In a Mexican region already plagued with drought, an international corporation is building a beer factory that would consume 20 million liters of drinking water every year: the same amount that would normally quench the thirst of some 750,000 people.
Mexicali is a border city, the capital of the northern state of Baja California. Its valley is also an agricultural region, but water scarcity has put its crops and the city's water supply at stake. In such a scenario, it's no surprise the population is rising up against a project that would drain public water into a factory intending to brew beer for export.
February 13 marks the first anniversary of the movement's "Black Monday." This time last year, activists and organizations opposing the project clashed with authorities: 14 citizens were arrested, but not before they had won a massive show of support from civil society.
After a year of struggle, repression, arrests and legal battles, the movement is now calling for an international boycott on the Grupo Modelo and Constellation Brands project, especially in the United States, home of the factory's target market.
Several actions have been taken to defend the public water supply, in the start of a growing civil resistance movement. Now, organized under the banner "Mexicali Resiste," that increasingly visible resistance movement is becoming a watchdog for human rights in the region.
"If companies can operate everywhere they want because of free trade, then we will also be international activists and promote the boycott to Grupo Modelo in the United States," Jesus Galaz, spokesman for the Mexicali Resiste movement, told teleSUR.
Grupo Modelo is one the two most popular beer producers in Mexico, along with Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma. One of Modelo's beers, Corona Extra, is the most popular Mexican beer abroad. The company in charge of producing and distributing their export beers in the United States, however, is actually Constellation Brands – and it's Constellation which intends to begin operations in Mexicali soon.
Constellation Brands is a Fortune 500 company which produces and commercializes beer, wine and spirits. In 2015, the firm was promised private exclusive access to public water, categorized as "home use" water, via what opponents call "various shady, undocumented agreements" between the company and Baja California's public servants, including Governor Francisco 'Kiko' Vega.
A drinking water direct line was promised to the company in a confidential document, which prohibited any of the involved parties from discussing it publicly. The water would be obtained from wells on federal property, which means using it would be illegal. The state lands for the factory were also illegally licensed.
The land was handed to construction company Hermosillo y Asociados, in charge of building the Constellation Brands factory, by Sergio Montes Montoya. He's Mexicali's urban administration director, and was ecology and urban administration director back when the owner of Hermosillo y Asociados, Victor Hermosillo, headed Mexicali.
It gets worse: the construction company granted the tender to build the water line has close relations with Baja California Governor Francisco 'Kiko' Vega. In any legal system, this consitutes a conflict of interests, not to mention influence trafficking.
The people of Mexicali and the Valley of Mexicali have been laboring long and hard to protect their water from the forces – both local and international – that want to take it away from them.
In December 2016, the state government passed a law to privatize water, raise prices and liberate tariffs, as well as to allow water companies to cut supplies when consumers fail to pay their bill within 90 days. The move sparked widespread protests: days later, more than 10,000 people marched on government buildings in protest. At the same time, a group of 100 people blocked the entrance to the State Congress, preventing representatives and administrative personnel from leaving the premises.
The new water law was ultimately annulled and the day of protests gave birth to the Mexicali Resiste civic group. Although they aren't the only group fighting for access to water as a basic human right, they have become the public face of the movement.
Since then, the construction site and various government buildings have been blockaded; sit-ins have been organized, and congress sessions have been gated. The aqueduct that would provide water to the beer plant was briefly canceled, but the project has since re-emerged.
Mexicali Resiste now represents an organized movement with both legal and communications commissions. About half of the Valley of Mexicali's shareholder farmers support the cause and can summon thousands of protesters on command.
New Year, Same Fight
In 2018, a new wave of protests erupted as plans for building the beer factory once again threatened the valley's water supply. On January 16, activists blocked machinery from entering the construction site in El Choropo ranch in one of the bigbest confrontations with police to date.
Six people were arrested and the movement is now facing legal charges. Leon Fierro, one of its leaders, is accused of attempted murder. Police claim he tried to ram them with his car during the clash, but Fierro says he was moving it out of the way of airborne sticks and rocks.
Engineer and photojournalist Jose Luis Pozo is accused of injuring public officers, but witnesses say he threw rocks at an excavator that was about to run over a protester blocking its path. "Some journalists described the moment as a neighborhood fight," Galaz said.
Supportive lawyers have taken their cases, pro bono, in a show of solidarity with the movement.
Galaz says the executive power is using the judicial branch to criminalize activists and harm the resistance: "There's a lack of autonomy between the state powers. It's very likely the harassment will continue until the next elections."
The weeks since the January 16 clash have been busy. The movement was fined US$1,300 for breaking a glass door at the state congress in September, but a crowd-funding campaign raised almost $30,000 in three days.
Now, Mexicali Resiste is opening a new battle front: the movement has recorded an online pilot debate show and is producing academic documents about the Colorado River waters in collaboration with researchers from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, one of the most respected colleges in the region.
It's also developing a monthly newspaper to provide space for analysis and organization. "The government thinks we're disorganized and we want to answer back by proposing debate and democracy," said Galaz.
For Mexicali Resiste, the communication battle is now just as important as the battles taking place on the streets and in the courts, and the movement wants to take its voice to an international audience.
Global Action and Solidarity
Mexicali's sister city in Californa is Calexico. Although they're separated by a border, they share a common culture and many families have members on both sides. Mexicali Resiste believes the fight for water is international and that, therefore, solidarity must also be international.
Constellation Brands plans to use the factory to export beer into the United States, and Mexicali Resiste is calling on its neighbors to boycott consumption of any Grupo Modelo or Constellation Brands products, including Corona Extra, Corona Light, Modelo Especial, Negra Modelo, Pacífico, Ballast Point and Funky Buddha.
More than a year after the struggle started, Constellation Brands is still refusing to engage in any dialogue. "I would suppose," says Galaz, "that if the company had every document in order, they would address us, but they don't. That's why we don't trust their intentions."
The factory is now under construction and remains heavily guarded since the January 16 protests. Anyone approaching the site to take pictures and document the developments risks immediate police intervention.
Lawyers defending the movement are calling for peace and calm in order to avoid any further escalations, which would come at no small cost.
On February 13, a peaceful demonstratation was staged in front of the local government headquarters in which a petition bearing 26,000 signatures was presented to public officials.