Water conflict, feud with Chihuahua governor behind president’s visit to Juarez, border expert says

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Lopez Obrador asserting authority over Chihuahua governor prior to attempting retake of dam occupied by farmers

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Juarez is going through one the most violent periods in its history, and a few hundred miles to the south farmers are holding hostage thousands of acre-feet of water Mexico needs to pay the United States by October 24.

So why is the president of Mexico coming here on Friday to tour a health clinic in a low-income neighborhood?

The answer has little to do with helping the poor, says an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations. It’s more likely president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is here because of a brewing political feud with Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral that is about to boil over.

“He can tout his social programs anytime, anywhere else. There is no reason for the president of Mexico to be in Juarez today except to spite the governor of Chihuahua,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at the Baker Institute at Rice University.

Lopez Obrador excluded Corral from the list of local dignitaries he will be meeting at the clinic. Prior to that, the president ordered the federal police, army and National Guard representatives to stop attending weekly joint security committee meetings with the state of Chihuahua and the City of Juarez.

The pull-out came as Juarez surpassed the 1,300-homicide mark this year and amid allegations from state officials that federal prosecutors are refusing to take over drug cartel investigations.

Farmers stand at La Boquilla Dam, where they wrested control on Tuesday from National Guard troops in order to close the valves and reduce the flow of water toward the United States, in Chihuahua State, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Tuesday’s clash between hundreds of farmers and National Guard troops was the latest flashpoint in a months-long conflict over the Mexican government’s attempts to pay off its water debt with the United States over objections of local farmers. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

More importantly, the president has publicly accused Corral of encouraging the farmers and ranchers that forcefully took over La Boquilla dam on Sept. 8, just as Lopez Obrador started routing water from the reservoir to the Rio Grande. Mexico owes the United States 318,498 acre-feet of water under a 1944 treaty in which Mexico receives far more water from the U.S. than it returns.

Chihuahua farmers say the state is in a drought and fear the loss of more water will prevent them from planting crops in the spring. They also accuse National Water Commission officials of mismanagement and selling water under the table to third parties.

“(The president) thought it would be easy to just shove them aside and, of course, that didn’t happen. The farmers took sticks and stones and beat the National Guard out of the premises,” said Payan, an adjunct associate professor at Rice and a professor at Juarez Autonomous University.

He added that corruption at the National Water Commission might be real. Agency employees for years have allegedly allowed water theft for years in exchange for bribes. The practice even has a colloquial name by now, aguachicoleo.

“Mexico won’t be able to meet its future commitments unless it gets its water management under control. That won’t happen until Water Commission officials are brought to justice,” he said.

The ‘calm before the storm,’ as president likely to move against farmers

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the United States has lost its patience and is demanding full payment by the due date. Lopez Obrador is feeling pressure from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in turn is fielding demands from Texas farmers and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Payan described Lopez Obrador and Corral as being “headstrong” and “stubborn.”

However, Lopez Obrador is more likely to buckle to the U.S. than to one of his governors. “The president has already deployed additional soldiers to southeastern Chihuahua. My guess is that the federal government is going to seek to dislodge the farmers and ranchers from the dam by force,” Payan said.

The soldiers already have shown a willingness to shoot civilians. In the aftermath of the Sept. 8 takeover of La Boquilla dam, National Guard soldiers shot a farmer and his wife, killing the woman.

If the army storms the dam, Corral will be left with few choices.

“This is the calm before the storm,” Payan said. “The next three weeks are going to be crucial because the president is going to try to fulfill his commitment to the United States. There might be a state response, but if not, farmers are going to get pushed out, if not beaten, sent to the hospital or, God forbid, killed.”

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