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

by | 26 Mar 2012

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.2A 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. 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.

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    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.
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