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SAN JOSÉ DEL PROGRESO, OAXACA–Early on the morning of May 6, a helicopter was spotted flying low near the Canadian-owned Trinidad Mine in San José del Progreso, Mexico. In the hours following, approximately 150 trucks filled with between 740 and 2,500 police arrived at the mine site.
The silver mine has been peacefully blockaded by community members since March 16.
Fear of environmental contamination and dwindling water resources are motivating the nearly two-month-long permanent civilian occupation of the mine and all its installations. Neither the Mexican government nor Fortuna Silver, the mine's operator, was able to reach an agreement with protesters, so police were sent in to clear the blockade.
An urgent action issued yesterday by Comité de Defensa de Los Derechos del Pueblo (CODEP) describes how "twenty-five hundred members of the federal police, AFI, judicial police, and the bomb corps entered the mine with a wealth of weapons: using tear gas, shots from various types of firearms, police dogs, savagely beating the people, and searching the homes of the people who were peacefully guarding access to the mine."
Eye-witnesses estimate that there were 150 people from the community blocking the mine when the police arrived.
During the raid, police began arbitrarily entering and searching homes, as well as confiscating personal possessions in the community of Magdalena, and in the municipality San José del Progreso. They were also arresting people randomly on the streets.
At least 23 people—possibly as many as 28—were detained. Two people, and likely several more, are missing. As of May 7, the state had released 19 people, while at least four remain incarcerated.
“We are struggling for our lives and we are defending our territory; the territory where we were born, raised, lived and will probably die," said one resident from the community of Magdalena, Ocotlán. "We sometimes forget that we poor people have the right to life; that we poor people can also defend all that we have.”
Environmental concerns are at the forefront of the protests led by Indigenous Zapotec people against Fortuna.
Independent laboratory tests by Sanica, a clinical analysis laboratory, confirmed the presence of cyanide, mercury, arsenic and lead contamination in regional water supplies stemming from activities at Trinidad and other local mines.
Reports of the deaths of at least 20 head of cattle in the last three months have provoked outrage among residents.
They are also concerned with the mine’s massive water demands.
“All the water that is at the bottom is water that the company moved down to be able to work at the lowest levels of the mine," said one local farmer. "Now all the water is contaminated with different heavy metals and it’s coming up to contaminate soil on the surface."
During the first stage of exploration, the water table had already dropped noticeably.
The primary mine shaft, which has been mined since colonial times, is estimated to be a few kilometres deep. Rising water levels inside the mine currently only permit access to 960 metres.
In response to the environmental effects that are starting to manifest after only three years of exploration, the residents of San José del Progreso held a community assembly on March 14. There, the community decided they wanted the mining company to leave.
According to Ríos Cruz, a resident of nearby Ocotlán and a member of CODEP: “Our objective is the cancellation of the project and the outright refusal from every one of the communities: a 'No' to mining." Cruz has since been disappeared, according to his family.
"All the authorities—state, federal and some municipal—are delivering our homeland, our soil, our land to the companies, but we can’t give the land away. It is our children’s and we are simply taking care of it for the moment,” said Cruz.
Local authorities, most notably Mayor Venancio Oscar Martínez Rivera, Quintín Vásquez Rosario and the head of the commission that administers the ejido, stood opposed to the decision of the people, going as far as to threaten them if they dared take action against the mine.
Residents who attended a meeting with authorities on March 24 allege that the mayor used a gun to threaten members of the Co-ordination in Defense of the Natural Resources and Our Mother Earth, a group formed earlier in the year to organize resistance to the mine.
El Imparcial, a local newspaper, reported that the local officials are being paid by the company to maintain their support and that the mining company has armed paramilitary groups to intimidate people who oppose the project.
Regardless of these tactics, people decided to blockade the mine site. Days after the closing of the mine, several trucks filled with soldiers arrived at the mine site.
When the people refused to give entry to the army, soldiers began to provoke and threaten them. When the army did gain access to the site, they proceeded to remove more than 30 tons of explosive material from the tunnels. This shocked local residents and generated more questions about the safety and environmental impacts of that quantity of explosives.
A month into the occupation of the mine, the members of San José del Progreso and neighbouring communities Maguey Largo and Magdalena, among several others, decided to shut down a federal highway between the capital city of Oaxaca and the coastal town of Puerto Ángel.
They entered the highway in the early hours of April 20 and declared that they would not lift the blockade until the authorities responded to their demands.
The following day, at least nine trucks of riot police and one truck of soldiers arrived to oust blockaders. An agreement was reached to end the road blockades in exchange for negotiations with the state government, which have thus far not borne fruit.
Prior to the May 6 raid on the mine site, there were reports of harassment and threats by police against people resisting the mine. Cruz was among those threatened by police.
Fortuna Silver has responded with demands that the government protect their nearly $30-million worth of investments in the mine.
The company, through its fully owned subsidiary Cuzcatlán, holds dozens of concessions that cover tens of thousands of hectares of land. (The average farmer in Ocotlán owns less than 5 hectares.)
Simon Ridgway, a Canadian citizen and the chairperson of Fortuna Silver, has also worked for Glamis Gold and Radius Gold. Ridgway left Honduras in 2000 after the Special Prosecutor’s Office on the Environment issued a warrant for his arrest, related to Glamis Gold's charges for crimes that included water usurpation, aggravated damages, forest crimes and disobedience to authority. The warrant against Ridgway was never executed.
In a press conference in late April, Canadian trade and environmental officials Paul Connors and Paula Caldwell St. Onge said the Canadian government embraces corporate social responsibility and that Canadian companies in Mexico respect that position. They also indicated that Trinidad Mine could be in production within a year.
At the same press conference, Mexican government officials went on to deny reports that the water around Trinidad is contaminated or that any animals have died as a result.
Protests that shut down the mine were dismissed as "a media stunt by people that are certainly trying to obtain benefits," according to Joaquín Rodríguez Palacios, sub-secretary to Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the controversial Governor of Oaxaca. "It's a small group, we all know it, who have a protagonistic attitude."
When this article went to press, Trinidad Mine was still occupied by police forces and had yet to recommence operations.
Click here for videos and updates about the repression in Ocotlán.
Komala Ramachandra is a law student at Harvard who has been working in Oaxaca for the last seven months.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.