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3 July 2023

Concern over repression and intimidation of land and water defenders in Queretaro

The issuance of the State Law on the Regulation of the Provision of Drinking Water, Sewage and Sanitation Services in the State of Querétaro, known as the "Water Law" has led to widespread conflict over land and water in several municipalities in the state. This law entails an increased risk of privatisation of community water wells. The conflict, which Front Line Defenders warned about in 2022, has generated concerns amongst environmental defenders and communities in the state of Querétaro due to the potential negative consequences of private control of a communal good. There are also concerns about the growing trend in Querétaro of the invasion of community properties by private parties looking to take over their water sources and subsequently privatise access to such water.

On 13 June 2023, the Escolásticas community in the municipality of Pedro Escobedo was severely repressed and intimidated by both municipal and state police forces during a protest provoked by the arrest of a public official. The community has defended this public official for her neutrality in not favouring private interests in the purchase and sale of land and issuance of documents of territorial possession in the municipality. As a result of the repression of the protest, eleven people were arrested and charged with the crime of land invasion; three of these people, two men and one woman, remain in detention.

The community of the Escolásticas area has been subjected to repression and intimidation by municipal and state authorities in Querétaro for their defence of their land and water rights. There has been a growing number of people who, according to reports, act on behalf of state officials and with the support of paramilitary groups to take over community lands. The community claims that this is in order to subsequently transfer ownership of the lands to state officials for financial gain, as these lands have a high ecological value due to their water springs. These springs provide drinking water to the community through public wells, and municipal and state authorities are seeking to privatise access to these resources or sell the lands to real estate developers.

At 8:30 am on 13 June 2023, the municipal police of Escolásticas went to arrest the municipal representative of Escolásticas, Ma Trinidad Osornio Flores, who is a public official responsible for the approval of the purchase and sale of land and the issuance of documents of territorial possession in the municipality. She has been accused of the crime of land dispossession, but the community of Escolásticas has argued that this accusation is a retaliation because she - unlike previous delegates and public officials - has remained neutral in the face of pressure to favour the territorial dispossession of the community. During her arrest, the authorities also detained a 19-year-old from the community, who was accused of breaking a padlock on the fence of a disputed area.

At noon on 13 June 2023, the community of Escolásticas came out to p rotest against these arrests, and the municipal and state police responded by deploying around 300 armed personnel with security dogs to disperse the demonstrations using tear gas. According to reports, the police proceeded to beat and intimidate women protesters. The community denounced that they were under siege, being prohibited to enter or leave the area. The repression of the protest saw eleven people detained, among them Mariana Trinidad Osornio Flores and the young man, who were held incommunicado for eight days. After a constitutional protection action was filed on 15 and 16 June, their whereabouts was revealed. It was also revealed that five of the eleven people detained suffered injuries including bruises and fractures. To date, eight people have been released and three remain in incommunicado detention.

On 19 June 2023, the woman human rights defender Teresa Roldán Soria gave a press conference to publicise what happened. She has been closely involved with the community of Escolásticas and supported the constitutional protection action filed on behalf of the people detained. Since 2016, she has been actively involved in the defence of areas of great ecological value against deforestation and large-scale housing development, including the protection of ejidos in the State of Querétaro. Similarly, she reported that on 19 June 2023, after the press conference, a suspicious white vehicle parked for forty minutes in front of her house, which is located in a secluded area where usually only she has access. The woman human rights defender maintains that this is one of the forms of intimidation and state repression she has been subjected to. Previously, on 11 November 2020, Front Line Defenders reported on death threats against her. Teresa Roldán Soria is a beneficiary of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders in Mexico. On the Mechanism’s recommendation, the woman human rights defender is now using a panic alarm system to immediately alert the federal authorities, that report to the Secretariat of the National Government, when she is at risk, due to the increase in threats she is receiving following the recent events in Escolásticas.

The community of Escolásticas has argued that they have documentation certifying that the lands they are defending were constituted as an ejido by presidential resolution on 29 January 1936. This means that although the lands are property of the State, being an ejido, they are for the benefit and use of the community. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a private individual acquired land adjacent to the ejido. This individual added a fence in the area of the ejido known as "Los Sabinos", closing off the community's access to the water springs, and installed pipes with the intention of privatising the water. Following this, the individual filed a complaint against the women of the community for the crime of dispossession and prevented them from accessing the springs.

Front Line Defenders expresses its concern for the safety and integrity of the communities in the State of Querétaro, especially for the community of the municipality of Escolásticas and the human rights defender Teresa Roldán Soria. It also expresses its concern for the criminalisation and detention of eleven people in the context of the community defence of water, as it understands that these acts of harassment are in retaliation for their legitimate activity in defence of human rights.

Front Line Defenders reiterates its concern about the climate of impunity and lack of protection for human rights defenders and especially about the allegations of apparent collusion between the State and private individuals who have illegally invaded and claimed possession of communal ejido lands, seeking to privatise them as well as common goods such as water.

Front Line Defenders urges the Mexican authorities to initiate an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the acts of violence against the community of Escolásticas, as well as to take all measures to guarantee their safety and physical and psychological integrity, in accordance with Mexico’s international commitments regarding the protection of human rights defenders