Follow-up on a Monitor cover story: A local activist is arrested days before a planned confrontation with a Mexican wind power company.
On Feb. 22, the Mexican Attorney General’s office arrested a human rights advocate named Bettina Cruz Velázquez in the southern state of Oaxaca. In terms of Mexican arrests, this was hardly front-page news.
Far from the likes of a drug kingpin, Ms. Cruz is a friendly local community organizer in the sleepy Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca.
Although it has a colorful past, Tehuantepec today is a peaceful area, far from the violence of the drug war, peopled by indigenous communities that have lived there for thousands of years.
I first met Cruz last spring when she invited me to an expansive breakfast of dizzying corn dishes and squeezable mangos in her quaint home near the town of Juchitán. In some ways, Cruz is as traditional as her corn-intensive breakfast that day, adhering to cultural norms and wearing customary clothing for the area. But, with a master’s degree, she is also one of the best-educated people in the community. She told me about a string of Spanish wind power companies that had taken an interest in this region and were acquiring land from the local indigenous communities.
What emerged that day was a complex story without obvious heroes or villains, but rather the natural result that comes from an industry that requires wide land tracks, and poor communities that control that very land. The wind companies are in a tough spot because the land they want is owned by dozens or even hundreds of communal farmers (unlike, say, in Texas where one or two ranchers might own all the property) with limited schooling. Meanwhile, many farmers sign contracts they don’t understand and can lose access to their livelihood.
Cruz says that the companies have come in and pushed contracts on poorly-educated farmers, paying as little as a fifth as much as they would in the US, and a seventh as much as to the Mexican government. For the past few years she has been protesting the wind farms and demanding new contracts.
Her recent arrest is believed to be directly linked to her activism, and two days after Cruz’s incarceration, she was released. The Federal prosecution had no comment on her charges beyond an official statement, noting “deprivation of liberty” (analogous to a very mild kidnapping charge) and “crimes against consumption.”
The prosecution is not required to give many details, but the charges refer to a protest in April at a building run by the national energy utility, CFE. According to the prosecution’s press release, Cruz invaded the building and was promoting boycotts. Her colleagues offer a different version of events, saying those charges refer to a simple outdoor protest and that similar charges have been levied against Mexican activists in the past. While she was indignant about the arrest, her bail was set relatively low (a little over $1,000 USD), suggesting the judge did not fully endorse the charges either.
So why arrest her in the first place?
Cruz was detained just days before activists were to sit down to negotiations with a Mexican wind power company called DEMEX, where they planned to request an early termination to the contracts DEMEX had in the town of Union Hidalgo, near Juchitán. The activists’ reasoning was that the contracts had not been signed with the full free and informed consent demanded by a number of national and international laws when dealing with indigenous communities.
Activists are saying that the arrest was meant to derail the talks (the warrant was released in September, but Cruz says she was unaware of it). It’s not clear that the arrest had any direct connection to the negotiation, but the prosecutor acknowledges that the arrest began with a complaint from the energy utility. Advocates close to Cruz also wonder if the arrest might be tied to a shooting that occurred in October, just a week before photographer Dominic Bracco and I arrived in the area to report the Jan. 30 cover story on the issue.
The death occurred in La Venta, a town that already has turbines spinning, when protesters form nearby Union Hidalgo blocked a road during a protest. Details are not clear, but according to eyewitnesses, a group of wind farm workers tried to break up the protest and fights broke out. Cruz herself was beaten and one of the wind farm employees was shot in the head and killed.
Last week’s arrest may have little connection to the shooting, but what is obvious is that tensions over land and wind resources in the region are heating up. On Saturday, the activists met with DEMEX in Mexico City and the company turned down their request to reboot the contract process. The activists then left the table.
– Erik Vance is a science writer based in Mexico City. You can read his work here.
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