No Findings One Year After the Forced Disappearance of Land Defenders in Michoacán

Family members and friends concentrated outside the Agrarian Ombudsman’s office on January 27, 2023 as part of the protests against the disappearance of the land defenders. Photo: Oliver Méndez/ ObturadorMX

Monday, January 15, marked one year since the forced disappearance of the lawyer and human rights defender, Ricardo Arturo Lagunes Gasca, and the professor and Indigenous leader of the community of San Miguel de Aquila, Antonio Díaz Valencia. Both were responsible for the legal defense of the Nahua community of San Miguel de Aquila, located in the Sierra Costa region of Michoacán, to guarantee the free election of their communal authorities and the fulfillment of agreements made with the mining project, Las Encinas, run by the company Ternium.

Lagunes and Díaz were victims of forced disappearance while traveling between Michoacán and Colima, after having participated in a community assembly. Since then, there has been no information on their whereabouts and their families continue demanding a search for them and their alive return.

Family members of the disappeared land defenders protest in Mexico City on January 22, 2023. Photo: Ulises Martínez/ObturadorMX

Months prior, Díaz and Lagunes had alerted both state and federal authorities about a series of threats against them and other people from the Indigenous community. The Nahua residents had long pointed to the mining company, which extracts from one of the principal iron deposits in Mexico, as a force of social division and fragmentation inside the community.

According to a communique from the National Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations “Todos los derechos para todas, todos y todes” (REDTDT), despite warnings reported to the authorities of the different levels of government, asking them to intervene to mediate the conflicts between inhabitants and the mining company in order to avoid the escalation of violence in the region, they were ignored.

Not an Isolated Case

One year after their disappearance, the REDTDT asserts that the disappearance of Ricardo Lagunes and Antonio Díaz is not an isolated case. “In the last 15 years more than 93 environmental defenders have disappeared in Mexico, 62 of them for defending Indigenous territory against mining projects and illegal logging,” states the network of human rights organizations in Mexico.

It should be noted that last year, in the Sierra Costa region of Michoacán, more attacks and disappearances have been recorded against Indigenous communities and land defenders. According to the REDTDT, this is happening in a context marked by the intrusion of Ternium and the presence of organized crime.

The network of human rights organizations highlights the attacks against the Nahua community of Santa María Ostula, where three community guard members were assassinated days after the disappearances in Aquila. Ostula has also reported four land defenders still missing.

On April 1, 2023, the disappearance of Eustacio Alcalá of the Nahua community of San Juan Huitzontla was also reported. Since 2017, the community of San Juan Huitzontla has declared itself as a territory free of mining maintaining a legal battle to cancel the mining concession of Las Encinas. Three days after this disappearance, Alcalá’s lifeless body was found.

Eustacio Alcalá, Nahua community leader of San Juan Huitzontla. Photo: Courtesy of Centro Prodh/ Mongabay

“In the face of multiple demands for collaboration with the company, the response of all actors was to continue the economic negotiations, leaving aside the disappearances and without strengthening the search and localization strategies. Both the government of Michoacán as well as the federal government accelerated the agreements with the company Ternium, to reactivate the operation of the mine, influencing local actors to support that decision, taking advantage of the great economic dependence that the mine historically has generated in the community,” highlights the REDTDT about the slow advance in the search for Lagunes and Díaz.

According to the statement, one year after the forced disappearance, the family members of the land defenders have experienced the reality of the thousands of people searching for the disappeared in Mexico, “simulation, superficiality in the commitments to the search and investigation, and revictimization from all governmental spheres.”

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