Last month, Cecilia Mérida testified at the World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C. about the damage being inflicted by the Bank’s financing of the Cambalam hydroelectric dam in the municipality of Barillas, Huehuetenango. She testified to the strategies of criminalization being employed by the Guatemalan government and the dam’s Spanish owner – Hidro Santa Cruz – in an attempt to silence local opposition. She spoke first hand about the impacts on families and communities when leaders are illegally detained and imprisoned for months, or even years on end.
I am Cecilia Mérida. I come from the department of Huehuetenango in Guatemala, from the municipality of Santa Cruz Barillas, which is where the Spanish company Hidralia Ecoener has been operating without consent since 2008. Their goal is to construct a hydroelectric dam on the Cambalan River, situated on the periphery of the urban center of the municipality. This company has received financing that flows from the World Bank to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and its Inter-American Infrastructure Finance Corporation (CIFI).
I come in the name of each person affected by this hydroelectric project, to answer many of the questions put forward by OXFAM. What are the consequences for the people who are affected by the projects financed with money that comes from so far away?
Hidralia Ecoener, registered in Guatemala as Hidro Santa Cruz, Sociedad Anónima, insisted on the development of this project despite the fact that in 2007, the people of Barillas held a community consultation to protect their natural resources, under the framework of the Collective Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The company hired local people as technicians gaining political control over community organizing. In November 2009, the company pressed charges against eight community leaders, among who was my life partner – Rubén Herrera – along with Pablo Antonio Pablo and Saúl Mendez. Thus began the practice of charging community leaders in the municipality with crimes of breaking and entering, coercion, threats, aggravated arson, activity against the security of the nation, detention, kidnapping, and terrorism.
This led to the beginning of the social conflict in the municipality, and the permanent violation of the human rights of the population. What transpired were incidents of intimidation, persecution and criminalization against all of those who spoke out against the interests of Hidro Santa Cruz. In 2011, Rúben Herrera was forced to leave the municipality, abandoning his work providing social support to youth.
Towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, social tension worsened to such a level that the Guatemalan government declared a State of Siege in the municipality of Santa Cruz Barillas, repressing the opposition to the hydroelectric project and allowing Hidro Santa Cruz to continue its operations. On May 1, 2012, campesino leader Andrés Francisco Miguel was killed during an assassination attempt against Pablo Antonio Pablo, who was left seriously injured in the attack. One year later, company private security guards who participated in this armed attack, were absolved of all crimes by the Guatemalan justice system.
Based on what transpired on May 1, 2012, 17 community leaders were illegally detained, including Saúl Méndez and Rogelio Velásquez. Nine were unjustly imprisoned for nine months, and were never found guilty of any crime. On March 15, 2013, Rubén Herrera was arrested at the request of Hidro Santa Cruz. After spending three months in prison, he finally had all charges dropped on February 26, 2014, after a judge ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to keep the investigation open.
In August 2013, Saúl Méndez and Rogelio Velásquez were arrested again, and accused of murder, feminicide and lynching. Those of us who are at their defense are convinced that this case was brought forward by employees of Hidro Santa Cruz as a part of their strategy to criminalize community leadership. After a flawed trial, they were convicted of 33 years in prison. Today, they are going through a Special Appeals process.
In September 2013, another community member, Mynor López was illegally arrested. At the end of the month, the Guatemalan Army and National Civil Police practically launched a military offensive against the civilian population of Santa Cruz Barillas, the likes of which have never been seen before in this municipality – not even during the armed conflict.
In February 2015, three more community leaders were detained and illegally imprisoned. Adalberto Villatoro, Francisco Juan and Arturo Pablo (Pablo Antonio Pablo’s son). They, like all of the others previously mentioned, believed that the presence of Hidro Santa Cruz seriously impacts the natural, environmental and cultural aspects of the municipality.
After seven years of persecution, the ways the Spanish company Hidro Santa Cruz operates provide some answers to the questions posed by OXFAM’s recent report. What are the human costs of the loans, given the social and environmental safeguards are not working? The human costs are extremely high and very harmful. They translate into persecution, killings, imprisonment, and criminalization. During this time, the communities have not seen any benefits. Instead, they have gone from living in tranquility to living in a state of fear and terror. Our human potential and energy has not been dedicated towards local development from our own perspectives and aspirations, but instead, has been spent defending ourselves against the abuses of Hidro Santa Cruz.
The human costs [of these loans for mega-development projects] translate into the suffering of families, wives, sons and daughters, into illnesses and precariousness. We are prevented from being with our husbands. Instead, we spend our lives and the little we have traveling to the prison that is located more than 400 kilometers away. In this conflict, every community member [incarcerated] is innocent. We are the people who are suffering the consequences of bank loans that are thought to be “producing development.” The pain and suffering for us “is the human face of these projects.” Day to day, we live out these tangible consequences, in addition to being (as OXFAM’s report indicates) “the most poor and vulnerable people of the developing countries.”
We, too, have questions. Who is going to pay for all of the costs that we have had to suffer from “development,” for a project that we never asked for in our community? Is it the World Bank? The International Finance Corporation? The CIFI? Or is it Hidro Santa Cruz that is going to pay for all of the economic, social and organizational harms they have caused in our community? Who will return to the families all the years taken from the men who have been incarcerated? We know that no one will give back to us those who have been killed.