Mexico: Blood for Silver, Blood for Gold

In the dry and dusty town of San José del Progreso south of Oaxaca, Mexico, a funeral was held on March 17 for a slain community leader who actively opposed a Canadian silver and gold mining project in his community. But in spite of the fear and intimidation,  anti-mining activists from San José together with other surrounding communities affected by the mine, will continue on in their resistance.

The ongoing, violent conflict around the Fortuna Silver’s Trinidad/Cuzcatlán Mine in SanJosé del Progreso, Oaxaca, Mexico

“One thing is clear: this was a political hit. Bernardo was murdered because he dared to speak out.” (Dawn Paley)


Stop the Assassinations

In the dry and dusty town of San José del Progreso south of Oaxaca, Mexico, a funeral was held on March 17 for a slain community leader who actively opposed a Canadian silver and gold mining project in his community. During the somber event, attended by roughly 300 members of this Zapotec community, the collective grief, solidarity and resistance were palpable. Fear also hung in the air; some people held placards proclaiming their resistance in front of their faces to avoid being photographed.

Mother and Family Grieving

The fear is understandable—Bernardo Vásquez was the second anti-mining activist to be shot dead in the past two months. Three others on the scene at the shootings were also gravely wounded by gunshots and remain in serious condition.

Why the violence?

Why all the bloodshed in this small Zapotec community? The common thread connecting the victims of the recent violence is that—together with a coalition of people from other nearby communities—they all actively oppose the presence of the Canadian company, Fortuna Silver Inc.’s Trinidad/Cuzcatlán silver and gold mine in their community in the Ocotlán valley about a 45 minute drive from Oaxaca.

“You Always Fought for us…”

Bernardo Vásquez died on March 15 when driving with two passengers and was ambushed by armed assailants at an intersection near his community. His brother Andrés and friend Rosalinda Canseco remain hospitalized in serious condition. In an interview at the hospital, Rosalinda’s father said doctors fear they may have to amputate her leg.

Just two months prior to his own recent assassination, Vázquez held a press conference as spokesperson for a local coalition of people opposed to the Trinidad/Cuzcatlán mine, to denounce the January 23 shooting death of Bernardo Méndez. Méndez was part of a group of people from San José that confronted a work crew constructing a water pipeline in San José. The local residents suspected that the project would divert the arid community’s scarce water resources to the mine. An argument ensued and municipal police arrived on the scene. According to various eyewitness accounts, the town’s mayor, Alberto Mauro Sánchez, gave orders over a radio for the police to “chingar”—fuck up the protestors. The police then opened fire into the crowd. Méndez later died of 7 gunshot wounds. Abigail Vásquez, the sister of recently slain Bernardo Vázquez, was seriously wounded. The assailants were photographed in the act and three people were arrested, two of whom have subsequently been released. The mayor has not been charged with any crime.

During the press conference, Vázquez and the Coalition of People United in the Ocotlán Valley (COPOVU) held the Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver and its local Trinidad/Cuzcatlán mining activities directly responsible for the murder and other related violence, and called for the suspension and removal of all the mining company’s activities in San José. The anti-mining group also called for the cancellation and removal of the mining project.

Three Placards Saying “STOP”

Fortuna Silver denies any links to its activities and the violence

Mining officials dismissed allegations that the mine was diverting water from the community, and denied any links between the recent violence and their mining operation in San José del Progreso. In response to COPOVU’s accusations that the mine is responsible for the violence in San José, CEO Jorge Ganoza called the allegations “misinformation”.

“We, as a company, and our team in Oaxaca, are saddened by these senseless and continued acts of violence in the town of San José, related to a long-standing political struggle for local power,” Ganoza said in a statement published by several Canadian newspapers. “It is in no way related to our activities or involves company personnel…”. Several Oaxaca state government officials concurred with Ganoza’s version of events. But critics point out that there has been a long history of violence in surrounding communities since Fortuna Silver first arrived on the scene in 2006.

History of Mine-related violence

In 2009 roughly three hundred opponents to Fortuna Silver’s mining operation participated in a blockade of the entrance to the Trinidad/Cuzcatlán. After 40 days, the blockade was brutally broken when some 700 police stormed into the community in full anti-riot gear, with automatic weapons, tear gas, attack dogs and a helicopter. People were beaten and more than 23 people were arrested; some were detained for three months.

In 2010 the mayor of San José, along with another municipal official, was killed in a confrontation between residents in favor of the Trinidad/Cuzcatlán mine and those opposed to it. A local priest supporting anti-mining activists was brutally beaten and detained.

The ongoing violence has divided the residents of San José and created a tense, fearful atmosphere in the once peaceful community. One local activist who has been involved in resistance to the mine from its beginning estimated that the vast majority of residents were opposed to the mine when it first started breaking ground just outside of the town. He said, however, that the ongoing repression and intimidation—coupled with bribes to prominent members of the community—has reduced the number of residents who actively resist the mine today. Nonetheless, he estimated that roughly half of the community actively opposes the mine, and that many others are against the mine but now fear open resistance to because of the ongoing violent repression.

Why the opposition to the Trinidad/Cuzcatlán mine?

In the arid Ocotlán valley of Oaxaca, as in many parts of the state, water is a scarce and precious resource. Residents opposed to the mine argue that processing silver and gold is water-intensive and puts their local aquifers at risk. Their argument has strong precedent. Another Oaxacan community with years of painful experience with mining operations, Calpulálpam, had its water supply devastated by the Canadian Continuum Mine there. Aquifers were disrupted and local residents report that 13 local streams completely vanished due to mining activities in their community. Local springs were also so polluted by chemicals used to process ore that livestock died from the contamination. The devastation was so flagrant that the Mexican Federal Environmental Protection Agency eventually ordered the mine to suspend all activities.

Thus the violent confrontation in January between the group of local residents and workers installing a water pipeline is solidly based on local history. The actual motives behind the project remain unclear—transparency about public works in San José is sorely lacking. While Fortuna Silver continues to flatly deny any link between a purported municipal potable water project and mining activities, many local residents remain unconvinced. And Mexico’s three leading national newspapers, including the respected daily La Jornada, reported that the disputed water pipeline was indeed related to the mining operation and all of them linked the violence to tensions in the community around the mine’s activities there.

Local and national human rights and other civil society organizations speak out

The day after the March 15 assassination of Bernardo Vásquez, an umbrella organization made up of prominent human rights and civil society organizations, the Oaxacan Collective in Defense of Territories, issued a statement denouncing his murder, along with the ongoing violence. The declaration points out that Vázquez had repeatedly alerted state and federal authorities—since 2008—of the risk of violent confrontations due to the initiation of mining operations by Fortuna Silver’s Trinidad/Cuzcatlán without the consent of the community, as legally required by international accords signed by Mexico. Mexico in 1990 ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, Article 16 of which reads “In cases in which the State retains the ownership of mineral or sub-surface resources or rights to other resources pertaining to lands, governments shall establish or maintain procedures through which they shall consult these peoples, with a view to ascertaining whether and to what degree their interests would be prejudiced, before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands.”

The Oaxacan Collective in Defense of Territories statement also reports that the members of the anti-mining coalition COPUVO repeatedly complained that the mining company was financing armed groups in the community with the endorsement of the municipal president of San José del Progreso, Alberto Mauro Sánchez. The collective’s statement declares that the lack of justice and application of law by government officials has created a dangerous atmosphere of impunity in San José. The statement closes with a demand for the immediate departure of the Trinidad/Cuzcatlán mine.

Eulogy for Bernardo Vásquez

In a eulogy for Bernardo Vásquez, Dawn Paley, an independent Canadian journalist, wrote:

“Bernardo Vasquez was a clear spoken Zapotec activist, a brother, son, and cousin, who dared to stand up against a mining project in the territory of his people. He was well aware that a paramilitary group was operating in San José Progreso, Oaxaca, and that it was organized to snuff out opposition to a gold mine , owned by Vancouver based Fortuna Silver. … One thing is clear: this was a political hit. Bernardo was murdered because he dared to speak out, ignoring the climate of fear imposed upon his people.”

The stakes are high, but the struggle continues

Fortuna Silver’s $55 million Trinidad/Cuzcatlán mine began its production in September last year and projected to produce 1.7 million ounces of silver and 15,000 ounce of gold in 2012. The national Canadian Pension Plan has invested $9,000,000 of public funds in Fortuna Silver Mines Inc.

Future conflicts are likely as the mine expands its operations in its 58,000 hectare holdings just south of Oaxaca city in coming years, particularly in light of the ongoing impunity enjoyed by local officials and hired guns in San José. During the funeral, many residents expressed their concerns that the lack of justice for those responsible for the recent shootings has created an atmosphere of impunity that is likely to foster more bloodshed.

Hands raised in Continued Resistance

But in spite of the fear and intimidation, the March 17 funeral clearly illustrated that anti-mining activists from San José together with other surrounding communities affected by the mine, will continue on in their resistance. Indignation and defiance hung in the air. Just before his coffin was lowered into the ground, a friend of Vasquez said to the crowd: “They can cut a flower, but they cannot stop the Spring.”

Funeral Procession

Jonathan Treat is a journalist, professor, activist and founding member of the non-profit organization, University Services and Knowledge Networks of Oaxaca (SURCO, A.C.), He works with SURCO as Academic Director and Coordinator of Delegations looking issues related to the defense of indigenous territories in Oaxaca and Chiapas.

All photos by Jonathan Treat.