Chihuahua farmers clash with the National Guard over U.S. water debt

Farmers clashed with Mexican military forces to protest releases of water from a Chihuahua dam to repay a water debt owed to the U.S.

Chihuahua farmers clash with the National Guard over U.S. water debt
There have been several clashes over water during 2020 - Photo: Robert Ray/AP
English 21/07/2020 11:37 Mexico City Ibeth Mancinas/EL UNIVERSAL & Newsroom/AP Actualizada 11:37

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Farmers once again clashed with Mexican military forces Sunday to protest releases of water from a dam to repay a water debt owed to the United States.

A video posted by congressman Mario Mata Carrasco showed tear gas canisters being fired over the heads of protesters at the Las Vìrgenes dam in the northern border state of Chihuahua. A line of military police and National Guard trucks could be seen at the dam.

Farmers in Chihuahua say they need the water for local crops, and the state government said it had reached an agreement to halt water releases from the dam until talks could be held Tuesday.

But Mexico’s National Water Commission (CONAGUA) said there was enough water for local crops like tree nuts, watermelons, chile, onions, and alfalfa, and that the releases were ongoing.

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Under a 1944 treaty, Mexico owes the United States about 512 million cubic meters yearly that must be paid by October 24. Payment is made by releasing water from dams in Mexico. Mexico has fallen badly behind in payments from previous years and now has to quickly catch up on water transfers.

Mexico receives more water than it gives to the U.S. under the treaty, which governs the flow of border and cross-border rivers including the Colorado to the west.

The issue has resulted in clashes before.

In March, protesters burned pickup trucks, blocked roads, and demonstrated at the La Boquilla dam, also in Chihuahua.

Earlier this year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said there was enough water both for local farmers and payments to the United States.

“We do not want an international conflict,” the president said. “Treaties have to be lived up to. If we have signed a treaty, we have to comply with it.”

This is the third time in the year that Chihuahua farmers clash with Mexico’s National Guard. The military took over the Las Vírgenes dam and even shot rubber bullets and tear gas against the civilians.

Since Saturday night, there were rumors about the possible arrival of the National Guard at the Francisco I. Madero dam, best known as “Las Vírgenes,” so tens of farmers went to the area on Sunday morning to check the water was not being extracted without consent, however, they were denied access by members of the National Guard.

During Sunday morning, there were at least three clashes between the military and the farmers. At one of those clashes, the National Guard used tear gas and rubber bullets in order to prevent the farmers from entering the dam, injuring some person; some vehicles were damaged too, including those of local media outlets.

Farmers from Delicias, Rosales, and Meoqui requested support from Camargo and Ojinaga to defend the water, which has been the cause of dispute throughout the year since the CONAGUA has insisted the 1944 treaty would be paid with it; nevertheless, some assert that the government’s main purpose is to take the water to other states like Tamaulipas.

In this regard, federal congressman Mario Mata asserted “They already had the necessary volume and the extraction of over 500 million (…) with that, they would have already paid the agreement established in the treaty, what they want is to take the water to Tamaulipas.”

Meanwhile, Mexico’s government said that “the extraction is done according to the law and is done by guaranteeing 100% the water volume needed by the farmers to carry on with their activities and guarantee the feasibility of their crops,” however, producers have regarded the measures as a blunt provocation from federal authorities since, once again, its first option is using the National Guard instead of establishing a dialogue.

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Due to the clashes, the Business Coordinating Council demanded Chihuahua’s governor, local and federal congresspeople, to strongly intervene with federal authorities so that “once and for all, the conflict is solved and a farming catastrophe is avoided in our entity to the release of water in our dams, for this is a common matter.”

For its part, the Chihuahua government issued a statement in which it said it had reached an agreement to not extract any amount of water from the dam and that next Tuesday, CONAGUA and the Chihuahua Irrigation User Association (AURECH) will resume negotiations to reach an agreement.

Despite this announcement which, somehow, calmed things down at the vicinity of the dam, the farmers took over several highway stretches to exert pressure on federal authorities so that they desist from extracting the water before reaching an agreement.

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