Mexico City, Mexico – The murders bore all the hallmarks of drug cartel executions. Fifteen victims – all members of the Ikoots Indigenous community – had been beaten, shot, then burned alive in a field just outside Huazantlan del Rio, a village in the municipality of San Mateo del Mar in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, in late June. An as-yet-unknown number of people were also “disappeared”.
At first the local government, headed by Mayor Bernardino Ponce Hinojosa, blamed the killings on a shadowy figure and an unnamed organised-crime group. Officials also acknowledged intra-community grievances and political infighting, caused by dissatisfaction with municipal elections and tension over last October’s mayoral election, which Ponce Hinojosa won.
San Mateo used to be governed by an Indigenous “popular assembly”, which made decisions by consensus and served on a one-year rotation. But in 2017, this changed to a ballot-based electoral approach, leading to tensions that increased after the mayor’s disputed 2019 win.
The Ikoots, most of whom consider the popular assembly to be the legitimate source of authority in the region, allege that the vote was fraudulent. They also accuse the mayor and a local businessman of being complicit in the wave of violence, sources told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Meanwhile, a collective of 15 civil society and teachers’ organisations, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), has accused the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) – one of Mexico’s most violent and territorially-ambitious cartels – of committing the murders.
The allegations came in the same week that the CJNG was accused of the attempted assassination of Mexico City’s chief of police in an ambush with heavy weapons in which three people were killed.
Although CNTE gave no evidence to support its accusation, many in San Mateo believe the claims because the cartel had already been active in their Istmo region, which boasts a wealth of mineral resources and a strategic location.
The Istmo (or Isthmus in English) spans the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz at the narrowest point between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It is the site of the controversial “Interoceanic” or “Transistmico” corridor project, initiated by the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and opposed by many Indigenous communities.
The Interoceanic project aims to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by high-speed rail. The corridor would run through San Mateo del Mar and see the expansion of the already-important port of Salina Cruz just to the west. If completed, it would reduce the travel time for cargo crossing between the oceans by days or even weeks, compared with the backlogged Panama Canal to the south.
“Today, Panama is the most important passage in the world for international cargo, but I believe Tehuantepec could surpass this,” Ana Esther Cecena, coordinator of the Latin American Observatory of Geopolitics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said. “It could become one of the principal points of global trade, but in North American territory.”
But tensions have been mounting in Oaxaca, where communities like San Mateo del Mar are resisting the corridor and other megaprojects. Indigenous activists in the wider Istmo warn of rising levels of violence, dispossession and the increasing militarisation of the region as some 4,300 National Guard soldiers were deployed to the state – the third-highest deployment of troops in the country.
Indigenous communities in places like San Mateo del Mar are reliant on and intimately connected to the sea for their livelihoods and identity, said Mario Quintero, an activist with the Popular Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Istmo.
They fear megaprojects will irreversibly damage their way of life and the environment, particularly the waters surrounding their land, he said. For these same reasons, they previously rejected the building of wind farms on their land.
Cecena said the corridor would include vast industrial zones of factories and assembly plants with “special economic status” that could dwarf the infamous maquila, condemned by some activists as sweatshops, in Mexican cities on the US border.
The industrial zones could act as a “southern wall” for US-bound immigrants from countries south of Mexico, Cecena said. For the companies in the zones, it would mean an abundant supply of cheap, unorganised labour provided by impoverished migrants.
But for the 11 Indigenous communities in the Istmo, the social and environmental consequences would be grave and would almost certainly mean irreparable damage to the lives and social cohesion of peoples like the Ikoots in San Mateo del Mar.
The enigmatic ‘Gual Perol’
Just after the murders in June, much of the initial reporting in San Mateo relied heavily on a statement issued by the local government of Mayor Ponce Hinojosa. It alleged that the killings were carried out by someone called Gualterio Escandon, aka Gual Perol, who was accused of being the regional boss of an unnamed “organised crime group”.
But a source in the Istmo region, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, told Al Jazeera they had never heard the name before and that rumours had been circulating that Gual Perol was invented to distract from the real murderers.
San Mateo del Mar’s popular assembly – which acts as a sort of parallel government – had previously accused the mayor and Jorge Leoncio Arroyo, a Oaxacan businessman and the mayor’s alleged financial backer, of responsibility for past violence, including the killing of a municipal agent loyal to the Indigenous assembly and the burning of houses, allegedly by an armed group loyal the mayor.
Al Jazeera reached out to Arroyo for comment on these allegations but did not receive a response. Repeated attempts to contact the San Mateo del Mar town hall found that the numbers were out of service.
The CNTE’s statement alleged that the CJNG cartel is collaborating with “local authorities” to further their control of a region that is strategically important for trafficking drugs and people, in order to consolidate their illegal business interests.
Al Jazeera’s anonymous Istmo source alleged the aim of the murders and disappearances had been to sow instability. Attacking the pro-assembly, anti-megaprojects Indigenous community could silence opposition to the project, undermine the legitimacy of Indigenous self-government, weaken resistance to outside, pro-business interests, and deepen the mayor and his allies’ control, the source said.
San Mateo del Mar’s rejection of the previous wind-farm project set a precedent of opposing megaprojects on their land, and it has been vocal in rejecting the Interoceanic corridor, refusing to take part in government consultation processes.
Organised crime subcontracting violence
The allegations made against prominent figures will likely never be proven in court, as Mexico remains one of the countries with the highest impunity rates in the world. But the claims of the involvement of the CJNG and the complicity of local political and business powers would not be far-fetched, explained Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Feeding off each other, the lines between criminal armed groups, politicians, and the private sector often become wafer-thin in this context.
Falko Ernst, Mexico analyst
“Feeding off each other, the lines between criminal armed groups, politicians, and the private sector often become wafer-thin in this context. An expression of this is the rising number of threats, disappearances, and homicides against activists and even entire communities that oppose such projects,” he added.
While much of the narrative around violence in Mexico focuses on drug trafficking and cartels, the “on-the-ground realities are far more complex”, Ernst argued.
Mexico’s high rates of impunity and a lack of a coherent strategy to confront armed groups means cartels like CJNG are free to branch out into other lucrative forms of exploitation of resources, environmental and human, he explained.
“That has meant them going into extortion and kidnapping, but also into offering violence as a service to third parties’ interests, including in the context of natural-resource exploitation and other large-scale economic developments,” Ernst concluded.
The heavy price of resistance
For activist Quintero, the murders in San Mateo are directly linked to the community’s resistance to megaprojects.
“San Mateo is fundamental because it’s one of the towns which has been at the forefront of struggles against the wind projects,” Quintero argued. He added that the community’s successful rejection of the project, through a collective decision by its assembly, led to the deliberate and, at times, “violent undermining of its Indigenous structures”, referring to attacks against the assembly representatives, the killing of the municipal agent, the burning of houses, and now the killings.
During his successful 2018 presidential election campaign, Lopez Obrador’s announcement of his plans for the corridor project was immediately felt on the Istmo, Quintero explained.
“Automatically, the Istmo changes,” he said. “All of these businessmen and politicians began to manoeuvre and position themselves in order to profit from it.”
The potential economic benefits for those individuals, companies and cartels is huge – from construction contracts and the exploitation of the region’s natural resources to the operation of low-paid and highly profitable industrial zones and the movement of cargo, legal and illegal, human and non-human.
The story of the megaproject, and the communities opposing it, has entered a dark phase.
For activists and Indigenous communities in the Istmo, the fear is that the San Mateo del Mar murders foreshadow things to come.