Oaxaca is one of the Mexican states where environmental activists are most at risk. That is the reason why the death of Filogonio Martínez Merino, a man who was fighting against two hydroelectric projects, Paso de la Reyna and Río Verde, is being investigated as a homicide, although the Prosecutor’s Office says that there are no signs of violence on the corpse. Martínez Merino was found dead this Wednesday, in the Piedra Blanca area, a huge danger for those who defend the environment. Of the 54 murders that placed Mexico last year as the deadliest country for defenders of nature, 10 occurred in Oaxaca, between disappearances and deaths.
Martínez Merino was driving his truck from La Humedad to Paso de la Reyna, one of the communities that has been most confronted with hydroelectric projects on the Verde River. There are barely 500 inhabitants, but they have been organized for 15 years and neither of the two dams has been able to be built. That cost the lives of five members of the Council of United Peoples for the Defense of the Verde River, Copudever, last year, according to Angélica Castro, from the Educa organization, which accompanies all these processes. “There has not been a single detainee for those deaths, the Prosecutor’s Office is not doing its homework,” she accuses. Today, the area is in mourning again. Martínez Merino, “about 50 or 55 years old,” according to Angélica, was killed in broad daylight, around half past three in the afternoon.
The residents of Paso de la Reyna live next to the river, so they have always feared that the construction of a dam to generate electricity would end up displacing them from their territory. This project was announced in 2006, under the responsibility of the Federal Energy Commission (CFE). “They denied that the population was going to be displaced, but they are riverside residents, the logical thing is that this would happen. They planned that the curtain of the dam would reach 190 meters, then they lowered it, but it is natural to think that they would be flooded,” says Castro.
The second project, which became known in 2018 and against which these towns rose up, also aims to generate hydroelectric power in another section of the Verde River, in this case it is the private company Energy that plans the business. “These are extractive plans that not only go against the environment, but also against the way of life of the communities, that is why since 2007 all the peoples have been united,” continues Castro. And the characteristic of the members of Copudever is that, in addition to being activists, they are usually agrarian authorities, ejido farmers, as Martínez Merino was in 2008. “Last year, Paso de la Reyna asked for collective protection because they feared for their lives. Surveillance with National Guard patrols a couple of times a week was granted in April, but, according to our colleagues there, that was not done,” criticizes Castro.
The risk increases or decreases depending on who is in charge of the municipal presidency in Jamiltepec, a town near the famous Puerto Escondido beach, which receives millions of visits a year. “Now the Jamiltepec authorities are in favor of hydroelectric projects, but on other occasions they have been against it, like the communities,” says Castro. “They see it as a form of business, they have an industry for extracting gravel from the river,” says the Educa activist. “There is a very old cacicazgo in the region,” she complains.
The small community of Paso de la Reyna is very active against these projects, and is paying dearly for it. Last year they lost five people, including Fidel Heras Cruz and Jaime Jiménez Ruiz. The Verde River flows bloodied without the companies having to dirty their hands. It is the business, for some, and the environment, for others, that sows corpses in areas like this, without the authorities arresting anyone.
There was a time when Brazil or Colombia were the nations that headed the list of those killed for defending a way of life that would inevitably be altered by extractive projects. Now Mexico is the deadliest country in this chapter, according to the latest report by the international organization Global Witness, which keeps an annual count of these crimes: 2021 ended with 54 people killed for reasons of land and resources: sometimes it is about projects hydroelectric, other logging, mining or animals in danger of extinction. The fact is that the greatest danger is always run by those who put themselves in front of the big companies or the local authorities that join these projects.
Global Witness points out that half of those who lost their lives last year were indigenous and more than a third are considered forced disappearances. The organization documented the murder of 1,733 activists during the last decade in the world, 68% in Latin America.