The New War against the Indigenous Peoples

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Francisco López Bárcenas

La Jornada, 24th July 2015
The fight of Mexico’s indigenous people against dispossession and for security is receiving such an aggressive response from the government that several onlookers think that it amounts to a new war of extermination against them. The occurrence of many events has given credence to those who think so. One very important institutional policy is reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century attempt to exterminate indigenous populations for the purpose of enabling landowners and surveying companies to take control of their lands and natural resources.

Today this policy seeks to strip them of their territories in order to hand them over to transnational corporations or to build public works that would later be leased to transnationals for their own eventual profits. Another common occurrence, similar to the former, is that when the peoples organize themselves to resist their dispossession, the State uses all its legal and policing power to bully them, paying no attention to any law they [the peoples] might invoke and forcing them to work outside the legal system, in which case the State can justify aggression against them.

A recent case is that of San Francisco Xochicuatla, a Hñahñu town in the municipality of Lerma, State of Mexico. Its inhabitants, like those of neighbouring towns, are opposed to the Autovan company, a subsidiary of Constructora Teya, itself a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, constructing the Toluca-Naucalpan highway, because it would destroy the forest they have so jealously guarded for years, and with it the ancestral route that year after year lets them climb the hill of La Campana where, according to their worldview, life originated. With the construction of the highway, the Hñahñu would no longer be able to cross towards the hill of La Campana. In self-defence they have lodged complaints about these aggressive actions, mobilized to halt the construction of public works and appealed to the courts to assert their rights. As reason is on their side, the courts have ruled in their favour.

Instead of respecting the judicial rulings, the President [Peña Nieto] has opted for expropriation in order to dispossess the Hñahñu and hand over their hereditary lands to the company that holds title to his wife’s house. To this end, before publication of the decrees of expropriation, he ordered the police to occupy the premises in order to prevent the inhabitants from impeding the entrance of the machinery that would begin work on the projects.

The President failed in this effort because the people responded by setting up an encampment in the area where the planned work was to take place. The people of Xochicuautla have claimed that they are mobilizing for the continuation of their people, to exercise their autonomy, to preserve the integrity of their territory and to demand that they be consulted before the commencement of the project, so that the people may determine if they desire the work to be done, and, if so, what conditions must be met.

More serious is the government’s decision to intervene militarily in the Nahua community of Santa Maria Ostula, located on the Coast of Michoacán, with the goal of apprehending Semeí Verdía Zepeda, first commander of the Nahua community’s Community Police and general coordinator of self-defence groups in the municipalities of Aquila, Coahuayana, and Chincuila. The objective of the Community Police is to provide public security for their region’s inhabitants in the face of violence from organized crime.

According to the testimony of community representatives, the military entered opening fire on the people to make them stay away and not disrupt their mission. In the process, one child died and four others were injured, including a young girl. The action is also reprehensible because it violated agreements between the communities and the state government, among them the delivery of arms, which the imprisoned community commander is accused of possessing, and the approval of Rural Force positions for the municipality of Aquila, to which the aggrieved community belongs.

Unfortunately, these are not unique cases. Many like them exist far and wide throughout the Mexican Republic. To some ears, naming these kinds of acts a war against indigenous people may sound like an exaggeration. What cannot be denied is that this is a systematic pattern of violation of indigenous peoples’ rights, in the sense that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has characterized it: a plurality of events with the same goal and a repeated behaviour over time.

If not corrected now, the consequences of this situation may be regrettable. It is likely that this type of official action is achieving its immediate purpose of subduing rebels; but in the long term, it is incubating a social discontent and irritation the results of which cannot be predicted. For this reason, it would be best to correct course. Now there is still time. Later it may be too late.

Translated by Chris Brown


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