Two farmers died during Mexico dam protest over U.S. water payment

Hundreds of farmers and National Guard troops clashed at a dam in the northern state of Chihuahua

Two farmers died during Mexico dam protest over U.S. water payment
Tuesday's clash between hundreds of farmers and National Guard troops was the latest flashpoint in a months-long conflict over the Mexican government's attempts to pay off its water debt with the United States - Photo: Christian Chávez/AP
English 10/09/2020 13:53 Newsroom & Agencies Mexico City Ibeth Mancinas, Alberto Morales y Pedro Villa y Caña & Manuel Espino/EL UNIVERSAL & Newsroom/AP Actualizada 13:53
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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday he would ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate a clash between hundreds of farmers and National Guard troops at a dam in the northern state of Chihuahua and a subsequent incident that left two people dead.

It was the latest flashpoint in a months-long conflict over the Mexican government’s attempts to pay off its water debt with the United States over objections of local farmers.

The circumstances of the two deaths were unclear. The National Guard, which is largely made up of military police and soldiers, said it had arrested three people with tear gas projectiles and a gun magazine Tuesday night.

It said that when guardsmen tried to transport the three to the town of Delicias they were intercepted and fired on from several vehicles. The troops returned fire and later found one person dead and one wounded in a vehicle. The second person died later at a hospital.

Javier Corral, the governor of Chihuahua state, said in a statement that the Guard was to blame and had “attacked” the couple, a man and a woman, who had participated in the protests earlier Tuesday.

“On their way back (from the protests) they were attacked by the National Guard, according to several witness accounts,” Corral said. “We energetically condemn these acts, as we condemn the use of violence,” said Corral, adding “this act will not go unpunished,” and calling on federal prosecutors to investigate.

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Meanwhile, the National Guard has made 17 of its elements available to the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office in connection to the death of a couple of farmers.

National Guard sources asserted the personnel is willing to testify on the events that took place on Tuesday afternoon whenever the corresponding authorities deem it necessary.

“There is close cooperation with state and federal ministerial authorities to clarify the events; this includes the personnel to testify when they are required,” informed the National Guard.

Staff from the National Guard’s Internal Affairs Unit arrived in Chihuahua to join the investigations and collaborate with ministerial authorities, as reported by the National Guard.

It asserted that its troops were attacked at the La Boquilla dam and then, at the Delicias municipality, they arrested three people who had tear gas and a gun magazine.

“When they were being transferred to the city of Delicias, Chihuahua, our elements were intercepted by armed civilians in several vehicles, who attacked them with firearms,” as asserted the National Guard.

It said the troops repelled the attack.

“Later on, there was a reconnaissance that found a vehicle with a dead person and another one injured; the latter was taken to a hospital, where he died.”

Video from the clash Tuesday showed stick and rock wielding protesters skirmishing with guardsmen in riot gear amid a cloud of tear gas. The guardsmen eventually pulled back and the protesters succeeded in closing the valves in the Boquilla dam to keep water from escaping the reservoir.

Assistant Public Safety Secretary Ricardo Mejía said the protesters had been passing out wooden sticks and gasoline bombs in soft drink bottles. He did not comment on the governor’s accusations.

“It’s very unfortunate what happened yesterday,” López Obrador said at his morning news conference. “The National Guard prudently left to avoid a confrontation.”

Mexico has fallen behind in the amount of water it must send north from its dams under a 1944 treaty, and time is running out to make up the shortfall by the October 24 deadline.

In late July, demonstrators in Chihuahua burned several government vehicles, blocked railway tracks, and set afire a government office and highway tollbooths to protest the release of water from local dams to pay the U.S.

López Obrador has advocated paying the debt, noting that Mexico receives four times more water under the treaty from the Colorado River than it contributes to the Rio Grande area. The United States generally pays its water contributions regularly on an annual basis. López Obrador claims Mexico has enough water in dams to supply local farmers and repay its debt, which built up over a number of years.

The issue is a difficult one for the president, who said he fears the U.S. government could impose tariffs on Mexican products or close border crossings in retaliation. Mejía said that “it would be very serious to have to renegotiate a treaty that is so favorable for our country.”

López Obrador has said the protests are being fanned by opposition politicians for their own motives. The conservative opposition National Action Party has been involved in encouraging the protests, but Mejía said instigators also came from at least two other parties.

The expansion of water-hungry crops has meant that Mexico has used 71% of the northward-flowing Conchos River, while under the treaty it should use only 62% of the water, letting the rest flow into the Rio Bravo, also known as the Rio Grande, on the border. The amounts are determined over five-year cycles; the current cycle ends in October.

In the past, Mexico has delayed payments, hoping that periodic tropical storms from the Gulf of Mexico would create occasional windfalls of water. But while Hurricane Hanna made landfall in Texas in July, the storm’s rains did not reach far enough inland to fill dams in Chihuahua.

Recommended: Mexico protests against U.S. water payment turn violent in Chihuahua

The U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees compliance with the treaty, said in a statement that “what happened at Boquilla Dam is unfortunate for everyone involved.”

According to its accounting, Mexico still owes 392.6 million cubic meters to the United States that must be paid by October 24. That leaves almost an entire year’s normal water contribution to be paid in about a month and a half.

The water commission said that “at this point, it would be premature to say what would happen if Mexico ends the current cycle with a shortfall.”

Blanca Jiménez, the director of Mexico’s National Water Commission, said, “We are currently negotiating with the United States ... a strategy to end the cycle correctly.”

López Obrador has said he would personally appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump for “understanding” if it proved impossible to pay the debt.

On Tuesday, Chihuahua farmers took over the La Boquilla dam forcing the National Guard to withdraw after Mexico’s Water Commission (CONAGUA) failed once again to comply with the agreements made just a week ago.

On Monday, Chihuahua governor Javier Corral denounced to the governors of the Federalist Alliance that President López Obrador had not wanted to meet him or speak to him on the phone regarding this issue.

In a negotiating table held last week, the CONAGO accepted to stop the extraction of water after reaching the agreed amount, however, it increased the amount of liquid extracted on Sunday, which stemmed in a series of pacific protests by farmers.

After the farmers occupied Chihuahua’s Government Palace, Javier Corral asserted he would go with them to meet President López Obrador, however, before this could happen, CONAGUA increased the extraction of water saying it was in order to fulfill the 1944 treaty with the U.S., although farmers have continually pointed out the lack of vital liquid to face the drought experienced in 52 of the 67 municipalities in the state.

On his morning news conference, López Obrador said there are political interests involved in the conflict regarding the La Boquilla dam.

“Yes, there was a demonstration of farmers and politicians and they took over the La Boquilla dam that was being used to fulfill the commitment to pay water to the United States according to the 1944 Treaty.”

“There was another clash in another part of the dam and there is an investigation over everything that happened.”

He said the dam had to be closed so as not to respond to provocations because during the morning, there was a meeting with the Chihuahua governor and PAN leaders who led the meeting and there was a march to the dam immediately after.

Governor Javier Corral condemned the President’s statements regarding the Chihuahua dams.

He even mentioned that the one making the issue a political one has been Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself.

“What I must regret is that the one who has contributed to making this conflict into a political-electoral issue is the President of the Republic himself, who has even made very sensitive statements about the participation of certain former governors,” he said.

Javier Corral added that, since August 27, he sent a document signed by farmers mentioning the commitment to deliver up to 100 million cubic meters of water, nevertheless, he has received no answer to date from federal officials.

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