Megaprojects and Militarization: A Perfect Storm in Mexico

Recent events perhaps demonstrate what a Bush administration official meant when he said that Washington planned the "armoring" of NAFTA. As Mexican security budgets inflate with U.S. military aid, rights groups say security forces are increasingly targeting activist and community groups opposed to foreign-financed and government-backed megaprojects. In the southern state of Oaxaca, these resource conflicts seem inevitable.

May 19, 2009

The 40-day blockade of the Trinidad mine in the Oaxacan community of San José del Progreso came to a sudden and violent halt on May 6. Mine representatives and municipal authorities called in a 700-strong police force that stormed into the community in anti-riot gear along with an arsenal of tear gas, dogs, assault rifles, and a helicopter.

The overwhelming show of force was in response to community residents’ demand that the Canadian company Fortuna Silver Mines immediately pack its bags and leave. The company is in the exploration phase of developing the Trinidad mine. The result was a brutal attack, with over 20 arrests and illegal searches of homes. Police seemed to be going after a heavily armed drug cartel, not a community protest.

This is one of the drug war’s dirty secrets: As Mexican security budgets inflate with U.S. aid – to combat the rising power of drug trafficking and organized crime – rights groups say these funds are increasingly being used to protect the interests of multinational corporations. According to a national network of human rights organizations known as the Red TDT, security forces are engaged in the systematic repression of activists opposed to megaprojects financed by foreign firms such as Fortuna Silver Mines.

In Oaxaca and throughout southern Mexico these types of conflicts seem destined to increase. Defying the logic of the international financial crisis, Mexico remains the top destination in Latin America for foreign direct investment, particularly in extractive industries. In the last three years alone, multinational companies have received over 80 federal mining concessions in just Oaxaca, covering 1.5 million acres of land. Mining is only the tip of the iceberg: Other megaprojects include hydroelectric dam construction, tourism and infrastructure, energy generation projects, water privatization, and oil exploration.

In response to the influx of capital-intensive projects, Marcos Leyva, director of Services for an Alternative Education, a community group, says, “We saw it coming, but we didn’t realize the utter force with which it was coming at us.”

The warning signs were there. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gave foreign investment free range in the country. NAFTA even forced changes to the constitution so that communal lands could be broken up and sold piecemeal – in a word, privatized. In 2000, Plan Puebla Panamá was unveiled; the Plan sought to link southern Mexico with Central America through a series of networked megaprojects. But a strong wave of community resistance pushed the plan into the corner. Many say the plan is back, moving ahead with all cylinders, under a new name: Plan Mesoamerica.

In April, dozens of grassroots groups came together in Oaxaca to discuss these developments at a forum titled, “Weaving Resistance in Defense of Our Territories.” The forum’s declaration, signed by participating communities and organizations, denounced, “A privatization of our territories and natural resources is clearly being pushed forward, and the majority of this is located in rural and indigenous communities.”

At the meeting, representatives of rural and indigenous communities all share similar experiences to those of their counterparts in San José del Progreso. The common denominator is the everyday struggle of life in Oaxaca where endemic and structural poverty has left 76 percent of the state’s population in desperation. Those affected by the mine described it as a “virus” that was gnawing away at their land, leaving it infertile and taking away their only sources of livelihood – agriculture and cattle.

Residents also complained the mine would pose a health hazard through the poisoning of their clean water sources with chemicals such as cyanide and arsenic, which are used to extract precious metals from the ore. The mine would also drain scarce water sources. “A mine will use more water in one hour than an entire family uses in one year,” says Raymundo Sandoval from the Project for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, a Mexico City-based organization.

“It is not right that foreigners come here and steal our natural wealth,” complains community resident Dominga Rodríguez. And this wealth could be significant. Though the project is still in its exploration phase, Fortuna Silver Mines expects the mine to yield 50 million ounces of silver worth about $700 million.

The community says neither the government nor the company consulted it about the mine – that’s pretty much par for the course for these kind of projects. In March, municipal authorities ignored complaints from residents about dynamite blasts damaging their homes and cattle dying after drinking contaminated water. Rodríguez believes the municipal officials had already “sold out to the mine company.”

After the community took over the mine in March, the army set up camp a mere 100 meters from its entrance. Though the soldiers said they were there to remove explosives from the mine, the foreboding message was clear: When it comes to the $35 million that the company has invested in the project so far, there is little room for dialogue.

The events of May 6 confirmed the army’s implicit threat. Agripina Vásquez, one of the people arrested in the massive police raid, told the Oaxacan daily Noticias: “What we wanted was dialogue, but they didn’t give us the opportunity. The police simply surrounded and arrested us.” The magnitude and brutality of the police raid was an eerie reminder for locals of Oaxaca’s months-long social conflict in 2006; the uprising was met with brute force by police. The government’s response was a human rights disaster by any measure and has yet to be resolved.

In recent visits to Mexico, high-level U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have failed to acknowledge the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. Washington has moved ahead with its $700 million military and police aid package – with another $470 million in the pipeline – for Mexico known as the Mérida Initiative. As security forces use this aid to fight the drug cartels, it is at least indirectly supporting repressive police operations such as the one seen in San José del Progreso that are literally shielding private companies from legitimate community grievances.

In an unguarded moment, Thomas Shannon, the Bush administration’s top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, admitted last year that Washington was in the process of “armoring NAFTA.” Although Shannon was just replaced by the Obama administration, it does not look like the Democratic president is inclined to rollback this “armoring” of the trade agreement.

Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate and a member of the Witness for Peace international team based in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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