Editor’s note: This story first appeared on palabra, the digital news site by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
By Alice Pipitone
Ricardo Torres Cruz, a native Nahua community leader and fisherman, had just traveled 340 miles to Mexico City so he could enter the federal government’s Attorney General’s Office to affirm a legal complaint against Petróleos de México – Pemex – the state-owned oil company he blames for killing the fish in streams around his home in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz.
On June 29, 2021, Torres went to the nation’s capital as president of the board of directors of the fishing and agricultural collective, Sembradores de Aztapan, in the town of Xochitlán Palmillas in Veracruz state. His task in Mexico City was to officially file a legal challenge he and the presidents of three other Veracruz cooperatives are pursuing after decades of complaining and asking for government action to address toxic mud and dead fish in their waterways.
“A long time ago we were content. We’d go to the river and could fish for everything — there were so many fish! But ever since this pollution began we are sad,” said Torres, known as “Don Ricardo” in his community. He had to go all the way to the nation’s capital to legally ratify his cooperative’s demand for restitution and a clean up of the fishery. With this legal action they are trying to take on Pemex, a global oil powerhouse with more than $47 billion in annual revenue and a documented history of pollution.
“We have gone to the federal, state and municipal authorities but — unfortunately, because Pemex is Mexico’s state-owned oil company and we are only indigenous people and humble fishermen — they ignore and humiliate us,” he added. “We are bringing this petition to see if they will pay us some attention,” Torres said.
The fishing cooperatives are not rich, but traditionally they harvested enough from the rivers and estuaries along Mexico’s tropical Gulf Coast to feed their families and sell some of the catch, such as mojarra – tilapia – and shrimp. The Nahua communities are part of Mexico’s iconic indigenous group which includes the Mexicas, commonly known as the Aztecs. Today, Nahuas in Veracruz are mostly poor and survive on small-scale farming and fishing.
If Torres and his colleagues succeed in forcing Pemex to rescue their rivers, it would be a rare victory, and perhaps set a precedent for other small communities trying to hold governments and corporations around the world accountable for unchecked environmental damage.
So far though, after decades of complaining, the fishing cooperatives have succeeded only in incurring the political wrath of government officials and business interests, and falling into a frustrating maze of conflicting Mexican laws. While they have raised awareness about the ugly pollution that’s tainted their waterways and sources of food and income, they say they’ve also become targets of political retaliation, intimidation and offers of bribes.
Their story illustrates how difficult it can be for poor and marginalized communities that must rely on ineffective government to fight powerful corporations.
“In Mexico, life is less important than the laws governing extractive activities (mining). There is no regard for the environmental and social impact on indigenous communities,” said lawyer Diana Pérez, a member of the Tiyat Tlali Council, a network of social organizations in the nearby state of Puebla.
Decades of sulfur contamination
Pemex owns the Texistepec Mining Unit, an area of about 3,700 acres where sulfur was extracted between 1971 and 1993 by the Isthmus Exploration Company, known in Spanish as CEDI – Compañía Exploradora del Istmo. In 1993 CEDI declared bankruptcy and was absorbed by Pemex to settle the mining company’s debts. According to the fishermen’s complaint, Pemex has tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the land which is caught up in tangled ownership and contamination issues.
CEDI left behind 2,888 sulfur extraction wells, three dams containing 11 million cubic meters of acidic waters, 43 hydrocarbon deposits known locally as chapopoteras, about half a million tons of exposed coal, and almost 14 miles of roads paved with acid carbon residues, according to a diagnosis in 2000 by UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
This story is the result of eight months of interviews with residents of the mining area, pollution and chemical experts and former government officials, as well as a review of more than 500 official documents. And through it all, Pemex, its industrial subsidiaries and the Mexican government’s environmental and natural resources authorities involved in the Texistepec matter did not respond to numerous requests for comments.
“I fish for a living. My daughters started weeping when they saw fish gasping just under the surface of the water because they had run out of oxygen,” said Ismael Nazario Mendoza, another native Nahua community leader and chair of the fishing cooperative La Lajilla.
Torres and Nazario are among the community fishermen who have tried to hold Pemex to account. They’ve attended countless meetings, they said, with local, state and federal authorities, going back several decades to when they first noticed a growing number of dead fish in their streams. The meetings led nowhere, they added, while the environmental damage done by the sulfur worsened. Instead, the fishermen said, outsiders tried to bribe them, and others threatened them. So, in October of 2020, the communities finally hired a lawyer and initiated a demand in Mexican courts for the clean-up and restitution.
Dead fish everywhere
A tour of the area on August 21, 2020 revealed countless dead fish (belonging to five different species) floating in the Cajiapan Ravine, the coastal Mozapan Estuary and the Chiquito River – tributaries of the large Coatzacoalcos River that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. In their claim the fishermen describe similar fish die-offs on March 12 and May 20 in 2015. “The water gave off a fetid odor, and looked dark and greasy,” the complaint states.
Over 22 years, CEDI injected 320-degree water into the mine’s sulfur deposits, in order to melt the resource. Those sulfur deposits, polluted with hydrocarbons in the subsoil, were pumped towards a so-called “acid water dam.” From there it was channeled, untreated, to the Agua de Minas Dam that features a discharge gate leading to the Apepecho tributary, which feeds the Chiquito and Coatzacoalcos rivers.
“The gate is open and the water goes directly into the stream. Even if it doesn’t kill the fish, it drives them away and all the animals leave,” said Jorge Martínez Bautista, a complaint co-signer and leader of a fishing cooperative in the Ojo de Agua community of Veracruz state.
Martinez goes fishing at 4 a.m. every day, chugging along waterways in a small boat with a 7-horsepower outboard motor.
On a recent morning the native Nahua community fisherman worked the Chiquito river to the Coatzacoalcos river. After seven hours, he had landed almost eight pounds of fish and shrimp, which he sold for 360 pesos (about $17). Gasoline costs 200 pesos a day, he said. “In my dad’s time, the river was rich in all kinds of fish. Now you just have to get used to surviving.”
Martínez’s story echoes among the 152 members of four fishing cooperatives, most of them Nahuas, whose presidents signed onto the action against Pemex.
It was once Eden
“My dad taught me to fish when I was 12 years old. That was my inheritance,” Martínez added, talking about his home town of El Cocal and a family tradition that’s likely to end with him.
He raised two sons in El Cocal. The first studied Business Administration in Minatitlán, an hour and a half away from their home. His second son finished high school. Both moved to Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican border with Texas, where they now work in maquiladoras – manufacturing warehouses.
Martinez and other fishermen recalled a time when the area was “an Eden” – before the Agua Minas Dam and its hydrocarbon-contaminated water, which still flows, untreated, into tributaries of the Coatzacoalcos River.
“Before, many people went to bathe in the river. We hunted badgers and raccoons with our grandparents and we ate fish to our hearts’ content. Now the fish tastes and smells like hydrocarbons when you are frying it,” Ricardo Torres said.
As many as 24 indigenous languages are spoken in 436 small communities in Texistepec, Jáltipan and Cosoleacaque municipalities where the fishermen live. The land around the Texistepec mine site was part of the ancient Olmec civilization that thrived there more than 3,000 years ago. It’s an extremely hot region, criss-crossed by many rivers. The cooperatives manage a remote land; its center is more than 190 miles from Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state.
“We are really suffering here, our work depends on the river,” added Gregorio González Martínez, the president of the Paso El Moral cooperative, in the town of San Antonio.
Fishing the old way
Of the fishermen in the four fishing cooperatives denouncing Pemex, only 13 fish in fiberglass motorized boats. The rest, including González, use row boats.
Most days González leaves home in the town of San Antonio at 3 a.m. and walks almost a half mile to the Chiquito River jetty. He and a companion usually row some nine miles east, toward the Coatzacoalcos River. If the trip goes well, he might land around seven pounds of fish. Then he must row back home, against the stream’s current.
“When you’re young you don’t feel a thing and you go wherever you want,” the 63-year-old González said, adding that he’s a diabetic and suffers headaches that often leave him vomiting. “With age, the body gets tired … Even so, I do everything I can so that my family doesn’t go without.”
González eats beans and eggs for breakfast. Sometimes he enjoys a little chicken broth. “But the broth is only now and then because times are hard. When things are going well we buy a kilo of meat, but this is very rare.”
González was born in San Antonio. He moved to a nearby ejido – a communally owned parcel, where he grew corn and rice. “It was very isolated, with no roads, so I did everything I could to go back to San Antonio and devote myself to fishing. I liked it; there was plenty of tilapia,” black mojarra, bass and other fish.
Veracruz state has Mexico’s second-largest un-motorized fishing fleet, with 29,679 fishermen, according to the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commission. At the same time, between 2008 and 2018, poverty in the state increased from 51.2% to 61.8% of the population in rural areas living on less than 64.4 pesos ($3.12) a day, according to federal surveys. This was while poverty in Mexico dropped, from 44.4% to 41.9% of the population.
In Mexico, one in three people who emigrate to other states do so to find work. Seven of every 10 migrants to other countries do this for the same reason, according to data from the 2018 National Institute of Statistics and Geography. In the last three decades, the four Veracruz fishing cooperatives lost nearly 33% of their members, 77 moved to find work in big cities in northern Mexico or in the United States.
A record of pollution
According to Pemex subsidiaries, Pemex is responsible for at least 5,985 pollution sites in Mexico since 1903. Pemex told environmental authorities that they cleaned up 301 sites. But federal auditors report that in 300 of those sites, Pemex failed to request the required inspection to confirm that the clean-up actually took place.
Pemex is responsible for 379 of Veracruz state’s 407 contaminated sites, according to Mexican environmental regulators.
This daunting record of pollution, and official inaction to clean it up, is what the fishermen found when they began filing official complaints against Pemex.
“You should have caught a fish and frozen it.” This is what fisherman Jorge Martínez said he was told the day he went to sign his cooperative’s complaint about dead fish before environmental officials.
Over the years, fishermen said they’ve warned federal, state and municipal authorities about the Texistepec Mine. Finally, after a visit to the nation’s Congress, the Federal Chamber of Deputies, a legislator’s assistant recommended that they approach environmental lawyer Vadir Israel Arvizu Hernández, head of the nonprofit Environmental Defense organization.
“The onus continues to be on the fishermen to demonstrate what is happening,” Arvizu said. “The authorities have taken samples, but they have hidden the results from the fishermen and say to them: why didn’t you foresee this and freeze the fish? They treat them as though they are scientists … Through the Attorney General’s Office we hope to get them to present the samples they collected.”
At the end of last September, and following up from the complaint, four staff members from the government prosecutor’s office visited the fishing collectives’ home region. The officials arrived in the evening, and ended up “just documenting the dam from afar, saw that water was pouring out, and then drew up a report and left,” Torres said, adding that the team said it would return.
Around the same time, the Veracruz State Attorney for Environmental Protection dispatched a representative. “He arrived, took photos, recorded videos, and then left and never came back. All the authorities that came here have done that to us,” added fisherman Ismael Nazario.
Something like a clean-up
In 2000, Pemex launched a plan to clean up the Texistepec sulfur mine site. The first part of the effort, between 2001 and 2006, consisted of neutralizing acidic water from the Agua Ácida, Anexa and Agua de Minas dams. Pemex constructed a stabilization area at La Carbonera, an open-air site containing mounds of coal, sulfur and carbon, and waste sulfuric acid and gypsum.
“They released magnesium into the water of the Agua de Minas dam, to neutralize it and so that the hydrocarbons would go to the bottom, but the hydrocarbons are still there. They repeated this several times and it had a negative effect,” said Ismael Nazario.
The fisherman’s assertion is supported by a 2001 Pemex environmental remediation report. Experts have since argued that using magnesium oxide to neutralize acidic water doesn’t work.
“None of the oil companies in Mexico use magnesium oxide to treat spills or contaminated waters by hydrocarbons. That combination can increase the toxicity in the water,” said Julio Valdivieso Rosado, an environmental engineer specialized in water treatment.
On its own “the presence of hydrocarbons in the water is enough to cause mortality in the fish,” said Jorge Escobar Martínez, biologist and director of the Centro Científico Sustentable S.C.
Ricardo Torres, the collective’s leader, lives about a mile from Agua de Minas dam. He pointed out that “the heat of the sun makes the hydrocarbons boil and you can see the steam rising from the dam.”
In the second stage of the clean-up, between 2007 and 2010, lids were fixed onto the sulfur extraction wells, and hydrocarbons were removed from the bottom of the dam.
However, a 2010 federal audit of Pemex’s remediation said that activities scheduled for the clean-up’s second stage were not completed. It also singled out the lack of a site monitoring plan.
Torres explained that workers placed 6-inch iron covers on the wells and over the valves. But after some time without maintenance, many covers have broken. “Water from the wells containing sulfur and hydrocarbons are still ending up in the rivers.”
Clean-up contracts and intimidation
In June 2014, Pemex held an auction for the sale of sludge containing bentonite and hydrocarbons at the mining unit – some 716,000 metric tons of waste to be repurposed as asphalt for roads.
Two months later, on August 15, José Luis Flores Subaiur, then the legal representative of Lim del Puerto, a port engineering and maintenance company, told local media that the company had won the auction.
That’s when things got worse for the cooperatives, fishermen said.
The waste deal between Pemex and Lim del Puerto was to be completed by the fall of 2016. It was then extended through the fall of 2021, according to a copy of the contract obtained through the Pemex Industrial Transformation Transparency Unit.
Meanwhile, the contract said Lim del Puerto could recycle the sludge in the Agua de Minas Dam, converting it into, “additives for cement, compound for cardboard sheets, waterproofing and adherents.” It also prohibited firearms in the mine site.
What followed, however, was a series of political maneuvers and unsettling intimidation tactics, Ricardo Torres said.
They “offered us a vast amount of money,” he added, recalling a proposed deal from the waste company: “Since you can’t fish anymore, we are going to offer you work,” Flores told the fishermen, according to Torres. “We said no. If they were going to let the untreated water into the river, they could count us out.”
Torres said that before the arrival of the Lim del Puerto company, Pemex had allowed them inside the former mining area to access flood-control gates in periods of heavy rain. But once the company took over, armed guards appeared, blocking access to the site.
“One day we held a sit-in, so we could talk to (company representatives),” Torres said, adding that the response was someone driving a tractor toward protesters. “It nearly caused a disaster.”
José Luis Flores, the company man, then launched a successful campaign to become mayor of Texistepec, but he died of cancer before he could take office.
Since those confrontations, the unusual mayoral race, and the appearance of guards with weapons supposedly banned by the sales contract, Lim del Puerto removed the waste meant for asphalt. Local residents said that currently the heavy machinery inside the facilities remains idle.
When the armed guards arrived, Torres said, the presidents of the cooperatives decided there was little they could do to physically stop the pollution, so they decided to launch the legal challenge.
Torres said that was followed by an invitation to a meeting in a hotel, where he received a phone call from an unidentified person warning him “to accept a check or go to jail.”
In 2008 an arrest warrant was issued for Torres: Pemex accused him of illegally profiting from the fishermen. Torres, who is also a revered assistant church pastor with 480 godchildren in his community, said he went into hiding for two months, until the state’s governor revoked the warrant.
A rigged bureaucracy?
“What succeeds legally are large law firms that manage to extract hundreds of millions of pesos from Pemex, through corrupt networks that include judges, actuaries and expert witnesses,” said María del Carmen Carmona Lara, a former prosecutor with Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection. Colluding with owners of large estates, she said, law firms ask for remediation of environmental damage so that the oil company buys their land at inflated prices. “Then they buy it and the muck stays there,” she added.
When local communities seek environmental remediation for pollution attributed to Pemex by legal means, “no one follows up because their leaders get worn out, emigrate to the United States, sell out, die. Or Pemex buys them off with a pittance,” Carmona said.
From the time the indigenous fishermen ratified their lawsuit, the Attorney General has up to two years to complete an investigation and decide if it will represent the cooperatives in a criminal action before a federal judge.
In a trial, it would then be up to the judge to determine whether Pemex is responsible for cleaning up the pollution that killed the fish. “In the judicial process we will demand reparation for environmental damage and compensation for the fishermen,” said the fishing cooperatives’ lawyer Vadir Arvizu.
If, in the end, “the judge does not specify the full scope of the reparation, we will then take the entire investigation folder as evidence and we will sue Pemex directly in a civil action for environmental responsibility, with the same objective: to clean up the damage and compensate the fishermen,” Arvizu says.
The process will take time, and odds are stacked against them, but the fishermen say they will take full advantage of relatively new legislation, the 2013 Law for Environmental Responsibility, and the services of Arvizu, a noted expert on Mexican environmental law. (Arvizu earned the first-of-it’s-kind masters degree in environmental law from Mexico’s Autonomous National University in 2011).
Pemex and a presidential megaproject
In two recent Pemex business reports, the former Texistepec mine no longer appears among sites the oil giant owns and that can affect local environments. In its most-recent environmental strategy report, the company said it plans to end all activities at the mine site and sell it off.
Further complicating the dispute: Pemex says federal court rulings confirm that some areas of the site have been overrun by homesteaders who set up a communal ejido.
Pemex also argues that, because of the court rulings confirming the homesteading, federal environmental officials in 2018 sent an email to the Texistepec city government that it was the true owner of the mine and therefore responsible for cleaning it up.
The fishermen and environmental activists say the conflicting reports and court rulings have created a legal mess, leaving local residents in Veracruz to cope with the pollution and a loss of income.
Today, it’s unclear who will ultimately be held responsible for the clean up, or even who actually owns the former mine. However, in a 2019 bulletin urging homesteaders to vacate the site, the oil company said “invading Pemex’s areas is a crime.”
Meanwhile, another significant wrinkle has cropped up that may curtail traditional fishing in parts of the land now worked by the cooperatives:
On December 28, 2020, the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, created by decree of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, acquired a huge swath of land next to the former mine site.
This “corridor” is one of the president’s proposed major public infrastructure projects; it may become a railway linking the port of Salina Cruz on Mexico’s Pacific coast to Veracruz’s bustling Port of Coatzacoalcos.
A deed of sale of the land near the former mine, obtained by a public information request, says the area is now designated for industrial and commercial use and can no longer be used for agriculture and fishing.
On November 27, 2021, López Obrador visited the area. The fishermen asked to speak with the president about the pollution of the rivers. The request was denied.
Just a month before his visit, López Obrador publicly labeled environmentalism a neoliberal creation to distract the population “from pillage around the world.”
Time becomes a barrier
“I always remember the words of my teacher, the Bishop of Chiapas Samuel Ruiz,” said the fisherman and lay pastor Ricardo Torres. “He told us: ‘the diploma of a natural leader, of a social fighter, is the jail or the cemetery.’”
Torres said he was recently threatened again for his unending public insistence that poor communities around the former mine are in urgent need of help.
He said he’s aware it may take years before any clean-up begins.
Torres has liver cancer. He was also recently infected with the covid virus. Now his lungs always hurt, he said, and he doesn’t sleep well. Not in his hammock, his bed, or even on the floor.
Still, the 67-year-old vows that he will not rest until pollution in the rivers around him is completely cleaned up.
“I was born in Texistepec; I love my people, I love Veracruz and I love my land,” Torres said. “I love it as it was when I first encountered it, not as it is right now, a filthy mess. There is no life without clean water, and that is why we are fighting.”
Alice Pipitone is a freelance investigative journalist in Mexico, where she has contributed to several radio, digital and print media. In Washington, D.C., she contributed to Newsweek in Spanish. And, in Colombia, she worked with the research unit of the economic magazine Dinero.
Félix Márquez is an independent photographer and visual journalist based in Mexico. He has specialized in covering the war against drug trafficking, migration, human rights and the lives of children in Latin America. He is the organizer of the Mirar Distinto Photo Festival. His photographs have been exhibited collectively and individually in New York City, Mexico, Norway, Ecuador and Chile.