On an August afternoon in 2008, Dante Valdez Jiminez was giving a teacher training class in an elementary school in Madera, a small town in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. But before he got through his lecture, he was interrupted by a group of 30 men, some of them armed.
In the minutes that followed, Valdez was savagely beaten in front of his students. While they beat him, his attackers yelled that he should keep his nose out of other people's business. Valdez was lucky to escape with his life.
Five days later, Amnesty International put out an alert expressing concern for the safety of Valdez, as well as members of a nearby community. The attack was political: Valdez is known for his work against Minefinders, a Vancouver-based company that operates an open-pit gold mine near Madera. Amnesty indicated that among the attackers were employees of the mining company.
“There isn’t a single authority in any of the three levels of government that is looking out for the people who are displaced, for people who have been mistreated or beaten,” said Valdez, his voice quiet and low. He pointed out that there was a classroom full of witnesses to the incident, but there was never an investigation.
The attack on Valdez wasn’t an isolated event, but a brazen reminder of the repression meted out to those who organized against Minefinders, which began operating in Mexico in 1994 on the heels of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The company started construction on a low-grade, cyanide-leaching gold and silver mine near Madera in 2007.
Madera, which means “wood” in Spanish, is situated high in the Sierra Madre mountain range and possesses the rugged air of a logging town. But the area is anything but tranquil: throughout the Sierra Madre, the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most powerful drug cartel, is said to be battling with La Linea, the armed wing of the Juarez Cartel.
According to the official story, at stake are trafficking routes, as well as vast fields where marijuana and opium poppies are cultivated by peasant and Indigenous farmers.
The war in Mexico, often called a “war on drugs,” launched in late 2006, resulted in increased violence and militarization that has spread to municipalities and rural areas all over the country. The northern state of Chihuahua has been particularly hard hit. Since 2008, more than 9,000 people have been murdered in the city of Juarez alone, and massacres against unarmed civilians have taken place across the state.
But in some areas, like Madera, it appears the militarization that’s taken place on the pretext of the drug war has worked in favour of the extractive industries.
Before construction of the Minefinders mine could begin, the historic town of Dolores was relocated to make way for the project, affecting more than 60 families. Locals were not ardently anti-mining, but many felt that Ejido Huizopa, the body which represents communal landholders in the area, was not getting a fair shake.
By 2008, as construction gave way to gold production, tensions between the company and members of Ejido reached a breaking point. That May, after coming to a majority decision in an assembly, members of the Ejido erected a blockade at the mine access route, demanding meaningful negotiations and a better agreement with the company. People working for the mining company were prevented from passing, but soldiers were allowed through the barricades.
Minefinders soon found a way around the protesters, one which didn’t involve sitting at a negotiating table.
“At the blockade, there was always, permanently, soldiers travelling in the company trucks, dressed like civilians, [and] as many as eight company trucks watching the demonstrations, the blockade,” said Valdez. Not only were blockaders intimidated by the presence of soldiers, but the company continued to access the mine, passing through the blockade because they had soldiers in their trucks.
During and immediately following an attack by armed commandos that year on civilians in Creel, a neighbouring village, soldiers and police maintained a continuous presence at the blockade.
“There was an attack on the community of Creel, and 14 people were killed,” explained David de la Rosa, an environmentalist and peasant organizer based in Madera. “The authorities took three days to get to Creel, and the army was here accompanying a peaceful blockade, backing up a company, just two hours away from where this took place.”
The blockade lasted one year and five months, during which time residents say Minefinders co-opted members of Ejido Huizopa through financial incentives and intimidation.
“When the mining company saw that we had a majority of [communal land owners] supporting us, they began to manipulate in a certain way, using the same people from the Ejido to manipulate other companeros, to ensure that we didn’t have a majority in decision-making,” said Luis Pena Amaya, a member of Ejido Huizopa who helped organize the blockade.
As on the blockades, the militarization of the region factored into Minefinders’ ability to win support for their open-pit mine.
“The Federal Police had a presence and intimidated people on many occasions. In the decisive assembly, they took control and surrounded the inside of the salon where we held our assembly,” said Pena Amaya. The intrusion of police into communal decision-making is unconstitutional in Mexico. “When things turned against the other group, which was the group preferred by the mining company, [Federal Police] intervened to ensure that we didn’t exercise our rights.”
Eventually, the Ejido signed an agreement with Minefinders, but problems remain. Last year, a tear in the liner of a heap leach pad, which has yet to be fully repaired, caused leakage of contaminants near the mine site. Environmentalists and human rights organizations in the area confirmed that they fear traveling to the mine site, because the road to the mine is under the control of organized crime groups.