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CHIHUAHUA, Mexico - When farmer Jorge Robles lost all of his land in 1995 to the roughest drought that had ever hit the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, he learned a lesson: to store enough water to help him survive at least two dry years.
So when last year the rains were not enough, he and thousands of local farmers felt safe. They had stored enough water in the Boquilla dam to feed their crops of cotton and pecan trees.
The dam is a reservoir in the south-central part of Chihuahua that feeds from the Río Conchos, which ends up joining the Río Bravo, a river used as boundary between Mexico and the United States and that shares water with south Texas.
On March 6, the Mexican government opened up the dam, emptying its contents from an already low 60% to 30%, according to the measurements taken by the Mexican Water Commission (CONAGUA). That decision was Mexico’s attempt to comply with a 1944 international treaty, signed by both countries to manage an equitable distribution of the U.S and Mexican boundary waters that include the Rio Bravo (which is called the Rio Grande in the United States). Mexico must pay a massive 345,600 acre-feet (426 million cubic meters) to the United States by October 24.
“They took all of our water savings”, said Robles, who farms pecan and watermelon. “It took many years and very bad times to save enough water for stretches like these, and now the government has emptied our savings.”
The dam was opened on a Sunday, and by the following Tuesday Robles had put together an army of more than 4,000 locals armed with sticks and stones to take over the installation and close the gates to save the water left.
“I’ve never considered myself a leader, but the memories of the drought were enough for us to grow the balls to go and take over the dam, with the intention of closing the gates”, Robles told VICE News, standing at the top of the water gates at the Boquilla dam.
But the farmers clashed with Mexican state security forces including members of the National Guard, and conflict between the two sides has been ongoing ever since. “We got organized and took them by surprise. After they felt outnumbered, the general in charge surrendered and we took all of their guns and handed the general over to the local police”, said Robles.
Local farmers confronted the guardsmen with sticks and stones. The National Guard members had to hand over their weapons and were forced out of the dam’s installations. After they retreated, they detained three protesters who threatened to throw tear gas at them and put them into vehicles in order to take them to local police, said Luis Rodríguez Bucio, a National Guard Commander.
Trucks driven by protesters tried to block the National Guard convoy from taking the protestors away. After hearing what seemed like gunshots, one officer opened fire, hitting a truck carrying Jessica Silva. Silva was killed and Jaime Torres, her husband, was badly wounded.
Silva was a farmer who had helped her father grow crops since she was five years old. She was worried about what would happen to her parents’ land if the Mexican government emptied the dam.
“It was a regrettable accident,” said Rodríguez Bucio.
Silva has become a symbol for the fight for water in Chihuahua. Her face is appearing on placards at every demonstration and local farmers are now asking for justice for her death.
“She came to the protest at the Boquilla dam in our name, because we are old and she was worried about our land”, said Silva’s mother, Justina Zamarripa.
During a recent press conference, AMLO vowed to pay the country’s water debt to the United States, even if it means asking the Mexican farmers to deliver the water they are currently withholding in the dam.
“If it gets difficult, we are looking for solidarity from other northern states, if nothing can be done in Chihuahua, for other northern states to help out,” he said.
“I don’t understand why AMLO (Mexico’s President Andres Manuel López Obrador) is doing this to us. We are good people, we have never been vandals or criminals, for him to treat us like this. We are working people and we are only asking for our water to be left alone”, said Silva’s father, José.
But as the deadline approaches, AMLO’s government is feeling the pressure. Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott escalated the dispute by asking the administration of United States President Donald Trump to intervene. In a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abbott warned that Mexico was running out of time to meet its obligations.
"With only six weeks remaining, Mexico must deliver more water immediately," Abbott wrote in the letter.
A few kilometers south of La Boquilla, at a smaller dam called Las Virgenes, the National Guard has set up a camp with more than 4,000 soldiers. Some of the farmers believe their plan is to take back La Boquilla.
“We are not going to let them take our water, even if we have to put our lives on the line, said Mario Salgado, a local farmer and one of the leaders of the protestors at La Boquilla dam.
“They already took most of our water and the life of one of our farmers. They will have to leave Chihuahua if they want this to end.”
As the deadline in October approaches, more conflict seems inevitable.
Cover: Farmers demonstrate for the national defense of water and against the death of Jessica Silva, a demonstrator who was killed in clashes with the National Guard during a previous protest, in Chihuahua, Mexico, on September 20, 2020. Photo by EDUARDO FERNANDEZ/AFP via Getty Images.