Saturday, August 11, 2012

Police Shoot to Protect Illegal Mennonite Well in Chihuahua

Chihuahua Chronicles #5

Dismantling Mennonite well in Campo 83 / Tom Barry

New deep well drilling has spread across Chihuahua and business 
is booming along Mennonite Corridor / Tom Barry

Cuauhtémoc is the center of Mennonite colonization in Mexico.  No one doubts that Mennonite farming and associated businesses constitute the main economic engine of rural development not only this area of central Chihuahua but also of the entire state.

That has been the case since German-speaking Mennonites moved to Chihuahua in the 1920s to establish enclaves – or what are commonly called colonies – where they could practice their fundamentalist Anabaptist religion without government interference.

Over the past three decades Mennonite dominance of the state’s agricultural sector has dramatically increased as Mennonite farmers have left behind traditional farming practices (dating from the 16th century) and embraced the high-tech, capital-intensive practices of U.S. and Canadian agribusiness. While Mennonite families still dress the same as their European ancestors, they now (with rare exceptions) enthusiastically embrace highly mechanized and chemical-dependent agriculture.

Over the past decade, Mennonite agricultural development has dramatically expanded throughout northeastern and central Chihuahua. About 120,000 hectares of the state has shifted from ranching to farming, as Mennonite communities have expanded to previously uncultivated regions.

Neither the 2000-2004 drought nor the recent drought (considered the most severe in modern Mexican history) has stymied this rush to make the Chihuahua desert blossom with cash crops.  Instead, drought has fostered the spread of agribusiness-type farming in this semi-arid state.

This stunning transformation of the rural economy and environment, while possibly inexplicable when viewed from afar, is readily understandable when traveling in Chihuahua. Private ranches and especially the ejidos (government granted land) are shockingly overgrazed, and the ongoing drought has made continued cattle ranching all but impossible. There’s nothing left to forage - precipitating a massive sell-off of ranch lands to Mennonite and agribusinesses that tap groundwater to irrigate the arid landscapes.

Las Lajas Reservoir near Flores Magón / Tom Barry

Mennonite Corredor

Leaving Cuauhtémoc, heading north, you pass through what is known as the Mennonite Corridor. You won’t see any of the traditional trappings of Mennonite life in Chihuahua – the milk jugs waiting along he highway, horse-drawn buggies, ancient plows. 

Instead, the corridor is more a celebration of modern capitalist agribusiness – a few miles of businesses selling all types of heavy farm machinery and irrigation equipment. If you aren’t planning on traveling to the Mennonite Corridor, you may find that simply perusing the web advertisements of the Mennonite business along the route may sufficiently disabuse you of any lingering notions about Mennonites being stuck in a pastoral time warp. See

Perhaps it was because where I was headed that morning – to a planned operativo of El Barzón to shut down illegal Mennonite wells in the Carmen river basin – that what particularly struck my attention were the well-drilling companies along the Mennonite Corridor, including one named Pumps for Deep Wells.. Not only do most of the new wells in Chihuahua fall into the irregular category (illegal, falsified, cloned, clandestine, or multiple pumps based on a single doubtful permit), but the latest farm wells also drop unprecedented depths into the already extremely over-exploited aquifers.

Many of the farmers who had gathered as planned at the crossroads café in Ojo de la Yegua that morning also depend on wells for irrigated farming on their small farms or ejido parcels. Others rely on rainwater and snow melt that accumulated in the Las Lajas Dam not far Flores Magón. But their relatively shallow wells are drying up, as are the area's large agricultural dams.

By 11 o’clock on July 2 several hundred small farmers (pequeños propietarios) and ejidatarios had gathered at the crossroads. The previous week Martín Solís, the state leader of El Barzón, had met in Chihuahua City with officials of Conagua (National Water Commission) and state officials about the planned action, inviting their participation. Conagua representatives and other government officials promised they would be there to ensure that the targeted wells and check dams (marked on the plat map) were indeed illegal or irregular.

After the officials failed to show up as promised and then after calling the government offices that morning, Solís told the gathering men that they would wait two hours for the government inspectors and representatives to appear. Local police cars circulated back and forth monitoring the constantly increasing number of Mexican farmers.

(Almost all Mennonite farmers are also Mexican-born and with Mexican citizenship. However, their common language is Plattdeutsch (a Dutch influence low German dialect), and while most Mennonite speak Spanish at varying levels of fluency, Mennonite women generally don’t know Spanish – or any other language. Unlike the Mormons living in colonies in Chihuahua, the Mennonites don’t intermarry and live in remote and austere communities where there are generally no other Mexicans. Hence, the Mexican-Mennonite (menonitas or menones) terminology.)

Around 1 o’clock the group mobilized and drove in caravan to nearby Mennonite settlement known as Campo 83, where several Mennonite men and a boy were engaged in drilling a new well. Surrounding the rig and the overall-clad Mennonites, the leaders of the local farmers demanded to see the permit for the new well. Since the Mennonite men couldn’t produce a permit or otherwise prove that the well was legal, the non-Mennonite Mexican farmers insisted that the drilling equipment be dismantled – which after some rhetorical wrangling the Mennonite men proceeded to do.

I had never before witnessed a well being drilled but was fascinated to watch the reversal of the well drilling,  as the rig lifted the large-diameter pipes out of the ground, laying them on the slurry-stained ground. It was like a  work-based reality TV show, with couple hundred farmers from the Carmen basin on the set watching.  Although some harsh words were exchanged – mostly about threats to the livelihoods of the Mexican farmers from illegal Mennonite water withdrawals from the basin – the scene was remarkably calm -- in large part due to the impressive leadership of El Barzón leaders. So quickly was the well equipment being dismantled that the discussion turned to the next well and small dams that would be shut down or destroyed.

Police shout no photos and then grab for camera / Tom Barry

Police Escalation

Suddenly a couple of police officers, armed with automatic weapons, barged their way into the group around the rig. I hadn’t seen them coming. There were no law enforcement officers around during the apparently very successful Barzón operative. Not having the law on their side – in the form of a permit – the Mennonites were largely compliant and seemed resigned.

When I raised my camera to photograph the police approaching, one burly officer waved his AR-14 and grabbed for my camera. Damn, I thought, I haven’t downloaded any of the photos I had taken over the past week, and the chip was nearly full.

Instinctively, I pulled my camera back protectively – having only managed only one badly exposed and unfocused photo. Instantly, the farmers gathered around me preventing the officers from reaching me. I then turned and ran. As ducked behind a nearby car, I heard the shots – about two-dozen staccato blasts from the police.

There was burst of shouting and indignant cries. But no cries of agony.

Emboldened by their weapons, the police had apparently expected the farmers to give way – not to contest their authority by protecting my camera and me. They had fired their weapons, but thankfully not at me or the farmers, but in the air or at the feet of the farmers.

Then the local cops withdrew back to the highway. But not before they or their undercover accomplices had slashed the tires of the pick-up trucks that would lead the caravan out of Campo 83.

Shortly, more police – local, state, and federal – arrived, lights flashing, blocking our way out to the highway.

This shooting and confrontation with the police hadn’t been part of the operativo plan. After all, the men had expected to be accompanied by government inspectors. A new plan was necessary.

As we mulled around, I was repeatedly praised for having stuck to my camera. All the handshakes and arm patting helped, since I was shaken and unsure where this would all lead.

Barzón leaders Rodríguez and Solís speak to farmers after confrontation with police / Tom Barry

I repeatedly expressed my gratitude to the farmers who had immediately jumped in to protect me and my right to take photos of what they all saw as a perfectly reasonable action – “We are doing what the government says it is doing,” being a common explanation of the mobilization that day. 

About four hours later, after the police ended their blockade, we were all at the Palacio de Gobierno in the capital. 

Over the past month, Conagua and the state police have taken up the work that the men who had gathered in Ojo de la Yegua had started -- shutting down more than two dozen wells in the Carmen water basin and bulldozing dams that Mennonite farmers had illegally constructed to water their own farms.


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