Santa María Ostula, mining and organized crime

By: Luis Hernández Navarro

On the Michoacán coast, the territory and natural resources of Santa María de Ostula community are in dispute. It’s literally a struggle for life and death in which the comuneros defend their land and their habitat from organized crime attacks.

Although they fight over the limits, the bad guys act as a clamp. Los Viagras seek to control southern Aquila municipality and the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel (CJNG) the northern part. Its beaches are the route to the steepest parts of Tierra Caliente (Hot Land). Speedboats disembark with shipments of narcotics on its beaches. Cessna planes land on private ranches in the area to transport weapons and drugs (https://bit.ly/2Qgj1iI).

But on the regional game board they also fight over the exploitation of natural resources. The mining companies have 40,000 hectares under concession within that territory. Ternium, just one steel manufacturing company, has a concession of 5,000 hectares within Ostula. As has been documented in parts of the country, there is a marriage of convenience between mining companies and organized crime, in which the cartels are in charge of the “security” of businesses. Ostula is no exception. And, at the service of those interests, an old regional leader, previously beloved and prestigious, now acts: Cemeí Verdía Zepeda.

History repeats itself. There are community leaders with feet of clay who, when they walk on the shoulders of the communities that forge them, look like giants, but who –proud of money and power, believe that their stature is their merit alone and not of those who have supported them– just crash and burn when they touch the ground.

Such is the case with Cemeí. For years, he was a kind of popular hero in the region. Dedicated as a child to growing papaya, he was the first commander of the Ostula Community Police and general coordinator of the self-defense groups in Aquila, Coahuayana and Chinicuila. He survived three attacks perpetrated by organized crime between 2014 and 2015. He was politically persecuted and had to leave his community. He was in prison for five months in 2015, accused of using firearms for the exclusive use of the Army, until pressure from the comuneros forced the government to release him. Nevertheless, when he got a taste of the banknote and political chicanery, he succumbed.

Santa María de Ostula is an emblematic Nahua community in the indigenous movement for two reasons. The Ostula Manifesto was promulgated there on June 13 and 14, 2009, which, two and a half years before the formation of the Michoacán self-defense groups, vindicated the right to a indigenous self-defense and opened a cycle of struggle in this terrain.

Additionally, hundreds of Nahua comuneros of that locality have recuperated, at the cost of dozens of lives, hundreds of hectares of communal property illegally occupied by powerful mestizo caciques associated with organized crime (https://bit.ly/2TQ2ggn). Before going bad, Cemeí was part of those struggles.

Although he has other antecedents, the political decomposition of Verdía Zepeda accelerated in 2018, when, on the fringes of the community, he was designated the PAN candidate to a deputy position for District 21, with its seat in Coalcomán.

Simultaneously with his candidacy, Cemeí supported the nomination for the municipal presidency of Aquila (to which Ostula belongs) of César Olivares Fernández, cousin of the outgoing PRD mayor, José Luis Arteaga Olivares, his ally and one of his funders. His attitude clashed with the agreement of the assembly of comuneros to nominate their own candidate (Ebenezer Verdía) and seek his registry, first with the PRD and later with Morena.

On July 21, 2018, after the elections, Verdía Zepeda appeared at the Ostula communal assembly, with 100 heavily armed members of self-defense groups from Coalcomán and Aquila. Without being intimidated, the comuneros embarrassed him with complaints. “Go for your PAN over there,” “didn’t you know how to steal, Ceme?” “The Indian woke up,” “a year ago, Cemi, where were we for you? Say what you want, but we did it for you,” they shouted at him.

A woman shouted at him: “Don’t come back here!” Defiant, Cemeí asked: “Who said that?” And, like a modern Fuenteovejuna [1] they responded: “Everyone!” Cemeí was expelled (https://bit.ly/33ugC9H).

From that moment, Verdía escalated the conflict. First, he threatened Evaristo Domínguez Ramos, commissioner of the commons (bienes comunales). He continued resolutely, accusing the community, falsely, of having a nexus to organized crime. Then, five of his close allies headed by his lieutenant Martín Nepamuceno, entered Ostula and shot the community guard, in order to escape.

Although there is still no evidence that directly links Cemeí to other attacks, in the context of his offensive Villa Victoria, municipal capital of Chinicuila, was attacked and the radio antenna the community guard used was burned.

The indigenous community of Ostula maintains that Cemeí walks on bad paths, working for the CJNG (https://bit.ly/3d3xLv9). The district attorney of Colima arrested five of his self-defense followers with drugs, sent them to Michoacán and then released them. Cemeí falsely denounced that they were kidnapped. Curiously, they are the same ones who, headed by Martín Nepamuceno, entered the community. All the evidence points to the fact that the former commander of the community guard seeks to open the way to the interests of organized crime and mining companies.

NOTE:

[1] Fuenteovejuna is a play by Lope de Vega. The name comes from an uprising in the village of Fuenteovejuna, Spain. That word is used in Spanish as an answer to a question about who did something, meaning “all of us did it.”

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Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

https://www.jornada.com.mx/2020/03/17/opinion/019a1pol

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

 

 

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