First in a three part series.
Luis Fernando Garcia sits down on the stack of cinder blocks, rests his elbows on his knees and draws in a slow, shallow breath. The 19-year-old tells me it has been nearly a year since he was shot during a protest on a public road outside Escobal, a silver mine owned by Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources, in what he alleges to be an act of intimidation. While doctors have tried their best to reconstruct his nasal passages, Garcia says he still struggles to fill his lungs.
“The first one got me here,” Garcia says, pointing to his collapsed nose. “After that, I felt the skin on my face fall down. Then I was hit again, in the back.” He lifts his shirt and twists his body to reveal the wound, a round scar the size of a nickel.
Garcia alleges that on April 27, 2013 he was shot with live ammunition, not rubber bullets as Tahoe has maintained. Five other men sustained injuries that day, including Garcia’s cousin Erick Castillo and his uncle Artemio Castillo. The men were taken to a nearby hospital, but Garcia’s injuries were severe enough that he was transferred to Guatemala City, two hours away, where he underwent multiple surgeries.
He pulls up his shirt, tilts his head to the side, and tells me to take his photo. “That way Canadians can see for themselves what is happening here.”
For the past year, Garcia’s case has been languishing in a Guatemalan court.The man accused of giving the order to shoot the protesters is Alberto Rotondo, a security advisor for Minera San Rafael, the Guatemalan subsidiary company owned by Tahoe that operates the Escobal mine. Redondo was detained three days later at Guatemala’s international airport, charged with assault and obstruction of justice. But the case has been postponed more than once, and Garcia sees no end in sight.
Last Wednesday, though, Garcia’s story was given new life, thanks to a groundbreaking lawsuit submitted to BC’s Supreme Court by the Canadian Centre for International Justice. At its heart is the thorny issue of whether a Canadian company can possibly be held liable for actions taken by security guards working on behalf of a subsidiary company operating overseas. In response to the lawsuit filed June 18, Ira Gostin, Vice President of Investor Relations, told the Vancouver Observer that Tahoe “has reviewed the Notice of Civil Claim and believes it to be without merit and replete with factual errors,” and that the company “is evaluating its legal options.”
The lawsuit is the first of its kind in our province, and no one can predict where it will lead. But the very fact that Garcia’s story will be heard in a Vancouver courtroom is significant – because it means the struggles of the region’s anti-mining activists are finally starting to reach their intended audience: the Canadian people.
Canadians who contribute to the Canada Pension Plan are shareholders of the company that Garcia is accusing. Canadian taxpayers collectively own 1,448,000 shares in Tahoe Resources – holdings currently worth roughly $35 million.
Tahoe is committed to “acting responsibly to build a very high quality mine,” according to Kevin McArthur, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Director and Vice Chair. The former CEO of Goldcorp, McArthur has more than 30 years of experience in the mining industry, and believes this mine in Guatemala “meets all of the same standards of any mine we have built in North America.”
Escobal is a success story, according to Gostin. The mine pays royalties above and beyond what Guatemalan law requires – 5% instead of the standard 1% – and provides jobs for 865 employees, 93% of whom are Guatemalans, Gostin explains. He also points to the 150 new businesses that he says have opened in San Rafael thanks to the attendant prosperity.