Amidst human rights crisis, Mexican human rights defenders struggle for justice in the coal mining region of Coahuila
"The campaign against me has been horrendous, I have been libelled and followed and threatened," Cristina Auerbach says. "That is why the work of PBI has been so crucial. We really value it."
Defending human rights in Mexico and standing up for marginalised mining communities has made Auerbach and her fellow activists a target of politicians and powerful mining companies in the country. Despite the threats and intimidation, and with the accompaniment of PBI, Auerbach continues her work and says that giving up is not an option.
Coahuila mine disaster and the creation of OFPC
Cristina Auerbach’s journey as a human rights defender (HRD) began when an explosion in February 2006 inside the Pasta de Conchos mine in northern Mexico’s state of Coahuila trapped 65 miners. As the company owning the mine abandoned the search and rescue of the bodies, and authorities failed to be held accountable for the breaches in the mine’s safety standards, Auerbach took up the task of demanding justice for the victims’ relatives and campaign for the recovery of the bodies, all but two of which remain buried underground. As the director of Organizacion Familia Pasta de Conchos, a network of community members, which mostly consists of women from the mining region of Coahuila who advocate to improve working conditions of miners and living conditions of surrounding communities, Auerbach has put herself at the forefront of a dangerous struggle against some of the state’s most powerful actors.
However, despite the effort of Auerbach and OFPC, the state of Coahuila continued to see mining accidents following the disaster in 2006, including shaft collapses and gas leaks, which left more and more families in grief. According to Auerbach, it was after yet another accident in 2010 when a miner approached her and said “You’re doing a good job but we need someone here to prevent these disasters from happening in the first place.” Shocked at first, Auerbach quickly realized she had to change plans to effectively prevent mining disasters from occurring instead of only responding to them.
Shifting strategies in the defense of human rights - from responding to preventing
In a bold display of determination, she took and passed the mining inspector exams for the state of Coahuila, granting her unrestricted access to shafts and mining operations in the region. This move represented a fundamental shift in her work as she was now able to accompany other inspectors and offer a scrutinizing look at their practices. What she found underground was horrific. Auerbach recalls how some corrupt officials carried price lists for malfunctioning safety equipment and hazards, and would sign off a shaft as “safe” once receiving their payment. By publicizing these instances and organizing more and more demonstrations, mining companies began removing these inspectors and hired new staff.
Now, miners welcome the presence of inspectors such as Julio, who helps Auerbach to conduct accurate and thorough inspections of shafts and equipment, as they feel safe to speak out about their own concerns. Since the Pasta de Concho disaster in 2006, there has been a 97% decrease in fatalities of coal miners in northern Mexico. Cautiously optimistic, Auerbach noted that the year 2016 could possibly be the first in 150 years where no miner would have lost their life.
Outreach to Esmeralda Saldaña and preventing the destruction of Cloete
Still, these successes are no excuse for Auerbach to see her work as accomplished. As part of the broadening scope of her work and outreach to mining communities, she paired up with 22-year old Esmeralda Saldaña , who stood up against the attempts of mining companies to claim more and more of her community’s land in the village of Cloete to use it for its mining activities. “It’s a cat and mouse game,” Auerbach notes when focusing on the remaining and evolving problems of her work. The need for continuous vigor and scrutiny is particularly evident in Esmeralda’s town of Cloete, which literally fights for its survival as the illegal coal industry attempts to expand its operations and demolish vital infrastructure such as roads, houses, and rivers.
Esmeralda recounts the initial intimidation and threats against her and other community activists. At the age of thirteen, she was shaken when her uncle was taken away by municipal police and only found one week later in an abandoned mining shaft, bloody and unconscious. After this incident, it took Esmeralda three years to work up the courage to stand up against the mining firms as they crept closer and closer to her community’s homes. “Being afraid will not bring success,” she says with a steadfast look on her face. Combined with the help and support of Auerbach and the involvement of her entire community in the numerous protest marches, some of the most destructive mining operations withdrew from her town.
The value of PBI accompaniment
Pasta de Conchos’ concerted effort for justice in the small mining town has led to the closure of four open-cast mines and two shaft-mines. Apparently, the work of Esmeralda Saldaña and Cristina Auerbach has also been heard by the mayor of the town, who recently offered to meet Esmeralda in person. Seeing her work as part of an inclusionary effort by her whole community, she told him she would only come to his office with Auerbach and all other activists.
The work of Auerbach and Saldaña continues to be a vital part in the region for the promotion of human rights concerns and justice. The fundamental shift in OFPC’s logic to move from a reactive to a more preventive logic has proven successful as Auerbach’s work during mining inspections has saved countless lives. PBI has accompanied Cristina and Esmeralda since 2014 and remains vigilant as both operate in a dangerous environment and continue to stand up to powerful actors. “For me,” Cristina says, “PBI offers the possibility to stay alive. Sometimes I feel death is getting close and is breathing on my neck, as they say inside the mines. PBI gives me and other human rights defenders in Mexico the chance to wake up alive every day and I feel very grateful for that.”
In 2017, Pasta de Conchos: The struggle for justice was published, a short documentary on Cristina Auerbach and Esmeralda Saldaña.
The above article is based on a presentation given by Cristina and Esmeralda in November 2016.
By: Felix Manig