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Face-Off in Oaxaca Enviromental Showdown

Townspeople Unite to Protect Their Lands from International Mining Corporations

By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca, Narconews

May 9, 2009

At the very time when the new influenza virus A H1N1 was passing from nation to nation on a global journey, the ousted town authority of San José del Progreso, a village of 1400 residents in the municipality of Ocotlán de Morelos in the state of Oaxaca, denounced “outside agitators” for participating in a protest against the environmental destruction that would result from operating a gold and silver mine would cause.

The only outside agitators these days seem to be from Mars or Saturn. Everyone else lives on planet Earth. As was pointed out by Juan Carlos Avila in La Jornada, on May 7 [1], if authorities believe that wearing an “anti-viral” face mask will keep people quiet, they are mistaken. The people of Oaxaca are uniting with other indigenous peoples, particularly in Latin America, who fall victims to mine exploitation. In Oaxaca, over 80 mining concessions have been granted to transnational companies, most of them Canadian. One such battle-line has been drawn against Fortuna Silver Mines, its Mexican front-company Cuzcatlán and Continuum Resources Ltd. The site: a rural area of rolling hills and Zapoteco villages.

The other side of the battle, waged by English language marketing articles, insists that gold and silver mining can be done in an environmentally friendly way, and invites investors to buy shares in Fortuna. More immediately for the Ocotlán residents, consent of the local authorities was purchased. How the state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and the president of Mexico Felipe Calderon, along with officials of environmental agencies, have been persuaded to sell concessions is not known. But there is no way to pretend that a mining enterprise adds to “development,” or in any way benefits the local residents, much less the environment.

More than 400 people attended a first forum on April 17 and 18, 2009, sponsored by thirteen civil organizations. The National Forum Weaving Resistance for the Defense of our Lands included activists from Guatemala, Honduras, Guerrero, Morelos and Mexico City, as well as the local Oaxaca contingent. Their next action was to close the mine La Trinidad in San José del Progreso, by action of the newly-elected town authorities and the witness of a notary public, which made it a legal town action.

Some 300 residents (in a town of 1400, this must be nearly all the mobile adults except for the 70 who support the former president) of San José blocked the main access to La Trinidad with barricades against workers for Cuzcatlán, as the local subsidiary of Canadian Fortuna Silver Mines is called.

The ousted sell-out San José town president, Venancio Oscar Martínez Rivera, during a subsequent assembly of the town council, threatened the participants with a 38 caliber pistol. He was disarmed. Martínez Rivera’s supporters number about 70 people, who marched with him to demand that the government “secure the peace.” They had been told that 25 tons of cement would arrive from the government to benefit the program piso firme, i.e., put cement floors in their homes. The cement strategy is used frequently in rural Oaxaca to divide communities and buy supporters.

The residents’ blockade at the mine entrance was maintained from the 16th of March until the federal police intervened on May 6. The state and federal police arrived in a convoy at 8:30 in the morning, with clubs, shields, some weapons and teargas, and surrounded the protesters. Numbers vary: between 1500 and 2500 police, arriving in 54 trucks. On the federal highway 175, at the crossroad with the village of Magdalena, Ocotlán, about fifty people from the area armed with sticks, stones and machetes took a position in front of one convoy of Federal Preventive Police (PFP), and halted it. They declared that the convoy would not pass; the convoy responded with tear gas. The residents fell back, and then regrouped.

Among the protesters Alejandro Aquino Cosme, who had an arrest order out for him as one of the activist leaders, picked up a stone and hurled it at a cop who was struck on the jaw; three upper teeth were chipped.[2] Another official, Armando Jimenez Osorio, was also wounded by a rock, also in the teeth; three pieces of his dental plate were broken. The police finally repelled the protesters who retreated to the entrance of the town, shouting slogans. At the same time another group of federal and state police had arrived at the mine, and surrounded the women and men blocking it. One woman, armed with a rock in each fist, is quoted by Noticias as shouting, “We’re not leaving here!” Another woman armed with a machete declared, ”We defend our patrimony and we’re not going!”

About eight PFP with clubs and shields then blocked passage to reporters; two were pursued into an empty field and whacked by the PFP . Their commander, Gonzalo Rios, had told the police to let reporters pass. Reporters were later in the day assaulted again.

Several protesters who already had arrest orders against them remained in a vacant field. By 9:30 the state human rights observers (these are part of Ulises Ruiz’s government) had arrived to verify that no violations were committed. Several higher-up police commanders watched. The encampment in front of the mine was dismantled, and the mine cleared of traces of the dissidents, including literature from the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, the APPO. Finally, according to Noticias, ten were arrested; the commissioner of State Police, Jorge Alberto Quezadas Jimenez, claimed a “clean operation,” as did the commissioner of the Federal Preventive Police in Oaxaca, Armando Cabrera Vásquez.

The government informed us that the operation was “carried out with the supervision of representatives of the State Commission for Human Rights and agents of the Public Ministry of the Federation, along with notary publics who certified that the police units did not carry firearms, only riot gear.” Witnesses say the withdrawal of the PFP at 10:30 with their prisoners was marked with more rock throwing and shouted insults.

According to Cástulo López of the Committee in Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEP in its Spanish initials), the people won’t accept the mine. A new blockade appeared on the road by 11:30. At 12:30 the PFP decided to confront the protesters, chasing them even into their homes, breaking down doors, throwing their belongings onto the floor and arresting others. In this phase of the battle two reporters were confronted and their equipment was smashed. Another eight persons were arrested, bringing the total to eighteen; according to the group CODEP it was more than 20, according to “Kaos en la Red” it was 23. One arrested was a minor.

In support for the Ocotlán people, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers, (SNTE) supported also by the APPO, set up blockades and marches in the city of Oaxaca. Azael Santiago Chepi, secretary general of Section 22, said after nine hours of mobilizations in front of government buildings and on roadways, that a military presence in San José and Magdalena was unacceptable, and the prisoners must be freed. “We are not going to permit more aggressions, we will continue struggling, we are going to take to the streets to defend ourselves from political repression… we are going to coordinate with the people to take to the streets in a struggle against the governor Ulises Ruiz and against neoliberal policies…we are sending a message that we are not going to permit more repression like in 2006 and 2007, this is not going to be another Atenco.”

The union called on its membership to defend the townspeople in Ocotlán. What immediately happened on that same afternoon of May 6, is that union members arrived at the government administration buildings and evicted more than 2,000 bureaucrats. Roads were blocked for several hours.

Section 22 tried to establish negotiations with the government organizations which issued the mining permits: Secretary of the Environment (SEMARNAT, in its Spanish initials), Secretary of the Economy, the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) the National Water Commission, and the Secretary of Government. No residents had been informed or consulted. Santiago Chepi pointed out that nothing the people do or say seems to have any effect.

The prisoners were released that same night through the efforts of Section 22, which paid their bond. Five inhabitants of San Jose del Progreso emerged from the state penitentiary at Ixcotel, leaving four who were accused of the crime of “plunder.” At this time Section 22 (it was now almost midnight) explained that twenty-three inhabitants of San Jose and Magdalena had been arrested.

By morning the union had managed to obtain release for fourteen, eight from Magdalena, one of whom was the minor. Nine were legally held in prison because arrest orders had been issued previously. In its meeting with the secretary general of Government Jorge Toldedo Luis, Section 22 declared that if the prisoners are not free before its next state assembly, there will be unnamed consequences. Those released affirmed that they intend struggle harder. One, Luis Martinez, declared “We’re not going to stay with our arms crossed because they arrested us. We will go on. We are the people and we don’t chicken out.”

Five Ocotlán communities remain surrounded by police. CODEP and VOCAL (Voces Oaxaqueñas Construyendo Autonomìa y Libertad) have called on the public to aid them, and convoked a second national forum “In the name of life, we defend mother earth from the companies which poison and destroy nature.” The forum will take place on Saturday and Sunday, May 16 and 17 of 2009, on the esplanade of Ocotlán de Morelos.

Augustin Rios Cruz, a member of the Coordinating Committee in Defense of Natural Resources as well as a CODEP activist, insists that under no circumstances will the re-opening of the mine La Trinidad be permitted.


[1] [http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2009/05/07/index.php?section=correo].
[2] the various versions appeared in Noticias, May 7, and May 8 2009, Kaos en la Red and on the internet sent by CODEP.

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