Mexico: Pueblan Villagers Take Fight for Water Rights to Mexico City

National government representatives of the Mexican state of Puebla have their offices on the Avenida de Chapultepec, a four-lane boulevard in a fashionable part of Mexico City, better known to locals as the Federal District, or D.F. ("day-eff-ay"). Ordinarily, passersby would be able to recognize this building from the large brass lettering on the façade facing the street, which reads "Representation of the Government of the State of Puebla." Since April 11th of this year, though, that lettering has been obscured by tents, clotheslines, and posters bearing such slogans as "Government, Beater of Women" that now cover the sidewalk and extend into the street in front of the building.

ImageThe encampment in front of the government building is populated by roughly 150 people from the largely indigenous municipality of Huaxcaleca, in Puebla’s mountainous Western Sierra Madre region. The residents of Huaxcaleca, who mostly belong to the Nahua indigenous group, have established their plantón, as the encampment is called in Spanish, to demand autonomy over their communities’ hard-won potable water system and call for an end to Puebla government repression of indigenous political activity. The plantón‘s residents belong to Anahuac National Unity (UNA), a community organization whose stated goal is increased autonomy and a better standard of living for indigenous people in Puebla.

Political encampments are nothing new in the D.F.; just last fall, supporters of presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador made international headlines by shutting down the capital city’s main plaza for several weeks after controversial election results gave the presidency to his opponent, Felipe Calderón. Of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who flooded that plaza, there were none still living there by June of this year. By contrast, the group of Pueblans camped outside the state offices are a tiny group, and yet they show no sign of leaving anytime soon.

Street Scene

The plantón in Mexico City consists of several large tents which extend well into one lane of the busy Avenida de Chapultepec, as well as tarps spread out to provide rain cover for a portable grill and potable water in five-gallon jugs. On a recent Friday afternoon, Huaxcalecan women did sewing and other chores while a group of men passed out flyers explaining their situation to passersby and requested donations to help supply the group with food and other essentials. Several small children paced back and forth along the tents, one young enough to be crawling on all fours despite the layer of urban grime coating the sidewalk. Residents’ clothing dries on clotheslines strung between tents and the government office building, whose walls have been plastered with unflattering caricatures of Pueblan politicians. Still, what first catches the eye of pedestrians is the collection of blown-up, full-color photographs of women and children displaying bloody wounds inflicted by state police in Huaxcaleca last October.

The UNA group intends to maintain their encampment until it receives credible assurances from government officials that its demands will be met. Specifically, UNA is demanding that control of the Huaxcaleca running water system return to the residents who established it, that the government provide financial support to make running water affordable for Huaxcaleca’s impoverished residents, and that government violence against outspoken community members ends immediately.

At the encampent of Huaxcaleca residents

Encampent of Huaxcaleca residents

UNA’s representatives say that they are confronting the government in the Federal District instead of in Puebla because of the security provided by greater public visibility. Having suffered violent repression in their home state, the demonstrators are convinced that their encampment here in the capital is the only safe way to continue voicing their demands.

UNA’s Origins

A leaflet distributed by UNA members in the D.F. in early June gives a full narrative of the group’s origins and its reasons for bringing the encampment to the capital. Individual members, though eager to relate their situation to passersby, asked not to be quoted by name, out of fear of government reprisal.

The course of events that brought UNA to the D.F. began in 1997, when members of the various indigenous communities in Huaxcaleca came together as UNA to address local poverty and promote their human rights. In particular, UNA hoped to introduce new, autonomously-run public works projects for Huaxcaleca.

UNA demonstrators in the D.F. attribute many of the problems that plague Huaxcaleca to what they say is a long-standing tradition in Puebla of collusion between local caciques (political bosses) and municipal and state governments controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, "pree"). The PRI was defeated in national elections 2000, after eight decades of running Mexico as a one-party state. However, the party continues to play a very powerful role in local and state governments throughout the country, including in the politically turbulent state of Oaxaca.

UNA’s first large initiative, to introduce potable running water to Huaxcaleca, has been a continual struggle. According to an extensive written account distributed by organizers at the encampment, the municipal and state governments—led by Huaxcaleca Municipal President Gumersindo Montiel Hernández and Puebla Governor Melquíades Morales Flores—both have demonstrated persistent resistance to the project.

The Conflict Begins

Without support from local government, UNA’s leaflet says, the community-based organization took on the bulk of the work itself. Grassroots efforts to raise funds for the topographical adjustments necessary to accommodate new water pipes were a success, as were lobbying efforts to secure approval from state and federal hydrological and sanitation authorities.

In 2000, the new water system was completed and given state approval, despite continuing opposition from local lawmakers. Reluctantly, the municipal government agreed to recognize the authority of UNA committees to manage the operation and administration of the system.

It briefly appeared that a peaceful solution to Huaxcaleca’s water problem had been achieved. In 2001, UNA won another important victory when Governor Morales agreed to provide the group’s Operation and Administration Committee with a monthly subsidy of 5 pesos (about USD $0.50) per user of the water system, as UNA’s leaflet says, "for the execution of works of social benefit in these communities." UNA began to collect an additional 5 pesos per user to contribute towards the maintenance of the system.

ImageUnfortunately, UNA says, the promised government subsidies never arrived in full, and suspicions arose that the state was purposely undermining the potable water system as an excuse to seize the infrastructure and turn operations over to PRI authorities. Demands for subsidies increased, but were met with silence. In the meantime, UNA continued to operate the water system and initiated a community-run bakery and other projects "to create more self-employment" in the area.

Lack of funding for the water system continued to be a major problem. In 2002, residents agreed to pay 25 pesos bimonthly towards potable water. This significant raise in fees still proved inadequate, however, and UNA’s frustration with the absence of governmental support continued to grow.

Escalating Repression

Throughout this period, UNA says, vocal community members were the targets of a "constant and systematic attitude of harassment and violent repression on the part of the state government, the municipal government, and PRI-affiliated caciques." In response to this harassment and government intransigence on the matter of water subsidies, UNA organized an encampment in one of the key roadways leading into the Western Sierra Madre. This nonviolent protest attempted to achieve "a solution to the demands of justice and to publicly denounce" the living situation of the people of Huaxcaleca, according to one of UNA’s leaflets.

The organization’s opponents were quick to crack down on this encampment, and to "criminalize the leaders of the organization," as the same leaflet puts it, by "accusing them of fabricated crimes."

In May of 2005, tensions mounted higher still. After local elections produced an overwhelming victory for the PRI, community members denounced the elections as fraudulent (a perennial claim against the PRI) and installed a new encampment in front of Huaxcaleca’s municipal headquarters. This encampment remained until September 2005, when a peace agreement was brokered by the federal House of Deputies’ Commission on Indigenous Affairs and the Mexican Network for the Defense of Human Rights for All.

This temporary peace was not to last for long. Community representatives soon decried the PRI and its supporters for not following through on multiple key provisions of the agreement. To this day, UNA says, its opponents have never completed their side of the bargain.

Simmering tensions erupted on October 13, 2006, when the municipal police attacked civilians throughout the villages of Huaxcaleca. According to an UNA leaflet, the police "arrived in the communities assaulting children, women, and elderly people, beating them and causing them grave injuries." Photographs of the injured people are displayed around the current encampment.

Community members immediately responded by petitioning local officials for a full investigation of the incident, but no investigation has been made. UNA’s literature states that the municipal police have continued to intimidate them since October through such methods as frequently firing bullets into the air.

The most severe cases of recent repression involve three men from Huaxcaleca: Miguel Lazcano Sedas, Germán Galindo Pedraza, and Ángel González Pinillos, all of whom held prominent positions in the community and have been vocal critics of the PRI’s actions. Lazcano was arrested by local forces on January 18, 2007, and accused of what UNA says are fabricated charges of rioting and property damage. Galindo and González were arrested and charged with rioting eight days later, at a meeting to which they were invited by Huaxcaleca’s municipal president—a deliberate trap, the men’s supporters say, devised to apprehend them without a warrant.

ImageAll three prisoners have protested the motives and conditions of their detention and told family members they are beaten regularly in a police effort to obtain confessions to the charges against them. The aforementioned leaflet condemns the men’s imprisonment as "repressive, violent, and illegal," and characterizes it as part of municipal and state governments’ attempt "to prevent the indigenous communities from escaping poverty and breaking the control of the local PRI-allied caciques in the region."

Safety in the D.F.

UNA says that the D.F. encampment has suffered no harassment from law enforcement in the capital and there have been no attempts to make the demonstrators relocate. Organizers responded with surprise when asked if the D.F.’s police force had ordered them to stop blocking the sidewalk or move out of the street. By way of explanation, they cited articles 6 and 39 of the Mexican Constitution, which guarantee that free expression can only be curtailed when it "disrupts the public order," and that "national sovereignty resides essentially and originally in the people," respectively. Article 39 is written in large letters across a six-by-twelve-foot banner facing the street.

As of the last week in May, the encampment’s residents had received no response from the Puebla representatives they are petitioning. Organizers appear to be cautiously optimistic that they have made the right choice in establishing their encampment in the D.F., where they believe the government will be reluctant to use violence and forced to negotiate in good faith. "When the government makes agreements in Puebla," said Jose Luis, a demonstrator who asked that his last name not be used, "they just throw us in prison afterwards."

For more information, see related stories at the following websites:

Pseudo Elecciones 2006

Resistencia Creativa DF

La Jornada

El Universal

Intolerencia Diario