Standing against the Wind

Bettina Cruz

On 22 February 2012, at approximately 3:30 pm, Lucila Bettina Cruz Velázquez was arrested by agents of the Federal Attorney General's office in the municipality of Santa Maríá Xadani, Istmo de Tehuantepec in Oaxaca State. She was just leaving a meeting at the time. With human rights lawyer Maribel González Pedro, Bettina had been discussing the outrageous electricity tariffs—some as high as US$2,000—imposed on indigenous communities by the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), a government body. It was at the behest of the CFE that Bettina was arrested.

The police officials reportedly did not have an arrest warrant nor did they inform her of the reason for her arrest or where she was being taken to. She was held incommunicado for four hours before being taken to Tehuantepec prison to face charges of illegally detaining the staff of a parastatal office. On 23 February Bettina appeared before a judge who ordered her release on bail of 15,000 Mexican pesos (approximately US$1,000). A formal job might pay 55 pesos per day (less than US$4) but Bettina can’t even count on that much as she relies solely on farming for her livelihood.

She was not released until after midnight.

The threat

The Mexican region of Tehuantepec features one major characteristic: wind, strong and constant wind. In many places, ‘wind energy’ represents a clean alternative to other energy sources. But for Bettina Cruz’s community at the Istmo de Tehuantepec the implications are very different. The wind has brought many problems over the past decades. According to Bettina, those problems have a name: eolian companies (meaning related to wind), most based in Europe.

These foreign companies do not understand the repercussions of their projects, Bettina says. They do not understand that when they plant windmills in coffee or corn fields, they are depriving indigenous communities of their primary source of food. And, according to social movements in the region, they do not care about dispossessing those communities of their own, lawful territories. The multinationals have pushed people into selling or renting out the land in unfair contracts, taking advantage of the people’s needs. The corporations do not protect the environment. The impact of these wind farms includes the nonstop buzz of construction and the death of millions of bats that are crucial to ecological equilibrium.

The activist

Lucila Bettina Cruz Velázques is a binnizá (or multi-ethnic) indigenous woman co-founder and member of the Assembly of Indigenous People of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for the Defence of Land and Territory (or APIIDTT, from the name in Spanish). She is also a member of the movement of Civil Resistance against High Electricity Prices.

Since 2007, Bettina has organized with the region’s communities to defend their territory against mega projects that exploit the Istmo’s natural resources, taking part in numerous peaceful protests and raising her voice to demand respect for the rights of her community. She is also a member of the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative and one of the indigenous woman who participate in JASS Mesoamerica’s leadership course Alquimia. In JASS Mesoamérica, Bettina is much admired for her hard work and resistance.

The next arrest

On 13 April 2013, a number of communities from Tehuantepec protested peacefully in front of the CFE, against the agency’s complicity in (allegedly illegal) wind-farm contracts that disregard the ownership of the land and violate other human rights. At the time of the protest, Bettina was in another city undertaking a different activity in defence of community rights. This did not stop the authorities from detaining and imprisoning her on charges of ‘crimes against national wealth’ and ‘illegal deprivation of liberty’.

Immediately, JASS ally, Amnesty International released an alert about Bettina’s case—an example of the fabricated charges repeatedly levelled against human rights defenders. The Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative, which JASS co-coordinates, and the Mexico Defensoras Network put out statements in support of Bettina. To add political pressure and visibility, JASS Mesoamerica and other NGOs organized meetings with the US Congress, various embassies and the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Mexico.

The outcome

After long-drawn-out judicial process, the District Court in the State of Oaxaca in Mexico ruled to acquit Bettina Cruz Velazquez. This decision puts an end to her criminalization on these charges.

Her arrest demonstrates the kinds of risk that a woman human rights defender may face but the outcome is proof that you can defend your community’s rights successfully. Bettina’s endurance—together with social movements’ collective action for justice—lifted the threats hanging over the head of this one woman as she courageously crosses the line.