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Indigenous Mexicans Risk Their Lives To Defend The Environment

Above Photo: Members of the Mexquititlán community in Querétaro, Mexico, seize and reclaim a water truck that had been draining a local water source on behalf of private interests in May, 2021. The large slogan painted on the side of the truck says, “It’s not a drought, it’s plundering.” Tamara Pearson.

From Organized Crime And ‘insatiable, Predatory’ Transnational Corporations.

In a nation where much of the land is still communal property, US, Canadian, and European corporations are partnering with cartels to seize land and resource rights through terror and violence against Indigenous communities and activists.

They were driving back from a community meeting in Aquila, Michoacan, where the discussion had centered on getting the Ternium mine in the area to cease activities. They dropped someone off, then were never seen again. Later, their car was found empty, riddled with bullets.

Antonio Díaz, an Indigenous Nahua leader opposed to the mine, and Ricardo Lagunes, a human rights lawyer who has taken on numerous key cases in Mexico, went missing on January 15 of this year.

“I miss my brother a lot,” Ana Lucia Lagunes, Ricardo’s sister, told TRNN. “But while this is directly affecting my family now, [such forced disappearances and murders] are affecting thousands of other people, too. It’s going to keep happening if we don’t react, if we don’t question, and if we aren’t alert to… what businesses are getting up to,” she said.

A month before Díaz and Lagunes disappeared, according to reporting in Sin Embargo, Ternium executives had also threatened them. On the day the two went missing, people linked to criminal organizations from Jalisco and Michoacan were seen outside the meeting. When Díaz and Lagunas left, they followed them.

The links between organized crime and transnationals in Mexico are becoming more and more apparent as operatives and organizations on both sides work to grab more land to use for drug cultivation, farming (The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG, for example, is profiting from avocado farming), mining, industrial parks, and mega developments. As they do, they deforest protected areas and displace the original inhabitants and collective owners of the land. This is why Indigenous communities, like the one Antonio Díaz belonged to, are at the forefront of the fight to defend themselves and the environment from annihilation.

Last year, over half of the 72 activists murdered in Mexico were Indigenous. Many others were lawyers or human rights activists supporting their struggles.

Before 1910, wealthy Mexicans and foreigners owned most of Mexico’s land. Then, with the revolution came agrarian reform, and land was slowly redistributed back to Indigenous and poor rural communities. Under the ejido system, enshrined in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, land is communally owned and can’t be divided up or sold. However, in 1991, in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would open Mexico up to all sorts of economic abuse from US transnationals, the Constitution was changed to allow ejido land to be sold. These changes have helped create a volatile situation where, for the past thirty years, the struggle over land ownership and use in Mexico has become ever more intense, lucrative, and violent.

Now, in 2023, 51% of Mexican land is social property—either an ejido or communal land. Some 8,000 of the 31,000 agrarian zones are occupied by Indigenous peoples. A full 80% of forest is social property.

Companies like Ternium must still get ejido communities’ permission to use their land, even if the company has a national permit. To pressure communities, companies often work with organized crime syndicates to sow discord, or they’ll make tempting monetary offers to the usually impoverished community members, but never pay up.

Of the 1,531 mining projects in operation in Mexico, 44% are in forest areas. The mines  contaminate nearby rivers and soil and get preferential access to water, even in regions facing droughts. In the Central-North of Mexico, the Wixárika people own and look after 140,000 hectares of land. And yet, without their permission, copper, gold, silver, and zinc mines are currently in operation on those lands, and a further five mines are in the exploration stage.

“Original peoples have spent thousands of years on the land,” Jorge Salinas Jardón, a union activist, friend of Ricardo Lagunes, and member of the Indigenous Matlazinca community, which has now practically disappeared, told TRNN.

“So when the land is threatened, they will defend it with their lives. People don’t defend what they don’t know about, but when you go there and see how beautiful these places are, then it makes sense. They see themselves as defenders of Mother Earth,” he said.

What It Takes To Defend The Environment

The state of Querètaro privatized its water system in May of last year, essentially putting private companies in charge of managing water distribution and enabling them to prioritize mega developments over local needs.

Otomi people in Santiago Mexquititlán, Querétaro, organized into an Autonomous Indigenous Council, have been marching and waging legal battles to stop—and now reverse—the privatization.

“We organize to defend what we still have, but when we do that they oppress us,” Sara Hernandez Jimenez, a leader of the Mexquititlán Indigenous Council, told TRNN.

When companies started taking their water via giant water trucks in 2021, leaving families without water for months and worried their animals would die, the community organized a permanent watch over the main well and reclaimed one of the water trucks. 

Amid these acts of resistance, Hernandez describes ongoing repression: She herself has been attacked twice, and people in the community have been shot at, arbitrarily detained, harassed in their homes, or offered bribes, “so its either prize or punishment.”

With real estate companies looking to buy ejido land, the Otomies have had to defend communal land, including the site where their ceremonial center is. “A violent group was sent with rocks, sticks, and knives, and they removed some market stalls and fair games from our cultural celebration in order to punish us, as an organized Indigenous community. When we planted trees, they pulled them out. When we organize to clean up the area, they come and throw rubbish everywhere, including dead animals,” Hernandez said.

“They hate us Indigenous peoples because we feel like we are part of nature,” she told TRNN, also describing how, with the influx of transnational companies into the area, organized crime has also increased. You can see it, she said, in the increased murders, drug use, and violence in the area.

“Organized crime is increasing in Mexico, particularly in Indigenous regions,” warned Carlos Gonzalez, a land rights lawyer with the National Indigenous Council, at a recent national water meeting held in Mexquititlán. He said such activity was part of the “systemic destruction of the collective ownership of the land.”

Meanwhile, in Aquila, Lagunes and Díaz are only the most recent victims. In the last 14 years, 38 community leaders have been killed there, and a further six disappeared. Also, in January, three land defenders, who were members of the community guard of Aquila and of nearby Santa María Ostula, were killed by some twenty hired hitmen, likely members of the CJNG.

After Lagunez and Díaz were disappeared, activists held dozens of mobilizations, two sit-ins, three press conferences, and more, but the Mexican government has not done anything in response.

Ternium, a steel company headquartered in Luxembourg with a 2022 revenue of US $16.4 billion, has been causing serious environmental damage. Three open-pit mines extract 12-15,000 tons of steel a day. Díaz was likely going to be elected representative of the Nahua community in the agrarian courts, where he could negotiate with Ternium.

“My brother began to provide [the Aquila community] with legal support in 2019,” Ana Lagunes explained. “He was focused on regularizing the election of representatives of the common land owners. And there was another group who tried to take over those elections, but with my brother’s support, the agrarian courts stopped them. Finally, an assembly was called to choose the representatives,” she told TRNN. The day of that assembly, her brother disappeared.

On February 15, Ana Lagunes and various activists held a protest vigil. They lit candles at 6:50PM, exactly one month since the two were last seen.

Despite shutting down a main road in the area, the protest felt routine. Disappearances and murders are so common, and impunity rates so high (93% of all murders in Mexico are never punished) that family members demanding justice for the deaths and disappearances of their loved ones are a regular feature of daily life.

“This system wants us to get used to the practice of forced disappearances. There are more than 110,000 disappeared people in Mexico… It seems like there is a war against the people,” said Salinas.

Nevertheless, resistance is everywhere. Locals are waging legal battles and have stopped further construction of skyscrapers in Xoco, an ejido and Indigenous town in Mexico City that the government sold to real estate developers. Residents of the town call the Mitikah construction projects, which now basically run the area, “real estate cartels.”

Maya people in Sitilpech, Yucatán, have been defending their land and water from an industrial farm that houses 48,000 pigs. They recently set up a permanent protest and stopped company trucks from entering the farm.

Ejido land owners in the state of Sonora have waged legal battles against Penmont, the open-pit gold mine in Sonoro, since 2011. The mine is using up local water and contaminating the soil with cyanide and arsenic. Locals have obtained 67 rulings from the agrarian court, and they even protested outside the National Palace in November of last year.

Purépecha communities in Michoacan created their own communal government councils in order to defend themselves from organized crime and protect the forests. Criminal groups in the area are felling trees for timber and farming avocados. Nearby, Zitácuaro communities have created an Indigenous Guard to defend the forests and monarch butterflies. Eleven of them were killed when they attempted to evict organized criminals from the forest. In the state of Guerrero, 77 Indigenous communities have also set up community police forces to defend against the extractive industries and organized crime.

The list goes on and on: Masuel people in Cuetzalan, Puebla, for instance, recently stopped the construction of a high-tension cable that would have served the mining sector by marching and then camping in the area for nine months. And in late February, Nahua ejido communities in Ixtacamaxtitlán, Puebla, won another ruling against Canadian gold and silver company Almaden Minerals. They have also spent the past decade defending the forest against illegal loggers—and, in an assembly that took place in January, decided to erect a low gate to stop trucks from getting in.

Transnationals And Organized Crime Are Not So Different

In Mexico, the economic interests and greed of corporations and organized crime overlap. Though the US, Canadian, and European transnationals that operate here don’t document their corrupt relationships with officials in order to obtain permits, or their collaboration with organized crime, they sometimes slip up and say the quiet part out loud.

Rob McEwan, CEO of McEwen Mining, admitted in a news interview in 2015 that cartels were active near his mine in Sinaloa. Despite said cartels stealing US $8.5 million worth of gold, McEwan told reporters that “generally, we had a good relationship with them. If we want to go explore somewhere, you ask them, and they tell you no, but then they’ll say come back in a couple of weeks when we’ve finished with what we are doing.”

Cartels and mines often operate in the same territory and can have a mutually beneficial relationship, with organized crime groups ridding an area of communities or individuals opposed to extraction and charging workers a fee to work in the local mine. Los Zetas, for example, are known for controlling coal mines.

In Aquila, locals accuse Ternium, the CJNG, and Carteles Unidos, who are illegally logging in the area, of disappearing Díaz and Lagunes.

“We suspect everyone… there are a lot of interests involved. The mine wants to extend its exploitation period… and organized crime has been increasing its control of the region,” Ana Lagunes said.

Transnational companies “just see numbers that tell them how much money they’ll make,” said Salinas, when discussing how easily they murder activists who get in their way. “They are insatiable, predatory.”

Efforts to repress those who stand in the way of this environmental pillage are increasingly targeting whole communities. The Indigenous community of Pitayal, Oaxaca, has faced harassment, intimidation, physical violence, criminalization (through trumped-up charges), and political violence (like being refused resources for public services) as they resist the use of their common land for a mega-construction project.

And in the North, 20 Yaqui people were reportedly killed or disappeared in 2021. Some leaders have been imprisoned, and threats against others are constant. Guadalupe Flores, a Yaqui spokesperson, told Mongabay that violence is the way companies “generate psychosis so the inhabitants abandon their land.”

There are few Indigenous communities that haven’t faced violence from organized crime. Just weeks ago, on February 21, Alfredo Cisneros, an Indigenous councilperson and Purépecha forest defender who had denounced illegal logging in Sicuicho, Michoacan, was shot dead.

The Violent, Modern Continuation Of Colonization

As private interests—legal or illegal—continue to take over and use the land in destructive ways, they perpetuate what Mexican writer Luis Hernandez Navarro called a “new kind of colonization.”

Violence, as Mexican academics Ana Esther Ceceña and David Barrios write, is an efficient tool of the privileged and powerful for achieving social re-design. The instrumentalization of violence by transnationals and organized crime syndicates against Indigenous communities, activists, and communal lands across Mexico is a grim, persistent case in point.

“What can be done… has to do with how we look after our own life, what we value, how we ensure we can’t be divided, how we keep growing and also value the solidarity that has been a beaming light in all of this. It gives us hope. A deep well of hopelessness isn’t helpful to us. We look after our lives by standing up for them,” Ana Lagunes concluded.

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