Relatives of two missing Mexican environmental activists are pointing the finger at a transnational mining company they believe is responsible for environmental destruction and violence in the rural community, and may have ties to the criminals who kidnapped their loved ones.
Ricardo Arturo Lagunes Gasca, a renowned human rights lawyer, and Antonio Díaz Valencia, leader of the indigenous community of Aquila in the state of Michoacán, were last seen on Sunday night after attending an anti-mining community meeting.
According to witnesses, the two activists were threatened and followed by several men in cars and motorcycles after they left the meeting in Aquila and headed for 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 bullets but without blood.
“The assassins were waiting for the right time. They had threatened the teacher [Díaz] and the lawyer [Lagunes] in the past, telling us there were five of us on their list. The hitmen were there watching on Sunday, following them on motorcycles and in cars and taking them away,” said Miguel Jiménez, a community member whose name has been changed to protect him from reprisals.
At a press conference on Thursday, the sister of the missing lawyer said: “We want to emphasize 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 activities have damaged not only the environment, but also the social fabric, causing conflict and violence. The company has relations with various local groups and possibly with the perpetrators of this disappearance. We call for a full investigation and support from the company to find my brother and Antonio alive,” said Lucía Lagunes Gasca.
“We believe the company could be involved and so we are asking the company to open up; if they have nothing to hide, they should say so,” said María de Jesús Lagunes, the aunt of the missing lawyer.
ternium Mexicothe 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 a swift clarification of the events. Ternium is against any form of violence and categorically rejects any speculation and/or defamation that attempts to associate it with any form of illegal activity. We always operate within the law and with a broad sense of social responsibility. Ternium is a leading publicly traded company in steel production in Latin America, operating transparently and under the highest standards of control in all its activities.”
Lagunes, a renowned defender of indigenous and land rights, represents the Aquila community in its fight for compensation from the company, whose mines have reportedly led to environmental, health and social damage, as well as community division and violence.
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 grabs – were murdered by members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), one of Mexico’s most powerful and violent criminal groups. Two others managed to escape.
Violence along the border between Colima and Michoacán in northern Mexico has led to mass attacks displacement and forced immigration since the CJNG has been waging war against the Templar Cartel for gain control of various illegal and legal industries, including mining and 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 almost impunity. In 2021, 54 land rights defenders were killed and 19 others disappeared, according to Global Witness, the international watchdog that tracks violence related to extractive projects.
In recent years, the CJNG has taken a foray into illegal mining, committing “violence against indigenous communities with complete impunity and without an adequate response from the Mexican state,” said Global Witness.
Lagunes had previously received protective action on numerous occasions from the Mexican government and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in response to death threats related to high-profile land rights cases.
Amid growing fears over the men’s safety – and anger at the states’ lackluster response – relatives, colleagues and other supporters in Mexico City have set up a protest camp in front of the national palace and are demanding that authorities act.
The situation is complex and the community is divided. On the one hand, the anti-mining communities 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 they claim has not been authorized.
On the other hand, other members of the community would have ties to the company and/or criminal gangs, according to local reports.
According to the National Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations “All Rights for Everyone,” 38 local environmental and land rights defenders have been murdered in the past decade and another six have disappeared. None of the crimes have been successfully prosecuted.
Despite the conflict and violence, anti-mining community activists have vowed to continue their fight amid a wave of teething problems, water shortages, land erosion and deforestation. Jiménez said: “We are afraid in this battle, fearing that at any moment another of us could be next. We need the government to get our colleagues back or the community groups will have to step in.”
Ternium Mexico is the local subsidiary of the Luxembourg-based steel group Ternium, which is part of the Italo-Argentine group Techinta.