Mariano Abarca Led a Growing Movement to Kick Canadian Mining Companies Out of Mexican Communities
Mariano Abarca Roblero, one of Mexico's most prominent anti-mining organizers, was shot to death on the evening of November 27, 2009, in front of his house in Chicomuselo, Chiapas. He left behind a wife and four children. Another man was wounded in the shooting.
The incident comes just days after Abarca filed charges against two Blackfire employees, Ciro Roblero Perez and Luis Antonio Flores Villatoro, for threatening to shoot him if he didn't stop organizing against Canadian mining company Blackfire's barium mine in Chicomuselo. According to a formal complaint filed by a government employee who works in the Chicomuselo municipal building, Roblero Perez arrived at the municipal building to say that he had gone to look for Abarca to "fuck him up in a hail of bullets." He also reportedly said that Abarca and other people were on a list of people Blackfire management wants to hurt. Blackfire public relations manager Luis Antonio Flores Villatoro was mentioned in the government employee's complaint as one of the people responsible for the list.
Ejido* authorities from the Nueva Morelia ejido in Chicomuselo county took the complaint seriously and helped Abarca launch an investigation. The day before the murder, Roblero Perez and Flores Villatoro were summoned to testify regarding the alleged death threats, but they failed to appear.
A History of Harassment
Even though local authorities acted to try to protect Abarca, the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA) blames the Chiapas state government for failing to protect the mining leader. On the contrary, the state government seems to have been complicit in Blackfire's legal harassment of Abarca.
On August 17, 2009, unidentified armed men in unmarked cars kidnapped Abarca as he was leaving an elementary school in Chicomuselo. He had visited the school to request permission on behalf of his organization, REMA, to use the building for an anti-mining meeting scheduled for August 29-30.
The kidnappers turned out to be police. They had arrested Abarca on charges filed by Blackfire regarding a June-July 2009 highway blockade REMA set up to prevent the passage of Blackfire trucks. REMA was protesting the company's failure to comply with promises it allegedly made regarding community development projects and environmental stewardship. According to community leaders, Blackfire's open-pit barium mine uses too much of the area's scarce water resources. They are concerned that the pollution could effect their crop cultivation in the near future.
The acting on Blackfire's formal complaint, the state government charged Abarca with attacks against public roadways, criminal association, organized crime, and offenses against the peace. Theoretically, organized crime charges are reserved for drug, arms, and human traffickers, and other members of Mexico's expansive mafia network. However, the Chiapas government has been known to accuse activists and community organizers of organized crime in order to take advantage of restricted due process rights for people accused of organized crime.
That is what happened in Abarca's case. The organized crime charged allowed the Chiapas government to imprison him under the highly controversial and international criticized legal instrument of "arraigo" or pre-charge detention. Under arraigo, the government can arrest a suspect and isolate him or her for months while it pressures and sometimes tortures the person into confessing.
The state government detained Abarca for eight days before it ceded to international public pressure to release him. Abarca was released and the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. His lawyer, Miguel Angel de los Santos, criticized the Chiapas government for ceding to the mining company's pressure to arrest Abarca. "There was no legal justification for his arrest and detention. Preliminary investigation began on June 12th, two days after the blockade, and was only just beginning to come together. The investigation had not advanced," he told Proceso in August following Abarca's release.
Structural Adjustment Strikes Again
Social discontent regarding mines in Mexico has been steadily building over the past ten years, beginning when the effects of a World Bank-mandated mining sector deregulation scheme were first felt. A confidential World Bank document entitled "Implementation Completion Report: Mexico Mining Sector Restructuring Project," which Narco News makes available to the public, outlines exactly how a nine-year loan project drastically transformed Mexico's mining sector.
The project, first proposed by the Word Bank in 1989 and quickly adopted by the Mexican government, aimed to deregulate the mining industry in Mexico. The Bank proposed the project because, as its Implementation Completion Report (ICR) explains,
Past lending of the Bank for mining in Mexico was oriented towards specific investment projects, with direct lines of credit to the sector... The lessons learned from those operations were that the continued development of the mining sector required increased access to land rights, reduced ownership limitations, revision of the tax legislation, a restructuring of existing institutional setups, as well as policies that stimulate private investment in mining by both domestic and foreign firms. The Bank Mining Sector Review identified an inadequate regulatory and institutional framework as the major constraint to increase private investment and further growth of the sector.
One of the Bank's main goals for the project was to open up Mexico's previously protected national mining industry to foreign companies; the Bank listed "open the sector to foreigners" as its first "strategy to restructure the sector." It hoped to do so by privatizing state-owned mining companies, slashing taxes, awarding mineral and land rights to private companies, and facilitating foreign companies' ownership of Mexican land in order to "contribute to the increased exploration and exploitation of the vast mining potential of the country, to take advantage of Mexico's strategic location near the United States and Canada."
The Bank proposed a set of changes to Mexican law in its Mining Sector Report, and the Mexican government--at that point still under one-party rule--rushed to implement them under a plan called the National Mining Modernization Program. In just four years (1990-1994), the legal framework for mining in Mexico underwent a radical change. Before the ink on the new laws was dry, the Bank began to dole out money to private mining companies to "help finance the surge in demand for investment funding that was expected to result from the improved policy and institutional setting for mining operations."
The Bank was thrilled with the results of the National Mining Modernization Program and its subsequent loans. According to the Bank, over the course of the project, which ended in 1998, over 8.7 million hectares of land were released and 17,220 new mining concessions were granted. As a result of the legal changes mandated by the loan, the time required for processing mining concessions went down from 5 years to 5 months, and the Mexican government's backlog of about 14,000 concession requests that were pending since 1989 disappeared virtually overnight. The Bank was so pleased with the results of the Mining Sector Restructuring Project that it wrote, "Future Bank participation in the sector does not seem justified anymore, in view that mining exploration/exploitation is now open to domestic and foreign investors."
The Bank's structural adjustment of Mexico's mining sector has played a key role in the battle for "land and territory" (as the Zapatistas refer to it) in the country. Private ownership, increased economic pressure on small and subsistence farmers, and top-down "development" projects are acutely felt in mineral-rich communities. According to Gustavo Castro Soto of the Chiapas-based non-profit Otros Mundos, "Beginning in 2000, almost 10% of the national territory has been ceded to transnational companies through mining concessions." REMA notes that in Chiapas, 15.21% of the state's total territory has been ceded through mining concessions. Many of those concessions don't expire until the year 2050. If the social unrest that frequently follows mining concessions is any indicator, Mexicans are not willingly handing over their land to foreign mining companies.
Mining Industry Under Fire
Mariono Abarca's murder comes at a time that the mining industry in Mexico is feeling the heat from Mexico's social movements. Inspired by the national movement of communities affected by hydroelectric dam projects, mining-affected communities are joining forces in a unified front against destructive mining practices.
In 2008, representatives from Chicomuselo travelled to the state of Jalisco to found REMA during the First Encounter of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining. Representatives from mining-affected communities in eleven states and the Federal District participated in the historic event: Chihuahua, Sonora, Nayarit, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, Mexico City, México State, San Luis Potosí, Coahuila, and Veracruz. REMA agreed at that meeting to raise consciousness about the social and environmental effects of mining. It also pledged that member organizations would support each other in their struggles against destructive mines in their communities.
One of the most high-profile joint actions that REMA carried out was a protest encampment in front of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City this past July. Abarca and representatives from other communities affected by Canadian mining companies participated in the encampment, which demanded the withdraw of Metallic Resources/NewGold, a Canadian company, from Cerro de San Pedro, San Luis Potosi. At the protest, Abarca spoke about Canadian mining companies' contamination of traditional water sources.
Following the protest, mining-affected communities won a temporary victory: just last month, a federal judge ordered that the Cerro de San Pedro mine be closed because the mining company had failed to comply with environmental stipulations. The closure comes after ten years of struggle waged by a broad coalition of San Luis Potosi civil society organizations, which include organizations linked to Mexico's center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and groups affiliated with the Zapatista's Other Campaign. They opposed the gold mining project because, in addition to environmental concerns, the Cerro de San Pedro is an official historic monument. NewGold has promised to appeal the ruling.
In Chiapas, Abarca led a previously mentioned highway blockade that prevented Blackfire trucks from entering and leaving the Chicomuselo mine this past June and July. The community was protesting the company's excessive use of scarce water supplies, its failure to follow through on commitments it reportedly made to the community, and its back-door maneuverings that allowed it to purchase 13.5 hectares of ejido land without the required approval of the ejido assembly. Blackfire claims it lost $120,000 pesos ($9,334 dollars) as a direct result of the blockade.
This past August, REMA held its Second Encounter of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining in Chiapas. Guatemalan communities who are resisting mining projects traveled to Chiapas to participate and share their experienes. Abarca helped organize the Encounter, and as previously mentioned, it was during the Encounter's organizing process that state police kidnapped Abarca and charged him with organized crime at Blackfire's request.
A communique signed by 25 Mexican organizations from six states and Mexico City holds Blackfire's owners responsible for Abarca's shooting and any resulting violence in the region. They call for a protest encampment outside of the Canadian Embassy and the Ministry of Economy headquarters in Mexico City on December 3 in solidarity with the people of Chicomuselo.
*An ejido is commonly-held land traditionally managed by assembly.