12/23/2012 08:10 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2013

The Wal-Martyrs of Mexican Bribery

Anti-Wal-Mart activists in Mexico have walked a more dangerous line than those of us in America. They have learned that that the truth will not set you free -- it will imprison you.

At the conclusion of its lengthy expose of Wal-Mart's intense bribery campaign in Mexico, the New York Times narrated the tragic story of Emmanuel D'Herrera Arizcorreta, who died in prison as a result of his battles against Wal-Mart. But fellow activists charge that Wal-Mart is responsible for his death.

D'Herrera was a colorful, media-savvy opponent of Wal-Mart. The Times quoted him describing Wal-Mart de Mexico as "an ocean of corruption." For nearly a decade, D'Herrera wrote letters, went on hunger strikes and agitated for protection of cultural heritage sites -- all at great personal price.

In March of 2005, almost 8 years before the New York Times expose of bribery in Teotihuacan, reporter John Ross wrote in The Progressive that "activists immediately suspected a deal had been cut between the conglomerate, the municipal government, and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), without whose permission the project could not go forward."

Ross wrote that on October 1, 2004, D'Herrera and several other activists "set up camp at the Wal-Mart site, rolled out their petates (straw mats), lit copal incense to the guardian figure of Coatlicue, a sort of Aztec Shiva, and, in classic lost-cause Mexican struggle posture, declared themselves on hunger strike... When (their) camp was attacked by angry construction workers, the three hunger strikers moved to the ruins (at Teotihuacan)." When the Wal-Mart store finally opened months later, D'Herrera was in the 4th week of a hunger strike, and "a band of toughs" broke up his camp and slashed several student protestors with razor blades.

According to the New York Times, at one point in his crusade to protect Mexico's cultural legacy, D'Herrera "finally snapped," and "placed a crude homemade bomb in a shopping cart," at Wal-Mart. "The bomb consisted of a small juice can containing gunpowder and nails." The Times says that D'Herrera wrote later that his plan was "to kill himself... and damage the store to draw public attention back to Wal-Mart."

But an April, 2010 article posted in Revuelta by Dr. Enrique Bonilla Rodriguez, a fellow Mexican big box activist, asserts that it was Wal-Mart who killed D'Herrera.

According to Rodriguez,

Mr. Emmanuel entered the store... with a can containing some powder. When detected, security personnel, arrested him immediately in an act completely unfair because Emmanuel had not committed any act that is outside the law... The events we have just narrated became a pretext for the manufacture a series of transnational crimes to deprive the freedom of Emmanuel, who was imprisoned in the Prison Molino de las Flores in Texcoco, Mexico State, for three months.

"After a trial," Rodriguez continues, "the trial judge asked bail and granted his freedom. However, Wal-Mart, dissatisfied with the verdict, sued Emmanuel again." Rodriguez charges that when D'Herrera left prison, the Mexican police "took him prisoner and put him through threats, beatings and psychological torture for at least six hours." D'Herrera was imprisoned a second time for 8 months, "and, unfortunately, died on April 10, 2010 from cardiac arrest resulting from a stroke that was caused by the lack of adequate medical care for a patient suffering from diabetes and hypertension."

I asked Jaime Lagunez Otero, another outspoken Mexican activist who fought Costco at the Casino de la Selva site in Cuernavaca, about his memories of D'Herrera:

Q: How well did you know D'Herrera?

Otero: Quite well I would say. He was a very intelligent, experienced man with the highest levels of culture and education. Extremely passionate about Mexico and the quest for justice. He was quite fluent in Nahuatl [language of the Aztecs].

Q: Do you remember any particular incidents about his battle against Wal-Mart?

Otero: Many incidents, some of them certainly dramatic and terribly unpleasant. We were almost put in jail for speaking out. But what is truly horrifying is that our friend Emmanuel died in jail -- for protecting the Constitution and World Heritage. We of course, we blame the company and corrupt officials for this crime.

Q: Did he ever talk about why he took a "bomb" into Wal-Mart?

Otero: As far as I remember it was not a bomb but some device based on some sort of spray paint container.

Q: You personally have been punished for your opposition to Wal-Mart. How have you been affected by speaking out against this big box store?

Otero: I have lost my job as a scientist and am currently living a very stressful economic situation. I want to continue research on cancer, bioinformatics and the promotion of cryonics, but the system prefers that we keep quiet. Probably make others take heed of what can happen to them as well.

Q: Do you feel that Wal-Mart de Mexico should be charged with illegal activity, and some officials of the company sent to jail for what they did?

Otero: Yes. Our group, the Frente Civico, wants to have two stores closed: the one made by Wal-Mart in Teotihuacan, and the one constructed by Costco in Cuernavaca. Practically the same thing happened there. In fact I specifically warned the people of Teotihuacan that Wal-Mart would probably use same methods to get their way. Sadly, I was right. The Times article confirms what we have said all along.

Critics in the U.S. who have spoken out against huge retail corporations have rarely risked personal safety or death -- -but this is not the case in other countries. The New York Times described D'Herrera's ten-year life-and-death battle with Wal-Mart as a "hopeless campaign." But that is not how his colleagues in Mexico see it.

As Dr. Rodriquez wrote after D'Herrera's death: "Unfortunately... Mexican justice gives pride of place to multinationals like Wal Mart and not the citizens. Given this, it is necessary to unite all our efforts nationwide to achieve the change we all want... Emmanuel, your example of the struggle for a better world for all, will guide our efforts and work."

In October of 2007, two years before his death, D'Herrera sent me an email in which he charged that

powerful interests of real estate speculators ... forced the construction and operation of a Wal-Mart inside the archeological zone of Teotihuacan. These interests planned the assassination of Raul Cordoba Garcia, director of the INAH in the state of Mexico in June of 2004 when he opposed the license that the INAH had granted to... a front for Wal-Mart, to construct in a prohibited zone for that type of establishment.

D'Herrera went far beyond The New York Times investigation, and accused former Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada "as ultimately responsible for the crimes I cite, and I do this as a criminal accusation."

The unraveling of Wal-Mart's crimes in Mexico are just beginning, and activists like D'Herrera, Rodriguez and Otero, are the "hopeless" campaigners who found that truth is revealed at great personal expense.

But it is Emmanuel's courage that has allowed the corruption of Wal-Mart to rise out of Mexico like the great pyramids of Teotihuacan.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. His most recent book is Occupy Walmart.