The chief executive officer of a Canadian mining company has made waves in his industry after candidly describing how his operations in Mexico have contact with the powerful drug cartels that rule large swaths of the country.
McEwen Mining CEO Rob McEwen said in an interview with a Canadian business news outlet that his company has a "good relationship" with the Mexican cartels, most likely in reference to the Sinaloa cartel, after a mine owned by his company suffered a major robbery early last week.
Mexico is the world's chief producer of silver and a major supplier of gold and copper.
"If we want to go explore somewhere you ask them and they tell you, 'No.' But then they'll say, 'Come back in a couple of weeks, we've finished what we're doing,'" McEwen told Canada's Business News Network on Thursday.
The interview came after masked and heavily armed robbers stole 900 kilos of gold concentrate from a McEwen Mining refinery in the state of Sinaloa. The company estimated the value of the theft at $8.5 million.
McEwen later offered a statement published Tuesday on the company's website, clarifying that he has no regular dealings with any cartels in Sinaloa.
"Responding to numerous media reports, I want to make it perfectly clear, that neither I nor any member of McEwen Mining's management team in Canada or in Mexico have had any regular contact with, or have any relationship with, cartel members," the statement says.
It is unclear who was behind the most recent mining crime in Mexico. However, it was the fourth targeted assault of a Canadian-owned gold mine in the southern and western regions of the country in the past two months.
McEwen's frankness over the incident has drawn attention to the troubling security issues that mining interests and their employees face in Mexico, particularly after a wave of attacks in the southern state of Guerrero.
Between February 6 and March 27, sixteen kidnappings and six murders in three separate incidents were related to Canadian-owned gold mines in Guerrero, one of Mexico's most violent states. The companies most affected in the attacks have been Goldcorp or Torex, and the communities of Carrizalillo, Mezcala, and Nuevo Balsas.
In a mountainous area only recently christened as Guerrero's "Gold Belt," inhabitants of surrounding towns claim neither the mines nor the government are doing enough to protect them.
"This violence is constant since the mine arrived," one community organizer in Mezcala told VICE News, referring to Goldcorp's nearby Los Filos mine, which opened in 2007.
Like many other people interviewed for this story, the local organizer asked not to be named. He said he feared receiving the same fate as a family member who was kidnapped nearly a year ago and has not been heard from since.
"The criminals ask for a tax each year. They call it a cooperation, but it's extortion," the Mezcala organizer said. "The workers have to pay individually. The different community organization representatives have to pay annually."
A recent attack in Carrizalillo, which is also close to Los Filos, illustrates the deadly reach of organized crime groups in Guerrero's mines.
In the early hours of March 27, gunmen stormed into Carrizalillo, leaving two women and one 80-year-old man dead, in an attack in which few other details filtered out. The town was closed off the next day by security forces and journalists were not allowed to enter.
The community leader who spoke to VICE News, as well as sources in various Mexican press outlets, said the attack was a "reminder" to the community to pay the "cooperation" taxes, and also in anticipation of Goldcorp's annual utilities lump payment to the local municipal hall, which came on April 5.
'It happened because they chose to drive their own car home after work. ... They didn't take the Goldcorp bus.'
Two cartels have been fighting for control of these taxes, said sources in Mezcala. Local reports said that in the final days of March, following the attack, there was a mass exodus from Carrizalillo, as residents simply abandoned their homes.
It was the second violent incident near of Goldcorp's Los Filos mine in less than a month. In early March, four Mexican employees were kidnapped after leaving the mine.
On March 16, three of them were found dead with signs of torture in a mass grave in a municipality next-door to Cocula, where the alleged remains of 43 disappeared teachers college students were discovered in November.
Since the internationally covered disappearance of the 43 normalistas from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, federal forces have attempted to crack down on the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who were blamed for the student attacks, and other groups such as La Familia Michoacana and Los Rojos.
All three cartels have increased their presence in the mining region surrounding Iguala, the city where the attacks on the students took place.
In a state known for its heroin and marijuana production, Guerrero's drug gangs have diversified into other forms of making money, especially kidnapping. Relatively well-paid mine workers are an easy target.
"The risk of kidnappings is the price of having good jobs here," one miner told VICE News.
He explained enthusiastically that he was making good money — 2,800 pesos a week (about $182) along with a 1,000-peso food stipend — for operating heavy machinery in the Los Filos mine.
But when asked about the Los Filos workers who were killed, his tone changed, and an anxious look came over his face. "I knew all of them. We worked together in the mine," he said.
Los Filos notched $326 million in revenue in 2014. While Goldcorp has been able to keep the mine itself safe, the company has been unable to provide protection to its workers in the neighboring towns.
"We encourage the Mexican authorities to provide more security in the communities surrounding our operation. But we can only look after the actual mine," Michael Harvey, director of corporate affairs for Goldcorp Latin America, told VICE News.
"[The kidnapped miners] weren't working and they weren't in any of our transportation at that time," Harvey added.
The miner we spoke to, however, explained why.
"It happened because they chose to drive their own car home after work," he said. "They didn't take the Goldcorp bus."
Goldcorp provides transportation to the mine from the center of the towns and back.
"Sometimes when it's late after work, you have to wait several hours for the bus to take you down from the mine. After many hours working, some employees don't want to wait hours for the bus," the miner explained.
He then pointed to a parked car. "Even though I have that, I always take the bus."
As he spoke, there was little activity on the streets of Mezcala, except for buses and trucks bearing the logos of both Goldcorp and Torex, which shuttle workers back and forth between the mines and home.
"Truthfully, I'm always afraid," the wife of the Los Filos miner told VICE News, standing next to her husband as their children played nearby. "Because when he's working, there's fear that one day he won't come back."
Locals appear to be taking matters into their own hands after last month's wave of violence.
On March 30, three days after the most recent attack, the chief of police in Carrizalillo, along with leaders of two other surrounding communities, Amatitlán and Tenantla, wrote an open letter to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
They requested authorization to create a community police force to protect themselves against the cartels. They also alleged that the military units stationed in Iguala had protected the Guerreros Unidos.
The authors of the letter wanted to follow the example set in the town of Nuevo Balsas, a small community in Guerrero where the Torex company's Media Luna gold mine visibly looms overhead. A volunteer community police force already exists here.
"It's good that the mine brings money, but it also brings many problems," the leader of the Nuevo Balsas Community Police told VICE News.
He asked only to be referred to as El Comandante, or The Commander.
On February 6, thirteen people were abducted on the highway outside of Nuevo Balsas, reportedly by a cell of La Familia Michoacana. One was then released with a message to locals: The narcos were back, and they wanted their cut.
'The local people are almost used to paying for protection.'
Among the remaining hostages, one was an official employee of Torex, and two others were Torex contractors. Within the next 48 hours, the community police searched, combing the hills by foot hunting for the abducted. They were eventually able to release ten of the twelve hostages.
"It was good and bad. Good because we could rescue most of the people, but bad because for two of them we couldn't," El Comandante said.
The remaining two — one of which was the official Torex employee — were held hostage for nearly two weeks until their families paid a ransom, the police leader said.
Gabriela Sanchez, Torex's vice president of investor relations, confirmed the rescue in an interview with VICE News, but made no reference to the community police who led it.
"It's a little bit of a remote area which has a lack of police presence, and that was the problem," Sanchez said. "The company does have our own security, but our security is only allowed to protect us and our assets. It's not allowed to protect the communities. So we're working with the communities and the governments to bring some permanent police presence ... to the area."
Sanchez said Torex employs 90 security personnel who are state auxiliary police that were trained by the company after a security-related incident in 2011. Sanchez also adamantly denied allegations that their mine has paid any extortion fees.
"The local people are almost used to paying for protection. So it was suggested — very unrequested advice from the locals — that protection should be paid. We just said no. Because we're a Canadian company," Sanchez told VICE News. "That's criminal here."
Some locals, like El Comandante, saw no other option than to pick up arms and defend themselves.
"There was a sadness in this town," El Comandante said, holding a shotgun and flanked by two other armed members of the community police.
"We're country folk. We're armed not because of us. It's the fault of the government that doesn't look at us in the town," he said.
El Comandante leaned against the alter fence, wearing his custom made Nuevo Balsas Community Police T-shirt, shotgun shells wrapped around his torso, with one eye on the highway.
"[Torex] knows the senior [government] officials. Why don't they put a proposal to the federal or state government? They can tell them 'Look at what's happening in this town, support them'."
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