Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bushreport from San José del Progreso, Oaxaca, Mexico

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 favour of and those who oppose the nearby Cuzcatlán silver mine.

The company responsible for the mine is Canadian-based Fortuna Silver Mines and there have been incidents of ongoing violence, intimidation, and scuffles between the opposing factions since the company started operations in the vicinity in 2009.

In November, a solidarity mission of Mexican and international NGOs spent three days in San José del Progreso to investigate ongoing human rights violations, specifically the intimidation of local anti-mining activists. The mission reported, “a climate of insecurity, fear and internal divisions… tearing the social fabric of this town. The most severe conflict is precisely between those individuals who oppose the mine and those who support it.”

Interviews with community members revealed deeply held concerns about the mine in regards to the depletion of important water sources; the corruption of local authorities; the physical and psychological safety of opponents to the mine; early signs of health problems among the populace; and environmental degradation to the area surrounding the mine.

The mine has affected all facets of life in this small indigenous community, including drawing a line right down the middle of the local school playground, where children from pro-mining families do not mix with those from the mines opponents.

Tensions within the community have flared up regularly since the mine opened in 2009, but violent incidents have been on the increase this year. The critical moments in this year’s struggle are as follows:

  • 18th 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, worried the town’s scarce water supplies were being diverted to the mine.
  • 15th 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.

  • 16th June 2012: Further aggression against the community of San José del Progreso, as 2 people were non-fatally shot in front of the city hall by gunmen connected to the municipal mayor and Fortuna Silver Mines.
  • 22nd October 2012: Work begins to install a contested water hose. Approximately 140 residents turn out to challenge the unauthorised work, while state police are called in to protect the mining company’s equipment. Work permits were never produced, but two armed men (reportedly employed by the mine) were detained by police after threatening to kill an anti-mining activist.

The bigger picture

While Fortuna Silver has denied any involvement in the violence in San José del Progreso, blaming the episodes of conflict on pre-existing divisions in the community, the story there is far from anomalous. In fact, Canadian mining companies have developed a shady reputation around the world, having been linked to similar cases of violence, as well as tax avoidance, corruption, indigenous rights violations and contamination of air and water, in places as far flung as the Congo, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Peru and Argentina.

“Wherever Canadian mining firms are to be found, the same extremely serious allegations are heard,” write Alain Deneault and William Sacher in their recent exposé of the Canadian mining industry, Imperial Canada Inc. “The multiplicity of these denunciations lends support to the idea that Canada is the keystone of a predatory international mining resource system.”

This is not coincidental. Canada has a long and dubious domestic history of its own with the extractive industries and over several decades went to great lengths to encourage mining companies elsewhere to set-up shop within its borders.

Today, according to Canada’s Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, three-quarters of the world’s mining firms are Canadian-based, gravitating to the country’s lax tax laws, lack of legal accountability for crimes committed abroad, and active governmental promotion and defence of the industry, in the courts and on the international stage. In other words, by registering in Canada, a mining company:

  1. Can avoid paying significant taxes on their profits (funnelling money into Caribbean tax havens),
  2. Cannot easily be tried for actions abroad, offering regular impunity against allegations of bribery, murder, and environmental devastation, and
  3. Knows it has the support of the full weight of the Canadian government, should its actions abroad come back to haunt it through any other national or international legal system.

So while 2012 has been a tragic year for the people of San José del Progreso, sadly, their experiences are not isolated ones. As long as Fortuna Silver and its thousands of counterparts in so many countries continue to operate with legal impunity, it will be up to the people of these communities to do whatever they can to protect their lands and their lives from this reckless industry.

Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bush currently live in Oaxaca, Mexico and report on social and political issues related to Mexico and Latin America more widely. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at and Liam tweets as @hackofalltrades