How Guatemalan Contract Killers Fuel the Canadian Economy

By Devin Pacholik Posted: November 27, 2018 5:00 a.m.

Simon Granovsky-Larsen has spent 15 years studying violence in Guatemala.
Simon Granovsky-Larsen has spent 15 years studying violence in Guatemala. Photo by Michael Bell

In 2010, Dr. Simon Granovsky-Larsen found himself speeding through the night in Guatemala City, on the run from assassins. He and the family of a friend had spent several days in hiding. This wasn’t the first time his friend had been targeted for political affiliations, having survived an assassination attempt several years earlier. In Guatemala, intimidation and murder can be bought from armed freelance groups, a not uncommon trade across the country following the end of its 36-year civil war in 1996.

That frantic night, after convincing a human rights organization to help hide the family more securely, police officers ushered the group into an armoured vehicle. The convoy ripped through the darkness and into a waiting bay designed for such escapes.

Granovsky-Larsen, who now works as an assistant professor with the University of Regina’s Department of Politics and International Studies, has spent 15 years studying violence in Guatemala.

“There is a social acceptance of death among activists because it is part of the climate,” he says during an interview. 

The country first captured his attention while he and his wife worked as human rights accompaniers in 2003 and 2004. Granovsky-Larsen began studying economic reform and how it clashed with Guatemalan social movements, which became a focal point of his PhD.
By working with human rights groups in the country and interviewing victims, his research showed how the turbulent environment cultivated during the civil war morphed as transnational operations established industrial ventures. Mining is perhaps the most precarious trade.

“There was a slow start to opening the first mines around 2005. That’s when the Marlin Mine opened,” Granovsky-Larsen says. 

That project, owned by the Canadian company Goldcorp, made headlines following the death of an Indigenous protester in 2009. According to an anonymous source interviewed by The Guardian’s David Hill in 2014, the protestor’s widow said he was burned alive by “workers of the company.” After attempting legal action, the family quickly dropped the case fearing they would be murdered. 

Opposition to such projects is silenced through hostile tactics like assassinations carried out by a growing number of freelance operatives.

Granovsky-Larsen on a bus
in Guatemala in 2003, his
face black from the smoke
of burning tires after a day
as human rights observer
at a road block and riot
police standoff.

“They’re not James Bond, and they are not doing this for ideological reasons,” Granovsky-Larsen says. “They are contract killers that have a skill that was often learned through police or military training.” 

He put together a database of murdered human rights defenders which contains 134 deaths between 2007 and 2017, and another 22 cases by mid-October of 2018. A majority appear to be contract killings. 

He points out that it’s difficult for North Americans to distance themselves from violence in Guatemala given the global economy. The Canadian Pension Plan is invested in Guatemalan mining projects. Furthermore, Canadian tax dollars are invested through the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to aid in building hydroelectric projects in the country, which have been a source of land and water disputes. The same goes for sugarcane and palm oil harvesting for biofuels pumped into Canadian vehicles. 

While these links can seem abstract and distant, Granovsky-Larsen only has to think back to his night spent with a terrified family on the run from killers, and the countless interviews he’s done with survivors. Their scarred bodies are a mirror of the Guatemalan landscape, pocked and pitted by industrial operations. 

“I cannot separate the violence from who I am and the research I do.”


Read more about Simon Granovsky-Larsen’s research at

And check his article Farmers in Guatemala are destroying dams to fight ‘dirty’ renewable energy at The Conversation Canada.