TORONTO - A Mexican man who strongly opposed the presence of a Canadian company in his hometown felt sure his activism would lead to his murder but was willing to pay that price to protest what he regarded to be human rights abuses, friends said Thursday.
Activist Mariano Abarca Roblero, 51, was gunned down in front of his home in southern Chiapas last month.
The community leader had been campaigning against a barite mine operated by a subsidiary of Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration. The three men arrested in Abarca Roblero's death have ties to Blackfire. The company denies any connection to the killing and is adamant the mine is being run in an environmentally responsible way.
Friends described the married father of four as a simple, shy man who got involved in the anti-mining movement after witnessing the social and environmental impact of mining on his hometown of Chicomuselo.
"He slowly began realizing the impact of open pit mining on the environment and he began to notice the effects, like lack of water, drying of streams, houses cracked and destroyed as big trucks carrying tonnes of barite through neighbourhoods," said friend Gustavo Castro, with the group Otros Mundos in San Cristobal de Las Casas, about five hours from the mine's location.
Abarca had been involved in grassroots projects for years, initially fighting against the high cost of hydro electricity in rural areas.
He got involved in mining in 2005, when the first concessions were given out, and quickly became a major figure in his community, able to draw crowds and spur protests.
He believed the mine was harming the environment and creating conflict and division within his community.
"It's not OK for them to come in and treat us badly, to kick us when we deserve respect," Abarca said in an interview about a month before his death.
"We're farmers, hard workers; we don't deserve to be treated this way. We know we must do something, even if it means giving our life."
That month, he upped the stakes by leading local residents in blocking an access road to the mine.
The blockade was intended to press demands for $235,000 that residents of a nearby hamlet said they were owed for ore taken from land outside the company's concession area.
But with local jobs at stake, the conflict grew heated.
And as the protests grew, so did threats against Abarca.
Castro said Abarca's opponents "tried to bribe him, they issued death threats, they beat him in his home, kicking and hitting him as he lay on the ground, they threw him in jail - and still he never gave in."
He added: "He survived everything. The only thing that was left was for them to kill him, and in the end they succeeded."
Abarca spent 10 days in jail over what supporters say where trumped up charges, and chose to stay behind bars despite an alleged deal that would free him if he stopped his protest.
Shortly before his death, he filed a complaint with local officials about death threats.
"He was sure that sooner or later they would kill him," Castro said.
But despite all that, he never gave up.
"It think it all speaks volumes of his integrity, his mortal fortitude, and his belief in what he was fighting for," he said.
"You get to a point when you can no longer comprise, especially when so many people are rallying around you and relying on you."
Arazel Avillar, who lives in Chicomuselo and worked closely with Abarca for years, described him as a responsible man who was trusted by his community and dedicated to his cause.
"He was a straight arrow, a hard worker who never did anything wrong," she said.
"He was fighting for the good of the town. He was going to see this through, not just here in our town but for the whole state."
State authorities have temporarily shut down the mine, citing environmental concerns, but Blackfire president Brent Willis insists the Mexico mine was run in an environmentally responsible way.
Rather than open pit mines and heavy chemicals used by some companies, Blackfire mines the barite with excavators along the surface of the ground, he said earlier this week.
"We're not involved in any type of pollution."
Willis has confirmed one of the men arrested is a former employee, one worked as a contractor doing dust control on the roads and one is currently employed as a supervisor at the mine.
He has denied that any of the men had ever acted as security or strongmen for the company and said Blackfire hasn't even been contacted by local authorities about Abarca's death, which he has called a tragedy.
Willis said Blackfire has tried to work with local members of the community, many of whom he says appreciate the company and the employment and local business it brings.
He said the company invited protesters, including Abarca Roblero, to come to the site to see environmental safeguards in place, but none would come.
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, who was in Mexico for a state visit this week, condemned the killing Wednesday while protesters gathered around chanting "Canada, get out."
Friends say Abarca's wife and children fear for their lives and will likely move out of their home and close the restaurant they operate out of that house, which is their main source of income.
"This is very painful for us," said Avillar.
"It's awful too the way he went. He always said that the day they tried to kill him, he hoped his killers would look him in the eye.
"But it sounds like they shot him in the back."