On 27 November, 2009, while sat outside of his family restaurant in Chicomuselo, Mexico, Mariano Abarca was approached by a lone figure, who shot him four times before escaping on an awaiting motorbike. In the years leading up to his murder, the father of four had tirelessly campaigned against the actions of Canadian mining firm Blackfire at its chillingly-named Payback mine in the Chicomuselo area. Despite taking place in plain view, no-one involved in Abarca’s killing has been charged. The four suspects who were arrested and later released all had ties to Blackfire.
In the 14 years since his murder, Abarca’s family have continually alleged that the Canadian Embassy’s ties to the Blackfire company, and their failure to act on Mariano Abarca’s serious concerns for his own safety, helped to facilitate his murder and the events that led up to it.
Finding no justice in lower courts, the Abarca family, aided by Mining Watch Canada and the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, have submitted a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging that the Canadian Embassy failed to protect Abarca’s right to life. The filing leans heavily on over 1000 pages of internal embassy reports and emails obtained through an access-to-information request, shining a light on just how deep the ties between the embassy and Blackfire ran.
Timeline of tragedy around a Mexico mine
Around 2005, a small Canadian mining firm by the name of Blackfire Exploration gained permits to mine for barite in the small community of Chicomuselo in the south of Mexico. Three years later, Blackfire’s “Payback” mine went into production.
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Not long after the mine began operations, Mariano Abarca, responding to fears from the community about environmental damage, including water contamination and shortages, became a founding member of the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected People. According to the June 2023 IACHR filing, in March 2008 “Blackfire began making regular secret payments into the personal bank account of the mayor of the local town of Chicomuselo to “keep the peace and prevent local members of the community from taking up arms against the mine.”
In September 2008, Canadian Embassy staff met with a Blackfire representative in an attempt to obtain an explosives license so the company could bypass a certified supplier. The following day, Blackfire wrote an email to the embassy directly thanking them for their support, stating that “[all] of us at Blackfire really appreciate all what the embassy has done to help pressure the state government to get things going for us. We could not do it without your help.”
In August 2008, three armed Blackfire employees broke into Abarca’s home and beat him and his son. Undeterred, Abarca led a peaceful protest by Chicomuselo residents in June 2009, blocking a transport route to the Payback mine. The protestors demanded reparations for damage to homes caused by heavy mining traffic; the embassy was aware of the protest. The blockade continued for some time and in July, with the blockade still ongoing, Abarca and other community members travelled to Mexico City to protest at the Canadian Embassy there. While speaking with an embassy officer, Abarca stated that Blackfire was using some of its workers as “thugs” against opponents of the mine, and that community members who spoke out against Blackfire were at personal risk.
This wouldn’t be the last time concerns about Abarca’s safety would be raised with the embassy. In August 2009, while Abarca was being detained without charge by police, the Canadian Embassy received around 1400 emails expressing major concern for Abarca’s safety. On 23 November 2009, Abarca told the Chiapas State Attorney General that a Blackfire employee had threatened to “pump him full of lead”, and asked for an investigation into threats made against him.
Four days later, he was murdered.
The case against Canada, made in Canada
In the 14 years since Abarca’s murder, his family has continually campaigned to find the truth of the matter, on the domestic and international stage. According to a June 2023 petition to the IACHR, at least four individuals associated with Blackfire were detained as part of the murder investigation, with one being acquitted on appeal and the rest being released. Blackfire denied any involvement in the murder, and Embassy staff reported in January 2010 that the Chiapas government did not suspect the company was behind the killing.
Formal investigations into Blackfire have been few, and fruitless. In December 2009, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police opened an investigation into corruption at Blackfire, which it closed in 2015. The Mounties stated that the evidence did not support criminal charges, but did not provide any details about the investigation or how it came to this conclusion.
Despite the multiple occasions where Abarca raised concerns for his safety to the embassy, and the 1,400 emails that the Embassy received expressing concern, a December 2009 statement from the Canadian government claimed that “the Government of Canada had no knowledge of potential acts of violence against Mr Abarca.”
An Access to Information and Privacy Request filed in Canada by the Abarca family yielded hundreds of pages of documents painting a damning picture of the Embassy’s involvement in the project. In their search for justice, the family asked Canada’s Public Sector Integrity Commissioner to investigate the embassy’s conduct, but the commissioner declined to investigate. This decision was then upheld by Canada’s Federal Court and its Federal Court of Appeal.
Why the family fights
In January 2023, Canada’s Supreme Court refused to hear the case. With all other options exhausted, the family has now taken its case to the IACHR, alleging that Canada’s actions in Mexico failed to protect Abarca’s right to life.
The Abarca family hopes that their case teach a lesson of community rights in mining communities. The persistence of the Abarca family is not just in hopes of finding justice for Mariano, but also that communities around the world can be empowered to defend their rights against mining firms, including those with supposedly close ties to government. As Mariano’s son, José Luis Abarca puts it:
“My father is not coming back. But we believe that this process can set an important precedent for the struggles of other communities who are in danger, because they are fighting to protect their environment and health from the enormous damage caused by mining.”