Battle in the Mexican desert: silver mining against peyote and indigenous spirituality

Huichol Indians participate in a traditional peyote ceremony in the mountains outside Real de Catorce. Photo: Kurt Hollander.
Huichol Indians participate in a traditional peyote ceremony in the mountains outside Real de Catorce. Photo: Kurt Hollander.
Silver, indigenous Huichol communities and the peyote they venerate have co-existed in Wirikuta, northern Mexico for thousands of years, writes Kurt Hollander. But it's become an increasingly troubled relationship, one that illustrates the deepest conflicts of Mexican society. The region is protected as a UNESCO Natural Sacred Area, but foreign mining companies are determined to exploit vast concessions that pose severe threats to the fragile landscape, its inhabitants and their ancient culture.
Mexico would profit much more by letting silver, the 'excrement of the Moon', remain buried, and instead take advantage of the natural medical and therapeutic wealth of peyote to help cure modern man of his 'sickness of the heart'.

Real de Catorce, the location for the 2001 film The Mexican starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, is a quaint colonial mining town perched on a 9,000 foot promontory in Mexico's northern state of San Luis Potosi,  surrounded by a rugged, mountainous desert.

It has been a center for the extraction of silver since the late 18th century, providing an seemingly endless source of wealth for miners and investors.

But the surrounding area, Wirikuta, is sacred territory for the Huichol Indians, who make their yearly 400 km pilgrimage here to harvest peyote and reaffirm their roots with the land.

Silver and peyote , and the people who collect them, have been at odds with each other for centuries, and recently their opposition has erupted in legal battles.

Currently, several companies are itching to begin extracting precious metals from this area once again. First Majestic Silver, a Canadian mining company with 70% of its property within Wirikuta, recently cleaned up the entrance to Santa Ana, Real de Catorce's oldest and biggest mine; hired more workers; and continues to explore for veins of silver ore.

After a legal challenge to mining company plans in 2013, Mexico's federal courts blocked all mining in a 140,000 hectare area of Wirikuta, a major victory for environmental and indigenous rights. But in Mexico, time tends to wear down political opposition and global money tends to prevail over community activism.

If the mining companies ultimately prevail as they pursue their battle through the courts, the scale of metal extraction will be greater than ever before - as will the environmental and cultural consequences.

Excrement of the Moon? Or of the Devil?

The Aztecs and other indigenous nations considered gold 'excrement of the Sun' and silver 'excrement of the Moon,' sacred substances representing day and night and life and death.

For the nomadic indigenous groups in northern Mexico, silver and gold were also considered god-like, the guts of the earth, although without pyramids, temples and palaces to decorate these cultures tended to leave the metals in the earth out of respect.

The Spaniards who arrived in the New World also viewed these precious metals as holy, as gold and silver had long been used to create the images of their god and to ensure one's passage into heaven.

Spanish Conquistadores were enticed to sail to the New World by the promise of gold. When Cortés first met the Aztec emperor Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) he ceremoniously presented him with a glass bead necklace and in return received a necklace from which dangled gold nuggets wrought in the form of jumbo shrimp.

Cortés confided in Moctezuma: "We Spaniards are afflicted with an illness of the heart that can only be cured with gold." Though this was a clever lie, it also revealed a profound truth: Cortés and his soldiers, like the Europeans nobles and bankers who had funded their mission, were afflicted with an incurable disease that brought out all that was most base in men, driving them to seek precious metals by any means necessary, including mass murder.

Mexico would profit much more by letting silver, the 'excrement of the Moon', remain buried, and instead take advantage of the natural medical and therapeutic wealth of peyote to help cure modern man of his 'sickness of the heart'.

Spaniards had come for gold but stayed for silver. Twenty years after the fall of Tenochtitlán, Mexican silver began to flow to Spain by the shipload. The greatest silver deposits lay in the north, along the Sierra Madre, a region that pre-historic volcanic activity had filled with precious metal deposits.

During the 16th century, the Camino Real de la Plata (the Royal Silver Highway), the supply and transportation route to and from mines that stretched from Mexico City to New Mexico, was established. The silver trade paid for the military garrisons and the soldiers needed to defend the mining towns and roads against armed resistance.

The silver economy - founded on indigenous slavery

Silver also funded the construction of the early missions that 'concentrated' domesticated Indians to be used as slave labor in the mines.

To ensure a sufficient source of labor for the early silver mines, the colonial government declared that 4% of adult males of all Indian towns be shipped to the mines. This labor force was soon insufficient, for which hundreds of thousands of Africans were kidnapped and transported halfway around the world to dig silver out from the earth in Mexico.

Fifty years after the fall of Tenochtitlán, silver accounted for 80% of New Spain's exports. From mid-16th century to the end of colonialism, Spanish colonies in the Americas yielded a hundred thousand tons of silver, and from the 16th to the last quarter of the 19th century Mexican silver was used widely as currency throughout Europe and Asia.

Being that it was their colony, everything to be found within the earth in Mexico belonged to the Spanish Crown. After Independence, underground deposits became property of the landowners, both Mexican and foreign.

After the Revolution, the earth's precious metals were declared exclusive property of Mexico and its people. To avoid conflicts with Europe and the United States, however, the terms of the Constitution that referred to mining were amended and it was established that there would be no retroactive nationalization of the foreign mines.

The Mining Law of 1961 futhered the social goals of the Revolution, favoring major Mexican capitalists over foreign companies, giving them greater control over the minerals extracted from the earth and allowing them to purchase massive extensions of previously Federally-owned land.

In 1990, however, legislative changes were made to open up the industry, eliminating many of the obligations and procedures previously required and allowing foreign companies 100% ownership of mines.

Mexican laws treat mining companies as 'public utilities', allowing them to access underground water sources free of charge; confiscate land; and run communities from the area as necessary. They are also rewarded with easily renewable 50-year concessions.

After the signing of the North American Free Trade Association, investment in Mexico's mining industry skyrocketed and mining became the second biggest industry in Mexico. Silver prices began to rise sharply in 2002, reaching an all-time high in 2011, further fueling the expansion of the mining industry. Mexico is now the world's largest silver producer, providing 19% of world production.

Eleven states in Mexico have sold off more than 20% of the land to mining companies (five of these states over 30% and one over 40%). Canadian companies control 70% of the exploration, development and production of precious metals in Mexico.

In 2009, First Majestic Silver Corp., a Canadian mining company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, paid a mere $3 million to the Mexican government for 22 mining concessions covering 6,327 hectares around Real de Catorce, including the Santa Ana mine.

And despite the 2013 setback which stopped them from exploiting their concessions, the company has clearly not abandoned its plans to mine the area. The page on its website describing its 4,977 hectare 'La Luz' project in Real de Catorce municipality does not even mention the court ruling, instead stating:

"The property holds the potential for the discovery of silver mineralization of similar character and grade as that exploited in the past, even after two centuries of mining and recovery of 230 million ounces of silver from the district."

The real wealth lives on the surface of the ground

Wirikuta's economic wealth comes from silver, which is an inorganic substance, inedible and hard, hidden deep within the mountainsides. The region's spiritual wealth, on the other hand, comes from peyote, which is organic, edible and juicy, and spread out on the surface of the desert.

These two substances, silver and peyote, have existed side by side in Wirikuta for thousands of years, though often in a troubled relationship that illustrates the deepest conflicts of Mexican society.

Indigenous nomadic nations located in and around Wirikuta chose the path of armed resistance rather than allow the Spaniards to take their land to dig for silver. Even with the military campaigns launched to defend the silver mines in the northern territories, many of the local indigenous cultures were never defeated, although evangelization and intermarriage with domesticated Indians eventually defused their struggle for independence.

Indigenous communities that refused to be integrated into the Mexican nation, such as the Tarahumaras, Coras and Huicholes, were pushed into remoter regions and further up into the mountains, increasingly isolated as ties between communities were severed.

Of all the native cultures in Mexico, the Huicholes (also known as the Wixaritari) have best managed to conserve their traditional culture, language, ancestral beliefs and rituals. The five main Huichol communities live within the Sierra Madre Occidental, mostly in the state of Jalisco, though also in Nayarit, Durango and Zacatecas.

Even though they have managed to remain more autonomous than other indigenous communities, things aren't necessarily going well for them. With few jobs and high poverty rates, 40% of the Huichol population works as migrant workers on garlic and tobacco plantations in Sinaloa, and their land is constantly threatened by giant government projects such as hydroelectric dams and highways.

The Huichol's most sacred sites, the destination of yearly pilgrimagres, are located in Wirikuta. Wirikuta is designated by the state of San Luis Potosí as a Nature Reserve, a Protected Area and a Natural Sacred Site, and forms part of the World Network of Natural Sacred Sites of the UNESCO.

Although the whole region of Wirikuta, every cactus, rock, manatial and mountain, has great spiritual value for the Huicholes, it is the existence of a single plant that makes this area such a unique place.

Five centuries of cultural repression

For the indigenous cultures in the north, jikuri (peyote) has always been their most precious, sacred possession. The ceremonial use of peyote is calculated to be over 10,000 years old, and the yearly pilgrimage of Huicholes in search of peyote in Wirikuta has been dated back to 200 AD.

As the myth goes, the first Huichol hunters tracked a deer all the way from the western coast to Wirikuta where the dear's heart was transformed into peyote. To reaffirm their cultural ties to their ancestors, a select group of Huicholes are chosen each year to travel to Wirikuta, the place where they believe life was created.

The long, hard journey is an initiation, a return to the culture's origins in order to be reborn and to 'see the light'. The peyote rituals in Wirikuta serve to inspire new visions for Huichol marakame (shamans) and artists (peyote buttons are featured in almost all Huichol artworks) and thus keep the culture from stagnating.

In addition to its artistic and spiritual properties, peyote sates hunger, provides energy and serves as a general tonic. The Huicholes use peyote to treat snakebite, wounds, burns, fractures, constipation, fevers, asthma, and it functions as an analgesic, anti-rheumatic and an antibiotic (effective against 18 kinds of bacteria, many of them resistant to penicillin).

Peyote also effectively treats mental illnesses such as depression, hysteria and neuroasthenia, and has been used to cure drug and alchohol addictions. All of these properties have made peyote an important substance to help the Huicholes deal with the intense stress produced by the constant threats to their existence.

When the Mexican military was unable to subjugate the Huichol and other indigenous groups resisting colonization, the Catholic Church began its battle against the native's spiritual defenses, accusing peyote of being a pagan tool of the Devil that instigated sexual and violent behavior among the natives. Peyote ceremonies were officially banned in Mexico by the Spanish Inquisition in 1638 and the authorities implemented increasingly severe punishments throughout the colonial period.

In 1928 the Mexican health authorities declared that peyote was neither a narcotic nor an intoxicant and that is had special pharmacological properties. Pressure from the United States, however, eventually coerced Mexico into classifying peyote as an illegal substance as per The International Convention on Psycotropic Substances of 1971.

According to the Mexican General Health Law of 1984, still in effect, peyote is a psychoactive substance "that has little or no therapeutic value and constitutes an especially serious problem for public health."

Even though there are no legal exceptions, the Mexican government tends to tolerate peyote collection and use by certain indigenous groups, although harrasment of these groups in Wirikuta has risen recently. The use of peyote by the rest of the population in Mexico is punishable by law with up to ten-year prison sentences.

Ironically, in Wirikuta peyote possession and consumption is strictly policed by army and law enforcement officers not because of the harmful effects of the drug but ostensibly to keep people from harming the plant, which is said to be on the verge of extinction.

And now, the curse of mining hits Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce was recently designated a 'Pueblo Mágico' (Magic Town), a government-sponsored program designed to increase tourism and boost the local economy.

Although the government wasn't promoting the 'magic' associated with the psychoactive properties of peyote, tourists tend to visit the Huichol sacred sites and to eat peyote in the desert, often in organized tours on horseback or in jeeps from Real de Catorce, depleting the existence of the plant.

The biggest threat to peyote, however, is the mining industry. Even after ex-President Felipe Calderon publicly swore to protect the area, the government granted 22 concessions to First Majestic, 70% of the area located within Wirikuta. Now that the government has recently put into law the privatization of the energy industries in Mexico, mining companies are expected to greatly increase their activity all across the country.

Precious metals have always been more of a curse than a blessing in Real de Catorce. The accumulation of wealth extracted from the earth over the centuries has left behind it only misery and ruins. The vast woods in the area were razed during the early phase of the mines, when charcoal was used to fuel the furnaces, and only bald mountains and eroded soil remain.

Like the trees, human population also suffered. When silver prices dropped and mining stagnated, the local population in Real de Catorce dropped from 14,000 inhabitants in 1905 to 2,700 in 1910, while smaller towns, such as La Luz, where the Santa Ana mine is located, were converted into ghost towns.

Although the original mines are opened whenever technological innovation and rising silver prices makes mining profitable, magnificent colonial cities are no longer built and the profits from the precious metals no longer give rise to baroque churches and stately government buildings.

In fact, like all monocultures (such as agro-industry, tourism and narcotráfico), the profits from silver mines aren't reinvested into technology or productive industries and workers aren't taught skills that will help them find jobs when the mines close.

Except for a few local government officials who line their pockets with silver, the precious metals extracted from the earth are shipped out of the country leaving behind only heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cyanide.

Silver will never assuage the quest for profit. But maybe peyote could ...

The payment (above and under the table) the Mexican government received from foreign-owned mining companies won't cover the longterm health costs caused by the mines nor the damage to the natural environment in Wirikuta.

More so than any silver sculpture in any archeology museum in Mexico, the Huichol culture and their sacred land represent the real wealth of the nation and should be protected at all costs.

Mexico would profit much more by letting the 'excrement of the Moon' remain buried, at least where it conflicts with the spiritual pursuits of indigenous communities, and instead take advantage of the natural medical and therapeutic wealth of peyote to help cure modern man of his 'sickness of the heart'.



Kurt Hollander is a journalist, author and photographer based in Mexico City and Cali, Colombia. His articles have been published in The Guardian, Vice, LensCulture, Dangerous Minds, L'Oeil de la Photografie, Domus, Uncube, Bomb, Morbid Anatomy, Colors, the Los Angeles Times and Huffington Post. His website is at and he tweets @kurthollander.

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