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Nov-12-2012 13:20printcomments

OAS Human Rights Commission Demands Protection for Activists

Chihuahua Governor Duarte reportedly pledged to provide protection for activists and their family members.

Ismael Solorio Urrutia

(LAS CRUCES, NM) - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has requested that the Mexican government protect seven Chihuahua rural activists who are spearheading movements against water over-exploitation and mining. The request was issued in favor of leaders of El Barzon, an organization of small farmers founded in the 1990s, and followed the murder of El Barzon activist Ismael Solorio Urrutia and his wife Manuela Martha Solis Contreras in the Chihuahua countryside on October 22.

An El Barzon leader in the north-central region of Chihuahua, Solorio was physically assaulted along with a son last October 13 by men allegedly connected to a Mexican division of the Canadian-owned MAG Silver Corporation, which operates a controversial mine on land belonging to the Benito Juarez Ejido in the municipality of Buenaventura.

Shortly after the attack on Solorio and his son, El Barzon leaders met with Chihuahua Government Secretary Raymundo Romero and demanded action in halting violence and threats against their organization’s members.

Only days later, however, Solorio and his wife were found shot to death in a pick-up after reportedly driving from their home for a medical appointment in the state capital of Chihuahua City. Denouncing the murders as a “state crime,” enraged El Barzon leaders displayed the bodies of Solorio and Solis in the state capital building before burying the couple in a funeral attended by hundreds.

Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was among the mourners. Rejecting the charge that the government was responsible for the deaths of Solorio and Solis, Duarte said Solorio had been a friend of his and a collaborator on matters of mutual concern to rural communities. The Chihuahua political leader has long professional roots in the farm and ranching sectors of his state.

Activists point to two possible motives for the slayings, which happened amid an explosive convergence of corruption, organized crime, and transnational corporate involvement in contentious water and resource issues in Chihuahua, a state where drought and climate change are simultaneously clobbering the land.

The first conflict pits El Barzon against some Mennonite and Mestizo farmers blamed for illegally tapping groundwater and erecting barriers in the Rio Carmen Basin of the drought-stricken state. Last week, the National Water Commission and Chihuahua Secretariat of Rural Development dispatched personnel to the area to begin dismantling illegal structures.

A second conflict and murder lead is tied precisely to the controversy over MAG Silver’s mine, in that a group of ejido members support the project while many others oppose it on environmental grounds. Rural and labor groups affiliated with the PRI also have been active in backing the mine.

The region where Solorio and Solis were murdered is also a notorious drug smuggling corridor, as dope is transported down from the mountains to the cities of Mexico and the United States. A recent piece in Proceso newsweekly described the area as a “route of silenced ghost towns, a zone of displacement because of fear.”

So far, no one has been arrested in the killings of Solorio and Solis. The murders prompted the formation of a multi-party Mexican Senate commission to investigate mining activities in Chihuahua as well as a letter from senators to the Canadian Embassy, according to Chihuahua Senator Javier Coral of the National Action Party.

“We have evidence that the Mag Silver mining company illegally bought rights from 40 ejido members,” Senator Coral said of the concerns relayed to the Canadian government.

On the eve of this year’s Day of the Dead, the Solorio-Solis murders sparked a Mexico City protest outside the Canadian Embassy, where an altar was erected dedicated the slain couple.

Organized by El Barzon and allies from rural and environmental organizations, the protestors demanded that Canadian mining firms leave Mexico. In Canada, meanwhile, the Chihuahua murders have garnered press coverage and expressions of solidarity from human rights and environmental groups.

On Friday, November 9, El Barzon met with Chihuahua Governor Duarte in the state capital to discuss the IACHR’s request for protective action. Duarte reportedly pledged to “attend the recommendation” of the Organization of American States’ human rights commission and provide protection for activists and their family members. Chihuahua State Prosecutor Carlos Manuel Salas also made a similar commitment.

Ismael Solorio and Manuela Solis were the latest victims on a growing list of Chihuahua activists who have been murdered since 2008, the same year violence linked to organized crime intensified in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua.

Previous victims include, among others, Juarez Valley activist Josefina Reyes Salazar and members of her family; Geminis Ochoa, Ciudad Juarez street vendor leader; Armando Villareal, leader of the National Agrodynamic organization in northwestern Chihuahua; Ernesto Rabano, legal advocate for an indigenous Raramuri community immersed in a land ownership battle; Mormon anti-kidnapping campaigner Benjamin LeBaron and his brother-in-law Luis Widmar; Ciudad Juarez poet and women’s activist Susana Chavez; and Marisela Escobedo, who was shot to death across from Governor Duarte’s office nearly two years ago while protesting the murder of her daughter and the freeing of the prime suspect in the crime.

Against a backdrop of extreme violence, activists such as attorney Luz Castro of the Chihuahua City-based Women’s Human Rights Center have received threats, while others including border environmental and women’s organizer Cipriana Jurado, anti-femicide activist Marisela Ortiz and surviving members of the Reyes Salazar and Escobedo families have fled to the United States or other parts of Mexico for their personal safety.

Additional sources:

La Jornada, November 1 and 10, 2012. Articles by Matilde Perez, M.Breach and F. Camacho.
El Diario de Juarez, October 23, 2012; November 10 and 11, 2012. Articles by Antonio Rebolledo,
Reforma and editorial staff.
Proceso/Apro, October 22 and October 31, 2012; November 3, 2012. Articles by Marcela Turati and editorial staff.
Norte, October 23 and 26, 2012. Articles by Ricardo Espinoza and Don Mirione.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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