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blood on the silver - the high cost of mining concessions in oaxaca

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  • David Bacon
    BLOOD ON THE SILVER Assassinations and Violence - the High Cost of Mining Concessions in Oaxaca By David Bacon, NACLA Report, online edition
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 13, 2012
      Assassinations and Violence - the High Cost of Mining Concessions in Oaxaca
      By David Bacon, NACLA Report, online edition

      SAN JOSE DEL PROGRESO, OAXACA (11/12/12) -

      In the front room of Avigahil Vasquez Sanchez
      home in San Jose del Progreso, she's installed
      half a dozen little phone booths, used by town
      residents who have no phone of their own.
      Outside the windows above the telephones, the
      tree-lined street she lives on leads out to
      fields at the foot of cloud-topped hills. San
      Jose, at the edge of a valley an hour south of
      Oaxaca's capital city, is a pretty town.

      But this seemingly peaceful environment is
      deceptive. Since a mine began operation nearby,
      residents passing in the road view each other
      with suspicion. The fear is palpable in Vasquez'
      home as well. And one evening last March her
      fears became real. She remembers waiting at home
      for her brother Bernardo to return from the
      Oaxaca city airport:

      He called us at six that evening. I asked him to
      wait for us in the airport, because there were
      people looking for him. The day before a
      stranger had been asking for him, and that night
      a woman came asking to make a phone call. We
      didn't realize what was about to happen, that she
      was just finding out the time he'd be leaving

      At all the crossroads on the highway there were
      people watching to see when he'd pass by. After
      stopping at a gas station he saw there was a car
      following him. Then there was another car beside
      him. He thought it might be one of the taxi
      drivers from our town, but it wasn't. When the
      car pulled along side him they began to fire.
      The shots hit him in the back, and they forced
      him off the road at the crossroads to Santa
      Lucia, where he fell over the wheel. My cousin
      was sitting beside him, and was shot in the leg.
      - Avigahil Vasquez

      Jaime Vásquez Valencia, a passing taxi driver,
      stopped to help. He put Vasquez and his wounded
      brother and cousin into his taxi and drove them
      to the closest town. By the time they arrived,
      however, Bernardo Vasquez was already dead.
      Paramedics took his two wounded companions to the
      Specialties Hospital in San Bartolo Coyotepec.

      The assassination was planned. We knew he was
      bothering the mine, because he was getting a lot
      of threats. He was very quiet about it, but he
      told me, 'I know I'm going to die, because the
      mine doesn't like what I'm doing.' Most threats
      came on the phone. They'd say, 'You know,
      Bernardo, you're going to die.' There was a
      threat written on the wall of the spillway below
      the dam, saying 'Your end has come.' Leaflets
      would appear in town, saying, 'The end of
      Bernardo Vasquez has come.' When we'd tell him
      to be careful he'd say, 'I have to stay here. If
      my death is coming, I accept it.' He came to
      help people wake up, and because of his bravery,
      many people followed him. - Avigahil Vasquez

      Avigahil Vasquez Sanchez is the sister of
      Bernardo Vasquez, assassinated in March. The
      office of the group resisting the mine is in her

      The civil war inside San Jose del Progreso began
      when Fortuna Silver, a company directed by
      Peruvian mining engineers and backed by Canadian
      investors, decided to open a modern mine in an
      area where small-scale prospecting had taken
      place for many years. What the company and its
      Mexican subsidiary, Compañía Minera Cuzcatlan
      S.A. de C.V., envisioned was far from a small
      operation, however. In 2006 the Federal
      government granted the company a concession
      covering 58,000 hectares of land (143,321 acres,
      or 223 square miles.) On its website, the
      company refers to this area as "brownfields."
      Today it excavates and crushes 1500 tons of rock
      per day, extracting silver and gold in chemical
      leaching processes.

      San Jose's residents are Zapotec farmers who
      speak an indigenous language that is centuries
      old. The farming community constitutes an ejido,
      an association formed by Mexico's land reform
      laws. The mining project drove a deep wedge
      between town residents, at a time when many
      communities in Oaxaca were already divided
      between different political parties.

      The town's political authorities are supporters
      of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
      The party governed Oaxaca for seventy years. Its
      last governor, Ulises Ruiz, put down an uprising
      that grew out of a teachers strike in 2006 with
      massive violence. When town residents began
      questioning the mine project, the municipal
      president Venancio Oscar Martínez Rivera referred
      to them scornfully as "APPO sympathizers,"
      referring to the organization that fought the
      governor in the streets of Oaxaca city.

      Christina Pagano, a Fortuna Silver spokesperson,
      says "The company gained authorization to use
      land from the San Jose del Progreso Ejido via two
      public assemblies held by the Ejido members in
      2006 and 2007." But Avigahil Vasquez says it
      took a while for the town to wake up to what was
      being planned.

      In town meetings the previous municipal
      president, Amadeo Alejo Vasquez Rosario never
      told people what he was doing. He just said he
      was giving permission for a garbage dump. We
      finally realized the dump was actually a mine
      concession. By that time some people had already
      agreed to sell their ejido land. - Avigahil

      On a wall by a dam spillway, a threat was spray
      painted before the assassination: "Bernardo
      Vasquez, Your Time Has Come - Dog!"

      Her brother Bernardo, who'd been working in
      Petaluma, California, heard about the growing
      dispute, and returned to San Jose to help fight
      against the mine. The mine opponents organized
      the Coordination of the United Towns of the
      Ocotlán Valley (CPUVO). On March 14, 2009, they
      blocked the road going into the mine concession,
      demanding that the government cancel the
      concession because it would pollute the
      environment with cyanide, mercury and heavy

      Avigahil Vasquez recalls a meeting of the ejido
      members on April 5, during the blockade.

      The ejido members were called to the meeting by
      Quintin Vasquez Rosario, the land commissioner.
      When they got there the doors were closed, and
      they were told to sign blank sheets of paper.
      When the ejidatarios began to protest, they just
      told them to sign. At the door they collected the
      sheets with the signatures, and inspected their
      membership documents.

      People believed the authorities had already come
      up with an agreement, giving away their rights to
      the mine. When they demanded an explanation, the
      municipal president pulled out his gun. People
      began running towards the school, and he began to
      fire. Fortunately, he didn't hit anyone, but
      some were beaten by family members of the
      commissioner and the municipal president. In the
      end, the commissioner had to give up his
      position, but later we found he was still signing
      agreements. - Avigahil Vasquez

      Part of the ejido of San Jose del Progreso, near the dam and reservoir.

      Fortuna Silver was able to begin mining in San
      Jose because of changes in Mexico's economic
      development policy that date back to the 1980s,
      when its government began welcoming foreign
      investment in resource extraction, even at the
      cost of environmental destruction and the
      repression of popular movements. It is a shared
      policy to which Mexico's old ruling party, the
      PRI, and its governing party of the last 12
      years, the National Action Party (PAN), have an
      equal commitment.

      In 1992 PRI President Carlos Salinas de Gortari
      modified the country's mining law. The new mining
      law said any potential resource must be utilized,
      giving mineral extraction preference over any
      other use. A year later, just before the North
      American Free Trade Agreement took effect, the
      ceiling on the amount of foreign investment that
      could be allowed in "strategic" industries (like
      mining) was eliminated. Salinas' successors, both
      the PRI's Ernesto Zedillo and the PAN's Vicente
      Fox, increased the number of mining concessions
      while taxes on mining operations were eliminated.

      According to La Jornada columnist Carlos
      Fernandez-Vega, land given in concessions reached
      25 million hectares by the end of Fox' term in
      2006, and more than doubled, to 51 million in the
      first four years of his successor Felipe
      Calderon. In return for 4 million hectares of
      those concessions, the Mexican government
      received just $20 million.

      "Concession holders can demand that land occupied
      by a town be vacated, so that they can carry out
      their activities," write Mexican academics
      Francisco López Bárcenas and Mayra Montserrat
      Eslava Galicia in a study called "Minerals or
      Life." "If land is used for growing food, that
      has to end so that a mine can be developed.
      Forests or wilderness are at the same risk."
      Mines can take land used by indigenous people,
      like San Jose's residents, in violation of ILO
      Convention 169 protecting indigenous rights.
      Municipalities can't even charge fees to
      compensate for the use or destruction of their

      This economic model could have changed in
      Mexico's national elections last July, had a
      party won that was committed to protecting social
      rights, even at the cost of foreign investment.
      Instead, the Mexican election campaigns of the
      two conservative parties were fueled by enormous
      corporate contributions, and in the end, the PRI
      was returned to power. The economic development
      policy it has shared with its PAN rival will not
      change, and because mining and economic
      development are governed by Federal laws and
      policies, conflicts in rural communities like San
      Jose del Progreso will become even more

      The PRI history of suppressing dissent became
      clear in May of 2009, when Governor Ulises Ruiz
      ordered state police to end the blockade of the
      Fortuna Silver mine, using dogs, guns, tear gas
      and a helicopter. Eighteen were arrested,
      including Bernardo Vasquez.

      A woman and her daughter carry her infant in a wheelbarrow.

      By then the election campaign for the state's
      governor was heating up. Gabino Cue, the former
      mayor of Oaxaca city, was running against the
      PRI. San Jose's mine opponents supported him.
      On June 18, a group returning from an election
      rally found the municipal president, Oscar
      Venancio Martínez Rivera, loading gravel from the
      ejido into dump trucks, presumably selling it for
      highway construction. An fight broke out, in
      which Martinez and health director Félix Misael
      Hernández were shot and killed.

      Bernardo Vasquez was arrested, along with eight
      others. A local priest and mine opponent, Martín
      Octavio García Ortiz, was kidnapped by the PRI
      supporters, beaten and tortured, and then handed
      over to the police. Eventually Garcia was forced
      to leave San Jose. The priest said his attackers
      belonged to an organization formed to support the
      mine, "San José, Defendiendo Nuestros Derechos"
      (San Jose, Defending Our Rights). Four days
      after that, Compañía Minera Cuzcatlán announced
      it had gained seven additional concessions
      totaling 34,010 hectares, some lasting fifty

      On July 1, 2010, Gabino Cue was elected governor,
      defeating the PRI. Vasquez was freed in
      September, when the prosecutor announced there
      was no evidence against him. He then called for
      municipal elections in San Jose, saying, "We've
      passed through the stage of confrontation, and
      now we should build a bridge for reconciliation."
      In December, however, the PRI candidate Alberto
      Mauro Sánchez defeated him, 1359 to 1216.

      A resident embroiders cloth, a traditional form
      of artesania in San Jose, and wears a shirt
      supporting the candidate of the slate of parties
      opposing the PRI in the 2010 local election.

      The following year, 2010, the mine began
      construction, spending $55 million (US). In 2011
      its first year of production yielded 490,555
      ounces of silver and 4,622 ounces of gold, at a
      cost per silver ounce of $4.51. At the market
      price for silver today, about $30.85 per ounce
      (and gold $1660.00 per ounce), the first year's
      silver production was worth $15.13 million.
      According to Fortuna's website, "In 2012, San
      Jose is expected to produce 1.7 million ounces of
      silver and 15,000 ounces of gold."

      The website says Fortuna sponsors projects
      including a health post, sports court and daycare
      centre, school scholarships, and "upgrades to
      kitchens and construction of ecological
      bathrooms." Bernardo Vasquez told Canadian
      journalist Dawn Paley, however, "they only gave
      them out to buy people off, but also, they never
      worked, so the people are still cooking in the
      traditional way ... it's like a package that
      they apply in every country and they think that
      people in every country are going to respond the
      same way."

      In May 2011 representatives of ten towns asked
      the government again to cancel the concessions,
      saying they were discharging cyanide and mercury.
      "These mining projects don't represent
      development," Vasquez charged, "and instead have
      cause serious damage to the environment and our
      social fabric." Conflict grew so intense that
      the official taxi drivers with permits, who are
      allied with the PRI, refused to pick up
      passengers belonging to CPUVO. When the mine
      opponents organized their own taxi collective,
      the state refused to give them permits. The
      police came to stop the new taxis from operating,
      and in the ensuing melee two police cars and two
      taxis were destroyed. Today in the center of San
      Jose del Progreso the official red-and-whites
      line up in front of the church, while by the
      market the unofficial drivers park their tiny
      blue three-wheelers.

      The blue taxis belong to drivers who oppose the
      mine. When they pick up customers in the town
      square the government calls them "pirates."

      Finally, on January 18 of this year, violence
      became terror. Mine opponents charge the
      municipal president, Alberto Mauro, had begun to
      lay a pipe from the dam and reservoir holding the
      water for drinking and irrigation, diverting it
      to the mine. Fortuna denies this, and says its
      water comes from rain collection and reclaiming
      water from a sewage treatment plant in the
      neighboring city of Ocotlan.

      I was working in the house when I heard someone
      calling us to go to the church to support our
      compañeros. We were worried that if they let the
      pipe pass through, it would leave us all without
      any water. We were worried also that they would
      even send armed men or killers. When we got
      there Alberto Mauro's brother said he wanted to
      talk with Bernardo [Vasquez] and Rosalinda, who
      weren't there. These men had pulled their guns
      when a woman shouted not to shoot because
      Bernardo was coming. But that Bernardo was
      Bernardo Mendez, not Bernardo Vasquez. He lives
      in a little alley, and that's where they got him.
      They never even gave him the chance to walk into
      the street. They put eight bullets into him.

      The person who shot him, Albindo, is not from our
      town. But once he began firing, all the rest of
      them did too -- one of the council members,
      Mauro's brothers, the sons of the town trustee,
      even the town police chief at the time -- a boy
      who was only 18. I was hit by a bullet fired by
      a woman who lives here in town. The bullet is
      still in my right leg, near the knee. The doctor
      doesn't want to take it out because he says if he
      does I'll lose my whole leg.

      We were not armed. We didn't have anything. We
      took Bernardo Mendez to the Specialties Hospital,
      but they wouldn't admit him until they my brother
      talked to the government secretary. But Bernardo
      Mendez only lasted two days, and then he died.
      - Avigahil Vasquez

      Bernardo Vasquez demanded that the local
      government be dissolved and that Alberto Mauro
      Sanchez be removed as municipal president, saying
      "he ordered the municipal police to fire on the
      people." A few days later, the state prosecutor
      charged Gabriel Martinez Vasquez with homicide.
      Albindo Gómez Rodríguez wasn't arrested until
      April, a month after Bernardo Vasquez himself was
      assassinated as he drove home from a trip to
      Mexico City to appeal for international support.

      On a bridge over the highway by the town, where
      Bernardo Vasquz was assassinated, someone has
      spraypainted "The 15th of March Will Not be
      Forgotten" -- the date of Vasquez' murder, and
      "Cuscatlan [the name of the mining company] - We
      Know What a Rat You are" -- with a drawing of a
      rat. Another slogan painted nearby says "Fuera
      Mina!" or "Mine Get Out!"

      CPOVU representatives Jorge Sanchez and Eustasio
      Vasquez said Vasquez' killing was the work of
      "guardias blancas," or paramilitaries, supported
      by the company. "We've seen them give money to
      people in the community who are against us, a
      group called 'Defending Our Rights.' These are
      people who now have new cars, when before they
      had nothing." Fortuna's CEO Jorge Ganoza told
      Canadian media, "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. It is in no way
      related to our activities or involves company

      Pagano, Fortuna's public relations spokesperson,
      adds, "The company has been supporting various
      development initiatives brought forward by the
      'Asociación Civil San José Protegiendo Nuestros
      Derechos' [Civic Association San Jose Defending
      our Rights]. This community group is composed of
      a wide array of community members that have come
      together to organize various development
      projects." She says Fortuna Silver doesn't
      supply the group with direct funding, only
      materials and technical assistance.

      But she also adds that "The company signs annual
      agreements with the municipality of San José del
      Progreso to fund various infrastructure projects
      which are presented for approval to the community
      in an open popular assembly every year."
      Regardless of how open the assembly is to mine
      opponents, the municipality itself is controlled
      by Alberto Mauro Sánchez and the PRI hierarchy.

      Rufina Sanchez is Bernardo Vasquez' mother, and
      the office of the group resisting the mine is in
      the home she shares with Vasquez' sister Avigahil.

      Following Bernardo Vasquez' murder, an article in
      an Oaxaca daily charged he'd signed an agreement
      in February, alleging he'd received 16 million
      pesos for employment, education and health
      projects. Also signing allegedly was Alberto
      Mauro Sanchez Muñoz. Avigahil Vasquez called the
      report disinformation. "Eight days after his
      murder, they were saying he'd been killed by his
      own people, because he'd sold them out to the
      mine for 20 million dollars. It was ridiculous.
      It's not true he was killed just because of a
      fight inside the town. We were living a normal
      life before the mine came."

      The violence didn't stop, however. CPUVO leader
      Leovigildo Vásquez Sánchez says armed police and
      mine guards drive through San Jose's streets at
      night to intimidate inhabitants. The company, he
      charges "are the ones who are bankrolling this,
      those who supply the money that buys the pickup
      trucks and the guns that normally only the army

      After a short blockade of the mine entrance again
      in May, on the evening of July 16 two mine
      opponents, Guadalupe Vásquez Ruiz and Bertín
      Vásquez Ruiz, were shot by gunmen outside the
      Catholic Church. Guadalupe Vásquez Ruiz was
      wounded in her leg, and Bertín Vásquez Ruiz was
      shot in the stomach. They were taken to the
      hospital in Oaxaca, where Bertin Vasquez Ruiz
      remained on life support for weeks. They named
      as one of their attackers an assistant to the
      public works director, Aarón Pérez Vásquez. A
      subsequent press release issued by the Oaxacan
      Collective in Defense of the Land, and officials
      of the town of Capulalpam de Mendez [which is
      also resisting a mine] named two additional
      people responsible for the shooting, an alleged
      mine employee and another associate of the
      municipal president. Finally in October, two
      people were arrested for killing Bernardo Vasquez.

      A woman and her daughters in their school
      uniforms, by the stall where she sells food in
      the town marketplace.

      Yet Avigahil Vasquez doesn't believe that even if
      the mine ended production, the divisions would be
      easily healed.

      The first thing that has to happen here is that
      the mine must leave. But that alone won't
      resolve things, because the people who defend it
      want it to stay, and we want it to go. We all
      live side by side. Next door to someone who
      wants the mine lives someone who's the mine's
      enemy. The whole town is divided by this. The
      primary school's parents group hasn't been able
      to meet. The parents have assessed a fee to
      keep the school running year around, but this
      year the parents on the other side filed a suit
      to stop charging the fee. The school has been
      able to keep going, but you can see the conflicts
      even among the children now. They look at each
      other as enemies depending on which side their
      parents are on. They attack each other with
      words, but they begin to talk about guns and
      pistols. We're living with this conflict inside
      all our institutions. Bullets and shots every
      day, every hour of the day.

      We just want our rights respected, and to live
      normal lives. We're terrorized by people who are
      driving new cars and carry high-powered arms.
      And our hands are empty - we don't have any way
      to defend ourselves. It's all because of the
      mine. We want the mine to leave. - Avigahil

      Coming in 2013 from Beacon Press:
      The Right to Stay Home: Ending Forced Migration
      and the Criminalization of Immigrants

      KPFA Interview with Yuying Chen, Chinese factory
      worker and health and safety activist (advance to

      See also Illegal People -- How Globalization
      Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants
      (Beacon Press, 2008)
      Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008

      See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
      Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

      See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the
      U.S./Mexico Border (University of California,

      Entrevista de David Bacon con activistas de #yosoy132 en UNAM
      Interview of David Bacon by activists of #yosoy132 at UNAM (in Spanish)

      Two lectures on the political economy of migration by David Bacon

      For more articles and images, see http://dbacon.igc.org

      David Bacon, Photographs and Stories


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