can buy trucks, animals and more land. Her parents sold their land. When will we have an opportunity like this again? they asked Gregoria.
Gregoria didn’t care. Sell, why not? The mine had not approached Gregoria and she had no intention of selling her land if it did. Then, in 2004, the mine people asked to install posts for electrical lines on her property. Your neighbors had allowed posts on their land. Nothing was damaged. The wood posts will blend with the trees.
Neighbors, however, told Gregoria a different story. They told her that the mine company had cut down trees and dug up their land.Those areas were no longer good for planting and grazing.
No, Gregoria told the mine representatives, you cannot put the posts on my land.
When she came home from the market the next week, Gregoria saw men installing a half-dozen posts. She told them to leave. She had not agreed to this. The supervisor stopped the work and said he would speak to his office. He asked for her phone number. Later that day Gregoria received a call from a mine representative.
Look, you gave us permission, he told her. Don’t be a problem. He wanted her to sign a contract authorizing the use of her land. She refused. She complained to the mayor. The mine company has a waiver, the mayor told her. They can come on your land whether you allow them or not.
Gregoria returned home and, with her son’s help, cut down the posts. The company filed a complaint and the police came to arrest her. Her neighbors surrounded her house to prevent the police from entering and they left. The mine did not pursue the matter. Gregoria, however, has little to celebrate. The mine has polluted the land and water and her land is worthless now. Nothing is any good. What did she achieve? There is no happy ending.
Maudilia sits in the kitchen stringing Mayan prayer beads when Magdalena and I return. Maudilia tells me our conversation from the previous night left her in a reflective mood. She thinks about the mine and the trouble that followed it, how for years there seemed to be a protest every other day. The protests could be very exciting. The energy fed on itself and mushroomed into shouts and Mayan chants.
Sometimes the protests could get out of hand. You had to be very careful, especially when the mine sent people in to disrupt and provoke. You needed to know how to respond. To stand firm without getting hurt by mine supporters. The supporters don’t see the poison in the soil. Please respect the land, Maudilia tells them, but they walk away.
This evening, I go out for dinner. On one darkened street, I see a hotel and assume it will have a restaurant. The gray block building does not look particularly inviting, however, and even less so when I enter the dim lobby.
“Who stays here?”
“Mostly police and the military to protect the mine,” a bored desk clerk tells me.
He points me to the restaurant off to one side. I sit at a table and a waitress watches me but does not move until I call her over. About the same time, two women in platform shoes and short skirts and tight T-shirts that expose their stomachs walk in and take a table near mine. They check their cell phones.
“Did you pay the taxi?” one of them asks.
“I put it on my bill here. I have an account.”
She puts her phone on the table.
I hear the sound of a man moaning and a woman’s voice calling him baby, baby, baby. The moaning gets louder and the two women laugh until the moaning stops.
“Who was that?”
“The policeman from last night.”
“In your room here?”
They laugh again. The waitress approaches them.
“The same as always,” the woman with the phone says. “Put it on my account.”
As I am eating chicken and rice, a 24-year-old man named Jaime Perez Lopez gets ready for bed on the final night of his life. He starts work in the mine at 4 in the morning. He likes his job and is a hard worker. He works 12- to 24-hours a day, depending on what has to be done. He graduated from high school with a degree in public accounting. He had been unable to find work until the mine opened. After work, he helps his family around the house. A healthy, nice young man, his aunt will say of him.
His drive to work will take him past Juan’s Fabric Repair Shop, Velasquez Tailor, Tigo Mobile Phones, Cafeteria Maya and other closed shops and restaurants, and the local parish. Father Eric Gruloos will be asleep. Father Eric has lived in San Miguel for 31 years. Only 15 priests when he came here. Now 38. Time. Father Eric can’t fathom how fast it moves. He is a tall, lean man. He wears glasses. He has a full head of gray hair that he runs a hand through as he considers the passage of years.
Before becoming a priest, he had thought about a nursing career. He didn’t have a clear idea, really, of what he wanted to do but he wanted to help people. In the end, he decided to become a priest. For the free education and the inspiration of being among a group of men who had a calling to help others. He does not think about his youth much now, the whys and wherefores that determined his life.
These days, he feels motivated by the love of God. People who are like he was as a young man, people who don’t have a clue of the spirit, can fall into a trap, into the hands of bad people, manipulative forces. They don’t understand the power that people like that have over a mind that holds nothing dear other than surviving day to day. The presence of the mine makes this very clear.
In the early days of the mine, rumors spread like birdsong rising out of trees. A mine is coming, people said. A lot didn’t believe it, including Father Eric. Why would anyone build a mine here? he wondered.
Of course, the rumors were true. The mine people did come. San Miguel had always been poor. Then just like that, some people in the community were hired and had money. With this money came bars and prostitution. Men with money left their families for mistresses. Here people who had lived together through Guatemala’s civil war engaged in a second civil war. A war of neighbors with money against neighbors not hired by the mine and who had no money. Once the mine began operating, when the shafts had been dug, buildings erected, trees cut down, many of the neighbors with this new money lost their jobs. They were cast aside and became poor once more. Families who had lived here for generations had nothing and left San Miguel.
The land and the water has also suffered. People wcomplain that scales and sores cover their bodies after they bathe in the rivers. Farmers fear the water they use to irrigate their land. The mine company has its own place to grow vegetables and cattle to show, it says, that the water is safe, but the people believe otherwise.
One day a teacher took a photo of a child with skin problems and showed the picture one Sunday after Mass. Mine supporters accused the teacher of manufacturing the photo. Too many people, Father Eric has concluded, don’t want to know the truth.
The mine people have accused Father Eric of riling opposition. He insists he has done no such thing. He attends protests as an observer only. He speaks out only on his local radio program, “Arch Angel.” He poses questions, asks his listeners to think for themselves. If a river became polluted after the mine began operations, a river that had never known pollution, what does that mean?
As a young priest, Father Eric worked in Peru for a year. He recalls s a river near where he lived, about 50 to 65 feet wide. Clear water but farmers would not use even one liter for irrigation because of an old mine nearby that had been closed for more than 100 years. At one time, runoff from the mine poured into the river. It remained polluted decades later. No one fished in it. Father Eric never saw animals near it.
The Book of Genesis reminds Father Eric that man manages the land but does not own it. The land is on loan for the length of one’s lifetime. The earth is for everyone. Or had been.
Hours after Jaime drove by the church, Father Eric wakes up and turns on the radio. A mine tunnel collapsed. One man killed. He wonders if there might be more fatalities. What will the mine people say about this? Their supporters? It doesn’t matter. They will use this tragedy to their advantage. Trust no longer exists.
Maudilia tells me about the mine accident in the morning. A friend called and told her the father of the dead man was already negotiating with the company for a financial settlement. The mine has all this money to buy people, even grieving parents, Maudilia says. The family will get money and the problem will go away. According to her friend, the dead man’s last name is Perez. A relative works in the mayor’s office.
The yellow, rectangular building of City Hall stands not far from downtown. The closed doors of several offices face the street. The one open door exposes a foyer with folding chairs set in four rows before a desk. A woman sits behind it. I am reminded of a classroom.
I ask the woman about the mine accident and the Perez family. I expect to be turned away. Instead, she leads me into an office and introduces me to Facundo Diaz, a city council member.
“The father of the man who died in the mine used to work here as head of the municipal police,” Diaz tells me. “He got laid off. This was some time ago. My understanding is that he was called to the mine to discuss the death of his son, Jaime. The people who work in the mine have been told to leave the area. They don’t want anyone near the accident. The mine people are scared. Their security people fear a violent reaction to Jaime’s death. Many people oppose the mine.”
Diaz gives me directions to the Perez family home. Jaime’s uncle makes caskets. The family lives beside the uncle’s shop.
“My nephew works in the mine,” Diaz says. “I am talking to you in the hope improvements will be made and he will be safe.”
I find the casket shop, Vente de Caje Mortuary, at the end of a dirt alley.
A teenage girl stands on a stairway to an apartment above the mortuary. Off to one side another building shelters a pile of metal barrels, a sink, coils of wire, and piles of broken cinder blocks. The girl looks at me with the expression of someone who just woke up and can’t make sense of the morning. I ask her about Jaime.
“I am his sister, Fabida,” the girl says.
Her parents left for the mine, she tells me. They learned what happened at six this morning when Fabida’s father got a call from a supervisor. Her brother was alone in a mine tunnel. The tunnel caved in. Fabida’s parents were gone when she woke up. Her aunt Albertine told her about Jaime.
A woman approaches us from the house near the pile of cinder blocks. Aunt Albertine. She shows me a photo of Jaime. His dark hair is combed to one side. He wears a blue shirt. His unblemished face stares at the camera without expression.
Albertine does not know the kind of work Jaime did in the mine. When he got home, she never would have known he had worked such long hours. He behaved as if he had done nothing all day. He turned his salary over to his father. His father drives a truck and makes little money. Jaime liked to help around the house.
“He had no vices,” Albertine says.
Small groups of people converge on the mortuary to pay their respects, including the family’s pastor, Nixon Domingo with the Peniel Evangelical Church. Pastor Nixon just returned from the mine. Jaime’s parents are still there, he says. The mine people told them that they were removing dirt from a collapsed shaft to recover the body. They hoped to reach the body by nightfall. Of course it is all very sad, Pastor Nixon says. Everything in life has a positive and negative side, including the mine. As long as the mine people abide by the law, he has no problem with them. He has his opinions, of course. It has created greed and jealousy. Even now with this family, people are saying how rich they will be when the mine pays them off. It is not good. Each person knows what they feel inside. They must keep it inside and not show it. For the good of everyone, people must learn to get along and keep their opinions to themselves.
I leave the mortuary for the mine in the hope I’ll find Jaime’s family. The guards make it clear, however, that I cannot enter. I ask a woman standing nearby what she knows about the accident. Her son stands beside her. He pulls against her hand as he balances on rocks, throwing pebbles into a stream.
“I don’t know anything,” the woman tells me.
The boy pipes up and tells me they are related to the dead man. The woman tells him to shut up. They are cousins of the dead man’s father, she explains after some hesitation. She won’t say anything more. Her husband works at the mine. She is here to pick him up. She does not want to jeopardize his position. He works with the public relations department. He has been with the mine for 10 years. No company or government has given more jobs to so many people as this mine has, she says. The people who oppose the mine get money from communist groups in the U.S. and Europe.
“How do you know that?”
She refuses to say more. She looks at the boy and places a finger to his lips.
A woman wearing a wide, floppy hat herds a dozen goats along a path on a hillside near where I parked. She overheard me speaking to the woman and waves me over. I climb the path. Facing her, I see she has only one eye. We cross a narrow bridge above the stream the woman, Deodora Hernandez, calls “the cyanide waters,” poisoned, she claims, by the mine. She does not know anything about the death of Jaime Perez. She heard that a tunnel collapsed. Some people got out but not Jaime.
“I have been through a lot,” Deodora tells me.
She has lost an eye and much of her memory. The list goes on. These problems happened, she says, because she stood up to the mine people. They used some of her farmland without her permission. They made up some legal agreement to make it appear that part of her land belonged to a neighbor. Not true. Deodora didn’t have her deeds in order so to some extent she blames herself for her inability to prove them wrong. Still, she was not going to give them her land. She chained herself to her fence to prevent work crews from entering her property. You are not going to fool me and take my land, she told them.
“God forgive me, but these dirty people have no right to be here,” she says in a voice pitched high with indignation. “God forgive me for talking about them in this hateful way.”
The mine people told Deodora that the municipality could force her to sell her land. The government will pressure you, they said. The company is huge and powerful and you are not. Her neighbors had agreed to sell their land. However, to excavate the area, the mine company needed Deodora’s land, too. It would not buy her neighbor’s property unless she agreed to sell. She refused. She was born here and did not want to live anywhere else. Her neighbors turned on her, vandalized her property.
You think you are better than us, they said.
In 2010, she attended a community council meeting and explained why she declined to give up her land. You have been my neighbors my whole life, she said. Why do you enter my land and tear up my crops? You treat me like an enemy. You are not people of the mine. You are people of these mountains and streams as I am.
A council member became so enraged by her refusal to sell that he struck the side of her head with the back of a machete blade. No one attempted to stop him. She picked herself up off the floor and stumbled outside, bleeding. The council member did not follow. She complained to the police, but they said she exaggerated. He did not want to kill you, the police chief told her. I’m sure he only pushed you and you fell.
The next evening, two men came to her house. They wore hoodies and she could not see their faces. They wanted to come inside and sell her coffee. She did not recognize their voices and turned them down. They told her it was late and asked if they could spend the night in her barn. She told them no and shut the door. About an hour later, she stepped outside to bring in laundry suspended from a line. She did not hear the gunshot. She remembers falling and covering her face. Someone had shot her in her right eye. Her husband carried her to their pickup and rushed her to the hospital in San Miguel but it was not open. He then drove to San Marcos, about two hours away. She had lost consciousness by the time they reached the hospital there. At first, the doctors wanted nothing to do with her. She is going to die, they told her husband. Let’s not waste time on her. He insisted they help her. She remained in the hospital for a week before he took her home.
Deodora tells me she has cried a lifetime. She has her land but the mine has her right eye.
This evening, I reach Gerardo Perez, the father of Jaime, by phone. He tells me he is very upset with the mine. He and his wife had asked to see the body of their son. However, the mine people took the body to a morgue in San Marcos without letting them see it. It was such an ordeal. All they had wanted was to identify the body.
They drove to San Marcos. Gerardo did not recognize Jaime. Their son had been crushed but not dismembered. The coroner had removed a dental bridge to make the identification.
Gerardo’s lawyer advised him to accept whatever the mine people offered him. They are very powerful, the lawyer said. They can buy the authorities. They can leave you with nothing. Gerardo agreed to the company’s offer of $27,000 in damages and liabilities.
“I better receive this money or I could be left without anything,” Gerardo says. “What do you think? Should I have asked for more?”
“I can’t answer that,” I say.
“Of course you understand,” Gerardo says, “that all the money in the world is not going to give me back my son.”
In the morning, I accompany Sister Maudilia on a two-hour drive to a school in the mountains where she teaches traditional Mayan beliefs to unemployed teenagers. She wants young people to understand why she opposes the mine. She wants them to fall in love with the earth again and their own roots and not just follow European beliefs that have nothing to do with Mayan culture.
The road takes us through an empty village. We stop so Maudilia can call the school for directions. I peer through the windows of vacant buildings that appear to have been recently constructed. No desks or chairs or curtains, nothing to suggest that at one time people filled these rooms. Trucks lumber past spewing dust and rocks. When the air clears, the vague echo of their engines drift back to me.
Maudilia and I reach the school about an hour later. It stands nestled on a hill surrounded by scrub brush and a few trees in rocky, dry soil. Two dozen teenagers in blue uniforms mill about our car. Maudilia hugs and squeezes their hands before she leads them inside to a classroom and asks them to sit in a circle.
“We come here with cars and phones and our desire for money and more things,” she says. “We listen to foreign music but don’t know what it means. Outsiders use our clothes for fashion but they don’t know what the Mayan designs on our clothes mean. We need to tell them. We need to learn to dance to the sun again, to the sky and the rhythms of nature.”
Maudilia’s gaze wanders over the students. She understands they come from poor families. She knows they tend to feel shame for being Mayan, ashamed of their language that is no longer the national language, ashamed of their poverty. They want to be Westerners. Their humiliation turns into ignorance. If they are not aware of who they are then anyone can convince them of anything. If they appreciate their heritage, a people rich in culture and tradition, the mine people and anyone else will not be able to make them feel inferior. They will stand up for the land and their history and themselves. They will understand that their past does not have to be past. Neither does their pride.
Goldcorp shut down the mine in May 2017 because it was no longer producing enough gold and silver to be profitable. The closing of the mine has created a whole new set of concerns. The water that might discharge from an abandoned mine is commonly acidic and may contain high concentrations of dissolved minerals and metals. This water can pollute rivers and streams. Guatemala law does not regulate the process for closing a mine, including the remediation of the environment.