Chiapas Government Arrests Opposition Politician for Anti-mining Organizer's Murder
On January 13, the Chiapas government arrested Walter Antonio León Montoya and accused him of being the "intellectual author" of the November 27 assassination of Chiapan anti-mining organizer Mariano Abarca Roblero. León Montoya is a former federal congressman from the opposition Institutional Revolution Party (PRI). Chiapan Gov. Juan Sabines is from the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which controls the state.
Abarca's organization, the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA), denies that León Montoya had anything to do with Abarca's murder. In a press release, the organization argues, "It would appear that the accusation that León Montoya planned the assassination of Mariano Abarca Roblero is a strategy of political revenge."
REMA has accused employees of the Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration of planning and carrying out Abarca's execution. The state arrested three former or current Blackfire employees after eyewitnesses identified them as the culprits.
León Montoya has been a stone in the Chiapas government's shoe since this past October, when he filed a lawsuit against Gov. Sabines and the entire Chiapas state legislature in an attempt to block the cancelation of the 2010 interim elections in Chiapas.
This past September, the state legislature approved a bill that postpones Chiapas' 2010 interim elections until 2012. The measure extends congressmembers' terms an extra twenty months, until the end of Gov. Sabines' term in 2012.
The same law also changes the name of the state's city councils from "ayuntamientos" ("city councils" in English) to "consejos municipales" (coincidentally, also "city councils" in English). The Chiapas state government will inaugurate the new "consejos municipales" in 2010. However, because there will be no elections in 2010, the state Congress will hand-pick all members of the new city councils.
In other words, the Chiapan Congress voted to extend its term twenty months, and it is using the pretext of a name change and an election postponement to forgo elections and hand-pick the new city councils in the entire state.
The state government knew the measure would be controversial--Gov. Sabines postponed official publication of the law for thirty days. During that thirty-day period, rumors swirled that the state government had postponed the elections, but the local press reports that government officials and members of Congress denied the accusations.
When the postponement was finally official, León Montoya filed a lawsuit against Sabines and the entire Congress. His lawsuit decried the secrecy surrounding the bill and argued that the cancelation of elections is unconstitutional. The lawsuit sought to overturn the new law.
REMA makes clear that León Montoya is no saint. It states, "REMA does not absolve Walter León Montoya of other accusations that have been leveled against him in the past, when various peasant, worker, and transportation organizations came out against him in October 2009 and accused him collaborating with foreign companies in order to plunder the state's resources without authorization." However, it argues that in the Abarca murder case, León Montoya appears to be the Sabines administration's scapegoat.
León Montoya's arrest appears to kill two birds with one stone: it effectively kills any legal action León Montoya had undertaken against the postponement of the 2010 elections, and it may also let employees of the Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration, whom REMA accuses of planning and carrying out the Abarca assassination, off the hook. Blackfire employees--including one of the men currently in jail for his murder--have a long, legally documented history of harassment, threats, and violence against Abarca and his family.
REMA argues that there is no evidence against León Montoya, and it refutes the little evidence the government claims it has against him. All of the government's evidence against León Montoya comes from the testimony of a witness the government refuses to identify.
The government reports that in October León Montoya, accompanied by "armed persons," arrived at a REMA blockade outside Blackfire's mine and "threatened to cause harm to the organizer [Abarca] if he continued to cause transportation problems." REMA's blockade aimed to prevent trucks from entering and leaving the Blackfire mine. León Montoya is the leader of the Organization of Chiapas Transport Companies (OTRACH).
REMA counters the government's accusations: "REMA Chiapas denies outright the supposed witness' assertions. REMA Chiapas does not know of any confrontation between REMA and León Montoya or members of his guild. In fact, REMA has not personally met León Montoya." REMA also notes that police asked Abarca's children (who have also allegedly suffered physical attacks at the hands of Blackfire employees for their father's activism) if they knew León Montoya, and they told the police that they did not.
REMA fears that León Montoya's arrest signals that the government is moving to free the men it believes are responsible for the assassination and thus cover up Blackfire employees' alleged involvement. It is particularly concerned about the case of Ricardo Antonio Coutiño Velasco, a contractor hired by Blackfire to produce propaganda videosthat aim to refute claims that Blackfire's mine causes environmental destruction that could have harmful health consequences for Chicomuselo residents. Witnesses report that they saw Coutiño Velasco with other suspects in the case both immediately prior to and following the murder.
Coutiño Velasco is, according to REMA, the nephew of Chiapan Senator Manuel Velasco Coello, a member of the Mexican Green Party (don't be fooled by the name; the only thing "green" about the party is its logo). REMA accuses Sen. Velasco Coello of using his influence to intervene in his nephew's previous legal problems. Domingo Lechón, a representative from the Chiapan non-profit Otros Mundos, which partners with REMA in the anti-mining movement, told Narco News that the government arrested Coutiño Velasco in 2009 for "crimes related to drug trafficking. However, the case did not advance because of his influential family."
In response to the possible cover-up underway, REMA declares, "REMA maintains its demand that [the government] fully investigate the transnational Canadian mining company Blackfire, its workers, government officials, the Chicomuselo mayor from the PRD who is involved with the Canadian mining company in acts of corruption, and other people who are involved in the murder of Mariano Abarca Roblero." REMA's press release specifically demands that the government arrest nine people, the majority Blackfire employees or government officials. REMA claims those nine people participated in or have knowledge of illegal activities related to the case, including bribing local officials, harassing and threatening Abarca prior to his murder, and helping the murder suspects flee.
Originally published in Narco News on January 15, 2010.