VANCOUVER - A Vancouver company at the centre of ongoing clashes between anti-mining protesters and its silver mine in Guatemala is now being challenged on Canadian soil.
Seven Guatemalan men filed a lawsuit in British Columbia's Supreme Court on Wednesday against Tahoe Resources Inc. (TSX: THO), claiming they were injured during a shooting outside the company's Escobal mine in April 2013.
A Canadian-based organization that's helping the men said the lawsuit, which alleges the company is liable for battery and negligence, was filed in B.C. because the men believe the legal system in this country is their best avenue for redress.
"Above everything else, the plaintiffs are looking for a Canadian court to say that Tahoe is legally responsible for the shooting and for the injuries that they suffered," said Matt Eisenbrandt of the Canadian Centre for International Justice, which is also working with a Vancouver law firm and a Guatemalan group.
"That is the way they think they'll be able to achieve justice in this case."
The mine in the Central American country has been rocked by a series of violent confrontations involving police, mine personnel and local activists, who say they fear the operation threatens their natural water sources.
The incident that prompted the lawsuit occurred last year during a turbulent two-week period that saw the country's government declare a state of emergency and ban public gatherings in four townships.
The men's statement of claim — which contains unproven allegations that haven't been tested in court — lays out a series events they allege happened during the evening of April 27, 2013.
The men claim they were peacefully protesting on a public road in front of the mine gates when security guards donning riot gear emerged and proceeded to open fire at close range, the document says.
Adolfo Garcia was shot in the back while retreating, with the projectile lodging near his spine, the statement of claim says. Luis Monroy was shot in the face, ultimately losing his sense of smell, the document says.
The other men, farmers and a student who ranged in age from 17 to their late 40s, were struck in the legs, knee and foot, the document says. The statement of claim alleges the weapons included shotguns, pepper spray, buck shot and rubber bullets.
The statement of claim alleges the shooting was planned and directed by the company's manager of security, Alberto Rotondo Dall'Orso, who was carrying out a campaign to "suppress" local opposition to the mine. The document also alleges the manager instructed his guards to "falsify accounts of the shooting and destroy or cover up evidence."
The lawsuit says the company either authorized the use of excessive force or was negligent for not preventing the violence and is liable for the security force's conduct.
"The actions ... were malicious, arbitrary, highly reprehensible and undertaken for the purpose of intimidating peaceful protesters opposed to the Escobal Mine in order to advance Tahoe's business interests," says the statement of claim.
The company said it was evaluating its legal options in response to the suit.
"Tahoe has reviewed the Notice of Civil Claim and believes it to be without merit and replete with factual errors," said Ira Gostin, vice-president investor relations, in an email.
He said the company is "committed to conducting business honestly and ethically," integrating social responsibility guidelines devised by the United Nations into all facets of the business. It provides human-rights training to all its security providers and uses a private Guatemala security company that's compliant with international humanitarian law, he added.
"Tahoe deplores violence of any kind in its communities," he said.
In May 2013, Tahoe released a written statement that said the company had conducted an internal investigation into the shooting incident, which found security only took non-lethal measures. The company's statement said the protest that night, which involved about 20 people armed with machetes, "turned hostile."
"We regret any injuries caused by rubber bullets, but we take the protection of our employees and the mine seriously,” Tahoe CEO Kevin McArthur said in the statement.
At the time of those clashes, the mine was still under construction and the company had only recently received its operating permit. It is now in production.
Tahoe Resources is incorporated in B.C., holds its annual general meetings in Vancouver, is regulated by the BC Securities Commission and lists its stocks on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version carried an incorrect headline that said the plaintiffs in the case were miners.