Justice for Mariano Abarca
Canada’s Deadly Diplomacy and Mining Justice in Mexico
How Canada’s Mexican Embassy is implicated in the 2009 murder of Mariano Abarca
Over twelve 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 case was taken to the Federal Court of Appeal on November 8, 2021. and a hearing has been announced for Monday November 8 at 9:30am.
Three Canadian organizations made written submissions and made oral arguments during the Federal Court of Appeal hearing. Amnesty International Canada focused 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 argued 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 pointed to Canada’s international human rights obligations when they submitted 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, focused 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.”
Despite impressive submissions and well-founded legal arguments, the Federal Court of Appeal similarly failed to order an investigation into the actions of the Canadian Embassy. Finally, the Abarca family legal counsel filed a request for leave to appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada, which was also denied on January 12, 2023. They are now turning to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for action.
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. This was the first case brought before a Canadian tribunal for the assassination of an environment defender in connection with a Canadian mining company.
In February, 2022, the Federal Court of Appeal found that the Commissioner had not read the Access to Information disclosure, but ruled that he was not required to do so because the documents were not physically delivered to the Commissioner. Largely based on this technicality, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled to uphold the Commissioner’s decision to not order an investigation.
On January 12, 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to grant leave to appeal, effectively ending all legal avenues in Canada to press for an investigation into the actions of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico regarding the murder of Mariano Abarca. His family now turns to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
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 (January 2023).
Testimony of José Luis, Mariano’s son
The following is an excerpt from the testimony of José Luis Abarca. An extended version is available here.
My father, Mariano Abarca, had four children and ran a restaurant in Chicomuselo. He also played a role as an important leader of the community, especially when a barite mine owned by a Canadian mining company began to cause social and environmental harm in the community. The Canadian mining company, Blackfire, operated in our municipality from 2007 until the end of 2009.
On November 27, 2009, a man shot and killed my father as he was sitting outside his restaurant. All of the people with ties to the murder were contracted by the mining company and, to date, there has yet to be a serious investigation.
We have filed a complaint demanding an investigation into the actions of the Canadian embassy in Mexico…we obtained documents that reveal how much the Canadian embassy knew about the situation and did nothing to protect my father, all the while working to secure Blackfire’s operations.
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.
José Luis Abarca
- Background: Judicial Review of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Refusal to Investigate the Canadian Embassy in Mexico, March 22, 2019
- Summary of the Complaint to the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, Feb. 5, 2018
- Full Complaint to the Public Service Integrity Commissioner, Feb. 5, 2018
- Corruption, Murder and Canadian Mining in Mexico: The Case of Backfire Exploration and the Canadian Embassy
- Backgrounder: A Dozen Examples of Canadian Mining Diplomacy
- The “Canada Brand”: Violence and Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America
- Blackfire Exploration, Mariano Abarca and the Canadian Embassy in Mexico: An Update (January 2023)
- Short mini-documentary about Mariano Abarca in AJ+Español