Search for missing activists intensifies in western Mexico

Jan 19, 2023, 12:39 AM | Updated: 3:32 pm

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Concern grew in Mexico Thursday over the fate of two environmental and community activists who disappeared five days ago in a dangerous corner of western Mexico.

Farmers blocked roads on the border between the western Mexico states of Michoacan and Colima to protest the disappearance of lawyer Ricardo Lagunes and schoolteacher Antonio Díaz.

The government announced Thursday that it has sent soldiers, National Guard and aircraft to search for the pair, whose bullet-ridden vehicle was found Sunday on a road in the area, where warring drug cartels are active.

“Currently, searches are being carried out on land and in the air in the area,” the Interior Department said in a statement.

Fellow activist Sergio Oceransky, of the Yansa Foundation, said farmers had blocked roads in the area to demand that authorities find Lagunes and Díaz.

The two had been active in fighting a massive iron ore mine in the town of Aquila. Inhabitants have long complained the massive open-pit mine caused pollution and drew violence to the area, while offering little benefit to residents. The Aquila mine did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The town of Aquila is located in area of the western state of Michoacan, which long been disputed between drug cartels. The two disappeared Sunday night on the border between Michoacan and the neighboring state of Colima.

Díaz was a leader in the largely Indigenous community of Aquila, while Lagunes had long been involved in defending communities in several states in land and development disputes.

In the past, the area’s rich iron ore deposits have drawn the interest of competing drug cartels, which have either extorted money from the mining community, or become directly engaged in the ore trade.

María de Jesús Ramírez Magallón, Lagunes’ wife, said in a statement that “abandonment, exclusion and inequality have kept our communities in poverty, and have made us vulnerable to the dynamic of violence and decay in our communities.”

“The goal of defenders like my husband and Prof. Antonio was to change that reality, but often the (government) institutions block that work, rather than help,” she wrote.

One resident of Aquila, who fled the village after her husband and son were killed last year, described Díaz as “somebody who helped us.”

The resident, who asked her name not be used for security reasons, said the abductions came just as community residents were about to elect representatives for talks with the mine and the government.

Michoacan Gov. Alfredo Ramírez said Wednesday that authorities in both states had mounted searches.

“We hope to find these two people alive,” Ramírez said.

The U.N. human rights office called on authorities to do more to protect activists.

“The disappearance of these two (rights) defenders is a terrible and alarming thing,” according to a statement by Guillermo Fernández-Maldonado, the Mexico representative of the U.N. rights office.

He said one of the two had been granted government protection, “which did not prevent his disappearance.”

Michoacan has long been the scene of bloody turf battles between the Jalisco cartel and the Viagras cartel, as well as local gangs.

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Search for missing activists intensifies in western Mexico