She fought a silver mine to save her family’s land. It cost this teen activist her life.

Topacio Reynoso.jpg (5169 bytes)Mataquescuintla, Guatemala — Topacio Reynoso was so precocious her mother sometimes joked she was an extraterrestrial. A farmer’s daughter from a remote village in Guatemala reachable by a rugged mountain pass, she was playing perfect Metallica riffs on the guitar by age 12. She won beauty contests, filled notebooks with pages of heady poetry and moved through life with a fearlessness that made her parents proud — if also nervous. At 14, she devoted herself to opposing construction of a large silver mine planned for a town nearby.

    Topacio formed her own anti-mining youth group, wrote protest songs and toured the country talking about the environmental risks she believed the mine posed to her community.

The teenager’s efforts were not popular with everyone. Although some in the community worried chemicals used at the mine might contaminate nearby rivers, threatening the corn and coffee fields that have long been the region’s lifeblood, others said it would bring needed jobs and tax revenue. The community was split and violence was coming.

Topacio’s father, Alex, knew that speaking out could put the family in peril. Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists, with at least 120 killed in 2016 alone, according to the nonprofit Global Witness.

But Topacio convinced him that it wasn’t a choice but an obligation to oppose the mine. His father had left him land that was uncontaminated; it was up to him to pass on clean land to his children. So, he joined his daughter in the fight.

Controversy came to her community in 2010 when a Canadian mining company, Tahoe Resources, bought the El Escobal silver deposit for more than half- a-billion dollars. Located on about 250 acres of former farmland in a small town called San Rafael las Flores, just a few miles from Mataquescuintla, El Escobal had never been mined but was believed to contain one of the world’s largest caches of silver, along with deposits of gold, lead and zinc.

As Tahoe sought a license from the Guatemalan government that would allow it to start pulling ore from the earth, some locals fought back. They complained the environmental impact report commissioned by Tahoe didn’t adequately assess all the risks to the region, and that the company hadn’t properly consulted with community members.

It was 2012 when Topacio went to her first protest — a demonstration outside the mine entrance organized by the local Catholic diocese. It transformed her, said her mother, Irma Pacheco. Topacio said the people she met were deeply principled.

Soon, Topacio had persuaded her parents to join “the resistance,” as locals called the anti-mining effort. Although the idea made her father nervous, he was well suited to bucking the local establishment. Growing up, he had often fought off bullies unnerved by his long hair and taste for black clothes and heavy metal music that carried a strong political message.

Ahead of a 2012 referendum in Mataquescuintla that asked locals whether they supported the mine, Topacio and her father traversed the countryside on behalf of the “no” campaign. They were successful: More than 98 percent of voters said they opposed it. Tahoe executives argued that the votes were nonbinding, and the mining project had supporters in high places.

In April 2013, Minera San Rafael, Tahoe’s Guatemalan subsidiary, was granted a 25-year exploitation license. Mining could officially begin. In the nearby communities, it was the most violent spring many had experienced since the bloody civil war.

In May, Guatemala’s then-president, Otto Perez Molina, moved to quell the instability that mine officials complained was disrupting their business. Citing the threat of terrorism and criminal groups, Perez declared a “state of siege” in the communities near the mine, deploying thousands of troops and temporarily suspending constitutional rights in the region. Several prominent anti-mining activists were arrested.

Topacio’s parents were growing wary of the threat of worsening violence, but she pressed them to keep fighting. They looked on in awe when she approached the Mataquescuintla mayor to ask for money for her youth group, and he agreed.

Topacio told her family she felt more comfortable when they were together in public. “If we’re attacked,” she said, “we’ll die together.” On April 13, 2014, Topacio performed with her marimba band at a local festival. Her mother, who was pregnant at the time, went home because she wasn’t feeling well. A little after 9:30 p.m., the teenage girl and her father started walking to their car to head home. Unknown gunmen sprang from behind and opened fire. A few hours later, Topacio was dead.

Her father slipped into a coma that lasted several days, but he eventually regained consciousness. The next year, after leaving an event celebrating the anniversary of his town’s anti-mine referendum, he was attacked again, this time with a carload of three other activists. They all survived.

Why they were targeted remains a mystery. Police investiga-tions into both attacks have yielded nothing. Impunity for killings is normal in Guatemala, where the justice system has been crippled by a lack of resources and corruption. At the national level, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has led important efforts against graft, including a 2015 investigation that led to the resignation and jailing of Perez, the president who had ordered troops to the communities around the mine.

Topacio’s parents believe the shooting was connected to their activism, but they acknowledge that in a violent country such as Guatemala, it could have been something else — a grudge, a case of mistaken identity, or just an echo of Guatemala’s violent past.

Topacio was buried in a colorful hilltop graveyard, alongside her grandparents. Her legacy continues to grow. There’s a mural of one of her drawings on a wall downtown that shows a young woman with wings and the earth splitting open, spilling butterflies.

Operations at the mine were halted in 2017. In July, the company’s license was temporarily suspended after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that the company should have consulted with the indigenous Xinca people. Then a group of protesters armed with stones and machetes set up a roadblock on the main highway into town, preventing mining vehicles from passing. The suspension has delivered a massive financial hit to Tahoe, which listed no silver output and a loss of $8.4 million in the third quarter of 2017. Tahoe Vice President Hofmeister said the company hopes it can comply with the necessary legal requirements and resume production.

– edited from an article by Kate Linthicum in the Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2018
PeaceMeal, March/April 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

A child survivor’s tale of massacre in Guatemala

When Oscar Ramirez was just three years old, his piercing green eyes helped save him from death. A soldier, who was in the military unit that wiped out his family and slaughtered his entire Guatemalan village, spared the child and raised him as his own. When Oscar learned the truth about his past in 2011, he was already more than 30 years old.

Oscar survived the murders in December 1982 of his mother, his five sisters, two brothers and 200 other inhabitants of Dos Erres, a hamlet in the Guatemalan jungle. His family members were among the more than 200,000 people killed or “disappeared” in Guatemala’s brutal civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996.

Now, a documentary executive-produced by Steven Spielberg tells his story more than three decades after the massacre. “This is the most fascinating story I ever heard,” said director Ryan Suffern, a 39-year-old American who worked for two-and-a-half years on “Finding Oscar,” a poignant account of a search for truth and redemption in a country once torn apart by civil war.

The movie interviews various subjects who for decades investigated what happened during two unspeakable days, including a prosecutor who tracked Oscar down and revealed to him the story of his past.

The massacre in Dos Erres was carried out at the hands of the “Kaibiles,” a special army unit trained by the U.S. military to combat communism — part of a scorched earth campaign waged by then-president Efrain Rios Montt to wipe out a perceived threat from rebel guerrillas.

In 2013, Rios Montt, a former general, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide, but Guatemala’s highest court overturned the ruling because of a “procedural error.” A new trial was scheduled for January 2015, but it was judged that the then 90-year-old was no longer able to understand the charges against him because of dementia.

A U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission documented 669 massacres during the civil war in Guatemala, the overwhelming majority at the hands of the state during the dictatorship of Rios Montt and his successor, Oscar Mejia Victores, who governed from 1983 to 1986.

Only a handful of Kaibiles have been convicted in connection with the massacre, but each received a sentence of more than 6,000 years in prison.

The narrative of exactly what happened in Oscar's village was painstakingly pieced together over time through testimonies from relatives, survivors, forensic experts, a courageous prosecutor, and even some ex-Kaibiles who received immunity in exchange for their testimony.

After years of searching, in 2011 the prosecutor, Sara Romero, finally tracked down Oscar, who was living as an undocumented immigrant in the Boston suburbs, and revealed his story to him. The young man traveled to Guatemala the following year and met his biological father, a peasant who survived because he was away from the village at the time of the massacre.

Oscar has since legalized his status, obtaining a U.S. refugee visa, and is now living his version of an American immigrant dream with his wife Nidia and his four children.

Following its American debut, “Finding Oscar” will be seen in Guatemala. “It’s so important to be able to publicly show this film in Guatemala,” the director said, calling it an “acknowledgment” that massacres took place.

– edited from an article by Laura Bonilla, Agence-France Presse, April 8, 2017
PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

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New violence threatens Colombia’s revised peace accord

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — With the ink barely dry on Colombia’s revised peace accord with leftist rebels, new violence has emerged that could complicate the agreement’s implementation. In 10 days, five activists have been killed and a number of others attacked in separate incidents. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but authorities suspect the attacks are being carried out by criminal groups that formed in the wake of the demobilization of right- wing militias nearly a decade ago.

The catalyst for the latest killings is the new peace deal signed by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel leader Rodrigo Londono in Bogotá on November 24. The killings of activists sympathetic to the FARC cause began even before the peace deal was signed. An original deal was narrowly defeated in a popular referendum in October.

The new accord to end 52 years of civil war in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy was put together in just over a month, after the original pact was narrowly and unexpectedly defeated in an October 2 referendum for being too lenient on the rebels. Despite widespread relief at an end to conflict, many among Colombia’s largely conservative residents are angry because, like the original agreement, the new document offers no jail time for FARC leaders who committed crimes like kidnapings and massacres, and it allows them to hold political office.

The government and FARC had met in Cuba for the last four years, negotiating to end the region’s longest-running conflict that has killed more than 220,000 and displaced nearly seven million in the Andean nation. The signing ceremony marked a six-month countdown for the 7,000-strong FARC to abandon weapons and form a political party.

The accord needs to be ratified by Congress, where President Juan Manuel Santos has strong majority support. In the five days following the deal’s endorsement by Congress, FARC rebels will demobilize. They will move to temporary quarters in designated rural zones and remain there for six months, handing over their weapons under the supervision of a special United Nations mission.

Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his peace efforts, wants to get the deal in place as quickly as possible in order to maintain a fragile, bilateral ceasefire. But opposition leader and former President Alvaro Uribe, who spearheaded the push to reject the original accord and wanted deeper changes to the new version, is furious that Santos will ratify the new deal in Congress instead of holding another vote. His surrogates have indicated that they will oppose the deal however they can, worrying some observers that mayors loyal to the hard-line ex-president will resist implementing it in their jurisdictions.

Kristian Herbolzheimer, an analyst at London-based, peace-building consultants Conciliation Resources, stated, “Powerful sectors remain opposed to the peace process and will try to boycott it through killings, as we have seen these past days. It is relatively easy for violent spoilers to derail the peace process through violence. This can be done by either targeting social leaders, FARC members, or civilians and putting the blame on FARC.”

For Colombians, the recent attacks are a reminder of para-military violence that many hoped was consigned to the past. The last time the FARC attempted a foray into politics, they were met with political violence from right-wing militias. Then, in a process concluded nearly a decade ago, a federation of right-wing militias called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, supposedly demobilized. But in their place have risen criminal gangs who control the drug trade and whose opposition to the peace deal may have more to do with profits than ideology. Colombia’s leftist guerrillas and right-wing militias have long relied on the lucrative cocaine trade to fund their political ambitions.

While the government has been pumping in resources to defeat these groups, with a joint military and police campaign dubbed Operation Agamemnon launched in early 2015, leftists across the country have continued to face persecution. This is raising doubts about the government’s ability to implement the deal with FARC nationwide.

– edited from Reuters and Christian Science Monitor
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Child soldier now seeking another path as Colombia tries peace

CALDAS, Colombia — The fragile peace agreement in effect in Colombia leaves behind thousands of rebel fighters who were raised since childhood to carry out armed conflict. In government rehabilitation centers throughout Colombia, minors tell similar stories of being spirited away to camps by rebels. Now they face a future for which they are thoroughly unprepared.

Mélida was only 9 years old when guerrilla fighters lured her away with the promise of food as she played on the floor. The guerrillas took her to a distant camp. Mélida’s father, Moisés, a traditional healer of the Amazon’s Cubeo group, was away at the time and did not return to their village for another month. He quickly went to the guerrilla camp and told the rebel commander, “I came for my daughter. He said she wasn’t there.”

In the camp, Mélida had been renamed Marisol and began her schooling on the history of communism and the FARC. She also learned how to make landmines. Years later, FARC rebels passed through her village and mentioned Mélida to her family. “They said she had died in an attack,” her father recalled. “After that, I just forgot about her. I thought it was best to forget.”

In reality, a commander in his 40s had taken an interest in her. One day, when she was 15, he said, “Give me a kiss.” She said, “I don’t know how.” “Then I’ll teach you,” he said. The commander forced her into a relationship and she was later given a birth control implant in her arm.

At 16, she asked the commander if she could visit her family. She was surprised when he agreed. Carrying a pistol and grenade, she made her way back home. The village from which she had been abducted was abandoned. “I told the first person I saw that I was Mr. Moisés’ daughter, and they said I couldn’t be because that daughter was dead,” she said.

Her father turned her in to the military the next day because, he explained, “I wanted to buy a motorcycle.” After a moment he added, “They never gave me the reward I was promised.”

After two weeks, Mélida was taken to a government rehabilitation center for indigenous youth who had left the FARC. Daily classes and chores, meant to adjust them to civilian life, were new to her. Other requirements, like another birth control implant, reminded her of the FARC.

Mélida began building a new relationship with her father, but it remains strained. Even communicating was a challenge because she had lost some fluency in her indigenous language, Cubeo.

At night, Mélida began sneaking out of the center with a man named Javier, whose mother was a cook there. He was nine years older than Mélida, but the two soon realized they were falling in love. Javier’s mother, Dora, was teaching Mélida to cook and clean, taking on a mother’s role. One day, Mélida’s birth control implant failed and she became pregnant. Dora pulled Mélida aside and told her, “Now you have something to fight for that’s not the revolution.” Her daughter, Celeste, was born last year.

Dora worries Mélida might return to the guerrillas. “She is a good mother and puts her daughter first,” Dora said. “But she also tells me she is bored and doesn’t like this life. And I tell her: ‘If you want to leave, then leave. But think of the girl. Leave Celeste with me.’ ”

– edited from an article by Nicholas Casey in The New York Times, April 27, 2016
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Guatemala arrests 14 former officials for war-era crimes

Guatemala on January 6 detained 14 ex-military officials, including the brother of a former president, for forced disappearances and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest period of its 36-year civil war. Among the captured was 83-year-old Manuel Benedicto Lucas, a former top general and brother of ex-President Romeo Lucas, and Byron Barrientos, who was minister of the interior from 2000 to 2004.

Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war pitted a succession of right-wing governments against leftist insurgents and led to nearly a quarter-million deaths. A U.N.-backed truth commission said the armed forces carried out more than 80 percent of human rights abuses during the conflict. Over the past decade, the Central American country has begun prosecuting crimes from its civil war past, including massacres of women and children.

Testimonies from victims helped officials locate 558 skeletons in a secret cemetery inside a military zone and connect them to the accused, said state prosecutor Orlando Lopez.

– edited from Reuters, January 6, 2016
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)