The High Cost of Silver and Gold: Deadly Consequences in Mexican Mines

San José del Progreso, Oaxaca – In a small, dry town in the south-west of Oaxaca, Mexico there is a deadly political battle being waged over local resources. By all accounts the town has been split in two—those in favor of and those who oppose the Cuzcatlán silver mine that started operations in the vicinity in 2009.

The company responsible for the mine is Canadian-based Fortuna Silver and there have been incidents of ongoing violence, intimidation, and scuffles between the opposing factions since 2009. An urgent call to action was put out recently after the latest episode in the growing catalog of hostilities took place.  

At 7am on Monday 22nd October workers from the Cuzcatlán mine began work to introduce a water hose to the mine in San José del Progreso. This was a very provocative act, as there have been ongoing disputes with the mining company around water usage in the arid community. Community members opposed to the mine claim that the mining company has not consulted them about their activities and fear that they will deplete and damage the precious water supply to the area. 

While protests over water have been happening all year, on this particular day around 140 residents from nearby communities gathered and demanded to see the permits that authorized the work taking —something that neither federal or state authorities could produce. To give an idea of how closely state interests in Oaxaca align with the mining companies, at least 80 state police turned out to guard the mining equipment while company crew continued their work.

22nd Oct 2012 - police guarding mining equipment near San José del Progreso, Oaxaca. Photo courtesy of Centro de Derechos Indígenas Flor y Canto A.C., Oaxaca

During the course of the day it emerged that two men, who are reportedly employees linked to the mining company, had brought a firearm and a knife with them. They threatened to kill two members of a local anti-mining group, but fortunately on this occasion they were detained by police. This is not always the case and so far this year several anti-mining activists have been killed or injured, leading to a climate of fear taking root in San José. 

To understand the history a little better, these links and summaries provide a concise timeline:

  • 14 March 2009: blockade of the entrance to the Cuzcatlán mine by anti-mining opponents.  The blockade was broken after 40 days by 700 police in full riot gear.  Twenty-three people were arrested, some held for up to 3 months.
  • 19 June 2010: the mayor of San José del Progreso and another municipal official were killed in clashes between pro and anti mining residents.  The new mayor of San José is very much in favor of the mining project. 
  • 18 January 2012: anti-mining activist Bernardo Mendez Vásquez sustained 7 gunshot wounds at the hands of a municipal police officer who fired into a crowd of protesters.  He died the next evening.  A group of people from the community had confronted a work crew constructing a water pipeline – they were worried the town’s scarce water supplies would be diverted to the mine.   
  • 15 March 2012:  murder of another local anti-mining activist, Bernard Vásquez Sánchez, when gunmen shot him in his vehicle.  Two other people were shot at the same time and were seriously injured.  Bernard had received death threats prior to the incident.
  • 16 June 2012: further aggression against the community of San José del Progreso at the hands of gunmen connected to the municipal mayor and Fortuna Silver.  In front of the city hall in San José 2 people were shot by gunmen, one of them was seriously injured after being shot in the abdomen and the other received gunshot wounds to the leg and hand.

The mining company for their part denies any wrongdoing and blames the violence on pre-existing tensions within the community—an easy scapegoat in a region that admittedly has been plagued by political fighting and instability over a long period of time. However many groups agree that violence has escalated as a result of mining operations in the area.  

As Jamie Kneen from Mining Watch Canada said of the hostilities in San José, “They weren't killing each other before.  This has happened directly as a result of the company's efforts – they're trying to establish a mine against the wishes of a sizeable chunk of the population… A responsible operator confronted with a situation of violence would at least take a pause, to allow things to cool off – to wait until the threats have subsided.”

The Mexican government in the last two decades has also relaxed laws around mining and made it easier for companies to come in and stay awhile. The CEO of another Canadian mining company (the Aurcana Corporation), with an active mine just north of Mexico City, said in an interview earlier this year, “I can tell you that Mexico's political stability is wonderful. I don't see any resource grab coming from the government." He also stated that given the foreign investment mining brings to Mexico, “a politician would have to be quite crazy to do something against the mining industry.”

So what can we do? 

The companies mentioned here are Canadian-based, but also trade on the NYSE.  With little legal recourse at home or abroad, this means that making politicians in Canada and the United States aware of these ongoing human rights issues has the potential to make a difference. Sharing this information, writing to politicians and making a media splash are among the few avenues left to this community. 

For further information check out these excellent sources:

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Jen Wilton currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico and reports on social and political issues related to Mexico and Latin America more widely. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at revolutioniseternal.wordpress.com

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