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Criminal case against “industrial ecocide” in Sonora, Mexico?

By Joan Martinez Alier.

When the controversial 1.3 billion dollar Tia Maria copper mining project in Arequipa, Peru seemed to go ahead despite a local referendum and resistance from several villages, share prices of the mining firm Grupo Mexico shot up. However, all gains were quickly lost after August 6, when disaster struck in the homeland.

Around 40 000 cubic meters of copper sulphate and heavy metals spilled from a burst pipe in the Buenavista del Cobre mine into the river Bacanuchi in the state of Sonora. By August 23, Grupo México (that some years ago absorbed the Southern Peru Copper Corporation) had lost almost two billion dollars of its capitalization in the Mexican stock market. The shares had fallen 7.25% anticipating a fine of 40 million dollars and, more importantly, civil and perhaps also criminal cases launched by federal authorities or by local actors. The main shareholder and CEO of Grupo Mexico is Germán Larrea, a powerful figure in Mexico.

Grupo Mexico is defending in the Mexican press its dubious reputation, arguing that its operation has been clean, producing almost 200 000 tons of copper per year in Buenavista del Cobre (part of the Cananea complex) and employing 9000 people. They say they are ready to compensate for economic losses from the spill.

There is a long and bitter fight in this historical mining area of Mexico between Grupo Mexico and the mining unions. On August 20th, 800 members of section 65 of the National Union of Mining and Metal Workers from Cananea blocked access to the Buenavista del Cobre mine. Tolano Lizárraga, its representative, stated that this last toxic spill made the extent of the company’s persistent lies clear (La Jornada, 21 August 2014). Since 2009, the Union had alerted Profepa (the Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente, the federal agency for the protection of the environment) of the risks and realities of many spills from the company’s tailings dams to the river Bacanuchi and then into the river Sonora.

Profepa had by August 21st announced that it would start a criminal case. There is talk in Mexico of “industrial ecocide”. There are photographs in the media of people already affected by contact with the contaminated river water. Domestic animals (thousands of heads of cattle) have been in contact with the water and many others were moved away. All schools along a stretch of the river of 250 km were closed because of the polluted water.

The political context in Mexico doesn’t give much hope regarding the course of a criminal court case launched by Profepa against those responsible in Grupo Mexico for this recent spill. There was President Peña Nieto’s recent “energy reform” privatizing Pemex and welcoming foreign investment in oil extraction, gas fracking and in mining in general. The continuous repression and even assassination of socio-environmental activists is cause for serious concern. Nevertheless, articles 414 to 420 of the Mexican Criminal Code clearly typify cases such as this large toxic spill as crimes against the environment, with penalties of between one to nine years in prison. Will justice prevail or will powerful people be placed above the law?

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