How Canada’s Mexican Embassy is implicated in the 2009 murder of Mariano Abarca

Over eight years ago, Mariano Abarca was shot and killed in front of his family restaurant in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Abarca had been a key leader in his community’s fight against the social and environmental impacts of a Canadian company’s mining operations. All of the suspects in his murder were connected to the Calgary-based company, Blackfire Exploration. There never has been a full, impartial investigation.

This case was brought to Canada in February 2018 because documents obtained through Access to Information show that the Canadian Embassy in Mexico supported Blackfire extensively and stands accused of being implicated in Abarca’s death. Canadian and Mexican organisations have asked the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) to investigate the acts and omissions of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico that they believe contributed to putting Mr. Abarca’s life in danger. He refused, ​​arguing that the policies cited in the complaint are not “official Government of Canada policies.” In response, we sought a judicial review. The matter is now before the Federal Court of Appeal and a hearing has been announced for Monday November 8 at 9:30am. This is our last opportunity to press Canadian authorities for an investigation.

Three Canadian organizations have made written submissions and will also make oral arguments at the hearing. Amnesty International Canada focuses on how Canada’s international human rights obligations should be taken into consideration when evaluating how reasonable the Commissioner’s decision was to refuse an investigation. They also argue that Canada must provide victims of serious human rights violations with effective remedy and that Canada has a duty to investigate such harms, such as through the Commissioner’s office.  Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights and the Allard International Justice and Human Rights Clinic also point to Canada’s international human rights obligations when they submit that integrity in Canada’s public service requires “[investigating], wrongdoing not only at home, but also abroad. Such integrity cannot ignore pervasive disregard for international human rights, often by transnational corporate activity originating in the global north.”​​ Finally, the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, a recognized specialist on the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act and the Commissioner’s office, focuses on the overall spirit of the act to “maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of public servants,” which “is essential to the protection and promotion of Canadian parliamentary democracy itself.” We very much look forward to hearing them expand on their written submissions in court.

Timeline of Events

On November 27, 2009, Mariano Abarca was assassinated in front of his family restaurant in Chicomuselo, Chiapas over his leadership in the fight against the “Payback” barite mine that  Blackfire Exploration operated there for two years. A father of four and founding member of the Mexican Network of Mining Affected People (REMA), Mariano received threats and attempts to intimidate him in the months before his murder.

He was even imprisoned without charge based on allegations filed by company representatives. He was released for lack of evidence after eight days. Three months later, he was murdered. All of the suspects in his murder were connected to the mining company; all were eventually released. Those who ordered the “hit” were never charged. The family is still pressing for a full and impartial investigation.

Since his murder, information has come to light about the consistent support that the Canadian Embassy in Mexico provided to Blackfire, despite its considerable knowledge about community conflict over the mine, and the threats that Abarca and others faced prior to his assassination.

Information obtained under an Access to Information request shows how Embassy lobbied Mexican officials to help the company obtain a needed permit that was essential for putting the mine into operation and met with government officials in Chiapas to help protect the company’s interests when local residents became upset with the environmental and social impacts from the project. According to the documentation, the Embassy closely monitored the growing conflict, and yet disregarded complaints raised by Abarca and others, not only about environmental impacts from the mine, but also about armed workers acting as thugs for the company.

When Abarca was detained for eight days without charge, the Embassy received 1,400 letters from across Canada and across Latin America expressing dire concern for his safety. But its communications with Mexican state officials, as revealed in the Access to Information release, were instead oriented toward protecting the company’s interests. Even after Abarca’s murder, and after the mine was shut down on environmental grounds, the documentation shows that the Embassy still provided support to the company, advising it about how it could sue the Mexican state under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

On the basis of these findings, on February 5, 2018, the Abarca family and supporters filed a complaint with Canada’s Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) calling for an investigation into the acts and omissions of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico that they believe contributed to putting Mariano Abarca’s life in danger.

This request was denied ​​because the policies cited in the complaint, including policies on government websites and testimony before a Parliamentary Committee, were not policies that needed to be followed by civil servants. JCAP asked the Federal Court of Canada to review the decision of the Commissioner. Although the Federal court upheld the decision of the Commissioner not to investigate, in his decision published on July 18th 2019, Federal Justice Keith Boswell conceded that “perhaps Mariano Abarca would not have been murdered” if the Canadian Embassy in Mexico “[had] acted in a certain way.” In August 2019, JCAP filed an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal and four organizations were granted leave to intervene in the case: Amnesty International, the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, the Canadian Lawyers Association for International Human Rights and the Allard International Justice and Human Rights Clinic. A hearing has been announced for Monday November 8. This is the first case that has been brought before a Canadian tribunal for the assassination of an environment defender in connection with a Canadian mining company.

For a complete update on the case, see the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP)’s Blackfire Exploration, Mariano Abarca and the Canadian Embassy in Mexico: An Update (April 2021)

Roundtable discussion: October 5, 2021

What does the murder of activist Mariano Abarca in Chiapas, México say about Canadian government accountability?

Date: Tuesday, Oct 5, 2021 12 pm PST / 3 pm EST 

This roundtable discussed Canadian practice when it comes to embassies abroad and conflicts over Canadian mining operations, asking whether Mariano’s case is the pattern or an exception. It explored which policies Canadian officials should be expected to follow in such cases, and how Canada’s human rights obligations are fulfilled. It posed the question: do we have any way to hold public officials to account when things go wrong as they did for Mariano? And if not, what needs to change?

Roundtable agenda: 

Moderator: Bianca Mugyenyi, Director, Canadian Foreign Policy Institute (CFPI)

First hour: economic diplomacy

  • Abarca family members from Chicomuselo, Chiapas, Mexico
  • Miguel Mijangos, Mexican Network of Mining Affected People (REMA) 
  • Charis Kamphuis, Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP)
  • Jen Moore, Associate Fellow with the Global Economy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)
  • Nicholas Pope, Lawyer on the case at Hameed Law, Ottawa

Q&A 

Second hour: approaches to enforcement

  • Reflections of expert panel
  • Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary-General, Amnesty International Canada
  • Penelope Simons, representative of Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR)
  • David Yazbek, Lawyer, Centre for Freedom of Expression
Watch the Roundtable in English
Watch the Roundtable in Spanish

Mexican Delegation Visits Ottawa to Attend Ground-Breaking Federal Court Hearing

A Delegation from Mexico is going to be visiting Ottawa to attend the Federal Court of Canada hearing of the family's submission for judicial review of the PSIC complaint. The delegation will be available for interviews and will be participating in various events in Ottawa the week of March 25-27. Members of this year's delegation are: Jose Luis Abarca, Mariano’s son Uriel Abarca Robber, Mariano’s brother Libertad Diaz, Otros Mundos Chiapas Martina Maria de los Angeles Mariscal Pioquinto, Journalist and Professor at Autonomous University of Chiapas

Public Events in Ottawa March 25-27, 2019

March 25 – Rally in Solidarity with Justice for Mariano as Federal Court Hears Ground Breaking Case.

Time: 08:30am, Place: Federal Court of Canada (90 Sparks St. Ottawa)

We will hold a rally and then accompany the Abarca family into the Federal Court hearing at 09:30am

Please wear black or dark clothes, and bring a black umbrella

March 26 – “The Fight for Justice for Mariano Abarca Breaks New Ground in Federal Court: A Discussion with Members of the Abarca Family and Allies”

Time: 6:00-7:30pm, Place: Carleton University, Tory Building, room 360.
The four members of the delegation as well as Shin Imai, Professor of Law (Osgoode Hall) and legal counsel to the family, will give presentations at this event.

The travelling photo exhibition (see note below), will be available for viewing beginning at 5:30pm.

Open to the public, refreshments will be provided.

March 27 – Brown Bag Lunch and Learn: New Developments and Challenges in the Fight for Justice for Mariano Abarca

Time: 12:00-1:30pm, Place: Amnesty International Boardroom, 312 Laurier Ave. E.

Please RSVP for the Lunch and Learn to kirsten@miningwatch.ca by March 25.

This travelling photo exhibition is a Canadian adaptation, realized by Marie-Josée Massicotte and Karine Vanthuyne (both Associate Professors, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa), of a project that was originally developed by Paul Hersch Martínez in Mexico, in collaboration with Lilián González Chévez, Mariana Solorio Damián and Catalina Sedano Díaz, and the Actores Sociales of the Flora Medicinal in México (as part of the activities of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ASFM-INAH) and the Movimiento Moralense contra las Concesiones Mineras de Metales Preciosos). The photos and the accompanying text describe the social and environmental impacts of the dramatic development of the Canadian mining industry in Canada and abroad. In so doing, they give voice to Indigenous communities in Canada, Guatemala and Mexico that are affected by the new mining imperative. The exhibition also discusses the political, legal, economic and social changes that are required to rebalance the fundamentally unequal power relationship which, historically, has favoured the interests of the mining industry to the detriment of those of the affected communities and territories.

For more information or to request an interview: kirsten@miningwatch.ca