International bridge reopens after water protests in Ojinaga resolve

OJINAGA — In the late hours of Tuesday night, a days-long protest culminated in protesters burning an overturned government vehicle in the plaza of Ojinaga. Since Sunday, protesting farmers ramped up pressure on elected officials, namely, legislator Juan Carlos Loera de la Rosa, Chihuahua Governor Javier Corral Jurado and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to put an end to additional Mexican water payments to the United States.

The protesters were largely farmers who depend on local water to sustain their livelihoods and fear that a large payment of water by the Mexican government now will leave next cycle’s water below the level they need for crops and animals.

Between Sunday and Tuesday, protesters shut down the international bridge, forced Loera de la Rosa to barricade himself and other officials into a government building and rolled over three government vehicles, setting one on fire.

The event was not resolved until the early hours of Wednesday morning.

On Sunday, the Mexican government, under the direction of President López Obrador, started releasing water from the El Granero dam, more formally known as the Luis L. Leon dam in Aldama, Chihuahua.

As water flowed out of El Granero on Sunday, protesters flooded Ojinaga. Obstructing lanes with farm trucks and tractors, the protesters successfully shut down the international port of entry between Ojinaga and Presidio.

Marfa resident Donald Ely was returning from a visit to Ojinaga around 1 p.m. on Sunday when he said hundreds of protesters and border-crossers coalesced at the bridge, throttled by the blockade. Mexican customs officials assured Ely they were looking for a solution with protesters to allow Texas residents to cross the bridge, but hours later, negotiations had broken down.

Around 11 p.m., protesters agreed to allow pedestrian crossings. Ely and his girlfriend had to leave their vehicle in Ojinaga and find a ride from Presidio back to Marfa.

Greg Davis, the public affairs officer for the Big Bend Sector of Customs and Border Protection, said Monday, “The Mexican government asked us to close down the south bound lanes, and we did.” Traffic cones stopped vehicles from approaching the port of entry on the Presidio side of the bridge on Tuesday, preventing personal travel and commerce from flowing in either direction.

CBP referred all other questions to Mexican officials. A representative from the Mexican Consulate in Presidio said they were monitoring the news, and calls to Mexican Customs in Ojinaga were not returned.

On Tuesday afternoon, Priscila Enriquez, a recent Presidio High School graduate, was crossing the pedestrian bridge from Presidio to Ojinaga, unable to drive over as she normally does on weekends. Enriquez supports the protests and blames López Obrador for wanting to “steal all the water from the river.”

“For us, it really affects us, because we need the river,” she said, explaining that her family living in El Mulato depend on the local tributaries to give water to their plants and animals. Enriquez was considering attending the protest, and her friends had already joined in.

Officials met with farmers Tuesday afternoon, hoping to negotiate an agreement that would satisfy protesters and reopen the international bridge, but negotiations broke down and protesters blocked politicians, including Loera de la Rosa, from exiting the building. Farmers held up signs with messages in Spanish like, “They take the bread from our mouths. AMLO, traitor of Chihuahua.”

This is not the first time farmers have protested water payments this year. As previously reported in The Presidio International, chaos broke out at La Boquilla dam in February, with farmers breaking into and occupying the facilities in protest.

CONAGUA, Mexico’s national water commission, released a statement Tuesday saying the country would be able to fulfill its treaty obligations without depriving farmers of their water needs. The controversial dam release on Sunday was part of a “water payment” under a 1944 water treaty between the United States and Mexico, where both countries send water from either side into the shared Rio Grande/Rio Bravo to keep it flowing.

Mexico’s water payments are made on a five year cycle, and its last cycle ended in a debt, meaning they are required to end the current cycle without one, due on October 24, 2020.

Chihuahua Governor Javier Corral Jurado said in a press conference that the state could not oppose the federal government and would meet its water commitment because the proportion of water delivered from Mexico, a one-third share, is more favorable for them than for the United States. Because of their recent water debt, Mexico was committing to more than the usual one-third they deliver.

International Boundary and Water Commission Foreign Affairs Officer Sally Spener said, “When Mexico has a debt they need to pay off, or a previous five year cycle has ended in debt, they can allot greater than a one-third share to the United States, and so that is what is occurring.”

After the protests at La Boquilla dam, “They basically came up with a new plan, and under the new plan, the U.S. will receive greater than a one-third share, and that will address the shortfall,” said Spener.

Protesters were angered that the state of Chihuahua’s water reserves were being used to meet the agreement, rather than using water from other neighboring states like Cohuila, according to Chihuahuan legislator Mario Mata’s comments on a local television network.

Protests intensified Tuesday evening. Three vehicles were overturned by protesters, who continued to keep local, state and federal officials inside the government building where the failed Tuesday meeting took place. Juarez a Diario reported the farmers cut the electricity inside the building just before 9 p.m.

Minutes later, one overturned vehicle was set on fire, sending flames into the sky and plumes of black smoke rising. Enriquez, the PHS graduate, said she watched live streams of the protests from her Ojinaga home, hearing explosions in the distance.

A representative of the farmers, captured on video shared across social media, emerged onto a balcony of the municipal building late Tuesday, announcing victory and asking for the end of the vehicle burning. It was said that the national guard would allow farmers to witness the closing of the dam.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a state operation secured the removal of the captive politicians and reopened the international bridge.

“The Fourth Transformation [part of President López Obrador’s campaign promise to end abuse of privilege] is in favor of Chihuahua producers, that’s why it’s also important to comply with the treaties,” Loera concluded in a post to his official social media page. Loera de la Rosa rejected violence and demanded that safety and water not be politicized.

The protest ended Wednesday, “around 5:30 a.m. on the Mexican side,” Davis of CBP confirmed, saying vehicles were allowed to once again flow across the border at the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge.