Relatives of two missing Mexican environmentalists point to a transnational mining company they say is responsible for environmental destruction and violence in the rural community, and may have ties to the criminals who kidnapped their relatives.
Renowned human rights lawyer Ricardo Arturo Lagunes Gasca and Antonio Díaz Valencia, leader of the Aquila indigenous community in the state of Michoacán, were last seen on Sunday evening after attending a community meeting anti-mines.
According to witnesses, the two activists were threatened and followed by several men in cars and motorbikes after leaving the meeting in Aquila and heading towards the neighboring state of Colima. Lagunes, 41, and Díaz, 71, were traveling in a white Honda pickup truck that was later found abandoned on the side of a highway riddled with bullet holes but no blood.
“The hitmen were waiting for the right moment. They threatened the teacher [Díaz] and the lawyer [Lagunes] in the past, and told us that we were five on their list. The hitmen were there on Sunday, they followed them on motorbikes and cars and took them away,” said community member Miguel Jiménez, whose name has been changed to protect him from reprisals.
During a press conference on Thursday, the sister of the missing lawyer said: “We want to highlight the possible responsibility of the mining company Ternium to ensure that my brother Ricardo Lagunes and Professor Antonio Díaz reappear alive.
“The company is one of the most powerful actors in the region, and its operations have not only affected the environment but also the social fabric, generating conflict and violence. The company maintains relations with various local groups and possibly with the perpetrators of this disappearance. We call for a full investigation and for the company to help us find my brother and Antonio alive,” said Lucía Lagunes Gasca.
“We believe the company might be involved, and that’s why we’re asking the company to be honest; if they have nothing to hide, let them say so,” said María de Jesús Lagunes, the missing lawyer’s aunt.
Ternium Mexico, the mining company, denied any involvement.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the mining company said, “Ternium expresses its solidarity with the families of the missing men and with the community of Aquila…and hopes for an early clarification of events. Ternium is against any type of violence and categorically rejects any speculation and/or defamation that would attempt to associate it with any type of illegal activity. We always operate within the law and with a broad sense of social responsibility. Ternium is a leading public company in steel manufacturing in Latin America, which operates transparently and under the highest standards of control in all its operations.
Lagunes, a renowned indigenous and land rights defender, represents the Aquila community in their fight to obtain compensation from the company, whose mines have allegedly caused environmental, health and social damage, as well as division and violence. community.
Last week, three members of the community – who were part of a self-defense force trying to protect their territory from criminal groups and land grabbing – were murdered by members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) , one of Mexico’s most powerful and violent criminals. groups. Two others managed to escape.
Violence along the Colima-Michoacán border in northern Mexico has sparked mass displacement and forced immigration as the CJNG waged war against the Templar Cartel in order to gain control of various illicit and legal industries, including mining, avocados and bananas.
Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental and land rights defenders, where criminal groups and corrupt officials threaten and attack communities with impunity. In 2021, 54 land rights defenders were murdered and 19 others disappeared, according to Global Witness, the international watchdog that tracks violence linked to extractive projects.
In recent years, the CJNG has made a foray into illegal mining, perpetrating “violence against indigenous communities with impunity and without an adequate response from the Mexican state”, said Global Witness.
Lagunes had previously received protective measures from the Mexican government and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on numerous occasions in response to death threats related to high-profile land rights cases.
Amid growing fear for the safety of men – and anger over the lackluster response from states – relatives, colleagues and other supporters in Mexico City have set up a protest camp outside the National Palace to demand that the authorities act.
The situation is complex and the community is divided. On the one hand, community anti-mining groups are demanding that Ternium Mexico fulfill the financial, social and infrastructure promises made in 2012. They are also trying to stop a new mining project for iron ore and other metals, which , according to them, was not authorized.
On the other hand, other members of the community are aligned with the company and/or criminal gangs, according to local reports.
Over the past decade, 38 local environmental and land rights defenders have been killed, six others have disappeared, according to the All Rights for All National Network of Civilian Human Rights Organizations. None of the crimes were successfully prosecuted.
Despite conflict and violence, community anti-mine activists have vowed to continue their fight in the face of an upsurge in childhood illnesses, water shortages, soil erosion and deforestation. Jiménez said: “We are afraid in this fight, with the fear that at any moment another of us could be next. The government must get our colleagues back, otherwise community groups will have to act. »
Ternium Mexico is the local subsidiary of the Luxembourg steel group Ternium, which is part of the Italian-Argentinian group Techinta.