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Death Over Dams

Mexican villagers risk their lives to save their livelihoods

Photographs by Roberto Guerra
Text by Ruxandra Guidi

Published in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion magazine



On a typically hot day last September, Felipe Flores Hernández sat in the front of a wooden boat, a weathered machete strapped across his back. One of his compadres skillfully guided the boat across the Papagayo River, letting it get pulled the wrong way for a few seconds before pushing his long stick down a few meters to the river bottom so he could change directions. In south-central Guerrero, Mexico, the Papagayo splits the communal lands of Cacahuatepec in two. The people here must cross it to see friends and family, or even to get to that day’s food market—and crossing it is no easy feat.

When the boat finally reached the other side, everyone walked together to a vigil in Huamuchitos, located high in the hills east of the river. The widow, Eugenia Cruz Zamora, stood at the entrance of her house, looking beautiful in a frail sort of way. A year had passed since her husband, Tomás Cruz Zamora, had been killed. Following a Mexican tradition, Eugenia was hosting dozens of villagers in her modest garden, serving them pozole, a steamy beef soup, and inviting them indoors to stand in front of the altar that she had temporarily set up in Tomás’s memory.

“I was there with him in the front seat of the truck when they killed him with a single shot to the head,” Eugenia said. “We were coming back from a demonstration against the building of the dam, and our neighbor Cirilo Cruz, whom everyone knew was a supporter of the dam, just shot him.” Eugenia’s two school-age children stood by her feet, seemingly unaware of the meaning and weight of her words.

Dubbed “La Parota” after a tall leafy tree native to the banks of the Papagayo River, the dam she spoke about is being aggressively pursued by Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE). It would displace as many as twenty-five thousand people.

Huamuchitos is one of forty-seven ejidos forming the communal lands of Cacahuatepec, about forty miles from the tourist mecca of Acapulco. People here make their living by harvesting the land, which is fertile year round, thanks in part to the proximity of the Papagayo River and nutrient-rich soil. Felipe and his family grow corn and beans on a small plot of land near their home in Garrapatas. Eugenia has cattle, corn, and banana trees.

Besides subsistence farming, Felipe once worked in construction. But he hasn’t been able to find time for paid work in the last three years. Instead, he’s been leading a group known as the Council of Ejidos and Communities in Opposition to La Parota Dam (CECOP). Within the region, support for the dam has been as fervent as opposition to it, and Felipe and the hundreds of other members of CECOP have found it challenging to compete against the CFE’s promises of development and prosperity.

About a mile away from the vigil, a dozen men congregated under a plastic blue tarp. A sign hanging from a parota tree read: september 18th, tomás cruz z.‘s anniversary, a man fallen in defense of the river papagayo and nearby lands. This is what the locals call a plantón, a rudimentary roadblock where villagers stand watch, twenty-four hours a day, to keep CFE construction vehicles out.

It is widely believed that the people supporting the dam are being paid off by the CFE. Cirilo Cruz Elacio, the man now in prison for having killed Tomás Cruz Zamora, is believed to be one of the first to have been paid between $100 and $300 to lend his support for the dam. The CFE is also accused of holding rushed and illegal assembly meetings to generate votes in favor of the dam, and of using excessive police force to prevent villagers from demonstrating against it.

On another hot day last fall, while some men kept watch at the four plantónes spread throughout Cacahuatepec and others returned home from the fields to have some beans, mole, and tortillas for lunch, Felipe had gotten hold of a loudspeaker and was calling his neighbors in Garrapatas for an emergency meeting. “We’re asking you to help us keep watch at our new plantón in San José,” he said. “Four men from the CFE came yesterday to take some measurements. What would have happened if we hadn’t been there?”

Benigna Vásquez Dominguez was the only woman keeping watch there that night, sleeping on a hammock suspended from parota trees. “My husband, my son, and myself are some of the few people left in our village who are still opposed to the dam,” Benigna said at the meeting. “But still, the three of us want to continue helping the movement in every way that we can.”

“They told us that once the Papagayo River is turned into a dam, we’ll be able to make a living by fishing,” she said. “But I’m not a fisherman—I’ve never fished before. The only thing I know how to do is farm.”

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Roberto Guerra's photography has appeared in many publications, including Boston Globe Magazine and The Sun. A San Antonio native, he now lives in Boston.

Ruxandra Guidi is a producer and reporter for the BBC public radio program The World. She will soon be working as a freelance correspondent in Bolivia.

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