Mexican government uses military against farmers protesting water exports. Supplies to the U.S. are governed by contract.
Dry land: A farmer in northern Mexico checks the irrigation system in his field Photo: Roberto Rosales/imago
Destroyed vehicles, rubber bullets, tear gas – a dispute over water use in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua escalated further over the weekend. Videos circulating on social media show national guardsmen massively attacking a group of about a hundred farmers who were trying to get to a dam cordoned off by security forces.
The protesters want to prevent water from the Francisco I. Madero plant from entering the United States. "They won’t even let us through to see how much water is left," criticized Andres Valles, one of the organizers of the action. "Militarization is taking place at all of Chihuahua’s reservoirs," the farmer explained.
Time and again, farmers in the state, located on the border with the United States, demonstrated against the delivery of the precious commodity to the neighboring country. In early June, they blocked the tracks of a rail line and a bridge leading to Texas. In February, about 500 protesters occupied a dam site. At that time, the National Guardsmen retreated. Farmers fear they will not have enough water to irrigate their plantations. Chihuahua is extremely dry. The state is one of the country’s top agricultural producers. Large-scale agribusinesses grow walnuts, onions, chilies, melons, corn, alfalfa and other food crops.
Last week, the National Water Commission (Conagua) informed that they were taking 511.9 million cubic meters of water from Chihuahua’s dams to settle a debt with the United States. The background is a 1944 treaty between the two countries that regulates the flow of several rivers in both directions. Mexico had fallen behind in recent years and must now deliver by October. However, the water will be sufficient for payments to the north as well as for the irrigation of the fields, let the responsible minister Alfonso Durazo know. The Conagua Commission announced that it would continue to extract water.
Head of state wants to honor contract
Since the protests were organized by politicians from the opposition, conservative-liberal PAN party, Mexico’s cautiously leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador suspects political maneuvering behind the actions. Chihuahua will hold gubernatorial and legislative elections next year. He called on farmers not to be manipulated. There will be no water shortage, he said. "We don’t want an international conflict," the head of state stressed, "once we sign a treaty, we honor it." If Mexico did not pay, he said, that could lead to the U.S. imposing new import tariffs. That, in turn, would hurt the region’s farmers, who also produce for export to the North.
In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump regularly threatens Mexico with new tariffs on Mexican goods. As a result, Lopez Obrador is now using the National Guard to prevent migrants and refugees from reaching the U.S. border. The fact that this military unit, which the president created to fight organized crime, has now taken violent action against farmers fighting for water could indeed damage his reputation. However, there have been confrontations with Chihuahua farmers before: In December, farmer Valles and comrades-in-arms blocked a railroad line to prevent National Guardsmen from transporting water to neighboring Mexican states.