Exploited by business owners, threatened by drug cartels and abandoned by the authorities, the inhabitants of Cloete, a tiny mining town in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, are living precariously.
“What you are experiencing is the result of human evil, of abuse, political alliances and economic power,” said Raúl Vera López, the Bishop of Saltillo, at the inauguration of the humble Familia Pasta de Conchos offices in Cloete on Sunday.
The Familia Pasta de Conchos is a human rights organization that advocates on behalf of local mining families. It was founded in 2006, after an explosion at the nearby Pasta de Conchos coal mine left 65 workers dead.
Nine years on from that disaster, Cloete’s 4,000 residents continue to fight for the survival of their community. Another 106 workers have died in the years since – the result of “poor hygiene and safety standards, corrupt inspectors and negligence at all three levels of government,” according to Familia Pasta de Conchos.
Now Cloete itself is at risk, as local officials permit shady mining firms to destroy vital infrastructure – including roads, rivers, drainage and electricity pylons – in order to extract more coal from beneath the town. The mining firms were even on the point of destroying several homes until Familia Pasta de Conchos opened its office in the town in a bid to stop them.
“People didn’t used to speak out because they were really scared. They were threatened and beaten, and they still receive threats, but they’re daring to speak out now,” Cristina Auerbach, a human rights advocate from Familia Pasta de Conchos, told Latin Correspondent.
Founded more than 200 years ago in the municipality of Sabinas, Cloete lies in the heart of Mexico’s coal mining region. It is inhabited almost exclusively by miners and their families.
“The coal industry is controlled by the state governor, Rubén Moreira, and by PRI (the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party) caciques, and the only things they’ve brought to the region are hunger, death and the destruction of entire towns,” Auerbach said.
The mining firms that are uprooting the town and want to demolish people’s homes do not have the necessary legal documentation to do so, she insisted.
“How can the authorities permit the mistreatment of the families in a region that has generated so much wealth for the nation? The hard work of these people helps to generate 10 percent of the country’s electricity,” Auerbach added.
Earlier this week, Familia Pasta de Conchos called for the resignation of Sabinas Mayor Lenin Flores Lucio, for failing to prevent the destructive mining in Cloete, and for allegedly threatening demonstrators and putting the interests of mining firms above those of local citizens.
Against the indifference of the municipal and state authorities, Auerbach said Familia Pasta de Conchos has appealed to the Federal Electricity Commission to cancel any concessions the offending mining firms have to operate in the area. They have also filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission in the hope that the federal government will intervene in the dispute.
However, despite the federal Departments of Labor and Economics suspending and even canceling some concessions in the past, the mining companies have “carried on operating in broad daylight,” Auerbach said.
“Coal mining has been causing major problems for years in Coahuila, but the authorities ignore it because of the argument that it generates employment,” she explained.
Yet the idea that such firms create stable employment and social development is a myth, Auerbach added, because the vast majority of workers work in perilous conditions and receive no social security benefits.
Tragedy and impunity
The darkest moment in the area’s history came at 2:30 a.m. on February 19, 2006, when a methane explosion in the Pasta de Conchos mine left 65 workers trapped underground.
The mine was run by Grupo México, the nation’s largest mining company, which reported that the workers were trapped just 150 meters below ground – far closer to the surface than the 33 Chilean miners who were rescued alive from a depth of 750 meters in 2010.
Yet only two of the Mexican miners’ bodies were ever recovered before the search and rescue operation was abandoned. The bodies of the other 63 remain trapped in the mine to this day.
The failure to recover the miners’ corpses was widely interpreted as a shameful act of betrayal and “criminal negligence” on the part of both Grupo México and the government. No one was ever held accountable, despite reports that the miners had complained of a gas leak shortly before the explosion.
Then-President Vicente Fox never visited the miners’ families or offered them his condolences, while his successors Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto have also declined to meet with them.
Mexico’s predatory drug cartels have become increasingly involved in the nation’s lucrative mining sector in recent years.
Auerbach said the businessmen who operated illegally in the Cloete area used to present themselves as members of the fearsome Los Zetas cartel.
But now that the authorities claim to have vanquished the Zetas from the area, the same people are operating under the façade of legality, she added.
Auerbach has herself been the victim of numerous threats and acts of intimidation over the years.
In 2013, just days after Familia Pasta de Conchos denounced the death of a worker at a mine run by Canada’s First Majestic Silver, three men tried to force their way into her home, only to flee when confronted by a group of miners from the neighborhood.
The relationship between cartels and major mining corporations made international headlines earlier this month after armed thieves made off with $8.5 million worth of gold concentrate belonging to Canada’s McEwan Mining firm in the northwestern state of Sinaloa.
In the aftermath of that incident, CEO Rob McEwen admitted that his company has a “good relationship” with the powerful Sinaloa Cartel and would typically ask for its permission before exploring certain areas.
The comments caused an uproar in the Mexican press, leading McEwan to swiftly backtrack and deny having “regular contact with criminal elements in [Mexican] society.”