Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chiapas Murder Draws Criticism of Canadian Mining in Mexico

Canadian NGOs Call for Increased Oversight, Accountability; Mexican Communities Want Mines Closed

The recent murder of Chiapan anti-mining organizer Mariano Abarca Roblero has drawn sharp criticism of Canadian mining in Mexico. Abarca was shot to death in front of his home on November 27.  Three men linked to Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration Ltd. were arrested for the murder.  Blackfire owns a barite mine in Chicomuselo, Chiapas. Abarca, a local resident, was the leader of a campaign to close the mine at the time of his assassination.

In response to the murder, Mexican communities and organizations have mobilized to demand accountability for the murder and permanent closure of the Chicomuselo and other Canadian-owned mines.  Hundreds of people attended Abarca's funeral in Chicomuselo.  The funeral procession stopped at Blackfire's Chicomuselo office to demand justice.
Photos from Abarca's funeral:
Chicomuselo residents and representatives from other mine-affected communities formed a protest caravan to travel to Mexico City to demand justice.  The caravan stopped for rallies and events in Comitan, Chiapas, and the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The two-bus caravan then met up with representatives from other mining-affected communities in front of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City, where they held a protest.  Representatives from Oaxaca, San Luis Potosi, Jalisco, and Mexico City joined the delegates from Chiapas for a protest in Mexico City. 

The protesters stopped by the Mexican Ministry of Economics to deliver a letter demanding that Blackfire's mining concession in Chicomuselo be immediately cancelled.  According to a communique issued by Abarca's organization the Mexican Anti-mining Network (REMA), they told a Ministry representative, "If [the Ministry of] Economics doesn't cancel Blackfire's mining concession, the people will do it de facto.  We won't tolerate more deaths, nor more environmental destruction, nor division within the Community."  That isn't an idle threat: the community blockaded the road leading to the mine in July.

After meeting with an official from the Ministry of Economics, the caravan then headed to the Canadian Embassy to protest Abarca's murder.  According to the REMA communique, "We also stressed that they [the Canadian government] need to support laws that would give the government teeth to be able to hold accountable the mining companies that they are currently supporting economically, and which have a general conduct of violating human rights and democracy."

Laws With Teeth

When the mining-affected communities demand "laws that would give the government teeth" to hold mining companies accountable for their actions in foreign countries, they are referring to laws like Bill C-300, An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas Corporations in Developing Countries, which is currently making its way through the Canadian parliament.  The bill, according to Canadian NGO MiningWatch, would set corporate accountability standards that would determine eligibility for the political and financial support that the Canadian government currently provides to Canadian extractive companies.  These corporate accountability standards would include health, safety, security, and human rights criteria.  The bill would also create a complaints mechanism wherein affected communities could file complaints with the Canadian government.  If a company is found to be out of compliance with the corporate accountability standards, it would be ineligible for Canadian government support.

The Canadian NGO the Council of Canadians admits that the sanctions proposed in Bill C-300 are "modest."  However, they believe that the mining industry's staunch opposition to the bill demonstrates that the industry views the bill as a threat.   

The Harper administration has opposed Bill C-300

Another proposed bill, Bill C-354, would allow foreigners to sue Canadian companies in Canadian courts for human rights abuses, regardless of where the abuses take place.  According to the bill's sponsor, Peter Julian, the bill replicates the United States' Alien Tort Claims Act, which survivors of torture in other countries have used to sue their torturers in US courts.

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow linked Abarca's murder to the Canadian government's inaction when mining companies it supports commit abuses. "A man deeply involved in the protest against the Canadian mining company Blackfire has been murdered outside his home," said Barlow. "This tragic outcome can be traced directly to the Harper government's refusal to end the impunity currently enjoyed by Canadian mining companies." 

Gordon Peeling, president and CEO of the Canadian mining industry's lobbying group, The Mining Association of Canada, told the press, “It is not helpful in terms of the dynamic of the discussion for those that want to link these things. Their thinking is flawed if they try to link it [the murder] to C-300,” he added.

Perhaps Bill C-300 would have been too weak to prevent the assassination of Abarca, who had been the victim of threats and physical attacks since at least August 2008.  But the role of Canadian mining company Blackfire in the murder is unquestionable.

"Abarca Murder: Mission Accomplished"

The three men arrested for Abarca's murder are all current or former Blackfire employees.  

Jorge Carlos Sepúlveda Calvo is accused of shooting Abarca.  He was a driver for Blackfire. 

Chiapan authorities have not revealed the role they believe another detained man, Ricardo Antonio Coutiño Velasco, played in the murder.  Coutiño Velasco was a Blackfire contractor.

Caralampio López Vázquez is an operator and shift supervisor in the mine.  According to witnesses, he drove the motorcycle in which the murders fled.

Blackfire cannot claim the murder was an isolated incident.  REMA reports that in August 2008, three men wearing Blackfire employee vests beat Abarca and his son in their home.  They held Abarca's wife at gunpoint.  REMA says that in response to the attack, Abarca filed charges with the government.  The government did nothing.

In the summer of 2009, Chicomuselo residents entered into negotiations with Blackfire regarding a road the company had illegally built on their communal land.  The residents claim to be in possession of a January 2008 agreement signed by the company that determined where Blackfire should build the road to the mine.  The company ignored the agreement and build the road in a place the Chiapas state government says it shouldn't have.  When negotiations broke down between residents and Blackfire, the residents began to fence off the road in question in order to close it.  According to the complaint anti-mining organizer Gustavo Castro Soto says residents later filed with the government, "Luis Antonio Flores (Blackfire Public Relations Officer), Rene Salvador Cartajena, Caralampio Lopez, and another man, along with Blackfire employees, came out and threatened to kill us and attack us with the sharp weapons and the firearms that they were armed with.  For these reasons we didn't close the road.  We decided to leave so that we wouldn't be led into the violent or deadly confrontation that they were hoping for.  They tried to run over the compañeros with their machinery.  Therefore today we ask that Gov. Juan Sabines Guerrero and his administration cancel [Blackfire's] permission in this ejido [communally held land]."
It should be noted that Caralampio Lopez, mentioned in the complaint as part of this threatening mob, is charged with driving the getaway motorcycle in Abarca's murder.  Caralampio Lopez was reportedly a current Blackfire employee at the time of Abarca's murder.  In other words, residents reportedly filed a formal complaint against Lopez for being part of a mob that threatened Chicomuselo residents with bodily harm when they tried to close an illegally constructed road, and Blackfire appears to have done nothing.

Just days before his murder, 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 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.    The government had cited Roblero Perez and Flores Villatoro to testify regarding the charges the day of Abarca's murder, but they failed to appear.  Abarca was murdered later that evening.

On December 7, Chiapas state authorities finally acted.  They temporarily closed Blackfire's mine in Chicomuselo.  Blackfire itself reportedly closed the mine and removed its light machinery soon after Abarca's death.  The Chiapas government only made the act official by hanging a "Closed" sign on the gates.

The government claims the closure has nothing to do with Abarca's murder.  According to the government, "The reason for the closure of said company is due to the creation of new roads without the authorization related to environmental impact, suspended particle emissions, as well as runoff and wastewater and changing the use of soil in an important area." 

Pollution is the principal reason that Abarca and REMA were protesting Blackfire's barite mine.  When he was alive, Abarca told everyone who would listen about the pollution the mine caused in Chicomuselo.  According to Castro Soto, even after the brutal August 2008 beating at the hands of alleged Blackfire employees, "He continued fighting.  He decried the lack of water in the streams and the consequences of the explosions.  He decried the pollution of the rivers; they're full of mud and the fish have all died.  Livestock and other animals have died."

The Chiapas-based Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center is demanding that the government turn the temporary closure of Blackfire's mine into a permanent one.  "This Human Rights Center celebrates that last Monday the barite mine located in Chicomuselo county and operated by Black Fire Exploration has been closed.... However, we consider it necessary that the cancelation not only be temporary; rather, it should be permanent now that the negative effects insistently denounced by residents have cost Mr. Mariano Abarca Roblero his life.  He was assassinated allegedly for his active activism against the Canadian company's exploitation.  It is also urgent that measures are taken so that this is not repeated, to guarantee that in the future these sorts of companies don't set up shop, in order to avoid damages to the environment as happened in the Chicomuselo region with Blackfire Exploration's mining exploitation."

It's a shame Abarca had to give his life so that Chiapas authorities would finally act and close the mine.  Even more tragic is that the Canadian government, which heavily subsidizes its mining industry, has done absolutely nothing about Blackfire's human rights and environmental abuses.  Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and Peter Kent, Canada's junior foreign minister for the Americas, visited Chiapas just two days after the state government closed Blackfire's mine.  They were greeted by about fifty protesters who demanded that Blackfire's mine be closed and that the company pay for its crimes.  REMA requested a meeting with the dignitaries, but Jean and Kent refused the invitation, citing time constraints.
Photos from the Canadian dignitaries' visit:

All photos courtesy of Otros Mundos Chiapas.

Originally published in Narco News on December 14, 2009.


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