An Indigenous Cooperative Is Dodging Bullets To Defend Their Land

In Cuetzalan, Mexico, environmentalists are risking their lives to fight destructive energy projects.

Ethan BienJune 21, 2018

The government is “sending us a message,” says Alvaro Águilar, “that we are going to suffer the consequences for our resistance.” (Photo by Ana Gutierrez)

CUET­ZA­LAN, MEX­I­CO — One evening in ear­ly March, in the north­ern moun­tains of Puebla state, gun­men ambushed a van belong­ing to the indige­nous Union de Coop­er­a­ti­vas Tosep­an. Bul­lets struck one of the van’s tires, the driver’s side win­dow and the driver’s arm before he man­aged to escape, careen­ing to safe­ty over a mile of wind­ing moun­tain roads.

Águilar believes that the local government is giving tacit or explicit go-ahead to criminal organizations to break the community’s resolve.

The dri­ver, who asked not to be named, was like­ly not the intend­ed tar­get. Only by chance was the red Town and Country’s usu­al dri­ver, coop­er­a­tive leader Alvaro Águilar, not behind the wheel.

White-haired and bespec­ta­cled, Águilar might not be the type you’d expect to find on a hit list. But in Mex­i­co, being an envi­ron­men­tal activist means liv­ing with a tar­get on your back. In 2017, indige­nous envi­ron­men­tal­ist Isidro Baldene­gro was killed in Chi­huahua. This Jan­u­ary, indige­nous leader Guadalupe Cam­pa­nur was found stran­gled to death in Michoa­can. On May 14, Manuel Gas­par, a lawyer allied with Águilar and the Tosep­an coop­er­a­tive, was found stabbed to death in a hotel. And on May 30, an activist against a Puebla hydro­elec­tric project was found killed as well.

Cuet­za­lan, where the Tosep­an coop­er­a­tive is based, is a small, pic­turesque cof­fee-pro­duc­ing town. A pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion, it gained nation­al fame for block­ing a pro­posed Wal­mart store in 2012. Águilar and Tosep­an, whose mem­bers are from the Nahu­atl and Totonaca indige­nous groups, were key orga­niz­ers in that strug­gle. Now they face anoth­er threat: an elec­tri­cal sub­sta­tion pro­posed by Mexico’s Fed­er­al Elec­tric­i­ty Com­mis­sion (CFE).

CFE says the sub­sta­tion is intend­ed to improve elec­tric­i­ty deliv­ery, but com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers insist their sup­ply is fine. They believe the real goal is to even­tu­al­ly route pow­er lines to and from poten­tial hydropow­er, frack­ing and open-pit min­ing projects. Such projects would mean wide­spread envi­ron­men­tal dis­rup­tion, threat­en­ing Cuet­za­lan and neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties’ water sup­ply as well as their liveli­hoods: small-hold­er farm­ing, cof­fee pro­duc­tion and ecotourism.

The Mex­i­can con­sti­tu­tion and inter­na­tion­al law both require that com­mu­ni­ties with major­i­ty indige­nous pop­u­la­tions, like Cuet­za­lan, be includ­ed in devel­op­ment deci­sion-mak­ing. Although the project was reject­ed in nine pub­lic assem­blies in 2017, CFE con­tin­ues to pur­sue it.

When the bull­doz­ers arrived in late 2016, Águilar says, Tosep­an and oth­er groups con­vinced the work­ers to quit. A sym­pa­thet­ic farmer let the pro­test­ers build a small encamp­ment near the con­struc­tion site, where they remained for near­ly a year, even after CFE lost its permit.

But the gov­ern­ment remains deter­mined. Ear­li­er this year, Mexico’s attor­ney gen­er­al and CFE filed suit against Águilar and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, alleg­ing they used vio­lent tac­tics to obstruct the sub­sta­tion project — charges they deny.

Águilar believes the law­suit and van shoot­ing are con­nect­ed, and that the local gov­ern­ment is giv­ing tac­it or explic­it go-ahead to crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions to break the community’s resolve. They’re send­ing us a mes­sage,” he says, that we are going to suf­fer the con­se­quences for our resistance.”

Cuet­za­lan May­or Oscar Paula Cruz denies this alle­ga­tion, main­tain­ing that his gov­ern­ment work[s] for every­one.” But Tosep­an mem­bers say the munic­i­pal police have not inves­ti­gat­ed the attack. Puebla’s attor­ney general’s office did not respond to mul­ti­ple requests for comment.

This tar­get­ing of envi­ron­men­tal­ists fits a pat­tern. The Cana­di­an min­ing com­pa­ny Black­fire and employ­ees of the Cana­di­an embassy, for exam­ple, col­lab­o­rat­ed to sup­press protests against a barite mine in Chi­a­pas, wiring the local may­or mon­ey and pres­sur­ing him to quash the oppo­si­tion. Activist Mar­i­ano Abarca’s com­plaints of death threats went unheed­ed, and he was mur­dered in 2009.

Three days after the van shoot­ing, Tosep­an lead­ers Maria Luisa Albores and Águilar were car­a­van­ning home from work, part of new secu­ri­ty mea­sures. When they stopped in front of Albores’ house, an unfa­mil­iar vehi­cle pulled up as well, its head­lights shin­ing as Albores’ younger son opened the front gate. Alarmed, Albores ordered her son back inside. The vehi­cle made an abrupt U‑turn and van­ished into the night.

Ethan Bien is a jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er based in Maine and Mexico.
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