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SAN JOSE DEL PROGRESO, MEXICO—It's been almost three years since hundreds of people took direct action to temporarily shut down Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver's gold and silver mine near Oaxaca City, Mexico. Since then, the neighbouring community of San Jose del Progreso has been deeply divided and residents have faced a series of difficult and sometimes deadly confrontations.
Three people have been killed so far, most recently, Bernardo Mendez Vasquez, who was shot seven times on January 18, 2012 by a municipal police officer. Locals say municipal authorities ordered the police to attack residents who were refusing to allow a new water system to be installed on their land because they feared it would be used to supply the mine with water.
Mine operation came to a two-month halt in 2009 when Zapotec community members from San Jose del Progreso and surrounding villages held it for nearly two months. The blockade ended with a massive police raid, during which demonstrators were beaten and 23 people were jailed, some for up to three months.
Fortuna has thus far avoided being linked to the violence by playing up the fact that people in San Jose are fighting with each other. CEO Jorge Ganoza has repeatedly referred to it as “senseless” violence.
"It is in no way related to our activities or involves company personnel, and we really hope that the people of San Jose, with the assistance of the state authorities, will find a long-term solution to this senseless violence,” Ganoza told the National Post regarding the recent killing.
The mine, known locally by the name of its subsidiary, Minera Cuzcatlan, went into production in late September 2011. Its opponents maintain that Fortuna Silver’s mine is the root of social problems that plague the once peaceful region.
In a press conference following the police shooting of Vasquez, mine opponents made it clear that they see a direct link between Fortuna Silver and the violence.
“The social and political conflicts that have ended the lives of three people are due to the appearance of the mining company, without the consent of the people, and not [due] to the control and power over the municipality as expressed by various authorities in the state government,” reads a statement signed by over a dozen Oaxacan organizations.
The existence of the mining project is something that residents of San Jose del Progreso cannot ignore. The main access road into the town passes directly in front of Fortuna’s massive operations, complete with the company's own power station, offices and a huge stockpile of ore, all surrounded by high chain link fence.
“In one year [the company] managed to cut the town in half, to divide the people, and the dispute became present in all spaces: in the primary school, in the secondary school, in the kindergarten, in the health centre, in city hall, in all of these situations,” said Bernardo Vasquez Sanchez, who lives in San Jose and works with the Co-ordinating Committee of the United Villages of the Ocotlan Valley.
In the centre of the village, which is home to about 1,200 people, Sanchez pointed out that there are two different taxi stands, one used by people in favour of the mine, and another by those who are opposed.
City hall has effectively been shut down since January, when municipal authorities and municipal police fled after the murder of Vasquez.
“Basically the entire town is divided in two parts, one part that has a mayor, and another part that does not have a mayor,” said Sanchez, who has worked with other community members to formally requested the dissolution of powers of the municipal government.
Sanchez and others are worried the project might eventually become an open pit mine, further threatening the region’s already fragile water system. Given Fortuna’s track record, there is reason to be worried: Simon Ridgway, chair of Fortuna’s board of directors, was subject to two arrest warrants in Honduras because of environmental contamination from an open pit mine now owned by Goldcorp Inc.
Father Martin Garcia Ortiz, a priest in San Jose del Progreso, was beaten and kidnapped by people in favour of the project in 2010. He was later jailed and then released without charge and subsequently decided to leave the parish.
According to sources in Oaxaca City and San Jose del Progreso, a group started by the mining company, called “San Jose in Defense of our Rights,” has taken on a paramilitary role in the community, intimidating opponents of the project.
“Things are so broken that there’s no other way out, the only way, I think, is that the company leaves,” said Father Ortiz.
Dawn Paley is a journalist and co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op.
A longer version of this story was originally published by the Vancouver Media Co-op.
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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.