UPDATED: Pan American closes Tahoe's six-year legal battle with Guatemalan protestors

Vancouver-based Pan American Silver apologized on behalf of mine’s former owner for a shooting it says infringed human rights

(From left) Plaintiffs Adolfo García, Luis Fernando García, Wilmer Pérez and Misael Martínez have recently settled a years-long legal battle with Tahoe Resources Inc., acquired by Pan American Silver Corp. earlier this year | Submitted

What happened: Pan American Silver has apologized for a past shooting it says infringed the human rights of individuals protesting a controversial mine it acquired earlier this year.

Why it matters: The company has also resolved years of legal challenges by protestors who wanted their case heard in British Columbia. While settled out of court, the case reinforced that Canadian courts have primary jurisdiction to hear human rights claims arising from the foreign activities of Canadian companies.

More than six years after they were injured, protestors who were shot outside of the controversial Escobal silver mine in Guatemala have received an apology, and a resolution.

Pan American Silver Corp., which acquired the mine in its purchase of Tahoe Resources Inc. earlier this year, apologized on behalf of the project’s former owner for a shooting it says infringed the human rights of the protestors.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Joe Fiorante, a partner with Vancouver-based Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman LLP, which represented the plaintiffs in their B.C. lawsuit.

By phone from Guatemala City, Fiorante said the case’s conclusion has brought his clients a sense of “victory and vindication.”

On April 27, 2013, local community members were shot and injured by mine security guards during a protest.

Seven plaintiffs spent years attempting to sue Tahoe Resources for battery and negligence in British Columbia. In 2017, after Tahoe Resources’ unsuccessful attempt to have the case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, the case was set to proceed in BC Supreme Court. The same year, three of the original plaintiffs settled with the company.

In its announcement Tuesday (July 30), Pan American said the lawsuit between the company and the remaining four plaintiffs had been closed.

"When we completed the acquisition of Tahoe, we made it a priority to reach out and make a constructive proposal to resolve the matter amicably rather than continue with the litigation. We sincerely hope that this resolution provides some measure of closure,” said Pan American president and CEO Michael Steinmann in a news release.

While the matter was ultimately resolved out of court, Fiorante said the case nonetheless set a “very important” precedent when the BC Court of Appeal overturned a lower court decision and allowed the case to proceed in British Columbia.

“That was a very significant change in the law in British Columbia. It reinforced that Canadian courts have primary jurisdiction to hear cases of this nature against Canadian companies, and it has opened the door to other similar cases coming forward,” he said.

Pan American has confirmed that the settlement is strictly confidential. Its apology notes that the resolution does not impede the plaintiffs’ ability to protest the mine in the future.

A criminal trial involving the mine’s head of security when the shooting occurred remains underway in Guatemala.

“The settlement is an important victory for the plaintiffs who brought this case at great personal risk and sacrifice, and for the tens of thousands of people who continue to peacefully oppose the Escobal silver mine,” wrote Lisa Rankin, the Guatemala coordinator of the Canadian non-profit Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network, in an email to BIV.

“However, the conflict on the ground surrounding this project is far from over, and leaders participating in the resistance and consultation continue to face grave threats.”

Escobal's legal challenges not yet over

While the out-of-court settlement concludes the B.C. chapter of the legal legacy Pan American inherited in its US$1.1 billion acquisition of Tahoe Resources, legal challenges surrounding what was considered Tahoe’s most significant asset continue.

The mining licence of Minera San Rafael SA – Tahoe Resources’ Guatemalan subsidiary – has been suspended for two years as of July. Last fall, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Escobal project was to remain closed until the country’s Ministry of Energy and Mines completed a proper consultation with the local Xinca indigenous communities – a process required under the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169), which Guatemala has ratified.

In December, Siren Fisekci – Pan American’s vice-president of investor relations and corporate communications – confirmed the company would be involved in the Guatemalan government’s consultation process.

“We are confident in the process that we have ahead of us, and we’ll take the time necessary to do that right,” she told BIV at the time.

“That path has now been laid out.”