Disappeared defenders

By: Hermann Bellinghausen

As I write this, two weeks have passed since the violent kidnapping of Ricardo Lagunes Gasca and Antonio Díaz Valencia in the vicinity of Cohuayana. Their whereabouts are not known nor exactly who took them away, although the suspicions fall into the category of “it was organized crime. “For the time being, they are entering the atrocious and very long list of people who disappear in Mexico. Each “case” is a life, a story, a human totality. Who are the two activists who were taken from their vehicle on January 15 and have not been seen again?

In its urgent action, the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center says of Antonio: “He is a comunero (communal member) of Aquila who has defended the environment and who has confronted representatives of the iron company (Ternium), which counts on unconditional people. At this time, the change of the communal assets commission has been scheduled and the situation has been polarized due to the fact that the company’s interests managed to be imposed inside the agrarian nucleus and have also been involved in this election by supporting the group benefited by the company.” Antonio represents a danger to the mining company “because he has denounced the grave damages that the extraction of the mineral by means of open sky mining is causing and the company fears that the signed agreements will be revoked.”

Aquila has, for decades, been one of the country’s most dangerous and ungovernable regions. One breathes the narco economy there, which frequently coincides with mining concessions of multi-million-dollar importance. If money attracts money, savage mining attracts the narco, or takes advantage of it. As a collateral business to their own interests (trafficking of drugs or people and violence itself, that big business) criminal groups clear the path for machines and extraction of obstacles. Since 2009, 35 community members have been killed and five more are still missing. The violence doesn’t stop.

Tlachinollan says: “The territorial dispute has been ironclad, not only because of the interests of organized crime, which seeks to control the territory of this Nahua community, but also because there are mining concessions such as Ternium that for years has divided the community.” Just last January 12, three members of the community round were killed.

The Michoacán government granted a 73-hectare (188 acres) concession for development of the Las Encinas Mine in Aquila, from which iron ore is extracted. Photo taken from Facebook Mina Aquila.

Ricardo is one of those lawyers who, instead of enriching himself with his profession, put himself at the service of those who suffer the law and illegality without economic resources to defend themselves from the aberrations of “justice” with deep, root reasons in their claims. Ricardo always litigates and fights for communities with courage and even recklessness. He accepts difficult and dangerous cases. Not infrequently the exercise is controversial.

Ricardo belonged to the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) for a while. Then, and afterwards, I had the opportunity to accompany his accompaniments. Brilliant, effective, he joined the territorial defense of two large ejidos, San Sebastián Bachajón (Tseltal) and Tila (Chol), both adherents of the Other Campaign. In September 2009, he was nearly killed in Jotolá by members of the counterinsurgency Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights, which operated in Chilón and Tumbalá. His attackers were released soon after, but he didn’t flinch.

The assurance of his audacity has made him conflicted. At some point he broke with Frayba and made harsh (in my opinion unjustified) accusations against it and Bishop Raúl Vera, president of the organization. He took on the representation of a minority group that split from Las Abejas de Acteal, seeking “reparations” for the 1997 massacre and displacement in Chenalhó. He took the case internationally, confronting his former colleagues.

He soon assumed the territorial defense of other localities. On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, he filed an injunction against the wind companies. He litigated for communities in Yucatan and Campeche. He has spent five years accompanying the Nahuas of Aquila in their resistance against the transnational mining company Ternium, which his disappearance and that of Antonio objectively benefit.

Relatives and friends of the two missing men install a sit-in, in front of the National Palace.

He founded Legal Advice and Defense of the Southeast. According to Front Line Defenders, “it has succeeded in protecting thousands of hectares of collective lands, valuable ecosystems and collective rights. It has also achieved the protection of indigenous communities before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “

Several times a columnist for La Jornada, he exposed denunciations and allegations of justice from below to give relevance to their struggles. I saw it in action in courts, prisons and communities in Chiapas. I know his talent and commitment.

Tlachinollan points out: “The violence faced by community defenders and environmentalists is worrisome” in contexts where criminals have taken regional control. “Instead of protecting those who defend their territory, the authorities have colluded with the mining companies and the heads of organized crime.”

In Mexico no one defends the defenders of the prisoners and the communities that, without them, would be left without legal defense. This is one of our miseries. Ricardo and Antonio must appear now. Alive.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Monday, January 30, 2023, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/01/30/opinion/a08a1cul and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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