Maria Esmeralda Saldana was 15 when her uncle disappeared. Her family spent an agonising week looking for him, after he had been detained by local police. They had almost given up hope when, after seven days of searching, he was discovered. Saldana will never forget the moment her uncle was found half-dead, near a coal mine, disfigured and covered in blood.
After a week of silence he made his family promise never to report his disappearance and subsequent discovery. He had been kidnapped and left for dead by the greatly feared Zetas drug cartel. If the cartel discovered he had survived, his entire family would be in danger.
Saldana, who is now 22, says her uncle's disappearance alerted her to the severe injustice and human rights abuses occurring in her home town on a daily basis. Saldana is from the coal mining town of San José Cloete in northern Mexico, where in recent years the community has watched in dismay as local government sanctioned the rapid expansion of a coal mine in the centre of the town. As increasing numbers of people were evicted from their homes, Saldana took to the streets, joining crowds of protesters calling for recognition of locals' rights.
Saldana's participation in these peaceful demonstrations and subsequent membership of the Pasta de Conchos family organisation over the past two years have made her a target for persecution, threats and other forms of harassment. Despite her young age Saldana spends much of her time working with the human rights defender Cristina Auerbach, calling for recognition of the rights of miners and their families, a group pushed to the outer fringes of Mexican society.
The Organisation of the Families of Pasta de Conchos was established in 2006 after the Pasta de Conchos disaster in northern Mexico, when 65 coal miners died in an explosion. More than a decade after the mine collapse, the bodies of 63 of the miners still lie 100m underground. Initially, Auerbach created the organisation to bring justice to the miners and their families, but the group's work soon expanded to documenting human rights abuses linked to mining activities across the state of Coahuila. The group became a beacon for families like Saldana's, who were seeking answers and justice for the years of hardship and pain inflicted on them.
For nearly a decade Auerbach has put her life on the line to defend the rights of communities in Coahuila. “When it comes to coal mining, we are witnessing a human rights crisis in Mexico,” she says. “Of course, coal isn’t the only problem. It’s just one of the countless humanitarian disasters being caused by the institutionalised violence in Mexico.”
Auerbach says Europe has lost interest in Mexico and is turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared and been killed since the country embarked on a huge crackdown against drug trafficking in 2006. European nations, including Ireland, must take note of the severe human rights abuses occurring on Mexican soil if they continue to sign international trade agreements with Mexico, Auerbach adds.
“Economic and commercial agreements do not automatically equate [with] democracy, justice and equality,” she says. “My question is, how many more people must die in Mexico before the international community says, ‘okay, that’s enough’? What we are experiencing in Mexico is not normal. Every day another 18-20 people are discovered dead, dismembered, hanging from bridges. Every single day they are killing women. How many more deaths do we need?”
Since the appearance of the Zetas cartel in Coahuila in 2009, people in the northern state live each day fearing for their safety. “They are a very disciplined operation and run an elaborate communication network far superior to any of the local authorities,” Auerbach says. “We are living in a time of absolute terror. We are living in a world not only of drug trafficking, but also of money laundering, human trafficking, child trafficking, the trafficking of women. These cartels have complete control over our state, and as a result we live in absolute terror.”
Auerbach cites the town of Allende, where at least 300 people disappeared in 2011 after the Zetas began attacking the area, as an example of how the international community has cast a blind eye on atrocities in Mexico. The state attorney general’s office subsequently claimed that just 28 people had disappeared during what became known as the Allende massacre.
“There was no open investigation into Allende, and meanwhile the countryside around it is filling up with hidden graves. They say only 28 died, but we know they took at least 300 people. They’re always scaling down the numbers.”
Saldana says that drug cartels hold complete power over her home town, including the corrupt and rapid expansion of its coal mining industry. “They continuously intimidate us, and there’s no way out. Women are verbally and physically abused on the streets. They removed all the street lamps with the expansion of the mines, so you cannot go outside at night for fear of being attacked or raped. There’s nowhere to run and no way of escaping.”
Auerbach and Saldana took the risk before Christmas of travelling to Europe to raise awareness among European policymakers of the death and destruction underlying the many trade agreements agreed with Mexican businesses. Since October 2016 Auerbach has had three criminal charges filed against her, with accusations of criminal association, incitement to commit a crime and crimes against human dignity for her work in human rights defence. But she is determined to speak out.
“Europeans want to invest in our country. You’re welcome to do this as long as you ensure our workers are offered the necessary respect and recognition of their human rights,” she says. “In Europe you claim to be green, environmentally aware countries. Your more “environmentally friendly” political system calls for the closure of coal mines in Europe, but then buys coal in the Third World without investigating the human rights situation in those nations. Climate change is global. It doesn’t matter if you extract your coal in Europe or in Latin America: it’s affecting all of us.
‘Stained with blood’
“What we’re saying is the coal they’re purchasing is red, it’s not black. The coal is stained with the blood of our people. All we’re asking is that trade agreements between nations include clauses respecting the human rights of people. If you’re really serious about making a change and ending this injustice, stop importing our coal and come up with a renewable source of energy,” Auerbach says.
“When it comes to coal we’re all responsible. We all use electricity, we all benefit from it. I believe that as a society we have a huge responsibility when it comes to coal mining. It’s different to gold or silver: we don’t have to use that. But the second you switch on the light you become linked to the chain of coal production.”
Auerbach claims that no business owner in Coahuila has ever been punished for the poor treatment or deaths of miners. “That gives you an idea of the political state of our country. If a group of miners are killed but there are no repercussions, and you are not punished, this guarantees a never-ending circle of impunity.”
Karen Jeffares of Peace Brigades International, which recently brought the women to Ireland, and provides practical support to human rights defenders, is calling on the Government to ensure that State-owned and -controlled companies, and those that receive support or services from the State, respect the human rights of workers overseas.
She says that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s imminent national plan on business and human rights should bind businesses to comply with human rights obligations. Citing President Michael D Higgins at the launch of the Human Rights Defenders Memorial in November 2016, Jeffares says it is vital to “hold states to account” and “to call those who wield power to account”.
“The most unaccountable section at the moment in the history of the planet is in fact international corporations who are operating outside of the law,” the president said before Christmas. “The greatest instrument the oppressor has is when they have closed off the gaze of the outside world from what is happening.”
In travelling to Dublin, Brussels, Geneva and London, Auerbach and Saldana risked their lives to refocus the world’s gaze on abuses carried out in their country in the name of industry and economic growth. “We’re not here to defend our own rights but the rights of our people back home,” Auerbach says. “We did not come here to ask that you solve all our problems, but that you support our call for greater recognition of human rights in our home.”