Curse of Geography: San Mateo Del Mar
Curse of Geography (10/10)

Curse of Geography: San Mateo Del Mar

On the far southern coast of Oaxaca, the indigenous Ikoots people struggle to maintain their cultural identity and communal practices while fending off the pervasive forces of extractive capitalism.

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A chilling wind howls down the sleepy alleys of San Mateo del Mar on a Saturday morning in January. Church bells sound at hourly intervals signalling the inauguration of the newly elected municipal president here, one of five Ikoots pueblos—small Indigenous villages—clinging to Oaxaca’s Pacific coast in southern Mexico. In the distance, the whining and barking of dogs mixes with the high-pitched chortling of roosters. The inauguration ceremony is an amalgam of official procedures, Christian and Ikoots rites and prayers, symbolic processions, and traditional music within a community assembly. A small crowd gathers in the town square in front of the municipal building at around 6 a.m. for the public program. Some take their seats under the large canopy; others stand idly on the periphery of the Palacio Municipal. There is no separation of church and state here. San Mateo del Mar is like so many former colonial outposts—those in the geographic centre hold power, while those on the physical (and therefore political) sidelines are continually denied participation in decision-making.

Oaxaca is the only state in Mexico that recognizes the assembly-based “cargo system” of local governance practiced by the Ikoots—only here do communally elected Indigenous representatives without major party affiliations serve in official capacities. At its inception, the cargo system was a structure of proxy governance implemented by Spanish colonizers to maintain order over new territorial acquisitions and peoples that they did not yet understand how to subjugate. Over generations, this system was integrated into the more horizontal Indigenous practices of collective decision-making. Eventually, it evolved into a merit-based system in which political capital was attained throughout a lifetime of community service during which the “cargo” of commodities was replaced by the “cargo” of social responsibilities. The tradition ensures that community leaders are not granted power through birthright but must forge their respect through experience and trust. Despite best intentions, these overlapping systems of community consensus, Indigenous assembly, municipal government, and state and federal oversight are not immune to complications or coercion.

But newly inaugurated Raúl Rangel González believes this trend can be changed through fair elections, communitarian interpretation and revision of laws, and a concentrated investment in equal development, public safety, and infrastructure for commerce. Rangel González wears his weariness with poise and eloquently explains the last decade of tumultuous local politics from the height of its escalation to its current state of hopeful peace. He takes his responsibility seriously, as does his staff, and the halls and offices of the municipal headquarters bustle with a proactive sense of purpose. There is plenty of work to be done. And yet, there is always the threat of bribes, kickbacks, intimidation, and violence from entities both domestic and foreign eager to capitalize on San Mateo’s real estate. This stretch of coastline, one of the windiest places on earth, has been targeted for its potential to fuel the growth of Mexico’s “green economy.” 

According to Rangel González, the communities on the periphery of San Mateo del Mar have received little to no related funding since their incorporation into state and national politics. Rangel González came to power ten years after San Mateo’s Indigenous assembly removed a former municipal president on the grounds of corruption and election rigging in 2012. Rather than step down, his predecessor set up base in Huazantlan, a community on the periphery of Ikoots territory, presumably with the promise to the local community of preferential allocation of state and federal resources. Tensions mounted between leaders in the capital of San Mateo and Huazantlan due to the state government’s continued recognition of the deposed municipal president. Later that year, he returned to San Mateo and brazenly retook the Palacio Municipal by force with the help of a local faction of supporters. The Oaxacan state government offered to compensate the Indigenous assembly in exchange for the ex-municipal president to be allowed to reassume his position, which the citizens of San Mateo rejected. Rangel González was subsequently kidnapped and beaten by a mob of the president’s supporters for calling attention to his corrupt activities. Although he managed to escape with the help of some locals, his advocacy earned him the ire of corrupt state officials and a threat of arrest from the Minister of Interior Affairs. 

The 2014 municipal election was cancelled due to suspected fraud, and an official administrator was appointed by the Oaxacan state government in the interim. The 2015-2016 election cycle brought more charges of corruption, this time stemming from what many considered to be a dubious pre-registration process for candidates. The new appointee was once again from San Mateo, which further galvanized a sense of political dispossession among citizens living in peripheral Ikoots communities. To many outside San Mateo, this decision signalled a reversion back to a system of central control that had existed prior to the 2010 reforms, in which elections were contested locally but validated by the state. Judicial review by regional and federal officials opposed this ruling and an electoral commission was formed. In January 2017, a municipal president from Huatzanlan was elected and widely supported outside San Mateo.

An angry tongue of fire licks the shadow of a dark mountain backlit by the retreating sun. Standing on the edge of Laguna Superior, the eternal flame of the oil refinery burns ominously in the distance, like the eye of Sauron. San Mateo del Mar is bound to its north by a shallow 380-square-kilometer lagoon that locals refer to as “the Dead Sea.” To its south is the Pacific Ocean, known as “the Living Sea.” A thin spit of sand and rocky high ground separates the Ikoots world from the industrial city of Salina Cruz. This three-kilometre-wide stretch of land, punctuated by an estuary that snakes in from the ocean, has long been the stage for violent inter-communal conflict amongst the Indigenous Ikoots people. 

The mystery surrounding the origins of the Ikoots is that there is no definitive evidence of when, why, or how they came to southern Oaxaca, but there seems to be consensus from those I spoke to in the region that they certainly arrived from somewhere else. For many centuries, the Ikoots have been called Huaves, “People of the Mud,” by their Zapotec neighbours and frequent aggressors. While there is some debate as to its accuracy, the exonym is appropriate given that the natural environment the Ikoots inhabit consists of a handful of isolated fishing villages located on the edge of a series of shallow muddy lagoons that stretch some 150 kilometres from the southern coast of Oaxaca toward Chiapas.

There is speculation that the Ikoots migrated long ago from El Centro—a vague allusion to anywhere from Central America, Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, or even as far south as coastal Ecuador or Peru. Alejandro Castaneira, an anthropologist who has worked with the Ikoots for decades, explains that oral histories hold that the earliest voyagers “arrived by sea, looking to the earth.” He is deferential when discussing his opinion regarding the origins of the Ikoots because he says: “anthropologists research and write encyclopedias about things that Indigenous people already know.”

Questions around the origins of the Ikoots persist, in part, because they speak a unique language isolate, one that bears some similarities to Quechua spoken by the Inca of Peru. The Ikoots live exclusively near to the ocean, yet there is scant evidence that would indicate they were, in fact, a seafaring people. They do not use large sails or build deep hulled boats, instead fishing the deep waters of the Pacific with kites that drag nets out from the beach. Their sustenance mainly comes from the shores of Laguna Superior, where they cast their lines and nets off the inland sand spits that run parallel to the coast. Castaneira offers no definitive answer; he believes with reason that they could have migrated overland or hitched a ride with others on boats.

While their past remains an enigma, the future of the Ikoots is inextricably linked to the future of the expanding industrial city of Salina Cruz. Until a few decades ago, it was a sleepy coastal village with a natural harbour of little significance. Today, Salina Cruz is one of Oaxaca’s primary industrial centres, boasting an oil refinery, salt lakes, and a shipping yard. It is also the Pacific terminus of Mexico’s Transistmico development corridor, a centuries-old project that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico across the narrowest section of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and will provide an alternative shipping route to the over-stressed Panama Canal. Industrialization in the Isthmus has brought employment and prosperity to some, but it has been offset by the destructive environmental impacts and political implications that continue to unfold in surrounding communities. There is a growing shortage of clean drinking water, and yet the water sources are being poisoned with industrial waste. The sandspit on which the Ikoots reside extends out from the mainland adjacent to Salina Cruz and the socioeconomic effects of uneven development are spilling over to bloody intercommunal conflicts.

The history and politics of the Ikoots are complicated and confusing, akin to parsing out a generations-long family feud. The peninsula, separated from the two communities on the other side of the laguna, is divided into three territories with corresponding governing locales: Huazantlan, which sits nearest to Salina Cruz and is the point of access to the mainland; San Mateo Del Mar, the central capital of the Ikoots Indigenous assembly; and Santa Maria Del Mar, at the far eastern end of the peninsula. The latter has been denied road access to the mainland for over a decade due to inter-communal conflict. The power struggle is rooted in disagreements among the three competing municipalities about the unequal distribution of resources to communities that hold seats of power and those on the periphery who have been routinely denied their fair share of state subsidies. Government corruption fuelled by corporate cash exacerbates longstanding disputes in this narrowest of conflicts.

Castaneira, along with the community leaders we spoke with, stress that what is critical to understand about the Ikoots is the fierceness with which they defend their lands. The Ikoots have a long history of guarding their territory against violent internal invasions from the Aztec and Zapotec—even prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, when foreign incursion began to more closely resemble ethnocide. For the past five centuries, colonizers have sought to extract profit from Laguna Superior. Most recently, development projects—railroads, wind farms, and oil pipelines—have come to pose the most direct threats to their land sovereignty and livelihood. The potential for vast profits lured cartels to the region to provide security for construction companies, whose bribes and kickbacks help them to secure government contracts in contested areas of the Isthmus. Ikoots resistance to corporate intrusion has, to a degree, internalized a militant territoriality. There are no tourists here and wandering around after dusk is ill-advised.

On September 7, 2017, an earthquake shook the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, and more than four thousand aftershocks tore across the Isthmus over the following two weeks, levelling communities along the sandspit. Less than two weeks later, after a second earthquake in Pubela reverberated through the Isthmus, a group of the municipal president’s supporters from Huazantlan went in search of the electoral assessor who had been detained in San Mateo del Mar. When they were unable to locate him, they kidnapped three teenagers as leverage. The kids were forced to walk 15 kilometres along the coast to Huaztanclan to avoid detection. Eventually, a swap was agreed on and everyone was returned unharmed. The earthquake’s disastrous impact left no room for further investigation. As relief and rebuilding efforts eclipsed the kidnapping, animosity continued to bubble under the surface. 

The 2020 election was marred by allegations of widespread corruption, campaign finance irregularities and bribery, but nevertheless a new municipal president was elected. Covid lockdowns, ostensibly for public health and safety, during the Spring of 2020 provided an opportunity for Huazantlan to restrict movement to and from San Mateo, according to local leaders. On this narrow sandspit, in order to get to the central community of San Mateo, which is both the municipality itself as well as the name of its capital town, one needs to cross Huazantlan. Their long-running game of geopolitical flexing began turning increasingly violent and deadly. 

On the Day of the Cross (May 3rd) in 2020, restrictions imposed by Huazantlan disrupted a scheduled festival in the colony of Santa Cruz on the outskirts of San Mateo. Tensions between supporters of Huazantlan’s municipal authority and those allied with the Indigenous assembly in San Mateo del Mar boiled over in the following weeks. On June 21, 2020, the bodies of 15 Indigenous Ikoots were found beaten and burned by a lynch mob, with some indications and suspicions of cartel-style murder. In some cases, it appeared that large rocks were used to smash their skulls. Both victims and perpetrators came from different communities and municipalities of San Mateo. The massacre was an act carried out among people of the same kin.

What tipped the scales toward massacre? How did it possibly become so violent? Fault falls on every side, acknowledges González, and finding a peaceful path forward will require mediation alongside fair and equitable redistribution of and access to resources for development. It has been reported that a faction of Ikoots serving in the municipal government were attempting to override the authority of the presiding Indigenous assembly, which had voiced opposition to all wind farm development, while calling for resources to improve local infrastructure. Large-scale construction, the assembly determined, would irrevocably decimate local fishing grounds and negatively impact the livelihoods of trading communities. Herein lies the fundamental tension that has played out between the communities of Huazantlan and San Mateo del Mar created by a few corrupt officials and a cabal of profiteers who stand to reap enormous benefits through development contracts and party politics, necessarily undermining the Ikoots’ structures of governance in defence of communal lands. 

The June 2020 massacre foreshadowed mounting tensions with the potential to erupt into violent flash points as Mexican president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration expedites the construction of the Transistmico development corridor and local communities are denied meaningful consultation. Thousands of national guard troops have been positioned in “hot zones” across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, ostensibly to respond to the arrival of Central American migrant caravans. Soldiers, however, have also been conspicuously deployed to quell community backlash against the project across the state. While many see its development as advancing mobility and access for communities along the route, there are legitimate fears that the Transistmico will function as a new “southern border,” a dystopian industrial wasteland of maquiladoras, where desperate migrants and poor Indigenous people will be exploited under inhumane working conditions. San Mateo del Mar stands as one of many small high-stakes battlegrounds against extractive capitalism in Oaxaca—if intercommunal violence or rising sea levels don’t subsume the peninsula first.  

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