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Justice for Mariano Abarca

Mining murder and Canada’s corporate greed

Canadian BusinessHuman RightsLatin America and the Caribbean

Community organizers and land protectors present an environmental defense award named in honour of murdered activist Mariano Abarca in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, Mexico, November 2019. Photo courtesy Otros Mundos Chiapas.

On November 27, 2009, Mexican mining activist Mariano Abarca was shot and killed in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, by an assailant who witnesses identified as an employee of the Calgary-based mining company Blackfire Exploration.

Three men were later arrested for Abarca’s murder, all of them connected to the Canadian company: Jorge Carlos Sepulveda Calvo, the shooter, worked as a driver for Blackfire; Caralmpio Lopez Vazquez, the getaway driver, worked as a driver and translator for a Blackfire official; and Ricardo Antonio Coutino Velasco worked for Blackfire part-time. Abarca himself once warned, “If anything happens to me I blame the Canadian mining company Blackfire.”

In a statement released after Mariano Abarca’s murder, Blackfire Exploration said: “Regarding the actions of former contractors and employees, we are unable to control what individuals do in their personal lives and their actions do not reflect upon Blackfire in the slightest.”

In addition to running a small family restaurant in Chicomuselo, Abarca was an activist who helped organize his community to oppose the detrimental social, ecological, and health impacts of a nearby barite mine owned by Blackfire. The mining company’s staff had previously assaulted Abarca at his home in 2008. In July 2009, he received death threats when he joined a delegation to the Canadian embassy in Mexico to speak about the deleterious effects of the Canadian-owned mine on his community. In his speech, he described how “Blackfire used its employees as thugs.” Four months later, he was murdered.

Several months after the murder, the Canadian embassy sent a political counsellor into Chiapas to ascertain the locals’ feelings toward Canada. The counsellor found that “Blackfire, which is considered corrupt and responsible for the murder of the activist, has tarnished Canada’s image among the population of Chiapas.”

Despite many warnings from Abarca and others about the violent measures Blackfire was taking against its opponents, the Canadian embassy worked tirelessly to promote the company and its mine. Heavily redacted emails obtained through access to information requests show that the Canadian embassy offered total support to Blackfire even as it acknowledged “difficulties” with the local population. In September 2008, a Blackfire executive emailed their thanks to the embassy, expressing gratitude for everything “that the embassy has done to pressure the state government to get things going for us. We could not do it without your help.”

Other documents reveal that the Canadian embassy knew about Abarca and the threats against him while they promoted Blackfire’s interests with Mexican state authorities. In fact, these documents show that, “in August 2009 the Embassy reported receiving 1,400 letters about Abarca following his arrest and detention based on a complaint filed by a Blackfire representative in Mexico.”

On a visit to Chiapas shortly after Abarca’s murder, then-Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent and then-Governor General Michäelle Jean were allegedly met with angry protestors (Canadian officials later denied that they were greeted by protestors). Failing to read the local mood, Kent heaped praise on Blackfire, claiming that Canadian mining companies in Mexico are “held up and recognized as virtual models of corporate social responsibility.” It is hard to imagine a claim more disconnected from the lived realities of the people of Chiapas.

A few days after Abarca’s murder, the Mexican government closed Blackfire’s mine in Chicomuselo due to environmental violations including pollution and toxic emissions. Rather than accept this outcome, the Canadian embassy began to organize on behalf of Blackfire, the company that had not only violated Mexican environmental laws but whose employees had been linked to the murder of Abarca. MiningWatch found that even in the midst of all these scandals—the murder, the mine shutdown, the counsellor’s report on local views toward Canada—“the embassy continued to defend the company to Mexican state officials and provided it with information on how to sue the state of Chiapas under the North American Free Trade Agreement for closing the mine.”

Canadian companies are widespread and powerful in Mexico. Around the time of Abarca’s killing, 204 of the 269 foreign-owned mining companies in Mexico were Canadian. Canadian mining companies have been linked to environmental degradation, intimidation, and corrupt practices in many regions throughout the country, including at the Los Filos mine in Carrizalillo and the the Cerro del Gallo project in San Antón de las Minas. In fact, a report commissioned (and later suppressed) by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) found that Canadian mining companies were four times more likely to cause conflict in Global South nations than companies from other Western states. The report explains that:

…Canadian companies have been the most significant group involved in unfortunate incidents in the developing world. Canadian companies have played a much more major role than their peers from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Canadian companies are more likely to be engaged in community conflict, environmental and unethical behaviour…

At the time of Abarca’s murder, Canada’s Parliament was considering Bill C-300, legislation that aimed to limit Ottawa’s support for Canadian mining companies linked to human rights abuses abroad. Its passage was prevented by both the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Liberals.

At present, Ottawa is interfering in Mexico to prevent the popular government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador from passing new progressive mining laws. These laws aim to bolster environmental protections and increase the participation of local communities in the decision-making process around foreign-owned mines. Alongside the Biden administration, the Trudeau government claims that these laws violate the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) and unfairly discriminate against US and Canadian companies. They are currently attempting to stop the reforms through legal means.

In the years following Abarca’s murder, community activists lobbied Canadian authorities to investigate the embassy’s role in the event, which did not align with “federal policy requir[ing] Canadian embassies to promote corporate social responsibility and assess possible human rights effects, including violence.” They also pointed out that while the embassy was quick to raise Blackfire’s interests with Mexican officials, they never did so with concerns from Abarca and other activists in Chicomuselo.

However, Canada’s Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday refused to launch a probe into potential wrongdoing by Canadian embassy officials. Despite the lack of a probe, Friday concluded in 2018 that the embassy had not committed any wrongdoing by supporting Blackfire “given its mandate to assist Canadian companies abroad.”

Both the Federal Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal upheld Friday’s judgement. In January 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada simply refused to hear the case, effectively blocking Abarca’s family and supporters from seeking legal restitution in Canadian courts.

As a result, Abarca’s family and supporters have taken their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, of which Canada is a member through the Organization of American States (OAS). They are hoping Canada will be forced to make reparations for violating Abarca’s “right to life, freedom of expression, association and due process under the law.”

After the announcement that the case will be brought before the commission, Abarca’s son, José Luis Abarca, released a statement asserting that Ottawa has not properly investigated whether Canadian officials “bear any responsibility for my father’s murder.”

“This case is important,” the statement reads, “not only for my family, but for all the other human rights and environmental defenders around the world who have the misfortune of catching the eye of Canadian mining interests.”

José Luis Abarca also co-authored a piece in Canada’s National Observer on June 12, which criticizes Canada for seeking a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) while taking no action against human rights abuses committed by Canadian corporations abroad. He writes:

Canada has had ample opportunity to prove it is serious about reining in corporate abuse but has repeatedly failed to act—even in the face of serious crimes like forced labour, sexual violence, militarized evictions and targeted killings… And while Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly claims to make justice and accountability a top priority for the UNHRC candidacy, paths for front-line defenders seeking justice in Canada are effectively non-existent.

Environmentalists like Abarca, who choose to defend the social fabric and ecological integrity of their local communities, face tremendous oppression from foreign-owned mining companies. This means, inevitably, that they face the wrath of Canadian companies, given that Canada-based companies make up 41 percent of the largest firms in Latin America. Community activists who oppose Canadian mines are frequently harassed, intimidated, or killed.

Abarca is one of many, but his case is highly significant. It confirms once more that Canada’s embassies will defend Canadian mining companies even when they are accused of the worst crimes. It exposes Canadian courts’ role in shielding mining companies from consequences inside Canada. And it shows that Latin American resistors will push through any adversity in their efforts to protect their environments, their communities, and seek restitution for those who are killed in their pursuit of justice.

Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit


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