«Suddenly, the project reached a dead end because the local legislature asked for a bribe to let it operate. “That’s what we were dealing with,” said Sanchez.»

Aleyda - Articulos

Ramon Sanchez PinŽa2

Ramón Sánchez Piña with Nicole Bellisle, Program Coordinator of Sustainable Business Development, cooking in a solar stove that resulted from one of the multiple projects of the Leadership Program Applied to Renewable Energies and Energy Efficiency developed in Mexico during 2015 and 2016.

For the most part Ramon Sanchez’s education took place in Mexican public schools, in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. Only in high school, his mother, Yolanda Pina enrolled him in a private institution. On his senior year, Sanchez remembers, he was the top student in his class and everything pointed at him to win the “excellence scholarship,” granted to the student with the best grade point average of each class, to attend a private college. But in an unexpected turn of events, he says that year the scholarship was instead given to someone who had been part of the institution since the first grade.

“That was my first reality check on how politics work in Mexico,” said Sanchez, “where academic and financial support are not always granted on merit but on personal, or economic, influence.”

For Sanchez, corruption in Mexico is the largest obstacle to the country’s success. That year he applied for the scholarship directly at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and was able to enter college, but ever since that incident, he says, he is always mindful of how corruption, in its many forms, can make or break someone’s future.

“Imagine the shock of thinking you no longer have the opportunity to continue with your higher education because your scholarship was given to someone else, just like that,” he said.


Today, Sanchez, 43, is the director of the Sustainable Technologies and Health Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Sanchez says school was an amusing part of his adolescence and describes those years as “critical” in his understanding of how society works in “the Mexican system.”

“I was no stranger to corruption when I was living in Mexico,” said Sanchez. “But I realized its outstanding levels when I got [to Harvard] and started working on projects that I thought could benefit my home country.”


In 2014 the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in coordination with InTrust Global Investments and the Mexican Department of Energy, created a program to allow academics in Mexico develop tangible renewable energy projects in their communities.

In an unprecedented effort, the Applied Leadership Program in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency reached more than 300 professors from over 120 public universities in Mexico. More than 90 renewable energy projects and six patents resulted from this exertion.

“It took many setbacks to learn the recipe for success,” said Sanchez.


One such setback, he said, was a project intended to decrease the ecological footprint by 50 percent, saving 10 to 15 lives a year while cleaning the air. It was paid by international investors and had all the technical elements to support its functionality. Suddenly, the project reached a dead end because the local legislature asked for a bribe to let it operate. “That’s what we were dealing with,” said Sanchez.

To make things more complex, the Mexican people are suspicious of any development plans in which the government has any participation, and with good reason.

“It is difficult to trust the authorities,” said professor Blanca Gonzalez, administrative assistant of the Antitalaquia Institute of Technology, located in a rural community in one of Mexico’s poorest states; Hidalgo.


Gonzalez was one of the 300 professors invited to the Applied Leadership Program, and the Antitalaquia Institute was one of the public schools participating.

“Our school is the result of a promise made during a political campaign,” said Gonzalez. The authorities promised to build a higher education building in her community and they did. But when they received the keys to the building it was completely empty, she said.


“There were no tables, no chairs, nothing. I mean, we didn’t even have electricity!” said Gonzalez. “For over a year we had to buy diesel to have a light plant. There was nothing to work with and we still have almost nothing.”


Authorities recognize there are cases of corruption that need to be addressed, but disagree that this is an endemic problem.

Emilio Rabasa, the consul general of Mexico in New England, who has held various positions in public office, stressed that the government “is taking firm steps to fight this problem,” such as the recent approval by the Mexican Congress for the creation of the National Prosecution Office Against Corruption. “I can tell you things are moving in the right direction,” he said.

On the other hand, Sanchez said he believes the key to success was honesty and community involvement.

“You have to be transparent in the way you approach the people who will eventually benefit from the project,” he said. “If the locals don’t trust the outcome you will surely fail in the long run.”


But the ability to build trust and empathize with the people around him comes natural for Sanchez, said Guillermo Cedeno, program leader of Energy Efficiency and Carbon Mitigation Technologies at the Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health.

“Ramon is a person of impeccable ethics,” Cedeno said, “and has an exceptional ability to explain the potential results behind a scientific proposal, and that’s what people are looking for.”


Cedeno assisted in the organization and logistics of 18 different seminars given throughout Mexico.

“If it wasn’t for the corruption, I believe Ramon would be willing to spend more time and do more field work in Mexico,” he said. “But not being able to develop his full potential has made him choose to stay here.”


Sanchez’s involvement in Mexican matters extends to other groups of influence, like the Mexican Consulate Board of Advisors where he is an active member.

Rabasa recognized Sanchez’ extensive experience and willingness to help. “Ramon’s participation in our monthly sessions of the advisory group has many times turned into important networking events and project improvements,” and added, “He is undoubtedly the one Mexican who knows best Boston’s ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship in science and technology.”

In a series of interviews with Sanchez’s colleagues, each one spoke of his selflessness. “That eagerness to help in a selfless way is always palpable,” said Gonzalez

“How many people of Ramon’s academic and professional stature would agree to give a web lecture to your students for free?” asked Gonzalez rhetorically. “However, he has always been very open to share his time with us whenever we’ve asked.”


Giving back is part of his motivation, said Sanchez. “I’d like to think I’m making an impact. That I’m not in this world just to make money.”

“I could be working as a Wall Street analyst, or maybe go back to being a general manager at a manufacturing firm,” said Sanchez. “But what would I do there? Maybe provide a better future for me and my family, but that’d be it. Transforming small communities is like teaching the world how to fish, and that is how you really change things for everyone.”


Aleyda Villavicencio



In Cambridge alone, there are dozens of Mexicans involved in projects that range from aeronautics to biotechnology and renewable energy. These Mexican professionals say multiple factors led them to stay in the U.S., including the fear that they would have fewer opportunities in Mexico.

Aleyda - TN


Ramón Sanchez, director of the Sustainable Technologies and Health Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

By Aleyda Villavicencio

Ulises Ruiz-Esparza, 28, is currently the youngest leader of the Biomaterials Innovation Research Center, at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. With a doctorate degree in biotechnology and nanotechnology, Ruiz-Esparza started in this position less than a year ago, but it did not take long before he realized that his residence in the U.S. could be in jeopardy.

Last February he went back to Mexico to renew his TN visa, which allows him to work in the United States under NAFTA. Once there, he learned that the process that used to take a few days could now take months, with no guarantee of a positive outcome. His concern was to lose not only his job but also the possibility to continue his research.

“If I had to return to Mexico, I would have to forget my research completely,” said Ruiz-Esparza. “It is practically impossible to do my job over there. It requires highly sophisticated equipment that is not readily available. In fact, sometimes even when you have the tools, the bureaucracy and the tariff laws in our country make it tough to get the necessary materials in a timely manner.”


Ulises Ruiz-Esparza Liderazgo

Ulises Ruiz-Esparza, mexican scientist.

Ruiz-Esparza is not the only scientist in this country facing a similar conflict when confronted with the possibility of having to go back to Mexico.

In Cambridge alone, there are dozens of Mexicans involved in projects that range from aeronautics to biotechnology and renewable energy. These Mexican professionals say multiple factors led them to stay in the U.S., including the fear that they would have fewer opportunities in Mexico, and that bureaucracy and corruption would limit their resources and inhibit their research.

Contrary to Trump’s allegations that “when Mexico sends their people, they’re not sending their best,” a 2013 study by Alma Maldonado, then a research assistant in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, showed that one-third of the total Mexican population with doctoral degrees live in the United States. As a result, approximately 11,000 Mexicans, whose post-graduate education was sponsored by the Mexican government or themselves, are employed in the U.S. and paying taxes on this side of the border.

Meanwhile, researchers at Southern Methodist University found that the two main reasons highly educated people flee Mexico is the lack of infrastructure and resources, followed by politics in academia.

“In Mexico, anyone could become head of the university only because he is a friend of the current governor,” said Professor Ramon Sanchez, director of the Sustainable Technologies and Health Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


Sanchez, 42, has lived in Boston more than 10 years and has developed multiple renewable energy projects throughout Mexico. He believes “the main detractor for talent to remain in Mexico is corruption.”

But the unethical distribution of key positions in the education system is not the only concern for Mexican students and scientists; the allocation of government funds through scholarships is also an issue. Most of this money is funneled through the National Council of Science and Technology, and it does not give the money directly to the universities.

“[The leaders of the Council] want to keep control of who gets these funds,” said Marco Munoz, director of the Office of Global Initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “since scholarships are not always awarded for merit, but for influence.”


One of Munoz’s responsibilities at MIT is to find “philanthropic partners,” both to implement students’ ideas and to create scholarships for specific countries.

Munoz speaks to wealthy people around the world and particularly in Latin America. He said it is difficult to find financial partners in Mexico, and the most common reason he gets is “I don’t want to sponsor people to study abroad because they are not going to come back.”

Munoz agrees, but explained that after many years of working with students from around the world, Mexicans educated abroad feel unwelcome returning home.

Four years ago MIT created the first 10 Peruvian-preferred scholarships thanks to a philanthropic partner from Peru. Munoz explained that the businessman who funds these scholarships comes every year to visit the students and invites them to his various businesses in Latin America. “They get involved with the companies’ problems, and they do internships over there [to try to find solutions],” he said.

Munoz, who studied at the University of Texas School of Law, with a scholarship from the government of Veracruz, said he has never seen this bond between Mexican students and their authorities.

“There’s no link other than the money between the students and their government,” he said. This leads to a disconnection between the institutions that could benefit from these scholars and the needs of the students who could bring their knowledge back to their country, he added.


For Ruiz-Esparza, returning to Cambridge was crucial for the future of his research. He said he was lucky his renewal was approved in a timely manner and was able to come back to work without delay.

He still remembers the difficulties he went through when he tried to continue his research in Mexico after he completed his doctorate in Houston.

“It took me five months of reaching out to different laboratories throughout the country to try to make some tests,” said Ruiz-Esparza. “Something we do here in a matter or minutes can take you months in Mexico. There’s no way to compete with scientists from developed countries when you don’t have the resources at hand.”


When Ruiz-Esparza finished his MD-PhD program, he was only 27, and he insists that he would not have accomplished as much in Mexico as he has in the United States.

“In Mexico, except for my mentor, nobody would take me seriously,” he said. “Every time I went back before my doctoral thesis was so widely recognized, people would tell me I was a fool, a child,” said Ruiz-Esparza. “Ironically, here in the United States, Harvard believed in me and invited me to work with them. The opportunity was a dream come true, and I didn’t think twice.”


Aleyda Villavicencio



For Hernandez and Andrade the goal is clear: to promote and encourage the participation of more young students in STEM fields, but they both share an interest in increasing the number of girls and women who can access the resources available.

Oficina - STEM

Women in many countries face obstacles to careers in science and technology, but in Mexico, the challenges can be particularly daunting.

By Aleyda Villavicencio


Women in many countries face obstacles to careers in science and technology, but in Mexico, the challenges can be particularly daunting.

According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “women are the most underestimated resource in Mexico. Even though their achievements in education are now comparable to those achieved by men.”

The study shows that school dropout and adolescent pregnancy are among the first causes women do not complete high school in that country. “Mexico has the highest proportion of births among women between the ages of 15 and 19, with 74 births per 1,000 women, compared with the average 15 births in the rest of the countries.”

The Mexican Department of Education recognized they must promote efforts in the education field not only to solve the school dropout of girls, or the very high rate of adolescent pregnancy but also to encourage them to pursue an education in STEM; science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to the Mexican Department of Education, the number of young Mexican women entering the workforce in STEM careers is insufficient. Even though women make up nearly half of the working population, they remain underrepresented in STEM occupations. In 2011, 26 percent of STEM workers were women, and 74 percent were men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sarah Wagner, 23, a research associate at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, recently published a study that considers the influence of “support and encouragement” upon young women’s likelihood of choosing a STEM career.

Wagner explains that studies on this subject traditionally consider factors such as self-efficacy, confidence and feminine role models, among others. But fewer studies have analyzed the strength of “support and encouragement” in influencing young women.

Wagner found that both women and men are more likely to report wanting to enter a STEM career when they are encouraged by someone to do so, and women report their home environment as being more supportive of children pursuing careers in science, than men.

Selene Sandoval, 37, said she always had her family’s support to study engineering, but the real motivation to continue with her studies came from another woman who finished her doctorate in engineering abroad and motivated her to do the same.

The influence of speaking to someone she could relate to was the encouragement she needed to apply for a scholarship and move out of her hometown, Sandoval said.

Sandoval is currently studying for a doctorate in material science and engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson and is planning to start her own business after she graduates. She explains with frustration how even at the doctoral level, men look at her with disbelief when she talks about her intentions.

“When I tell them my plans of becoming my own boss and opening a company to create jobs back in my hometown, they look at me with a mocking smile,” she said. “I don’t know why they think that’s funny.”


Wagner’s research also found that encouragement by a high school teacher is more influential to young men and women than even parents and expert’s motivation.
Paola Hernandez, 31, is a doctoral candidate in applied life sciences at Keck Graduate Institute. She was 13 when her biology teacher showed the class a resin-encapsulated embryo and told them that, “that little thing” could become a dog, a cat, or a human, depending on what its cells dictate. She later explained that genes could be deliberately altered to obtain specific results.

The example may not have been entirely accurate, but the teacher certainly got her point across, and at least one girl in her class fixed upon the idea that she could someday achieve such a feat.

“The moment I realized I could manipulate genetic information to have a dog, a cat, or a chimpanzee if I wanted to, I said, wow! I want to change things,” said Hernandez. “I didn’t know where, when or how, but from that moment on I was certain that I wanted to study genetic engineering.”


On February the Mexican government presented an initiative for women from STEM disciplines to be part of a support network for young Mexican students. The plan will launch talks, mentoring programs and workshops with the objective of promoting the integration of more women in this area.

Other non-governmental organizations, such as Clubes de Ciencia México (Mexico Science Clubs) are also contributing to expand access to high quality science education and to inspire and mentor the future generation of scientists and innovators in Mexico.

Patricia Andrade, 32, digital marketing manager at Clubes de Ciencia México, said they are looking closely at the gender equality issue during the selection of both instructors and students participating.

“There is a greater number of male applicants,” said Andrade. “But we are making sure we balance our teams as much as possible to get a 50/50 distribution of men and women.”


It is important to encourage more women to participate, and to connect young women in Mexico with first-hand role-models of what they can achieve, said Hernandez, who is also a board member of Clubes de Ciencia México.

“How could a girl who lives in a distant town in Yucatan and studies in a small rural school think that she could someday go to a university abroad?” she said. “But if I was able to do it, she can do it too.”


For Hernandez and Andrade the goal is clear: to promote and encourage the participation of more young students in STEM fields, but they both share an interest in increasing the number of girls and women who can access the resources available.

“We have to open doors and build bridges, and that’s what we do through Clubes de Ciencia México: we bring scientists to different cities around the country to teach hands-on cutting-edge science workshops and at the same time, we empower several communities by fostering an environment of camaraderie and ongoing support to make these things happen,” said Hernandez. “I believe that we, the privileged educated women with various academic degrees on this side of the border, have a social responsibility to go back [to Mexico] and take ownership, not only in STEM but in all fields that make deep changes in society.”


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Valdez was a nationally and internationally recognized journalist who authored several books on the drug trade, including “Narcoperiodismo” and “Los Morros del Narco.”


Riodoce reported that Valdez was driving about a block from its offices when he was intercepted by gunmen.

Javier Valdez, an award-winning reporter who specialized in covering drug trafficking and organized crime, was slain Monday in the northern state of Sinaloa, the latest in a wave of journalist killings in Mexico.

Valdez is at least the sixth journalist to be murdered in Mexico since early March, an unusually high number even for one of the world’s deadliest countries for media professionals.

Valdez was shot to death in the early afternoon in the state capital of Culiacan, near the offices of the publication he co-founded, Riodoce. State Prosecutor Juan Jose Rios visited the scene and said authorities were investigating all possible motives, including that the killing could have been due to Valdez’s work, though he gave no details.

Late Monday, the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office reported an armed attack on the deputy director of a weekly publication in the city of Autlan and her son. The woman was wounded and the 26-year-old son killed.

Riodoce reported that Valdez was driving about a block from its offices when he was intercepted by gunmen. Valdez was also a correspondent for the national newspaper La Jornada, which reported that he was pulled from his car and shot multiple times.

Images in Mexican media showed a body lying in a street covered by a blue blanket and surrounded by 12 yellow markers of the kind typically used to flag evidence such as bullet casings.

President Enrique Pena Nieto condemned what he called an “outrageous crime.”

“I reiterate our commitment to freedom of expression and the press, fundamental for our democracy,” he tweeted.

The federal Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating.

Valdez was a nationally and internationally recognized journalist who authored several books on the drug trade, including “Narcoperiodismo” and “Los Morros del Narco.” The former is a look at the relationship between journalism and organized crime, and the latter chronicles the lives of young people swept up in Mexico’s criminal underworld.

Jan-Albert Hootson, Mexico representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Valdez and Riodoce were known as a rare source of independent, investigative journalism in Sinaloa.

“And for that same reason, he and his magazine and his co-workers were always under threat of violence,” Hootson said.

According to CPJ, in 2009 unknown attackers threw a grenade into the Riodoce offices days after it published an investigation on drug trafficking. No one was hurt.

By the group’s count, some 40 journalists have been killed in Mexico for reasons confirmed as related to their work since 1992. An additional 50 were slain during the same period under circumstances that have not been clarified.

Journalists targeted in Mexico are most often local reporters in places where the rule of law is tenuous, but there have also been killings of journalists with national profiles such as Valdez and Regina Martinez Perez, who was slain in 2012. The recent spate of slayings includes Miroslava Breach, correspondent for La Jornada in the northern state of Chihuahua, who was gunned down in March.

On Saturday, seven journalists were assaulted and robbed by a mob of about 100 armed men on a highway in the troubled southern state of Guerrero.

Sinaloa has long been a drug trafficking hotbed and is home to the Sinaloa Cartel headed by notorious kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is in a New York prison awaiting trial on multiple charges. Experts say Guzman’s arrest last year and extradition in January have led to upheaval in the area as rival factions war for control of the gang.

“Drug trafficking there is a way of life,” Valdez said in an October interview with Rompeviento TV. “You have to assume the task that falls to you as a journalist — either that or you play dumb. I don’t want to be asked, ‘What were you doing in the face of so much death … why didn’t you say what was going on?’”

Hootson described Valdez as a warm, friendly man, well-liked by other journalists who frequently sought his help to navigate and understand the complex, dangerous state.

“His door was always open. … Everybody always deferred to his knowledge,” Hootson said. “And in that sense, it’s a huge loss for everybody.”

In 2011, CPJ recognized Valdez with its International Press Freedom Award for his “bravery and uncompromising journalism in the face of threats,” the group said in a statement. “His loss is a blow to Mexican journalism and to the Mexican public, who see a shadow of silence spreading across the country.

In a report this month, CPJ noted that most killings of journalists go unpunished in Mexico. It added that even when there are convictions, they are often limited to the immediate killer and do not clarify the motive.

“By not establishing a clear link to journalism or providing any motives for the killings most investigations remain opaque,” the report said. “This lack of accountability perpetuates a climate of impunity that leaves journalists open to attack.”

Valdez’s slaying came less than two weeks after a CPJ delegation met in Mexico City with Pena Nieto and other top government officials.

Last Wednesday, the federal Attorney General’s Office replaced the head of its division responsible for investigating journalist killings. Ricardo Sanchez Perez del Pozo, a lawyer with a background in international law and human rights, took over the post.


Entre Noticias/AP




Photographs of the protest on February 22nd, 2017.

By Blaise Scemama @blaisescemama
Eric Licas @vari8shun contributed to the reporting and photography of this story.

Check all the photographs of the protest here.

Parts of Hollywood Blvd have been shut down near the Hollywood and Highland Center in anticipation of the academy awards this Sunday. At the same time, protesters against the DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) did some blocking of their own by marching hand in hand through the intersection of Hollywood and Highland on Wednesday, February 22.

Below is an original video of the protest:

Lead by the American Indian Movement of Southern California (AIM SoCal), this demonstration, as well as others held throughout Los Angeles earlier this week, was organized in response to the forced evictions of the resistance camps that occurring right now at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

Lydia Ponce, one of the AIM SoCal organizers, repeatedly reminded the crowd gathered in Hollywood that although the evictions have started, they will remain active in solidarity with those being evicted at Standing Rock.

“We’re continuing our prayers here to make sure it reaches their minds and their hearts and their spirits, to let them know that they’re not alone, even at this distance,” Ponce said.


The march concluded in front of the CNN building on Sunset Blvd around 9 p.m. The general sentiment amongst the speakers was that of disappointment in the mainstream media for under-representing the controversy surrounding Standing Rock.

George Funmaker of the Dakota and Hochunk tribe, who has been one of the most active voices at previous rallies, explained the significance of ending the march in front of the CNN building.

“We gathered at CNN, strategically to end there because we want them to start covering these issues that they don’t cover very often,” Funmaker stated.

On February 8, in response to the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers (USACE) decision to greenlight the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Funmaker and AIM SoCal held an emergency protest in front of the USACE’s office in Downtown Los Angeles.

Despite the news that drilling for the pipeline had begun, protesters of the project continued to demonstrate until 8 p.m. that night, marching through Wilshire Blvd., stopping traffic with drum circles and Native American prayer songs.

However spirited the protesters may have been the day the easement was announced, on Monday, February 13, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg denied a request for an injunction that would have temporarily halted construction, according to an article in the Associated Press.

Attorneys representing the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux tribes have claimed that the project threatened the water supply of 17 million people and the integrity of Sioux cultural sites. In response to the easement, they argued that the very presence of the pipeline would taint the region’s supply of pure water, which is essential to the practice of the Sioux religion.


In the same Associated Press article, lawyers for the company behind the project, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), called the recently added religious freedom component of the Tribes’ case a delay tactic. They maintain that the pipeline’s construction and operation would not impinge on the rights or traditions of the Sioux people living in the area.

Boasberg ruled that, so long as oil wasn’t yet flowing through the pipeline, it did not prevent the exercise of regional traditions or religions. However, he said that he would take a closer look at both sides of the argument at a hearing scheduled for Monday, February 27.

A 2016 USACE study determined that the project would not have a significant impact on the environment, and its proponents say it will bring much needed jobs to the area.

Lead activist, Ponce said she was skeptical of the USACE’s findings and that she believed a leak or malfunction of the pipeline would be inevitable. She and other supporters of the Sioux in Dakota, cite the project as a violation of tribal sovereignty.


Other speakers at the Hollywood rally like Katharine Guerrero, who considers herself a native ally, and is indigenous due to her Mexican background, was very outspoken about the possible environmental repercussions of a pipeline such as the one being constructed at Standing Rock.

“There is already a spill, it already happened…there’s already oil going into the missouri river,” said Guerrero. “Those cattle ranchers out there, are pretty scared because their cattle rely on that water… Those ranchers will soon find themselves on the side of the natives, that have been saying for over a year, that this pipeline is going to be bad for the environment.”

Guerrero was also skeptical of the claim that the pipeline will create jobs or benefit the U.S. economy.

“That oil is not staying here, there’s not going to be permanent jobs created with the pipeline (…) they’re painting a pretty picture of something that is really nasty,” Guerrero explained.

While this rally did not attract nearly the same amount of celebrities and public figures as the women’s march did back in January, there were some celebrity sightings in the crowd, like actress Mary Mcdonnell, who is well known for her role in Dances with Wolves, and Rosanna Arquette, who spoke briefly before the march began.

It will be interesting to see how vocal the Hollywood community will be about the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy this Sunday, during the 2017 Academy Awards.

Check all the photographs of the protest here.


Initiative follows President Enrique Peña Nieto much-criticised meeting with Republican


President Enrique Peña Nieto and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speak during a joint conference in Mexico City.

So you want to play hardball, Mr Trump? Mexico is to consider revoking a series of treaties – including the 1848 agreement that transferred half its territory to the United States – if the Republican candidate wins the presidency and rips up the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to a Bill to be presented to Congress.
The initiative, to be proposed on Tuesday by Armando Ríos Piter, a left-wing senator, follows last week’s much-criticised meeting between Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and US presidential contender Donald Trump, which inflamed public opinion and sparked a cabinet rift.
Mr Peña Nieto has faced a fierce backlash at home over what many saw as his red carpet treatment of Mr Trump, who has branded Mexicans rapists and wants to build a border wall that he insists Mexico will pay for.
“This is the first step towards establishing a public policy about how Mexico should react in the face of a threat,” Mr Ríos Piter told the Financial Times.
“This [Bill] is simply to protect a successful 22-year-old relationship [Nafta] that has helped both nations,” he said. “We want to defend that from a position that seeks to destroy it. We have to put it in black and white.”
The initiative would make it illegal for Mexico to use official cash to fund the building of a border wall. If Mr Trump attempted to seize the $24 billion (€21.5 billion) in annual remittances from the US to Mexico to pay for it, the Bill would empower Mexico to retaliate in kind by impounding the same sum, probably through a tax on remittances heading in the other direction.
Furthermore, if Mr Trump made good on threats to scrap the 1994 Nafta free-trade deal – credited with creating one in three jobs in Mexico – it would call for a review all 75 bilateral treaties between the two countries to establish if they were in the national interests.


The entrance to the huge Cananea copper mine near the U.S. border.


By David Bacon


In the afternoon of August 6, 2014, the water in the Bacanuchi River turned yellow. At Tahuichopa, where the Bacanuchi flows into the larger Sonora River, Martha Agupira was one of the first to see it.

“We had no warning,” she remembers. “We just saw the river change color-yellow, with a really terrible smell, like copper or chemicals. All the fish died. A bull drinking in the river died right away. Other animals died, too.”

Tahuichopa is a small Mexican town of about 200 people, situated where the foothills of La Elenita mountain begin to flatten out into the high plain of the Sonora Desert, about 60 miles south of the Arizona border. The town’s cornfields line the banks of both rivers. “So people had to go through the river to get to them. The people were contaminated too,” she says. 

From Tahuichopa, the Sonora River flows southwest through wide green valleys separated by narrow canyons. The yellow water arrived next at Banamichi, then Baviacora, and then Ures. 

Two days after Martha Agupira saw the fish die, Luz Apodaca was visiting San Felipe de Jesus, the next town downstream.  Like many valley residents, she liked going along the riverbank to collect watercress. “I went into the water,” she laments. “That day, the river was dark brown, like chocolate. But I didn’t pay much attention because we’re used to going in and bathing there.”

Martha Agupira, activist and community leader in Tahuichopa


In fact, the river is a big tourist attraction, or it was. Families on weekends would drive up from Hermosillo, Sonora’s capital city of 700,000, which lies farther, between two big reservoirs. Visitors would fill the restaurants in the river towns, or picnic on the sandbars. 

But the river began to smell like ammonia, Apodaca says, and by evening her face began to swell. “Over the next two days, my skin began to break out, and ever since I’ve had sores on my face and arms and legs. My fingernails all fell off. For many days I couldn’t sleep because of the pain in my face, and my knees and bones and nerves all hurt.”

What the two women experienced, along with the other 20,000 inhabitants of the Sonora and Bacanuchi River valleys, was one of the worst toxic spills in the history of mining in Mexico. In her report on the incident, Dr. Reina Castro, a professor at the University of Sonora, said, “A failure in the exit pipe from a holding pond at the mine led to the spill of approximately 40,000 cubic meters of leached material, including acidified copper sulfate.” On August 9, the Mexican agency overseeing water quality, CONAGUA, found elevated levels of heavy metals in the water, including aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, iron, manganese, nickel, and mercury.

The contamination did more than harm the health of river residents. It undermined the economic survival of their communities, and damaged the ecology of the valleys in ways that could be permanent. 

But the spill also created a political movement of townspeople in response, in alliance with miners involved in one of the longest strikes in Mexico’s history. That alliance is bringing to light the impact that corporate giants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have on the people of this binational region.

Antonio Navarette Vasco, an officer of the miners union in Cananea, spent months organizing the communities affected by the toxic spill, helping to form the Frente Rio Sonora.


The headwaters of both rivers rise in La Elenita, where the Cananea copper mine, one of the world’s largest, has been slowly pulverizing the mountain for more than a century. By the time of the spill, the mine’s workers had been on strike for nearly seven years, since July 2007. Since 2010, the mine has been operated by strikebreakers hired by the mine’s owner, Grupo Mexico, a global mining corporation. Some workers are hired directly by the subsidiary that runs Cananea’s mine operations, Buenavista del Cobre. Others work for contractors. 

In a press statement issued September 1, 2014, three weeks after the spill, Grupo Mexico blamed a contractor for causing it. “We recognize that, among other factors, a relevant cause was a construction defect in the seal of a pipe in the Tinajas 1 system … [which had been] contracted to a specialized company in the region, TECOVIFESA.” Grupo Mexico announced it was sending workers to clean up the river, and later agreed with the Mexican government to set up a fund, or fidecomiso, to compensate residents for damage from the spill.

Hiring contractors to replace the mine’s skilled workforce, however, has been going on for many years, according to the miners’ union, Section 65 of the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Allied Workers. The Cananea mine contains 13 ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid left over from leaching metal from the rock. The work of maintaining them was originally performed by members of the union, before the company contracted it out. The use of contractors is one of the principle reasons for the strike. 

Grupo Mexico today owns mines in Mexico, Peru, and the United States. In the first quarter of 2016, the corporation earned profits of $406 million, on revenue of $1.9 billion. Even with the recent decline in China’s vast appetite for metal and raw materials, the company is still one of the most profitable in mining. 

Sergio Tolano, general secretary of Section 65 of the miners union in Cananea.


The company was originally the Mexican division of ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company, started by the Guggenheim family in 1899. Until 1965, ASARCO owned many mines in Mexico. Under nationalist development policies, however, ASARCO sold its Mexican subsidiary to Mexican investors, among them Jorge Larrea Ortega, Mexico’s “King of Copper.” Today, his son German Larrea Mota controls Grupo Mexico.

The Cananea mine, Mexico’s largest, originally belonged to a U.S. owner, Colonel William C. Greene. In 1906, miners rebelled against the “Mexican Wage”-an arrangement paying white miners from the United States. higher wages than Mexicans. In the violent insurrection that followed, the Arizona Rangers crossed the border into Mexico and put down the strike. The battle is considered the first conflict of the Mexican Revolution.

Cananea afterward belonged to the Anaconda Copper Company until the Mexican government took it over in 1971. During the last years it owned the mine, Anaconda ended the old method of shaft mining, and began open-pit operations. That decision had an enormous impact on the area’s ecology. 

In an open-pit mine, huge chunks of rock are blown out of the mountain, loaded onto giant trucks, and taken to a crusher. There, the ore is ground down into fine particles, and laid out on huge “benches.” The crushed rock is then sprayed with acid that leaches out the metal, which is collected below in ponds. Big electrodes pull the metal from the solution, and the leftover liquid is channeled into those 13 ponds. The 2014 spill originated in one of them. 

Today, benches of tailings tower over miners’ homes in Cananea. Part of the old town now lies buried beneath them. On a hot windy day, dust from pulverized rock blows into doorways, and miners’ families breathe the minerals the wind carries. On Cananea’s outskirts, the giant ponds line the southbound highway, parallel to the Sonora River.

One of the retaining ponds at the mine in Cananea, photo by Garrett Brown


In the late 1980s, the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari first declared the Cananea mine bankrupt, and then sold it to the Larrea family’s Grupo Mexico for $475 million in 1990. That’s the equivalent of the last three months of Grupo Mexico’s current profits.

Salinas also sold the neighboring Nacozari mine, almost as big as Cananea, to the Larreas in 1988. In 1997, Grupo Mexico partnered with Pennsylvania-based Union Pacific to buy Mexico’s main north-south railroad for $527 million, and ended all passenger service. Two years later, Grupo Mexico bought ASARCO itself, its former parent, for $1.18 billion, gaining ownership of mines and smelters in the United States. 

Today, the corporation’s board of directors has interlocking ties with many Mexican banks and media companies, and with U.S. corporations as well. Director Claudio X. González Laporte, for instance, is board chair of Kimberley Clark de Mexico, the Mexican subsidiary of the U.S. paper giant. González Laporte is a past director of General Electric, Kellogg, Home Depot, and the Mexican media giant Televisa, and was special adviser to the Mexican president.

By the late 1990s, Grupo Mexico had a history of labor conflicts, as it reduced payroll to increase profits. In 1997, railroad workers mounted strikes over plans to reduce their workforce of 13,000 by more than half. They lost. In 1998, Cananea miners struck over company demands to trim its directly employed labor force by 1,000 jobs, while hiring non-union workers at lower wages through contractors. Threatened with military occupation of the mine, miners ended their strike, but more than 800 were not rehired.

The miners were fighting a rearguard battle to keep the wages and conditions they’d won over decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican miners had better protective laws than miners in the United States, controlling exposure to the silica dust produced by crushing ore. They made good wages and lived in homes built with government loans.

The Sonora River, above Tahuichopa


After the miners lost the 1998 strike, however, Grupo Mexico disconnected exhaust ventilation pipes on the roof of its main ore concentrator building. Dust in work areas reached knee-high levels. Grupo Mexico also closed the Hospital Ronquillo, which had provided health care to miners’ families. For 80 years, the mine had been responsible for providing water service to the town. After the strike, Grupo Mexico said the town had to fend for itself. 

When Grupo Mexico announced it was terminating 135 workers who maintained the tailings ponds, miner Rene Enriquez Leon warned that a spill could reach the headwaters of the Sonora River and the farming region downstream. “It would be an ecological disaster,” he predicted. 

In 2006, an explosion in Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, trapped 65 miners underground. After six days, the company and government authorities called off rescue attempts. The head of the union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, accused those responsible of “industrial homicide.” In response, the government charged him with fraud.

Gomez fled Mexico and was given sanctuary in Canada, where he’s lived with the assistance of the United Steelworkers (the union for U.S. copper miners). After years of appeals, Mexican courts threw out the charges against him. Nevertheless, Gomez continues to stay in Canada, since the government won’t guarantee his safety and freedom if he returns.

Antonio Navarette, who began working in Cananea in 1985, says that by the mid-2000s the lack of safety was producing “a psychosis of fear. Once you went in, you didn’t know if you’d come back out again.” The machinery wasn’t given preventative maintenance, he charges, including collectors for evacuating dust. Accidents grew more frequent; workers lost hands and fingers. The accelerating problems, he believes, “made it clear that the company was pushing us to go on strike. But we decided things couldn’t continue, because otherwise we were going to die there.”

Domingo Molina Ruiz, a rancher in Tahuichopa


For the first three years of the strike, Mexican labor law kept the company from legally operating the facility. Then the government declared the strike illegal, and in 2010, federal soldiers and police occupied the town and reopened the Cananea mine. Despite that, Seccion 65 continues to organize strike activity. The union also continued to monitor safety issues. In 2009, the miners’ strike committee warned Eduardo Bours, governor of Sonora, that “a spill that could have very serious consequences, since on April 14 the company withdrew its emergency personnel and with them the union workforce responsible for maintaining the tailings dam, which could put the population below the dam in danger.” The committee got no answer.

Five years later, the predicted spill finally occurred. At one in the morning, Navarette, a leader of the striking union, saw an appeal for help on Facebook from a doctor in Bacanuchi, the first town on the Bacanuchi River below the mine. “We went there right away,” he remembers. “The townspeople, even the children, were all crying. No one knew what could be done. Even Gila monster lizards and coyotes were fleeing from the danger.”

The strikers became the primary source of information for the affected towns, he says. “We always worried conditions in the mine could affect the communities. We began to help them organize, because we needed to join forces to get the company to listen.” That was the beginning of the Frente Rio Sonora-the Sonora River Front. 

Today, the Front is headed by Marco Antonio Garcia, a farmer and former union miner from Baviacora. Garcia, whose deeply lined face shows the impact of a life working in the high desert, farms 75 acres-more than most local farmers, who cultivate just a few. When the farmers had to throw away their crops because of the contamination, he lost $33,000. 

It wasn’t just personal loss that pushed him into action. “If we don’t win, we’re lost,” he says, “and the most important thing people on the Rio Sonora will lose is their dignity.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, the president of the Frente Rio Sonora, is a rancher near Baviacora


“The Frente was organized at the urging of Seccion 65 in Cananea,” he continues. “They began visiting all the towns along the river. They had their problem with the scrapping of their union contract, and we had our problem with the river. At first, some people said the miners spent all their time fighting. But in reality, they’re involved in a big struggle. And so are we, if we want to have a future for the people of the Rio Sonora. The contamination of the river is going to last a lifetime.”

Protests first broke out in Ures, a month after the spill. “We started marching and blocking the highway,” recalls Lupita Poom, who now heads the Frente there. “These were all peaceful demonstrations, and hundreds of people took part. That’s when we began to meet the leaders from other towns on the river.” And as Navarette and other miners from Seccion 65 helped local groups get started, a bigger plan took shape. “We decided to do another planton [an organized encampment, like Occupy Wall Street], but this one directed at the mine,” Poom says. 

Martha Agupira says that when the miners came to Tahuichopa to invite people to the protest, “the municipal president told us that soldiers would come, and we’d be thrown in jail. But by then we had nothing, so why not go?”

On March 18 of last year, buses and cars caravanned up the river. Bypassing federal and state police guarding the mine gates, the buses instead unloaded hundreds of farmers and striking miners at the plant outside of town that pumps water to the mine. For several months, their planton cut the supply of fresh water to the mine, leading to a substantial reduction in its operation.

“We stayed there for a long time,” Poom recalls. Her husband remained in Ures to take care of their children, while she and other women formed the backbone of the occupation. Poom even got a big tattoo on her back with the symbol of the striking union surrounded by a banner with the Frente’s name.

Lupita Poom, leader of the Frente Rio Sonora in Ures, and an activist who stayed at the planton in Cananea for months


“The miners brought us three meals a day and materials for making our tents, so that we could have some shelter,” she says. “We weren’t afraid. To me, fear means sitting with my arms folded doing nothing. At the planton, we were raising our voices, making people listen to us.”

When a group of U.S. health professionals and environmental and labor activists visited the river towns in April 2016, they found that the impact of the spill was still present. The group said they handed out a thousand health surveys, and got 500 replies. Cadelba Lomeli-Loibl, a nurse from Oakland, California, said at a press conference in Hermosillo that “we found children between four and ten years old who have painful rashes that haven’t healed in over a year, and older people with liver and kidney problems.”

According to Lomeli-Loibl and her coworkers, Olivia deBree and Garrett Brown, 76 percent of those surveyed had skin problems and 78 percent had problems with their eyes. Many had headaches and joint pains, or said their hair was falling out. The group pointed to the need for a complete epidemiological study of the people of the river towns. Many residents they interviewed said that various people from the government and local universities had taken blood and water samples since the spill, but had not reported the results to them.

One interviewee in Baviacora told deBree that her 13-year-old grandson had gone into the water after the spill, when it was still yellow. Later, he developed a lesion on his face that began to be eaten up from the inside. Tests in Mexico City found lead and cadmium in his blood. He now has chronic sinusitis and a tumor in his face. “At that point in the interview, she just started crying,” deBree says.

Interviewed at the Cananea planton last year, Reyna Valenzuela of Ures explained, “Our kids had problems because, in the first place, we were all drinking the water, and then because we used it to bathe. Our water comes from the well and the wells are contaminated. As the doctors said, whether you drink or bathe in it, you’re exposed from your head to your feet.” Her 11-year-old son still has rashes on his legs, ears, neck, trunk, hands, feet, between his buttocks, and on his penis. “Doctors said it was because they were exposed to heavy metals.”

Jesus Maria Cordoba Piri, a rancher near Baviacora, shows the rashes on his leg that won’t go away


The river towns get their drinking water from wells, which were almost all close to the river. They too were contaminated. At first, trucks brought in bottled water, while new wells were drilled farther away.

In Baviacora, Jesus Cordoba, a local farmer, recalled, “After the spill they brought water in big barrels at first. But now we have to buy it. A container of 20 liters (5 gallons) costs 13 pesos. We use six of them in a week, just my wife and myself. I don’t believe the river will ever go back to what it was before. They say contamination goes down 5 meters [15 feet]. How will they clean up five meters down, on all that land?  “In negotiations after the spill, Grupo Mexico agreed to provide funding for a clinic in Ures. Some residents reported getting treatment there, but others said they did not trust it. 

Brooke Anderson, a climate justice advocate from Oakland who accompanied the nurses, says residents told her they’d lost half their annual income because they were not able to plant or irrigate their crops, or because of the loss of tourist income in the towns.

“The people who came here before to buy the garlic don’t come now, because they believe it’s contaminated,” Martha Agupira explains. “When we brought our beans to Hermosillo, no one wanted to buy them either. Families now go hungry because they have no income.”

Problems multiplied in the month after the spill, when Hurricane Odile hit western Mexico. “When the river rose, it flooded the cornfields,” Agupira recalls. “That brought the contamination into a much larger area on both sides of the river. The rains didn’t clean the river, the way Grupo Mexico claimed. It spread the contamination. If you dig down into the earth, you find the yellow stain from the chemicals. The fields are drying up, and are full of this yellow dirt.”

Domingo Molina Ruiz with water from the well he gives to his animals, but won’t drink himself because he fears it’s contaminated


As she sat in Tahuichopa’s health clinic-a room in the small community center, bare except for a table and a small cabinet with a few bottles of pills-she twisted the hair that frames her oval face and falls below her shoulders. “I used to have lots of hair,” she said sadly. “Now it’s falling out.”

Economic problems are leading to an exodus from the river towns. “People have left to try to find work elsewhere, so the majority of the people here now are seniors,” Agupira says. “My father stays here because he loves the land. But we’re struggling to make it.”

While some people from the river towns used to get jobs in the Cananea mine, both strikers and river residents now say that the company no longer hires local people because it believes they would be sympathetic to the strikers. Meanwhile, some strikers have gone to the United States to earn money to send home to their families. One striker, who asked to keep his name confidential when he was interviewed at the planton, said, “I’m blacklisted here, and on the other side, I’m just another illegal. It’s hard to keep your humanity, but I’m surviving, and there’s no other way.”

Cananea’s impact crosses the border in other ways too. The San Pedro River flows from Sonora into Arizona, where it meets the Gila River and eventually the Colorado. It is the last major free-flowing desert river in the United States and hosts migratory birds, jaguars, coatimundi, and other endangered species. 

The river is already stressed by pumps that supply water to Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca, Arizona, which take 6,100 acre-feet more water annually than is replenished by rainfall. But its main problem is that its water comes from the Las Nutrias and El Sauz Rivers, which start near Cananea. 

The Sonora River, above Baviacora


In 1979, a mine spill flowed into the San Pedro, killing fish and animals for 60 miles, according to a report by Arizona State University. Both the Sonora and the San Pedro Rivers are threatened by the expansion of tailing ponds at the mine, according to a report by Dick Kamp and Laurie Silvan of E-Tech International, who visited the mine after the 2014 spill. E-Tech International is a nonprofit organization that provides communities with technical support on the environmental impact of large development projects. “A new tailings dam and a large catchment area are being constructed,” their report said. “The existing tailings, coupled with older acidic discharges to ground and surface water, were suspected as sources of the contamination found downstream of the mine in the past.”
E-Tech International and other groups have urged more systematic monitoring of the Sonora and San Pedro Rivers for contaminants, but “the contract for fidecomiso funds prohibits technical studies that address long-term monitoring,” the pair reported. Nevertheless, since the spill, 27 sites have been monitored by the Sonora-based Research Center in Food and Development. But many river residents say the only person they’ve seen consistently collecting water samples has been Dr. Reina Castro. 

Water flow in both rivers is also affected by pumping from the mine. Grupo Mexico has 120 wells in the desert around Cananea. By contrast, the city itself only has 14. As production has increased, the mine’s consumption of water has increased with it. Castro estimates that “in the decade of the 2000s, the mine consumed 23 million cubic meters of water a year, or 729 liters [almost 200 gallons] per second, from the sources of the San Pedro and Sonora Rivers.” According to the Nature Conservancy, parts of the San Pedro no longer flow year-round.

“But the water belongs to the nation,” declares Antonio Garcia. “We all have a right to it.”

The Frente’s immediate demands include a complete clean-up of the Sonora River, extensive health monitoring and treatment for river residents, and compensation from Grupo Mexico for lost crops and income. While the corporation budgeted $110 million for the clean-up fund and compensation, residents charge that much of it went to large farmers and businesses, while workers and small businesses received little or nothing.

The union in Cananea wants to return its members to their jobs. But many strikers doubt the company is willing to operate the mine safely, even if they go back to work. At the beginning of May, two workers and a superviser died when their pickup was crushed by a huge dump truck in the mine. Another worker lost his life a few months earlier in an accident. One possible reason for increased accidents is that workers in the mine have been working 12-hour days since it was reopened in 2010, instead of the eight hours mandated in the old union contract.

Dr. Reina Castro, at a press conference in Hermosillo reporting the continued impact of the toxic spill.  Photo by Olivia deBree


On June 30, the Permanent Commission of the Mexican Congress accused Grupo Mexico of lengthening the workday to 12 hours, and passed a measure demanding that the company account for its failure to remediate the damage done to the Sonora River by the toxic spill, and for the fatal May accident at the mine.

Cecilia Soto Gonzalez, a deputy representing Sonora in the Congress, from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, told La Jornada newspaper, “The families of the victims and the inhabitants of Cananea are deeply angry because, as always, Grupo Mexico has washed its hands [of responsibility[ and the authorities don’t act impartially to determine the responsibility for the lack of safety and super-exploitation at Buenavista de Cobre [the Cananea mine[, where the workday has been increased from eight to 12 hours a day.” 

Together, the Mexican miners’ union and the Frente Rio Sonora have filed a complaint with Mexico’s Human Rights Commission over the spill and the strike. United Steelworkers has supported them. When the Cananea strike started in 2007, the USW representative Manny Armenta brought food and money to the miners, and the union later put political pressure on the Obama administration to intercede with the Mexican government.

Both unions say they intend eventually to merge into one organization. The USW now negotiates with Grupo Mexico, since the company owns the ASARCO mines in the United States. But until now, the company has been unwilling to agree on a new contract, and threatens to close a smelter in Hayden, Arizona, which would cost 211 USW members their jobs.

Armenta and USW District 12 Director Bob LaVenture were both at the planton when it started last year. Together, the U.S. and Mexican unions filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, accusing Grupo Mexico and ASARCO of violating workers’ rights on both sides of the border. “Companies like Grupo Mexico, and other multinational conglomerates that attempt to silence workers, are precisely the reason why international solidarity among labor unions is so important,” said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers.

Striking miners burn a banner with the photo of German Larrea, the owner of the Cananea mine, because they hold him responsible for the deaths of miners in the Pasta de Conchos coal mine and the pollution of the Rio Sonora


As far as Grupo Mexico is concerned, the clean-up of the Rio Sonora is over. On October 9, 2014, two months after the spill, it said it had put 1,200 people to work on it, and declared: “As a result of the work controlling the acidity and cleanup of the Sonora and Bacanuchi Rivers … the company has completed its surface cleanup work on 98.3% of the 250.4 kilometers it treated.”

And on July 8, the Mexico daily El Universal reported that the UVEAS clinic funded by the $110 million had closed. The Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks said that the clinic, after 1,160 medical consultations, had only identified 360 people as having had health impacts from the spill. One of them, Patricia Velarde Ortega, who suffers from complications including frequent nosebleeds, filed a complaint with Mexico’s Human Rights Commission after finding that the clinic’s phone had been disconnected, and that she was no longer able to get treatment.

Dr. Reina Castro called Grupo Mexico’s declaration irresponsible. “The spill of heavy metals into the Sonora River caused by Buenavista del Cobre is a problem that has not been resolved,” her report concluded. “We should not accept this position. … It’s necessary to apply existing environmental and labor laws with all their strength.”


Originally published on The Reality Check by David Bacon

David Bacon

David Bacon, award-winning photojournalist and author, has spent twenty years as a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. He has been a reporter and documentary photographer for eighteen years, shooting for many national publications, and has exhibited his work internationally. He is the author of “The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration” (Beacon Press, Sept. 2013). He works as an associate editor at Pacific News Service and hosts a weekly radio show on labor, immigration, and the global economy on KPFA-FM.

"Oaxaca has become a target because Sección 22 proposed its own alternative education reform over six years ago, which concentrated on respecting indigenous culture and forging alliances between teachers, students, parents, and their communities.": David Bacon


By David Bacon

A striking teacher from Michoacán demonstrates in Mexico City in front of a line of police. Canadian and US teachers have organized the TriNational Coalition to Defend Public Education to support Mexican teachers’ efforts to defeat proposals to introduce standardized testing and remove job protections, which have come from USAID and private foundations promoting corporate education reform. (David Bacon)

LATEST BULLETIN:  On Sunday, June 19, Federal armed forces in Oaxaca fired on teachers and supporters in the Mixteca town of Nochixtlan, and killed at least four people and wounded 30 more.

On Sunday night, June 12, as Ruben Nuñez, head of Oaxaca’s teachers union, was leaving a meeting in Mexico City, his car was overtaken and stopped by several large king-cab pickup trucks. Heavily armed men in civilian clothes exited and pulled him, another teacher, and a taxi driver from their cab, and then drove them at high speed to the airport. Nuñez was immediately flown over a thousand miles north to Hermosillo, Sonora, and dumped into a high-security federal lockup.

Just hours earlier, unidentified armed agents did the same thing in Oaxaca itself, taking prisoner Francisco Villalobos, the union’s second-highest officer, and flying him to the Hermosillo prison as well. Villalobos was charged with having stolen textbooks a year ago. Nuñez’s charges are still unknown.

Both joined Aciel Sibaja, who’s been sitting in the same penitentiary since April 14. Sibaja’s crime? Accepting dues given voluntarily by teachers across Oaxaca. Sección 22, the state teachers union, has had to collect dues in cash since last July, when state authorities froze not only the union’s bank accounts but even the personal ones of its officers. Sibaja was responsible for keeping track of the money teachers paid voluntarily, which the government called “funds from illicit sources.”

The three are not the only leaders of Oaxaca’s union in jail. Four others have been imprisoned since last October. “The leaders of Sección 22 are hostages of the federal government,” says Luis Hernández Navarro, a former teacher and now opinion editor for the Mexico City daily La Jornada. “Their detention is simultaneously a warning of what can happen to other teachers who continue to reject the [federal government’s] ‘education reform,’ and a payback to force the movement to demobilize.”

The arrests are just one effort the Mexican government has made in recent months to stop protests. On May 19, Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño Mayer announced that he was firing 3,000 teachers from Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán for not having worked for three days.

All three states are strongholds of the independent teachers movement within the National Union of Education Workers-the National Coordination of Education Workers (the CNTE, or “Coordinadora”). CNTE teachers have been striking schools since earlier this spring to stop implementation of the government’s education reform program. While strikes in Mexico are hotly contested, there is no precedent for firing teachers in such massive numbers just for striking.

The night of the firings, federal police attacked and removed the encampment that teachers had organized outside Mexico City’s education secretariat. On June 11, the police in Oaxaca City moved to dismantle a similar encampment in front of the state’s education office. When 500 heavily armed police advanced shooting tear gas, confrontations spilled into the surrounding streets, reminiscent of the way a similar strike in 2006 was attacked, and then mushroomed into an insurrection that lasted for months.

One controversial provision of the federal government’s education reform requires teachers to take tests to evaluate their qualifications. Those not making good marks are subject to firing. This year, when the government tried to begin testing, teachers struck in protest.

In March, when Nuño tried to give awards to “distinguished and excellent teachers,” one of them, Lucero Navarette, a primary-school teacher in Chihuahua, told him, “The results can depend on many factors and the personal circumstances each one of us live through…many don’t get the result they deserve, because the job they actually do at school is very different from what comes out in the test.” Journalist Hernández Navarro says educators have a tradition of egalitarianism and mutual support, and believe that “there are no first- or second- or third-class teachers. Only teachers.”

On March 22 Nuño also announced a measure that would spell the end to Mexico’s national system of teacher training schools, called the “normals.” Instead of having to graduate from a normal, he said, anyone with a college degree in any subject could be hired to teach. Since the Mexican Revolution and before, the normals have been the vehicle for children from poor families in the countryside, and from the families of teachers themselves, to become trained educators. Returning to rural and working-class communities, teachers then often play an important role in developing movements for social justice. The normal schools themselves have historically been hotbeds of social protest and movements challenging the government.

Guerrero’s normal school in Ayotzinapa was the target two years ago of an attack that led to the disappearance and possible murder of 43 students, which has since galvanized Mexico. Recently a commission of international experts criticized the Mexican government for refusing to cooperate in efforts to identify the fate of the students, and pointed to the possible involvement of officials at very high levels in their disappearance.

Firing teachers and disbanding the normals is a not-so-hidden goal of the federal education reform. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has called for abolishing the normal schools, and urged President Enrique Peña Nieto to fire teachers who get bad test results and exclude them from teaching. Similar measures have been advocated by a Washington think tank, the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas, a project of the Inter-American Dialogue with funding from USAID.

Both organizations work in cooperation with the corporate Mexican education reform lobby, Mexicanos Primero, headed Claudio González Guajardo, a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. González instructed Peña Nieto that “Mexicans elected you, not the [teachers] union,” and told him to “end the power of the union over hiring, promotion, pay, and benefits for teachers.”

Oaxaca has become a target because Sección 22 proposed its own alternative education reform over six years ago, which concentrated on respecting indigenous culture and forging alliances between teachers, students, parents, and their communities (for more on the alternative reform proposals and the corporate sector’s attacks on teachers, see “US-Style School Reform Goes South“). After the insurrection of 2006, the union became the backbone of the left’s effort to defeat the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and in 2010 Oaxacans for the first time elected a non-PRI governor, Gabino Cué. Owing his election to the teachers, Cué agreed to begin implementing their reform instead of the federal one.

In 2012, however, the PRI regained control of the federal government. Under its pressure, Cué reneged on his commitment to Oaxaca’s teachers and announced that he would implement the federal reforms instead. Protests started immediately, and have escalated since then.

With the left in Oaxaca badly divided, the PRI regained control of the state government as well in voting on June 6. The arrests of the two top leaders of Sección 22 followed in less than a week.

Since the 1970s, when over 100 teachers were murdered during the years when the Coordinadora was organized, the CNTE has won control of the union in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán, and it has a strong presence in several other states. Nationally, it has become an important base of the Mexican left. It is one of the most powerful opponents of the government’s embrace of free-market and free-trade policies. Weakening the union and the role of teachers in politics is therefore an important political goal for González and Mexico’s corporate elite, as well as the national political parties moving the country to the right.

When Hernández Navarro calls the leaders of Sección 22 hostages, it’s no exaggeration. On June 11, President Peña Nieto announced that he would only talk with the teachers if they agreed to two conditions. “The Government of the Republic repeats that it is open to dialogue only when they comply with two conditions: returning to work in the schools of Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Oaxaca, and accepting the Education Reform.”

Taking union leaders hostage, firing thousands, and closing one of Mexico’s most progressive institutions are serious violations of human and labor rights, and of the rule of law itself. The support the corporate-friendly Mexican reforms get from US political institutions makes it incumbent on those institutions to speak out against these violations as well. It is time to stop that support. Instead, teachers in the United States, who are resisting similar reforms, should stand in solidarity and help free their Mexican colleagues, which would give them some breathing room as they continue their fight.

Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez teaches his class in Tecomaxtlajuaca, in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.  Gutierrez is the binational coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), and a longtime activist in the CNTE.

A group of preschool teachers from Huatulco — Lulu, Lizbeth, Rocio, Roosevelt and Adany — in the planton organized by Oaxaca’s teachers union, Section 22 of the national teachers union and the CNTE, in the zocalo, the main square of Oaxaca.  The planton was organized to protest efforts to eliminate union’s proposal for education reform.  Teachers rotated every week, and these teachers come from Oaxaca’s coastal towns.  

Jose Eduardo Sanchez and another older teacher from Michoacan drive the truck with the sound system in a march by teachers in Mexico City.  Teachers arrived in the capital from all over the country to demonstrate against the government’s proposed education reforms. 

Teachers from the Miahuatlan district of Oaxaca march to protest the government’s education reform program.  Their sign says, “Not one step back!”

Mexico’s Education Ministry is surrounded by an encampment of teachers who have arrived in the capital from all over the country to demonstrate against the government’s proposed education reforms.  The banner is from Oaxaca’s Seccion 22.

Teachers, other trade union activists and other popular organizations set up tombstones in front of their planton, in Mexico City’s Zocalo, to remember the deaths of social activists and workers, on the day Mexican President Felipe Calderon gave his annual speech about the state of the country.  The protest was called the Day of the Indignant, was organized by unions including the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME).

Teachers who have arrived in the capital from all over the country march through downtown Mexico City to the Zocalo, to demonstrate against the government’s proposed education reforms.  The sign carried by this teacher from the CNTE says, “Calderon, understand your country.  Don’t sell it out!”

Teachers from Oaxaca march with independent trade unions in protest to Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, on the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  The marchers carry a banner saying No to the Federal government’s education reform, and Yes to the PTEO, the teachers’ union education reform in Oaxaca.

Teachers from Oaxaca and other states set up a tent encampment (planton) to protest the education reforms passed by the Mexican government and the ruling Party of the Institutionalized Revolution.  Some protesting teachers lived for months in the planton in the Plaza de la Republica, next to the Monument to the  Revolution, before they were driven away by the police.  One sign shows that some of the teachers come from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.

Teachers march with independent trade unions to protest corporate education reform, to Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, on the 20th anniversary of the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

In San Francisco labor and community activists march in support of the parents of
43 students of the Ayotzinapa teachers training school in Guerrero, Mexico, who were kidnapped and possibly murdered.


Originally published on The Reality Check by David Bacon

David Bacon

David Bacon, award-winning photojournalist and author, has spent twenty years as a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. He has been a reporter and documentary photographer for eighteen years, shooting for many national publications, and has exhibited his work internationally. He is the author of “The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration” (Beacon Press, Sept. 2013). He works as an associate editor at Pacific News Service and hosts a weekly radio show on labor, immigration, and the global economy on KPFA-FM.


The poll was conducted from June 7-10 and included 455 respondents. It has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 5.3 percentage points.


According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, 44 percent of Democrats want Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to make an independent run for the White House.

That bears repeating, that’s 44 percent of Democrats, not 44 percent of Sanders supporters.

That number closely corresponds to the 43 percent of voters who have chosen Sanders over rival Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary to date.

The poll also found that more than three-quarters of Democrats say Sanders should have a “major role” in shaping the Party’s positions and that nearly two thirds say Clinton should choose Sanders as her vice-presidential running mate.

Sanders and his supporters can now rest assured that their voice in deed has been heard throughout much of the Democratic Party and that they are influencing its base, for whatever that might be worth.

However, the poll also suggests that many Democrats still seek Party unity, with nearly two thirds saying that Sanders should endorse Clinton. Sometimes you get uncomfortable overlap with polling questions. The slight overlap in this case could suggest that roughly 10 percent of Dems would be content if Sanders either ran as an independent or endorsed Clinton, rather than both.

The poll was conducted from June 7-10 and included 455 respondents. It has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 5.3 percentage points.

A previous Reuters poll also found that Sanders was the most popular candidate for the role of Commander in Chief among all likely voters (identified Democrats, Republicans, and independents), earning 38 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 31 percent and Republican Donald Trump’s 26 percent.

These new poll numbers must be troubling for the Clinton campaign as Sanders has repeatedly vowed to stay in the race through the convention and is meeting this evening with several close advisors to discuss “the future” of his campaign.

While Sanders has maintained that he will ultimately support whoever the Democratic nominee may be, the spectre of a possible independent run by the Vermont senator must still haunt Clinton, especially when considering how much better he does among crucial independent voters than she does.

Sanders beats Clinton by a staggering 31 points among independent voters nationally, and he also has a track record of courting substantial numbers of independents and Republicans both in Vermont and nationally. You combine that with the fact that nearly half of Democrats want him to run as an independent, and you could have one of the most viable independent runs in recent history. He could pull a majority of blue states, swing states, and even some red states — he did very well in several deep red states outside of the Bible Belt during the primary.

Trump and Clinton both also have huge likability deficits when compared to Sanders. In a three-way race, both Clinton and Trump will have a tough time against Sanders.



Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is under federal investigation and so there might be an indictment against her. If that happens then Bernie Sanders could get his opening, Young Turks host Cenk Uygur tells ‘Politicking with Larry King’.
Hillary Clinton has made history in becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. But Bernie Sanders vows to fight on for what he calls “an American Revolution.” What do his words “fight on” mean exactly, and what’s next for his campaign and his supporters?

We will find out with Cenk Uygur, host of the online news and commentary show The Young Turks, founder and CEO of the TYT network, and vocal Bernie Sanders supporter and defender.

Larry King: You have to be brought down by the size of the California defeat…Where are you now?

Cenk Uygur: First of all, Hillary Clinton was likely to win the pledge delegates comfortably even if Bernie Sanders had won California. So, it’s not like we didn’t know going into the night that it wasn’t going to be a great night no matter what. I am surprised at the size of the California win for Hillary Clinton. I don’t know how much it had to do with the Associated Press and the rest of the press saying: “Don’t show up to vote. This race is already over.”

LK: Well, they didn’t say “don’t show up.”

CU: I mean, by declaring “the race over” that is in effect what you’re saying. In fact, they had record registration, more people signing up to vote, but then it was actually 28 percent lower turnout than in 2008. That’s because every press outlet said: “This race is already over.” You know, that if the press declares the race over, then less people are going to show up to vote.

LK: But Bernie [Sanders] said on Tuesday: “The struggle continues. We’re going to fight hard to win the primary in Washington, D.C. We take our fight for social, economic, racial and environmental justice to Philadelphia… “What is taking the fight mean?

CU: I’ll give you my interpretation, because I don’t speak for Bernie Sanders. She has won a lot more pledged delegates. If all things being equal, she’s got more super delegates, more pledged delegates; the race is over, she’s won. Right? Now, there is one wild card because things are not normal. She is under federal investigation and so there might be an indictment. I have no idea what the chances of that indictment are. People think: “By bringing it up, you’re rooting for it.” No, the FBI isn’t listening to the Young Turks and thinking: “I wonder if we should act based on what they say.” I’m just telling you that there’s some chance that that happens. And if it does, well then that would be a giant wild card. Because the very last election is a super delegate election; they have not voted yet, they vote on July 25. If there’s an indictment between here and there, then they would get to say: “Okay, of course.”

LK: Why doesn’t Bernie, at least, if that happens…Why doesn’t he make peace now? Bring the party together because the last thing he wants is a Trump presidency.

CU: That’s certainly true and we don’t know what he means by carrying on the campaign. My suggestion was to suspend the campaign with reserving the right to re-enter if there’s an indictment. It’s ironic that he doesn’t like talking about the indictment; he thinks that’s too much of an attack against Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, the most important part of this, and to the point of your first question, it means we are going to fight for progressive ideas no matter what. Whether we win the delegate count, whether we win the primary or not, whether we win the election or not…No matter what happens, this political revolution continues.

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