Background: Working on environmental issues; facing opposition

Well, my work on human rights began more or less at the side of Father Uvi. I was his vicar from 1994, and I was trained to become a promoter of human rights during the process that Barca [the “Bartolome Carrasco Briseño” Regional Centre for Human Rights"] started in the southern highlands in response to the dire social situation there…

In 2007 I joined the parish of San Pedro Apostol de Ocotlán, where I began my ministry with a reality check. I went to all the communities one by one, meeting with them, asking about their social, economic, political and religious situation and looking for a diagnosis on the realities of their life. 

One of the things that came out of it was the environmental issue… Barca looks at human rights in their entirety, including social, cultural and environmental rights, so we started to work on environmental rights. [The communities] were quite ill-informed, especially about mining. There was no information about the impact on communities… They didn’t know the name of the mining company or who the owners were, or whether or not they were extracting. They could see the workers but didn’t know if anyone had paid the municipality for a permit.

So when we started to work on environmental issues, such as reforestation, rainwater collection wells, retention dykes on rivers, ecological sanitation systems, high-efficiency wood stoves, or the whole question of waste separation, we came to know the mining company, which turned out to be Canadian… well, its original capital was Canadian. We found out about this when they established a community relations office in San José, from which they began to form a group to support the mining company’s interests. The group was provided with considerable amounts of money for various “green” projects that we were already doing.

For example, the parish had a project where catechesis children on their first communion and confession had the task of collecting ten seeds from the trees in the region, planting and caring for them. Imagine that there were nine hundred confirmations the first year I was there, which means that nine thousand trees were planted.

So with almost nine hundred children for each of the three years I was there, almost twenty-seven thousand trees were planted. We were already doing this. But this mining company, just to show us they were environmentally responsible, hired this organisation called Mundo Ceiba to plant tree nurseries. But the children were already doing it, so people in various places said they wanted nothing to do with the mining company or its project. So the day after the people of Santa Lucia rejected the project, all the ecological tree reserves planted by the catechists over several years were destroyed by fire.

These are very direct attacks. I was never subjected to such direct attacks. Instead, they always tried to win me over saying ‘Father, we have these projects, just tell us what you want and we will finance it.’ I always told them I didn’t want anything, because I wanted to have complete freedom to tell you how things really are.

Communities' right to be informed and consulted

The company went to the bishop for assistance, and told him it had received social permission from the people to do what it wanted to do. So the bishop called me and said ‘Father, we would like to see what the company wants to do, because it may be beneficial for the communities, let us see what we can achieve’. I told him it was better to inform the communities and let them decide, so he told me to start this informative project. 

We held five information workshops in different communities in San José, two in San Pedro Apóstol and a final one in Magdalena Ocotlán. So we informed the people, and brought members of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who had worked in mining areas, and other organisations that had worked in communities where there had been problems because of mining, villages such as Capulalpam De Mendez, which had stopped the work of a mining company for depleting its aquifers, and they shared their experiences with our communities.  

Other communities explained the impact of mining not only on the environment, but also on health and social life, and, well, the final evaluation was that there are not so many benefits. Because in the end most of the capital leaves the community, and there isn’t even work, because the company contracts another company to do the work within the mine. These companies bring their own vehicles, equipment and skilled workers from across the region, or further afield. 

And when we questioned this, they told us they were going to do social work for us and they would give us a project, but all the resources would come from [charitable foundations] and others… So we asked them ‘What exactly is the company contributing?’ They said they were trying to bring these benefits closer, that the authorities were contributing and we did not need to anything. 

After that there was no further reply. For example, I asked the company to provide the environmental impact study. They didn’t want to give it to me, but I eventually obtained it and gave it to the communities so they could review it. 

While all of this was happening, the pro-PRI party group that they had put together started to attack me in the media, led mainly by the mayor of San José del Progreso. They were very tough, accusing me of politically influencing the people, promoting some other political candidate from the EPR party, and such. They wanted to destroy all the work I had done. In reality, all I was seeking was, firstly, the people’s right to be informed, and secondly, that the federal government consult the people, in accordance with the international conventions. Convention 169, Article 7, I believe it is, where it clearly says that the people have to be consulted. 

Even the Canadian embassy even sent its commercial affairs official to talk to me, but all we wanted was for the federal government to inform and consult the people. I did not lead marches, meetings or sit-ins at the mine. The only thing I ask is that they consult the people, the way I hear it works in Canada.

Stigmatisation, abduction, assualt, detention

Then the problem was that this pro-PRI group in San José, (which had been established by the mining company Cuzcatlan), took it upon itself to arrange for all the media to associate me and my human rights defence work with all the actions the communities carried out on their own or with the help of other social organisations here in Oaxaca. For example, they had carried out sit-ins at the mine and on the roads, marches, meetings and other things. That was not my work, which was only to inform and to ask the government to consult the people. But the pro-PRI group identified me as the leader of everything in San José. 

What happened there on the morning of 19 June [2010], was that the mayor, they said, had already been drunk for a few days... So he was drinking in Ocotlán at midday, and in the afternoon he had a political meeting with the current governor elect of Ocotlán. All of the people in San José were involved in this project that was opposing the mine. They went to the meeting in the hope of finding some answers, and instead found the mayor provoking them in his drunkenness. 

So the people left for the community of Cuaxilotla, where there is a great river from which the companies are taking gravel and sand to build the superhighway from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido. The people, and the organisation they had set up to protect themselves from the impact of mining, had agreed that no more resources would be taken from the river for the construction of the superhighway, because the gravel and sand were retaining the water and humidity of the river and filtering the aquifers, so if they were gone, the water would be lost and they wanted to preserve the river as it was.

However, the mayor had already signed a contract with the construction company to sell them the gravel and sand, so when some people from Cuaxilotla demanded that they stop taking these resources there was a confrontation with blows and stone-throwing, and the mayor and his gunmen drew their weapons and started shooting. But as they were both drunk, they killed each other. So during the conflict there they both died – the mayor and the municipal official.

When this incident happened, which was at around 8pm, I was in San Pedro Apóstol and I had a mass to hold in San José de Progreso. As I left San Pedro Apóstol, my catechesis students warned me that they were being denied access to their communities because of the death of the mayor in Cuaxilotla. I called Father Uvi and other friends and colleagues to notify the different authorities to see if they would allow them through…

Then I went to San José to hold the mass and as I arrived, a truck belonging to the pro-PRI party group blocked the road, and the people that were in it forced me out of my car and hit me with a pistol right here. They threw me to the ground and started to kick me and hit me with sticks and stones, hurling insults.

They put me on the truck and took me to the house of their leader, Servando Arango, where it seems they had prepared everything, because there was a nurse who stopped the blood and cleaned and dressed my wounds. They put a clean shirt on me, then the nurse told them she had done what she had been hired to do, and left. 

So they held me there, hurling insults and threats, they tied my hands behind my back, took away my clothes, my shoes my phone, everything... then got me back into the street blindfolded, but underneath the cloth I could see my shadow reflected against a bonfire. Already tied up, they tied me to a pole in the ground.

They held me there in the night, and I could hear them negotiating with the police. They were negotiating. At around midnight they took away the blindfold, gave me a white shirt and took me to the police commander, while the one who took me there told him they were handing me over on the condition that I would not be released. They took me to a police cell, and my attackers came with the mayor to see me being brought there, then left. 

Afterwards, the governor’s secretary came to my cell with Father Uvi and Father Jesús Gopar. The governor’s secretary said they had his guarantee that I could give my statement then and there, that they would not take me anywhere else, but that I was not free to leave. So I thought, why was I the one who could not leave? I was not the aggressor, they were. They had been caught in the act and nothing had been done to them. On the contrary. They were there to make sure I was thrown in a cell.

Justice denied

They would not let me submit my statement. For the whole of the Sunday I was there and I didn’t submit it until Monday. Neither did they allow me to receive medical attention until 5pm on Monday. That is when they called me and all the other people they had taken from the community, and read the accusations against us. So only after they had prepared the case against me was I allowed me to present my statement. I did so at 6pm and immediately asked to present my witnesses. We called them, but they were not allowed to make any statement until almost fifteen days had passed.

This entire process was full of irregularities. They arrested me without a warrant; they let me have medical care, but held me for thirty days, with the prospect of further house arrest. The accusation brought against me was that I had instigated the people to kill the mayor. It was all a fabrication. They invented an alleged meeting that I had attended on the 19th, so I could not have been in San José. 

That is what happened, and after a month of much struggle, after being presented with a lot of evidence against me and barely allowed to present anything in my defence, they finally decided not to pursue the criminal case against me. 

So in that sense, we could say that I am free, there is no criminal proceeding against me. But we have submitted our official complaint about my abduction, the beatings and all that happened, but no justice is being done. They said they would come to complete my statement one of these days, but they have not come, nor notified us of when they will do so. Their lawyers are just saying ‘Soon, soon’.  I have presented my complaint before the national human rights commission and so far we have no idea about what they are going to do, or when. We know nothing about it.

[2012 UPDATE:  Father Martín has still not been compensated for his ordeal, nor have those responsible ever been brought to justice.]


This is an edited translation of an interview with Father Martín in November 2010


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