Toxic Mega-​mining in Mexico: Death and Despoilment 500 Years On

In memory of Bernardo Vázquez Sánchez

(…) What if the dead are talking
with their voices of blood
and their dis­ap­peared bodies,
now that, in the chorus of the living,
no one keeps silent.

Lêdo Ivo (Time to Talk)

On 15 March this year, when many fam­ilies were pre­paring to get away for the bridge weekend (or in reality the few able to), Bernardo Vázquez Sánchez, leader of the Committee of the United Peoples of the Ocotlán Valley (Coordinadora de Pueblos Unidos del Valle de Ocotlán, CPUVO) was killed in a shooting that also left Rosalinda Canseco and Andrés Vázquez Sánchez wounded. The gunmen — clearly iden­ti­fied by the com­munity — were sent by the Mayor of San José de Progreso, Alberto Mauro Sánchez who, ac­cused of as­sas­sin­ating an­other op­ponent of the mining pro­ject on 18 January 2012, is a fu­gitive from justice. But it was the Canadian mining com­pany, Fortuna Silver Mines (op­er­ating in Mexico under the name Minera Cuzcatlán) that was dir­ectly re­spons­ible for guiding the fin­gers that pulled the trigger, not to men­tion the im­punity and dis­dain that hold sway in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gabino Cué, Governor of the state of Oaxaca.

The in­hab­it­ants of San José del Progreso ini­ti­ated their fight against Minera Cuzcatlán in 2008, when they learned that the Mayor had au­thor­ised the com­pany to mine on mu­ni­cipal land without their con­sent. The cam­paign of res­ist­ance dates back to when dis­sat­is­fied townspeople asked the au­thor­ities for more in­form­a­tion. Since this in­form­a­tion was never provided and they only en­countered eva­sion and delays, they de­cided in a com­munity meeting to op­pose the new mine and to take ac­tion against it. They ar­gued that, as in­di­genous peoples, they should have been con­sulted. Among the meas­ures taken, the blocking of ac­cess to the mine (which at the time was under con­struc­tion) stood out in par­tic­ular. This ac­tion took place between 16 March and 6 May 2009, when they were vi­ol­ently evicted.

The con­front­a­tion was the cata­lyst for the op­pon­ents of the mine to set up within the com­munity an en­tire or­gan­isa­tional and self-​management pro­cess. They also de­vised their own means of fin­an­cing their res­ist­ance activ­ities, and the townspeople be­came em­powered in turning the usual way of doing politics on its head. The com­pli­city of the mu­ni­cipal au­thor­ities with the mining com­pany, the con­stant threats made against res­id­ents and the state of law­less­ness and in­sec­urity into which the town had des­cended led the or­gan­ised op­pon­ents and the em­powered to apply on sev­eral oc­ca­sions for the dis­sol­u­tion of powers in the mu­ni­cip­ality, a re­quest that was never dealt with by the Congress of Oaxaca.

Despite all of their co­ordin­ated acts of res­ist­ance, they were not able to stop the mine from being es­tab­lished, al­though they did manage to delay the start of op­er­a­tions until 1 September 2011.1 Nevertheless, the act­iv­ists con­tinued to hinder the work of the mining com­pany by sys­tem­at­ic­ally pre­venting it from ex­tracting water from a deep well in the vi­cinity of the town. The mine is loc­ated in an area that was even deemed by the State to suffer from water scarcity.

The con­flict es­cal­ated on 18 January this year when, in a sup­posed move to provide drinking water for the com­munity, mu­ni­cipal po­lice and mem­bers of the town council opened fire on the townspeople, cul­min­ating in the death of Bernardo Méndez Vásquez and gun-​shot wounds to Abigaíl Vásquez Sánchez. From then on, the many re­ports of threats by sup­porters of the mine — who were armed and who had joined forces in the or­gan­isa­tion called San José in Defence of Our Rights (Asociación Civil San José de­fen­diendo sus derechos) — fell on deaf ears and lay caught in the web of apathy and in­ac­tion of the gov­ern­ment of the state of Oaxaca. The out­come: the re­cent murder of Bernardo Vázquez Sánchez.

Members of the mu­ni­cipal po­lice opening fire on res­id­ents of San José del Progreso op­posed to Minera Cuzcatlán (be­longing to the Canadian com­pany, Fortuna Silver Mines INC) on 18 January 2012.

But, how can such an out­rage be com­mitted against com­munities and in­di­viduals whose aim is merely to de­fend their rights and en­sure that their voices are heard?

One pos­sible an­swer to this ques­tion lies with the im­punity that reigns in both the state of Oaxaca and the country as a whole. The case of the sys­tem­atic and tar­geted ex­term­in­a­tion of the Members of the Autonomous Municipality of San Juan Copala — which even led to an at­tack in 2010 on a hu­man­it­arian convoy and cul­min­ated in the killing of human rights act­iv­ists, Bety Cariño and Jiri Jakola — is just one of many ex­amples in the state of Oaxaca. In this case, as in others, im­punity has been the rule. In the rest of the country, there are no end of ex­amples: con­sider the vi­ol­a­tion of the in­di­vidual rights of journ­alist, Lydia Cacho, by the busi­nessman, Kamel Nacif, with the com­pli­city of the former Governor of Puebla, Mario Marín, and the Governor of the state of Quintana Roo at the time (2006) that went un­pun­ished; the brutal re­pres­sion of the in­hab­it­ants of San Salvado Atenco, that was sen­sa­tion­al­ised by the media and watched by mil­lions of viewers as if it were a reality TV show (May 2006); the fem­i­cide in Ciudad Juárez and Estado de México and the ex­term­in­a­tion of human rights act­iv­ists calling for justice; the as­sas­sin­a­tion of Mariano Abarca, op­ponent of the mine in Chicomuselo, Chiapas (November 2009); the murder in 2011 of the act­iv­ists be­longing to the Movimiento Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity) in Ostula, Michoacán (Pedro Leyva and Trinidad de la Cruz Crisóstomo, among others) and in Sonora (Nepomuceno Moreno). The list is never-​ending. Given the cli­mate of im­punity that is gen­er­ated by the State by omis­sion and, on many other oc­ca­sions, as a result of direct re­pres­sion on its part, it is easy to un­der­stand how the mining com­panies are li­censed to di­vide com­munities and kill openly in the face of public opinion.

On the other hand, we can take a dif­ferent ap­proach to an­swering the above ques­tion by looking at the overall in­sti­tu­tional and legal frame­work, which has been de­vised in such a way as to pro­mote the ex­pan­sion of transna­tional mining com­panies in the country. The amend­ment of Article 27 of the Constitution in 1992 and the entry into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 opened the door to this pro­cess of de­spoil­ment and the put­ting of the country up for sale. On top of this, there is the trans­pos­i­tion into law of the lob­bying by the mining com­panies, by means of the ad­op­tion of the 1992 Law on Mining and its sub­sequent amend­ments. To all of the above, we should add the weak­ness of in­ter­na­tional law (Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organisation and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) which, faced with the bias of State in­sti­tu­tions and ig­norant or apathetic judges, has not been able to counter the sheer scale of cor­rup­tion of which the com­panies in ques­tion are capable.

Just to give a few ex­amples of this com­pli­city of the law with the death and dis­pos­ses­sion en­gendered by the mines, there is no need to look fur­ther than the Law on Mining, which be­stows upon this activity the status of a “public utility” such that it has pri­ority over all other land uses (Article 6). This en­ables the land to be ex­pro­pri­ated in the event that in­di­viduals or peoples re­fuse to sell or lease their lands or ter­rit­ories, and ex­empts the mining com­panies from state and mu­ni­cipal taxes. Moreover, the mining con­ces­sions are granted for 50 years and may be re­newed for a fur­ther 50 years.2 And, as if all of these ad­vant­ages were not enough, com­panies in this sector are ex­empt from paying in­come tax, since they sup­posedly pay this tax in their coun­tries of origin.3 On the con­trary, thanks to NAFTA, Canadian and North American coun­tries do not pay any tax what­so­ever on min­eral ex­trac­tion or its sales value. Ultimately, they only end up paying 2% payroll tax, VAT and a laugh­able – if it weren’t so shocking – an­nual tax that varies between 5 and 111 pesos per hec­tare under con­ces­sion ir­re­spective of the min­eral being extracted.

Another reason for the rise in the plun­dering of Mexico’s na­tional re­sources can be found in the in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. At the time of writing (20 March 2012), the prices of gold and silver are, on av­erage, on an up­ward trend. An ounce of gold is selling at USD 1660.50, while an ounce of silver is valued at USD 32.62. To give more of an idea of what this means in prac­tice, this year a single mine in Zacetecas be­longing to Goldcorp Hill pro­duced 425 000 ounces of gold and 28 mil­lion ounces of silver which, in mon­etary terms, amounts to a rev­enue of USD 705 712 500 and 912 800 000, re­spect­ively.4 The knock-​on ef­fect is that, today, around 30% of na­tional ter­ritory has been leased for mining pro­jects. What’s more, between 2001 and 2010, twice the amount of gold and half the amount of silver was ex­tracted than during 300 years of co­lo­nial ex­ploit­a­tion.5

The New Gold-San Xavier mine, Cerro de San Pedro, San Luis Potosí, 17 March 2012

The New Gold-​San Xavier mine, Cerro de San Pedro, San Luis Potosí, 17 March 2012

And, as if the plun­dering of our riches were not enough, these com­panies, which vaunt their “green” and “so­cially re­spons­ible” cre­den­tials, leave a trail of death and en­vir­on­mental de­struc­tion in their wake. This can be seen above all in the con­tam­in­a­tion of ground­water with cy­anide and heavy metals, and in the de­ple­tion of water sources due to the ex­tremely water-​intensive nature of mining (on av­erage a single mine con­sumes 250 000 litres of water per day, which is equi­valent to the amount that a poor rural family would con­sume in the space of 20 years).

As we have already shown, in pur­suit of these riches, such com­panies already have a large part of the law in their fa­vour. If an in­di­vidual, a com­munity or an or­gan­ised group stands in the way of the pil­lage, they have the eco­nomic might to bribe of­fi­cials, sub­vert justice and fo­ment con­flict between and within com­munities, weak­ening the so­cial fabric and di­viding fam­ilies and com­munities. If, des­pite this, op­pos­i­tion con­tinues, they re­sort to the tar­geted killing of so­cial leaders, whether dir­ectly or at the hands of armed groups within the com­munities them­selves, as in the case of San José in Defence of Our Rights.

Fighting these mon­sters of pil­lage, eco­cide and cor­rup­tion cost Bernardo Vázquez his life. The Mexican State shares re­spons­ib­ility in al­lowing the ex­ploit­a­tion to take place and in granting im­punity to these new con­quista­dors, as do all of those who sit back, watch and say nothing.

On 17 March 2012, while Bernardo’s family and more than 600 people were at­tending the fu­neral and crying tears of rage and anger for yet an­other death, holiday-​makers flocked to the beaches, sea­side towns and dance halls; the politi­cians car­ried on jock­eying for po­s­i­tion at the launch of yet an­other elec­tion cam­paign in our hollow demo­cracy, and the Hercules planes con­tinued loading up with gold and silver and making off for Canada, taking with them not just our na­tional wealth, but the lives of Bernardo and many others, the very earth that is host to the plants and an­imals which allow our planet to breathe, as well as the homes and streets where we so­cialise and to­gether shape what we call humanity.

Jorge Peláez Padilla is Research Professor of Law at the Autonomous University of Mexico City (Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México [UACM]). The art­icle in Spanish is avail­able at Refundacion. Many thanks to Carla Ridley for this translation.

Show 5 foot­notes

  1. http://​www​.for​tu​nas​ilver​.com/​s​/​h​o​m​e​.​asp
  2. A de­tailed and crit­ical ana­lysis of mining laws in Mexico can be found in López Bárcenas, Francisco and Eslava Galicia, Mayra M., El min­eral o la vida. Legislación minera en México, COAPI, México DF, 2011.
  3. http://​www​.jor​nada​.unam​.mx/​2​0​1​1​/​1​1​/​1​4​/​m​i​n​-​p​r​i​v​i​l​e​g​i​o​s​.​h​tml
  4. http://​www​.mi​lenio​.com/​c​d​b​/​d​o​c​/​i​m​p​r​e​s​o​/​9​1​2​8​251
  5. http://​www​.jor​nada​.unam​.mx/​2​0​1​1​/​1​1​/​1​4​/​m​i​n​e​r​a​.​pdf

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