We’re sitting in a neighborhood restaurant hidden at the far end of a long nondescript alleyway. Huddled around a table near the doorway, everyone glances toward the entrance any time someone passes through it. Our source, who for their safety will remain anonymous, has decided that it’s safer to meet here than at their nearby office. And although the interview lasts close to two and half hours, they never remove their mask. Their work educating and organizing Indigenous resistance to land dispossession on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec has resulted in multiple death threats.
Although Oaxaca does not rank among Mexico’s most dangerous states, we have been repeatedly warned that Juchitán is the exception. Aside from the few buildings left crumbling and in disrepair nearly three years after the earthquake, during the day nothing seems off. As darkness envelopes the city, meth heads predate the streets robbing people at gunpoint to pay for their habit and cartel-affiliated groups and sicarios (assassins) instill widespread fear in an otherwise quiet, traditional town.
Juchitán, a once prosperous regional crossroads, is the linchpin in a “green” land grab engineered and orchestrated by transnational energy producers, private security forces, cartels, corrupt government officials and coerced local land owners. The story of Juchitán’s transformation from a Zapotec pueblo into a global player in the wind energy market and an important terminus on the first trans-American shipping corridor since the Panama Canal is as complex as it is insidious.
Much of this story begins with the 1994 NAFTA agreement, which triggered a currency crisis in Mexico and set in motion a wave of capital flight that reduced the value of the peso to a fraction of its previous worth. Fearing insolvency and a global economic ripple, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. provided debt relief which stipulated that Mexico must develop a clean energy sector to help reduce its carbon footprint. Having defaulted on its prior loans, financiers prohibited Mexico from developing its own industry and provided the government with a list of preferred European energy providers.
That same year, seven aero-generators were set up in the areas surrounding Juchitán to test the power and direction of the “Tehuano wind” tunnel. Geologists and engineers brought in to survey the land, mapped out the potential dimensions of the project. Representatives from various European utilities began arriving on the isthmus to assess any obstacles and meet with municipal assemblies to discuss the project and field questions about its potential impacts. Everything was done under the pretense of progress, but it was all just an elaborate façade.
The government had hired anthropologists from left-leaning universities, who had studied local governance systems, to provide detailed reports on the social and cultural elements that might hinder development. Later on it was discovered that the researchers were unwitting actors sent on a reconnaissance mission to provide data that could be used to weaken and undermine the unity and authority of Indigenous community assemblies. “If you want to break this society of warriors,” we are told, “you need to break the economic system and deprive people of jobs.”
In the wake of the NAFTA agreement, the term “Extractivismo” became synonymous with a neoliberal corporate agenda that revealed haunting similarities to Spanish colonialism. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, teeming with wind energy potential, found itself in the crosshairs of powerful stakeholders including the International Monetary Fund, corrupt governors, European utilities providers and drug cartels waging a shadow campaign under the banner of a “green revolution.” Criminal elements from Spain and Venezuela with no connection to the land were recruited to protect the wind farms and moonlight as paramilitaries who could coerce vulnerable landowners into leasing their property.
By the mid-2000s, Indigenous groups from the mountains, cities and coast had banded together to resist extractivismo. But tensions heightened in 2006 when private security firms began enlisting local allies, who wouldn’t be seen as outsiders or invaders, to help persuade public opinion. Juvenile criminals were recruited from local prisons with the help of lawyers and judges, who expedited their release, in order to essentially form a new cartel with a front line of sicarios who acted as “guardians of the wind farms.” Drugs started funneling into the city to simultaneously satiate the appetite of criminal elements who were taking over the city and to slowly break the bonds of the Zapotec community. The staggering rates of meth addiction and incessant violence that plague Juchitán today are testament to the underground economies that formed under the far-reaching influence of organized crime.
Security forces employ a mixture of hard and soft power. Agents of energy conglomerates invested in the wind farms, predominantly from Spain, infiltrate communities by developing relationships with local women to sway public opinion while diluting ethnic ancestry and cultural connectivity. The theory holds that Zapotec, Mixe or Ikoots women who are in relationships with outsiders are more likely to reject their communities or Indigenous resistance movements and become willing (if unintended) agent provocateurs of corporate interests. The arrangement raises the social status of these young women and secures their employment in the same companies as their foreign partners.
In other cases, seemingly altruistic interlopers offer low-interest loans, often to women, in order to build relationships based first on trust and later on dependency. Those able to repay their loans naturally tend to promote the merits of micro-finance. The majority, however, end up defaulting on their installment payments and find themselves poor and powerless, unable to speak up against the lenders who are financed by corporate entities.
Although the notion of a cabal of transnational corporations, cartels and government counterparts working in concert to diversify and legitimize criminal dealings into respectable public-facing businesses may seem like too much conspiracy for one theory, the disturbing, gravely unfortunate truth is that it is very real. And they are successfully unraveling the bonds of civil society through the fear and pressure generated by street gangs and paramilitary groups.
It is widely acknowledged that the cabal of power extends to the top, and that the Governor of Oaxaca has a direct connection to the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a proxy owner of a well-known construction company that receives a significant share of contracts to build the wind parks. One of the more egregious examples of money laundering occurred several years ago when the a construction company linked to the cartels gained permission to build all the OXXO convenience stores in Juchitán, even though there was a moratorium on new petrol stations at the time.
The recruitment of juvenile delinquents and violent prisoners in the years after 2014 led to the formation of street gangs tasked with carrying out low level violence for cartels and corporate interests in Juchitán. This marked the beginning of a particular violence directed at women. Local gangs, who sensed an opportunity in the handmade Traje Tehuana (dresses which cost 15,000-35,000 pesos) and filigreed gold necklaces and earrings worn by Zapotec women during traditional “velas” (celebrations), began raiding the elaborate parties. The plunder is then sold to pawn shops, financed by the cartels, and transported elsewhere to disguise the origins of the gold or costumes. The loss of these precious gowns and jewellery creates tremendous financial burdens on local families, who are “obligated” for cultural reasons to replace the stolen goods.
Wind energy producers use a similar technique to appropriate land on the isthmus. Farmers who rent their farmland to wind energy providers soon discover they are no longer able to earn a living wage in Juchitán. Nearly 80 percent of Oaxaca is collective land and propriety ownership is still passed down through the ejido system, which awarded communal ownership rights with government oversight to peasant farmers after the Mexican Revolution. Although the ejido laws were amended in 1994 to facilitate individual land sales, corporate entities find it easier to lease parcels from landowners than to purchase outright due to byzantine legal codes and pride of ownership. Despite the obvious disadvantages, Juchiteco landowners often find themselves outmaneuvered and capitulate—agreeing to predatory land leases that pay meager dividends and over time strip them of their rights to use the land for commercial farming.
For extracitivismo to succeed it must continually seek opportunities to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of traditional governance systems so as to weaken and destroy the democratic safeguards of comunalidad and replicate a neoliberal agenda. The model has been quite effective in selling the promise of unprecedented access to the modern world to communities on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Seeing the potential benefits, municipal assemblies representing previously isolated mountain pueblos negotiated with the government to build a series of commuter railway stations along the Transistmico, which holds a particular appeal to younger generations whose desires extend beyond an agrarian future.
As the plans to complete the Transistmico economic corridor by 2022 are pushed forward, convoluted power structures driven by unquenchable extractivismo are polluting the relationships within and between Indigenous communities. Ultimately, the most grievous loss will be the obliteration of ancient languages, cultural practices, and historical sites which hold unquantifiable value in our collective understanding of civilization itself.
Our source wears a t-shirt emblazoned with EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), an homage to the civil resistance and anti-globalist struggle of the Indigenous movement in Chiapas and its leader Subcommandante Marcos (now Galeano). Their work organizing grassroots resistance has made them a target in a systematic campaign to shift responsibility for any violence that may occur on the isthmus away from corporate interests, cartels, and corrupt officials and place the blame on activists, academics, and NGOs. Those engineering the shadow campaign have gone so far as to send doctored reports of malfeasance to our source’s associates in Mexico City and to silence opponents in Juchitán—a dark-hearted modus operandi that has thus far proven effective.
The threat of violence in the region has done little to deter community leaders and activists from their relentless pursuit of equitable, sustainable development of the Isthmus and the preservation of culture and autonomy. Unfortunately, they face a shapeshifting cabal of profiteers and “extractivists” with a limitless capacity for violence. Neither is likely to go down without a fight.
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights, and the managing editor at ArtsEverywhere.