Murders, megaprojects and a ‘new Panama Canal’ in Mexico

The murders bore all the hallmarks of drug cartel executions. Fifteen victims – all members of the Ikoots Indigenous community – had been beaten, shot, and their bodies burned in a field just outside Huazantlan del Rio, a village in the municipality of San Mateo del Mar in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, in late June. An as-yet-unknown number of people were also “disappeared”.

At first the local government, headed by Mayor Bernardino Ponce Hinojosa, blamed the killings on a shadowy figure and an unnamed organised-crime group. Officials also acknowledged intra-community grievances and political infighting, caused by dissatisfaction with municipal elections and tension over last October’s mayoral election, which Ponce Hinojosa won.

San Mateo used to be governed by an Indigenous “popular assembly”, which made decisions by consensus and served on a one-year rotation. But in 2017, this changed to a ballot-based electoral approach, leading to tensions that increased after the mayor’s disputed 2019 win.

The Ikoots, most of whom consider the popular assembly to be the legitimate source of authority in the region, allege that the vote was fraudulent. They also accuse the mayor and a local businessman of being complicit in the wave of violence, sources told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Meanwhile, a collective of 15 civil society and teachers’ organisations, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), has accused the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) – one of Mexico’s most violent and territorially-ambitious cartels – of committing the murders.

The allegations came in the same week that the CJNG was accused of the attempted assassination of Mexico City’s chief of police in an ambush with heavy weapons in which three people were killed.

Although CNTE gave no evidence to support its accusation, many in San Mateo believe the claims because the cartel had already been active in their Istmo region, which boasts a wealth of mineral resources and a strategic location.

The Istmo (or Isthmus in English) spans the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz at the narrowest point between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It is the site of the controversial “Interoceanic” or “Transistmico” corridor project, initiated by the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and opposed by many Indigenous communities.

Rising tensions

The Interoceanic project aims to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by high-speed rail. The corridor would run through San Mateo del Mar and see the expansion of the already-important port of Salina Cruz just to the west. If completed, it would reduce the travel time for cargo crossing between the oceans by days or even weeks, compared with the backlogged Panama Canal to the south.

“Today, Panama is the most important passage in the world for international cargo, but I believe Tehuantepec could surpass this,” Ana Esther Cecena, coordinator of the Latin American Observatory of Geopolitics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said. “It could become one of the principal points of global trade, but in North American territory.”

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