In 2006, the Mexican government ceded over 143,000 acres of indigenous land to a Canadian mining company. When Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver Mines celebrated the grand opening of its first Mexican mine in September, communities on the ground felt some familiar impacts. “We felt a ‘boom’ come from the ground and then there was this crack in the wall,” said Bernardo Vásquez. The cracks would appear, sometimes suddenly, sometimes over time as the ground quivered from explosions as the mineshafts were being hollowed out below.
One of over 60 damaged buildings in the Zapotec
Vásquez points to a discolored spot in the corner of the room where water seeps from another crack when it rains. “We built this house 25 years ago,” he said. “I hope my house doesn’t fall down, but the cracks keep getting bigger. If the walls give way, where will we go? We live in extreme poverty. There’s no future for us.”
Like most Oaxacans, Bernardo Vas- quez never made it past the sixth grade. Income is irregular and sometimes dries up completely, so the family relies on its small cornfield in hard times. With no running water, the springs that quench the crops and animals are all that stands between the Vásquez family and nutritional disaster. “The mine is a death sentence,” said Bernardo’s brother Hilario. “They poison our corn and our cattle. They dry up our water. They bring in pistoleros to push us around. But everyone knows what happens when the foreigners come. We will shut down the mine, cueste lo que cueste,” whatever the cost. A dozen heads nod agreement.
The family patriarch, Abuelo, or grandpa, mutters from under his cowboy hat that the Canadians’ industrial slurry pond—dug just a few hundred yards from the village’s freshwater reservoir—will contaminate the groundwater like so many other mines have done across Mexico. “God knows how many microbes I’ve drank in my day,” Abuelo says, “but these chemicals, well that’s a different question.” Talk turns to the nearly 12 million tons of waste the company predicts it will produce, as well as the villagers’ acquaintances from neighboring towns who ended up with nothing to eat and nowhere to go after gringo corporations finished with similar mining projects.
Seven miles away in San Jerónimo Taviche, toxic byproducts from older mining projects poisoned the soil and groundwater. After losing their farmland, many residents moved to urban slums in the capitol city.
“For years animals were dying in Taviche and the people didn’t know why,” said José David, a veterinarian in the nearby urban center of Ocotlán de Morelos. When a peasant’s cow took ill in 2008, he knocked on David’s door and asked if he would come take a look. “But when we got to the village, the cow was already dead.” David took tissue samples from the cow and water samples from nearby streams for analysis. The results confirmed the animal died after ingesting dangerous amounts of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. Lead levels in the streams were well above
At another mine site 45 miles to the north, Fortuna’s former partner on the San José Project, Continuum Resources, contaminated the soil with heavy metals and dried up 13 of the 20 springs in the indigenous
A few decades ago this kind of project would have been illegal in San José del Progreso. Part of an ejido—communally held indigenous land constitutionally protected by the land redistribution programs of the Revolution of 1910—the land around San José del Progreso was reserved for agricultural use by the community. But in 1994 President Carlos Salinas repealed those protections to open up the countryside to foreign investors under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Today ejido dwellers are still afforded some measure of control over their land—any industrial project taking place there must have written approval from the ejido council—but the land is no longer viewed as sacrosanct by government or business, even if it remains so in the eyes of indigenous peasants like those in San José del Progreso.
Canadian corporations run 70 percent of the mines currently operating in
Fortuna never made an agreement with the ejido council, nor did it bother to fill local communities in on its plans before showing up with the rights to a swath of public land five times the size of
“Native people have the right to be consulted before this kind of project takes place,” said Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez, resident of
In 2009, Vásquez Sánchez and other ejido residents passed a referendum calling for the mine’s closure. If the mayor didn’t make the company leave, residents warned, then they would. The mayor didn’t budge. Hundreds of residents from
Such a brazen challenge of authority irked local politicians. “The mayor walked around with a sawed-off shotgun like in the wild west movies,” said a former soldier who drives a taxi in
Human rights groups have charged Canadian mining companies with violating laws relating to everything from workplace safety to forced child labor. But with plenty of spare change for the occasional fine from regulators and little media scrutiny, companies are often able to continue mining. In
“The majority of the population has supported us from the beginning,” said Manuel Ruiz-Conejo, who runs community relations for Fortuna’s subsidiary, Minera Cuzcatlán. “We’ve been working in relative tranquility, because the population sees the opportunities this investment provides them in development, education and work.”
But residents say Fortuna uses these “community relations” programs to buy support for the project. “People who back the mine and the government are poor just like everyone else,” said a local community radio reporter. “But somehow they can afford new cars and nice houses. Their kids go to private schools in the city. The businessmen offer these things as incentives to people they think are sympathetic. Now those people will fight their neighbors to keep their nice things,” he said.
The Cost of Dissent
The padre always liked to listen to the Beatles,” said Sergio Perez, the priest’s personal assistant. It was Sunday evening and the old mission-style church should have been bustling with activity, but a sign taped to the sanc-tuary door read “No Service Today.” Across the highway in San José del Progreso, police stood guard at the vacant city hall. Both buildings were without their masters—the priest in handcuffs at the hospital and the mayor and his health minister in the morgue.
Father Martin’s office was just the way he left it the Sunday before, when he rushed out with Perez for evening mass in
Earlier that day, a group of villagers had stumbled upon members of
Now Perez watched in horror as the priest lay curled on the ground, taking kicks from the masked assailants. “I got out of the car and shouted for the crowd to help, but everyone just watched. It was as if they all knew in advance.”
The men dragged Father Martin into a pickup truck and drove to a house down the road. As the crowd dispersed, Perez called the police: “Two officers came an hour later. I told them what happened, that they were holding the padre in that house down the street. But they wouldn’t do anything. They just left.”
After tying Father Martin naked to a chair, beating him senseless, and threatening to set him on fire, the kidnappers drove him to a hospital in
Faced with public outrage over the incident, the state dropped the charges against Father Martin and released him. The Church quickly whisked him to an unknown diocese for his safety. There was no investigation into the incident. Though the identities of the kidnappers are widely known, they have never been charged.
Ed Williams is a reporter at KDNK FM in Carbondale,