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The Way the Town is Now

Canadian mine brings violence and social division to Oaxacan community

by Moravia de la O

Community members testify as part of the civilian observation mission "Justice for San José del Progreso." Photo by Sara Méndez
Community members testify as part of the civilian observation mission "Justice for San José del Progreso." Photo by Sara Méndez
A Mexican flag reads "Long Live CPUVO" and bears the portraits of Bernardo Méndez and Bernardo Vásquez, the two anti-mine activists who were killed in early 2012. Photo by Sara Méndez
A Mexican flag reads "Long Live CPUVO" and bears the portraits of Bernardo Méndez and Bernardo Vásquez, the two anti-mine activists who were killed in early 2012. Photo by Sara Méndez
Guadalupe Vásquez Ruiz shows the scars from the gun wound he suffered. Photo by Sara Méndez
Guadalupe Vásquez Ruiz shows the scars from the gun wound he suffered. Photo by Sara Méndez

SAN JOSÉ DEL PROGRESO—“The mine is responsible for the way the town is now. They have stepped all over us. They have humiliated us,” said Mr. López one afternoon last November in San José del Progreso, a small Indigenous community in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

López speaks from experience, as his own family has been affected by the violence that has gripped this once-sleepy Zapotec town, nestled in Oaxaca’s Ocotlán Valley. His son Elias was arrested and beaten in 2009 for participating in a two-month-long blockade organized in protest of a Canadian-owned gold and silver mine operating in his town.

Around López sat other community members whose families had also experienced this violence, which they believe is being financed by the mining company, Compañía Minera Cuzcatlan, S.A. de C.V., a subsidiary of Canada’s Fortuna Silver Mines. Among those gathered were the relatives of Bernardo Vásquez, the outspoken leader of the Coordinating Committee of the United Villages of the Ocotlán Valley (CPUVO), who was assassinated in March 2012 for his opposition to the Fortuna Silver Mine’s operation.

These families had gathered to talk about how the mine led to deep divisions in their community. Their testimonies were being collected as part of the "Justice for San José" Civilian Observation Mission. The mission was organized by the Oaxacan Collective in Defense of the Land, a group of local non-profit organizations that works closely with the CPUVO to “document and raise awareness about...the risks facing community human rights defenders who oppose the presence of the Cuzcatlan mine and seek to protect Ocotlán Valley residents’ right to their land,” according to the mission's Preliminary Statement.

Citizens from San José del Progreso and nearby towns have resisted the mine since 2007, organizing themselves through the CPUVO. Others in the community are in favour of it, most notably the local authorities and members of the non-profit organization San José Defending Our Rights, made up of citizens from the town. Members of the CPUVO charge that the mining company has bought off support from these two groups.

Tensions in the community escalated dramatically in 2012 with the deaths of Vásquez and Bernardo Méndez, another anti-mining activist and member of the CPUVO. The conflict has become so charged that it permeates all facets of communal life, including the local schools and church. The continued operation of the Fortuna Silver mine and its intrusions into the political and communal life of the town have resulted in both violence and deep fractures in the social fabric.

Many agree that the escalation of violence is largely due to the militarization of the town. In 2011, the CPUVO began publicly denouncing the existence of armed groups of civilians in the community. They allege that the mining company gives San José Defending Our Rights money to purchase weapons and distribute them to mine sympathizers from the nearby community of San José La Garzona. The mining company has yet to be directly linked to the violence; however, many charge that the local government, at the service of the mining company, is using these groups to intimidate anti-mine activists.

“The mayor is carrying out a strategy of terror, firing shots in the air and making people afraid of leaving their homes at night,” says Neftalí Reyes Méndez, a member the Oaxacan Collective in Defense of the Land. “The assassinations of Bernardo Vásquez and Bernardo Méndez in early 2012 were meant to be a threat to the members of the CPUVO.” As with the cases of Vásquez and Méndez, the atmosphere of intimidation has gone beyond threats and resulted in violence against CPUVO activists.

For instance, Guadalupe Vásquez Ruiz was wounded on June 16, 2012, while playing basketball in the town square. A local official who supported the mining project insulted Vásquez Ruiz and waved a gun at him and his friends, yelling, “You are going to die.” Minutes later, he fired on the group, injuring Vásquez Ruiz in the arm and leg. Vásquez Ruiz and his friends believe they were targeted because they oppose the mine.

In Vásquez Ruiz’s case, as with most incidents of violence against anti-mine activists, the aggressors were local authorities or people close to them. According to members of the CPUVO, the two people arrested and accused of assassinating Bernardo Vásquez were the bodyguards of the current mayor. Other cases of human rights violations denounced by the CPUVO include arbitrary detentions, torture and excessive use of force by security personnel. Repression at the hands of local authorities against CPUVO members is so prevalent that Oaxaca’s Human Rights Ombudsman stated that “there exists a pattern of systematic violations to the human rights of community members” in San José del Progreso.

In light of this, the close relationship between municipal authorities in San José del Progreso and the mining company has raised alarm bells. This intimate relationship is mainly financial. CPUVO members allege that current mayor, Alberto Mauro Sánchez, received a majority of his 2010 electoral campaign funding from the mining company. This, they suggest, has resulted in a very mine-friendly administration. According to Reyes Méndez, Mauro Sánchez’s “government only responds to the interests of the mining company. The actions that this government takes are to benefit the infrastructure of the mine, not for the benefit for the community.”

Local government officials and members of San José Defending Our Rights—both vocal supporters of the Fortuna Silver mine—deny that the mining company has anything to do with divisions in the community. Instead, they echo the statements of Fortuna Silver’s president, stating that the conflict has to do with local power struggles that have nothing to do with the mine.

And yet a strong financial relationship exists between the mining company and the local government. Each year these parties sign an agreement outlining how much funding the mining company will give the community. According to the mayor, the funding is for public works projects, namely to build wells for water capture and to pave and provide lighting for roads in the community. According to Mauro Sánchez, the mining company gave the local government 13 million pesos ($1 million CDN) in 2011 and 2012 for these infrastructure projects. However, it is unclear to citizens how these resources are managed.

Community members' requests for access to the annual agreement between local government and the mining company as well as the municipal financial records have been repeatedly denied by the mayor. “None of the government representatives filter these resources to the people,” said CPUVO member Ariatna González Torres. “The company gives the authorities everything they ask for so that they can say that they are giving to the community.”

The relationship between San José Defending Our Rights and the company is also close, so much so that CPUVO activists believe the non-profit acts as a proxy for the company. They highlight, for example, the lavish community celebrations organized through this group. They believe that the funding for these projects and celebrations comes from the mining company with the intent of garnering popular support for the mine’s continued operation in the community. The activists are particularly wary of the projects that the non-profit carries out such as dry composting toilets, ecological stoves, chicken farms and scholarships for school children.

State authorities also see the intrusion of transnational corporations into the social and political life of communities in Oaxaca as problematic. In a meeting with representatives from the state government, the representative for the Internal Affairs Ministry stated: “It is the companies that, although they come to invest and establish projects in good faith, generate conflicts in the communities.”

Those close to the conflict in San José del Progreso anticipate that tensions in the community may reach a breaking point in 2013, as the mayoral election takes place at the end of this year. Reyes Méndez fears that the mining company will again intervene in the local elections to ensure that a pro-mine mayor is elected. “If the company acts as it has since it arrived in San José del Progreso, the panorama will be very complicated,” he said.

Despite the difficulties and repression that those opposed to the mine face, they have vowed to continue resisting, and they are not the only ones. All across Mexico and Latin America, people are defending their land against transnational corporate interests that would destroy their environment and the social fabric of their communities. Networks are forming to strengthen these efforts, such as the Network of Those Affected by Mining.

It is important for citizens from the countries where these companies are based to stand in solidarity with these communities in resistance. Such efforts have already had some success in San José del Progreso, where increased national and international attention has reduced violent aggressions since last July. According to Reyes Méndez, “the visibility that this case has gotten is very important. Having international and national support has made it so the state government is pressured to arrest those responsible for the violence.”

Moravia de la O is a Mexican-American activist whose work focuses on neoliberal policies, immigration and the Drug War.

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