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“When They Kill One, A Thousand More Are Born”

Ten years ago, water activist Mariano Abarca was murdered in Chiapas. Since then, conditions have gotten worse. To mark the anniversary and continued struggle, his life was honored by a presentation of an environmental defense award in his honor.

Ten years ago, near the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, Mariano Abarca was shot dead in broad daylight outside of his family restaurant.

It was November 27, 2009, and Mariano had been leading a local fight against water contamination and social divisions arising from a nearby barite mine operated by Canadian company Blackfire Exploration. He had been facing threats from people working for the company and, just a few months prior to his murder, plain-clothes police detained him without charge for eight days in response to outlandish accusations that Blackfire filed against him.

All of the suspects in his murder have some link to the company. But the case remains open, and no one is in jail.

Ten years later, in November 2019, Mariano’s life and struggle were honored with the presentation of the first award for environmental defense in Chiapas to be presented in his name. His brother, widow, and four children were all present for the event in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Thirty-two national and international organizations lent their support to the occasion — including Otros Mundos Chiapas, which has accompanied the Abarca family all of these years, and the Mexican Network of Mining Affected People (REMA by its initials in Spanish), which Mariano helped found.

“We didn’t bury Mariano, we planted him, and we continue the fight,” remarked Gustavo Castro from Otros Mundos Chiapas in his opening remarks. “That painful moment has become the wind that gives us strength… What better way to celebrate his life as part of social movements, than by honoring his presence in them, in their daily struggle to make this world a better place for all?”

Representatives from urban and rural social movements struggling against a myriad of threats, including land grabbing by large landowners, ecotourism, highways, mining projects, and hydroelectric dams participated from all over Chiapas. They thanked the family and acknowledged Mariano’s ongoing presence in the hearts of people struggling to defend their land, life and territory in Chiapas.

The first recipients of the Mariano Abarca Award 

The Movement in Defense of Life and Territory (MODEVITE by its initials in Spanish) received the first Mariano Abarca award for environmental defense. MODEVITE has a presence in 11 municipalities, organizing with Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Ch’ol Indigenous peoples from the highlands and lowlands of Chiapas who are part of the Catholic Dioceses of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

MODEVITE has been fighting to stave off construction of a mega-highway to stimulate tourism from San Cristóbal to Palenque, given that it would dispossess communities of their land and principally benefit big business. Their resistance has so far forced the state to back down and propose instead to widen an existing route, which MODEVITE is still contesting. State officials have threatened to condition their participation in social programs on acceptance of the project, now called “The Highway of Cultures.” MODEVITE members are also fighting against other threats, including mining and militarization.

In Chicomuselo, members of MODEVITE remember Mariano Abarca as having started the resistance to mining, which continues today. Refugio Argueta Sanchez, a MODEVITE member from Chicomuselo, remarked that Mariano’s death ultimately strengthened their struggle: “The mining company sent people to kill Mariano. They thought that others would become afraid and leave the struggle,” she said. “But, on the contrary, when they kill one, a thousand more are born.”

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She and others continue to prevent any work from taking place on the 14 mining concessions in the area, for which companies have no active permits to operate. They are also fighting to keep soldiers out, ever since a new army barracks was inaugurated in Chicomuselo in November 2018, without clear justification from the state.

Refugio remarked that the presence of soldiers is intimidating, and said she believes them to be part of efforts to pave the way for mining companies. The Chicomuselo-based Committee for the Promotion of Life “Samuel Ruíz García” recently reported that, contrary to making people safer in the municipality, insecurity has been on the rise since the army’s arrival. In recent months, members of the newly-created National Guard, a highly controversial militarized police force that was deployed to Chiapas by the thousands in June to stop migrants at the border, has participated in the army’s rounds in Chicomuselo at least twice since August.

In the context of heightened violence and threats, many of which are attributed to state armed forces in Mexico, collective organizing offers communities greater safety. “We don’t need soldiers, our communities protect themselves,” said Refugio.

The struggle for justice carries on 

Internationally, in the ongoing fight for justice for Mariano’s murder, the Abarca family, Otros Mundos Chiapas, REMA, and the Canadian organization MiningWatch Canada are breaking new ground in Canadian Federal Court.

They hope to achieve an investigation into the acts and omissions of the Canadian embassy in Mexico that was working on behalf of Blackfire Exploration at the time of Mariano’s murder, and which they believe put Mariano’s life at greater risk. A hearing is anticipated within the first half of 2020 in this case. Concurrently, a complaint is gradually proceeding before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against Mexico for the criminalization and murder of Mariano, as well as impunity in his case.

At the close of the ceremony in San Cristóbal on November 27, Mariano’s daughter Dora reflected that keeping up the fight all these years has not been easy: “It’s been 10 years and it’s been very sad, but when I ask myself if it was worth it that my dad gave his life for so many people, the answer is yes. It’s yes because I can see many people here who see things differently and who are doing things differently.”

Ten years since Mariano was murdered, there are even more proposed mega-projects in Chiapas, more Indigenous, campesino, and urban communities battling against dispossession and displacement, more armed groups threatening their territories, and more militarization with which to repress them.

In this context, it could not be more timely to honour Mariano’s memory and all those in Chiapas who put everything on the line everyday to ensure clean water, land to cultivate, and well-organized, self-determining communities for decades to come.

Institute for Policy Studies Associate Fellow Jen Moore attended the Mariano Abarca Environmental Defense Forum on behalf of IPS, which is one of 32 Mexican, U.S., Canadian and Latin American organizations and networks supporting the Mariano Abarca Award for Environmental Defense.