In the evening on Monday, November 23, ten leaders from the mining-affected communities of Azacualpa and San Andres Minas were stopped at a police checkpoint as they left Santa Rosa de Copan in western Honduras. Three of the leaders – Miguel Lopez, Genaro Rodriguez and Orlando Rodriguez – all part of the Azacualpa Environmental Committee were held overnight at the police station on charges of usurpation. Lopez, Rodriguez, and Rodriguez are expected to appear before a judge for a hearing scheduled for December 17th.
Upon returning to Azacualpa after their release, dozens of residents from the community greeted the three leaders at the entrance with a caravan and setting off firecrackers in celebration. The community also reaffirmed its support to maintain a blockade that they started on November 9th, located at the base of a steep cut in the side of Cemetery Mountain (Cerro Cementerio). Without access to the mountainside, Aura cannot continue to encroach on the perimeters of the community cemetery, now located less than 100 meters from the steep slice in the side of the mountain. The recent detentions and provocation are part of a criminalization and repression campaign against the communities and the Azacualpa Environmental Committee. Tired of Aura’s broken promises and failure to fulfill a 2012 agreement with mining-affected communities in the municipality of La Unión, residents of Azacualpa and San Andres Minas have decided to protect what is left of the two mountain tops – Cerro Cementerio and Cerro Los Hornillos – closest to their communities, both of which are in Aura Mineral’s expansion plans.
Using Corruption and Impunity To Force The Closure of Community Cemetery
At the service of the Canadian mining company, Honduran institutions including the Permanent Contingency Commission (COPECO) and the Ministry of Public Health have recently attempted to declare the cemetery unfit citing that it is dangerous, susceptible to land slides, unsanitary, and fails to meet public health standards. Their sudden interests in the conditions of the cemetery coincide with Aura Minerals’ interests in expansion.
Community members argue that the mining operations in close proximity to the cemetery, against the wishes of the local residents, have created some of the conditions being used to justify its destruction. Other justifications are just flat-out inventions. They argue that the corrupt Honduran state – security forces, public prosecutors’ offices, and other state institutions – are simply protecting and acting on the interests of the mining monster in their backyard. In an effort to stop the expansion of the mine, in April 2014 local residents blocked a public road outside one of the entrances of the San Andres mine. It was violently evicted by military and police and charges were pressed against nineteen community members, who are still required to appear before a judge every month. In January 2015, residents of Azacualpa held a community consultation (cabildo abierto) in coordination with the mayor’s office. Azacualpa declared that they were against the closure and relocation of their cemetery and demand that Aura Minerals respect their wishes. The consultation is another effort by the community to demand respect for their gravesites where local communities bury their loved ones.
Drones, Military Intelligence and Shady Business Contacts: Aura Mineral’s Tactics in Honduras
Immediately following the release of the three leaders of the Azacualpa Environmental Committee early this week, affected communities denounced the presence of a drone hovering over the location of the blockade. They believe that the drone is being utilized by Aura Minerals and its’ private security company, Servicios Especiales de Seguridad (SESER) to provoke the community and to take pictures of and identify individuals participating in the blockade.
Contributing to the fear and tension, the local communities are aware of Aura Mineral’s business relationships in the region. Its private security company, SESER is owned by Angel Rene Romero, a former military commander and congressional candidate for the National Party in the Department of Copan. Rene Romero was part of the infamous military Battalion 3-16 in the 1980s, an intelligence unit inside the Honduran military responsible for political assassinations and torture of state opponents.
Another contract that Aura Minerals holds at its’ San Andres gold mine, is with a Honduran transportation company called INCOBE. The contract involves various machinery and dump trucks that move crushed rock to the location of the mine’s leaching pads. Owned and operated by the Benitez family based in Santa Rosa de Copan, INCOBE holds the concession for the iron ore mine in El Nispero, Santa Barbara, Honduras, where anti-mining and community leader Rigoberto Lopez Hernandez was brutally murdered in May 2014. Lopez Hernandez’s throat had been slit, his tongue cut out, and his murdered body publicly displayed as a clear message to environmentalists around the country in resistance to mining operations.
Canada’s Complicity in Aura Minerals’ Tactics and Operations in Honduras
Aura Minerals was one of few mining companies that operated through the violent and repressive aftermath of the June 28, 2009 military coup in Honduras. Eight months after the coup in February 2010, and in clear support of the post-coup Honduran regime and its economic interests, then President of Aura Minerals, Patrick Downey visited Honduras accompanied by mining and corporate investors and the Canadian Ambassador Neil Reeder. The visit was centered on encouraging the Honduran government to approve a new mining law that would lift the 2006 moratorium that prevented new concessions from being granted.
Years later on January 23, 2013, the Honduran Congress passed and ratified a new mining law without any consultation with mining-affected communities, environmental and human rights groups. Mining Watch Canada publicly denounced that the development of the new Honduran mining law received assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), thus reaffirming the strong support that the Canadian mining industry receives from the Canadian government.
With no respect for community consultations, local discontent, and the protection of a community cemetery, Aura Minerals, supported by the Canadian government is generating more violence in Honduras – one of the most violent countries in the world. As drones snap pictures of the faces of local residents protecting their community cemetery, and former military intelligence commanders protect the interests of foreign investment, Honduran communities are placed in increasingly vulnerable circumstances to the benefit and profit of the Canadian mining industry.