ENVIRONMENT
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mariano Abarca, Activist, Allegedly Killed By Mine Workers in Mexico

On the night of November 27, Mariano Abarca was sitting outside of his home in the town of Chicomuselo in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

The married father of four, who owned a local restaurant, was talking to a friend when a gunman walked up and shot him four times at point-blank rage, killing Abarca before jumping on a waiting motorcycle and jetting off into the night.

Abarca was an anti-mining activist and his alleged killers were mine workers. The 51-year-old soft-spoken community leader has been campaigning to close the barite mine run by Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration Ltd. The mining of barite, a crucial part of almost all drilling operations, is causing environmental damage and harming the health of locals, according to activists.

Abarca's murder capped a long-simmering controversy over the mining operation, amid allegations that the local mayor blackmailed Blackfire, demanding $777 a month, airline tickets to Mexico City and a liaison with an actress.

Now, in a bittersweet twist, the mine has been temporarily closed by regulators due to environmental concerns over dust-control measures and air-quality emissions. And three men have been arrested in connection with the murder - alleged shooter Jorge Carlos Sepulveda Calvo, who worked as a weekend driver for Blackfire, alleged getaway driver Caralampio Lopez Vazquez was a driver and translator for a Blackfire official and a third man, Ricardo Antonio Coutino Velasco, who worked part-time for the mining company.

Friends and acquaintances are still stunned by the murder of the simple entrepreneur who was galvanized into action by the changes he observed in his community.

"It was a slow transformation - he started to look around him and saw what was happening to his town - open-sky mining was causing damage, rivers were drying up and people were suffering respiratory problems and skin disease," Roger Maldonado, an activist with the anti-mining group REMA, tells Huffington Post.

"His murder happened because Mariano was defending human rights, the rights of the people, against the mining company. He had a lot of courage," adds Maldonado, saying that Abarca received many threats from mine workers in recent months. "A few months ago, some armed people came into his house and beat him and his son. And a day or two before his murder, an official with Blackfire came to his neighborhood looking for him.

A spokesman retained by Blackfire issued the following statement:

Regarding the recent events in the municipality of Chicomuselo, BlackFire Exploration Ltd. issues its´ contempt and rejection towards any form of violent conduct, which jeopardizes the well being of organizations and individuals.

We share our condolences and express our solidarity towards all the families that have suffered by the effects of any criminal acts.

Our Company supports the authorities in charge of security, justice administration and
resolving the regretful crimes that sprang in this locality. We are confident on a prompt identification and prosecution of those responsible for such acts, and we fully trust that social peace in the region will be ensured.

BlackFire Exploration Ltd. will continue with its operations in the area, always maintaining
the utter most respect towards the environment and constantly contributing to Chicomuselo's and Chiapa's economic and productive development.

Friends of Abarca say that his wife and children fear for their lives and will probably move out of their home and close the restaurant, their main source of income. Arazel Avillar remembered his friend as a brave man who knew his days were numbered, telling the Toronto Globe & Mail:

"It's awful too the way he went. He always said that the day they tried to kill him, he hoped his killers would look him in the eye.

"But it sounds like they shot him in the back."

Abarca was filmed in August discussing his concerns about the mine in this video from the Mexican Network of People affected by Mining: