Ecologist Special Report: Environmental Activist Illegally Detained in Baja California Sur, Mexico

| 14th June 2017
Since the illegal arrest and imprisonment of lawyer and environmental activist John Moreno (and his client Joella Corado) on May 19th, numerous protests and vigils have been held, both in the town of Todos Santos and in the state capital of La Paz. Many consider Moreno a political prisoner of the Mexican Government, and see Corado as collateral damage in a political campaign to clamp down on community resistance to development. VIVIANE MAHIEUX tells their story to date...
The travesty of justice that is evidenced by Moreno and Corado's illegal incarceration can only be traced to the undue influence of international capital in a country where the highest level of government defends large-scale development at all costs

On the morning of Friday, May 19th 2017, John Moreno, a lawyer and environmental activist, was arrested in Todos Santos, a small town at the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. Three agents in civilian clothes detained the 36-year-old father of three outside a coffee shop, and drove him to La Paz, the State Capital, in a brand new red pick up truck.

At first, Moreno was told only that he needed to appear in court to testify. Once he was inside the vehicle, he was informed that he was under arrest, and his cell phone was confiscated. He was only allowed one phone call at 5 PM - once all government offices were closed for the weekend - ensuring that he encountered a significant delay in preparing his defense strategy.

That same day, Joella Corado, a local 28-year-old health food storeowner and a former client of Moreno's was also arrested and taken to La Paz. Both were accused of aggravated property theft and denied bail.

The Tres Santos Connection

For the past two years, John Moreno has acted as the pro-bono lawyer and spokesperson for a group of fishermen who oppose a touristic mega development called Tres Santos. Although slickly labelled as a sustainable and inclusive project that promises to create "an epicenter for well-being" for yoga and surf enthusiasts, the development has faced local opposition from the start.

With the construction of its beachfront hotel on the dunes of the Punta Lobos beach, Tres Santos jeopardizes a naturally protected ocean access point used by fishermen for generations. Locals also fear that the planned construction of almost 4,500 high end homes will lead to the dramatic and unsustainable growth of a town that today barely reaches 6,000 inhabitants, irreversibly straining an already imperiled water aquifer.

Alarmingly, this mega-project does not comply with the Todos Santos development plan (Plan de Desarrollo Urbano) approved in 2012, and yet the developers claim to have received all the necessary permits for construction. None of these permits have (to date) been published or made accessible to the public.

Ever since planning and construction began, Tres Santos skillfully combined a seductive media presence - featuring glowing write-ups in Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, and Vogue magazine - with old school repression. On February 2nd 2016, some 200 police in riot gear forcefully removed a camp that fishermen had set up to protest the construction of the beachfront hotel, as well as the illegally-built massive seawall that surrounded it, eroding the beach, destroying dunes and wetlands, damaging fishing equipment and costly skiff motors.

Tres Santos also filed lawsuits against six of the most visible activists who voiced opposition to their project, including John Moreno. In a move clearly meant as intimidation, the activists are accused of invasion of property and dispossession. As no evidence exists to back up Tres Santos' claims, and despite yet another hearing last Friday, none of the lawsuits have moved forward in court.

Negotiations between the fishermen and the development company stalled in early 2016, after the latter refused to drop charges against the activists that supported the community's struggle. The lengthy process of starting a class-action suit on environmental grounds began, while international capital continued to pour into the Tres Santos project.

On February 3rd 2017, Ambassador Alberto Szekely, an internationally-known environmental lawyer, jointly filed with John Moreno a Citizen's Complaint against Tres Santos in the Federal Environmental Prosecution Office (PROFEPA), suing for environmental damage at Punta Lobos beach and for failure to comply with environmental and zoning laws. Many local residents signed the complaint and, after a long and difficult struggle to persuade the authorities to start enforcing the contravened laws, on April 17th PROFEPA inspectors finally carried out an inspection of the beachfront development. Results are still pending.

Yet the hotel nonchalantly began accepting reservations in April as if no social conflict had ever existed, and as if the legality of their project was never in question.

On May 12th, Carlos Mendoza Davis, the Governor of Baja California Sur, was photographed visiting the grounds of Tres Santos next to a beaming Javier Barrios, the CEO of Mira Companies (the Mexican subsidiary of the Colorado company Black Creek Group, financers of this development). He publicly declared his full support of investments such as Tres Santos, deeming them beneficial to the State as, he claimed, they opened the region to the world in an "environmentally and socially responsible manner".

Local Authorities Intervene-in Support of Developers

John Moreno's arrest came scarcely a week after the Governor's visit to Tres Santos. He had been expecting it. Word had reached him that the Attorney General of Baja California Sur, Erasmo Palemon Alamilla, had met with Javier Barrios on the grounds of Tres Santos on March 8th. Moreno knew that the authorities were combing though some of his old cases to see if they could find one that could be used against him. He did not know that the case that would be brought up, through an illegal manipulation of the file and the falsification of documents, was one that he had won three years before.

The case involved his former client Joella Corado, a dual Mexican and American citizen who was never actively involved in the struggle against Tres Santos. In 2014, Moreno successfully evicted a squatter, Enrique Chávez Ugarte, who had illegally taken possession of a property in Todos Santos owned by Corado.

Now, three years later, the case has been mysteriously re-opened, but this time, John and Joella are no longer the plaintiffs. Instead, in a reversal of roles, they are now themselves accused of aggravated property theft by Mr Chávez Ugarte, the same person they had successfully evicted before. Like Moreno, Joella Corado was arrested and denied bail.

According to the case documentation, John Moreno was notified of his change of status from plaintiff to accused on April 5th, 2017 in Todos Santos, before police witnesses. However, that entire day he happened to be in court in La Paz, and he was able to provide documentation to back up his alibi. A forensic document examiner soon discovered that Moreno's signature accepting the lawsuit notification was false, and that the accompanying witness statements had also been forged. The photocopies of the identifications included in the file clearly had been lifted from other cases, and the official stamp on the document was incompatible with the one from the town of Todos Santos.

In a May 24th press conference on John Moreno's case, his defense lawyer Arturo Rubio Ruiz directly linked the blatant irregularities of this case to the Attorney General of the State of Baja California Sur, Erasmo Palemon Alamilla, asking: "What kind of criminal is in charge of our state's justice system? This isn't John Moreno versus a company, this is us against a man who utilizes his power to service personal, toxic and mysterious interests. I blame the State Attorney exclusively and specifically. No prosecutor would dare do something like this without orders from above."

Despite the crude obviousness of the forgery, the acting judge, Rosalía Cota Domínguez, refused to even consider the forensic evidence and ordered both Moreno and Corado to prison without bail on May 25th. Since then, the court has repeatedly used every stalling technique at its disposal, alleging excess work when asked for case documents.

Yet the arrest warrants for John Moreno and Joella Corado were processed and executed in record time. In a state that in 2016 had some 55,000 unsolved cases, and that still today has more than 2,000 arrest warrants pending, this selective efficiency becomes all the more outrageous. It should be no surprise that in a 2015 study by CIDE (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica), Baja California Sur was ranked last nationally with regards to transparency and access to information.

The judicial system of Baja California Sur clearly has the uncanny ability to speed up and slow down its processes at will. The travesty of justice that is evidenced by Moreno and Corado's illegal incarceration can only be traced to the undue influence of international capital in a country where the highest level of government defends large-scale development at all costs.

The fragility of Mexico's driest state, and the dire long-term consequences of such an environmentally irresponsible policy, seem to matter little in the rush to monetize natural resources. The same can be said of the basic human rights of its citizens. Although John Moreno was granted special protection from the Mexican Federal Government as part of a mechanism designed to protect defenders of human rights and journalists from violence and the deprivation of freedom, this protected status has done nothing to ensure his release.

Local Protests Surge Against Corruption and Impunity

Since the illegal arrest of John Moreno and Joella Corado on May 19th, numerous protests and vigils have been held, both in the town of Todos Santos and in the state capital of La Paz. Many consider Moreno a political prisoner of the government, and see Corado as collateral damage in a political campaign to clamp down on community resistance to community resistance to predatory and unsustainable development.

In a state that has seen the influx of drug-related violence rise drastically in the last few years, with 55 murders reported in January 2017 alone, civil society demands a transparent end ethical leadership that truly defends the rights of its citizens to live in dignity, safety and peace. John Moreno and Joella Corado are now symbols of a broad struggle for justice and human rights in Baja California Sur.

How You Can Help:

Sign the Liberate John Moreno Petition here

This Author

Viviane Mahieux is Associate Professor of Latin American Literature at UC Irvine





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