Thirst for Justice: Mexican Communities Fight Big Alcohol's Water Takeovers

UPDATE 11/17: Charges against the Mexicali Resiste activists were dismissed again. However, the Baja California government has not cleared them of all charges, and they could be again brought to court. Alcohol Justice continues monitoring this situation and similar ongoing struggles of indigenous and local communities in northern Mexico to end Big Alcohol's water extraction practices.

Protestors gather around the Constellation offices at 101 Mission St. in San FranciscoOn November 9th, Mexicali Resiste led dozens of activists, including representatives from Alcohol Justice, in a march on alcohol giant Constellation Brands to save three compatriots from dubious charges filed in Mexican court. These charges stem from Mexicali Resiste’s work four years ago to prevent Constellation, a U.S.-based corporation with offices in San Francisco, from acquiring exclusive water rights in the drought-stricken Mexicali Valley. This trial is just the latest salvo in an ongoing struggle against Big Alcohol’s takeovers of dwindling aquifers, a struggle that already has a body count. The trial is currently scheduled for the 16th of November.

“We can’t pretend that alcohol harm is just a physical thing that happens to drinkers,” said Cruz Avila, Executive Director of Alcohol Justice. “When Big Alcohol gets involved, it becomes economic harm. Political harm. It’s another incarnation of the oppression and exploitation that has cast a long shadow over the US and its neighbors.”

The San Francisco march was held to call for a boycott of Constellation and demand the company use its outsize influence—it is currently in negotiations with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration to open a new factory elsewhere in Mexico—to get the charges against Mexicali water protestors dropped. The group, which brought together both Mexico- and US-based organizations, peacefully occupied the sidewalk in front of the 101 Mission St. building where Constellation is housed, letting the affected members have their voices heard.

“We ask Constellations Brands to stop their plans to build gigantic breweries in water starved regions,” said Brenda Villanueva, Program Director at Pueblo y Salud. “This precious natural resource would best be used by the people for drinking and growing food instead of making more alcoholic beverages that are saturating and harming our youth and other members of our community.”

In 2015, the governor of Baja California awarded Constellation Brands rights to draw from the aquifer in Mexicali in service of a new factory. Details of the contract were shrouded behind confidentiality clauses, but the plant was expected to produce over 4 million bottles of beer and experts estimated it would have consumed as much as 25% of the available water reserves.

“We denounce the criminalization of the Mexicali Resiste Activists for choosing to protect the most sacred element for survival and a dignified quality of life – WATER,” said Mayra Jiménez, Advocacy Manager at Alcohol Justice. “We denounce Constellation Brands for commodifying water in a region that is experiencing severe water shortage. This is an environmental catastrophe.”

Local outrage peaked in 2017, when over 12,000 residents of Mexicali took to the streets, including the members of Mexicali Resiste who now stand trial. Following the protests, they were charged with “dispossession of state buildings” and “deprivation of liberty of the police.” Investigators subsequently cleared them of the charges, but this year, as Constellation began seeking a new location for the plant, the congress of Baja California suddenly decided to overrule the police decision and refile the charges.

The stakes are high, both for the protestors themselves and for impacted communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. For the members of Mexicali Resiste, they are being confronted with charges that the Mexican government deemed important enough to justify detention during the trial, which may last several years. For indigenous and community groups fighting water monopolization in Mexico, it adds state sanctions to existing efforts to chill resistance.

“The objectives are to instill fear in those who have not yet become protestors,” stated a Mexicali Resiste member, one of the three scheduled to be tried on Tuesday, in a statement posted to YouTube.

“Through nepotism and corruption, they let these companies come into our territory and let them try and privatize and take our water and now that we are defending our water, they try to criminalize us,” said Lluvia Ania of Mexicali Resiste. “We want to tell the Mexican government and we want to tell Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that we see what you are doing, we see what your party is doing. We are not dumb. We are not ignorant. We see the continued repression of Activists who are defending life, who are defending water, defending territory, who are defending the future of our babies, of our children."

"What will this world look like without water?" she continued. "We are here to continue to defend it and we want to stay alert and call out those governments who are participating in this! They came together a few days ago [at the UN Climate Change Conference, aka COP 26] to talk about global warming and climate change, but did they mention how they are participating in this, how these companies are actively participating in the contamination, in the stealing of resources for big companies? Constellation Brands has had several cities in Mexico where they have created deserts out of it [by] extracting water. We will continue fighting, we will continue bringing awareness to this situation, not just in Mexico but all of Turtle Island and all of Abya Yala.”

That chilling effect on protest is already present, driven by violence. Óscar Eyraud Adams, a member of the Kumiai people of Baja California and a resident of Tecate (a border city west of Mexicali), fought the diversion of water supplies away from local farmers to the Heineken brewery in that city. He was assassinated on the street in September 2020.

The Yaqui people of neighboring Sonora state have had similar experiences, with multiple water rights activists being murdered in or near Ciudad Obregón. Now Constellation Brands is seeking to expand its Ciudad Obregón facility—and therefore its draw from the water supplies—with those activists’ blood still fresh on the streets. With the reopened Mexicali Resiste trial, Mexican activists are being told in no uncertain terms they will not find protection from the government.

“Choosing to criminalize fighting for human rights is a crime against the people,” said Jiménez. “Government officials that condone this degree of corporate extraction are complicit in crimes against humanity on both sides of the border. We STAND UP and FIGHT for JUSTICE because we are all Mexicali Resiste.”

As crushing droughts cripple the West of both the U.S. and Mexico, water-intensive industries like industrial-scale brewing take on a new and more sinister cast. The Mexicali Valley aquifer is recharged in no small part by the waters of the Colorado River, which have been largely claimed by states in the U.S. long before the flows reach the border. According to researchers, the aquifer was overdrawn by 456 million cubic meters—enough water to fill 50 Levis Stadiums—in 2015, an overdraft that has undoubtedly increased during the drought.

As water tables drop, the water that goes into beer becomes an extracted, semi- or even unrenewable resource, much like oil, minerals, coal, or lumber. In the case of Constellation, which thanks to antitrust action has the rights to sell Corona, Pacifico, and Modelo in the United States but not in Mexico, this is classic instance of resource exploitation—Mexican water resources are extracted by U.S. companies and shipped back over the border.

Yet water still stands alone among these resources. It is the only one that the human body requires to survive. The reduction or diversion of water supplies, therefore, forms an existential threat everywhere it occurs, and can devastate communities while sparking civil unrest.

“You cannot ignore what this means for the future of both countries,” said Avila. “Every country, even. Justice for the Mexicali Resiste members, safety for the residents of Mexican border states, accountability for Big Alcohol, and access to water are not separate issues. They are different faces of one issue, and it effects everyone in the west.”

Photo by Alcohol Justice.

Opinion: Build Back Better, Drive Drunk Less?

by Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, MSPH
Research Director, Alcohol Justice

a man blows into an ignition interlock deviceWill your car take your keys away? Buried in the Biden administration's wide-reaching infrastructure and social safety net bill, a small provision calls upon the National Highway Trafffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to look into methods for cars to automatically curb dangerous driving. It does not specify what technologies will be employed, but does call for "passive monitoring" of driver performance to, presumably, safely cease operation of the car in circumstances where the driver may not be capable of driving. Once a technology or methodology is identified, manufacturers would have 24 months to begin installing it in all cars.

It is an ambitious call for safer roads. But is it the answer to preventing deaths and injuries from drivers who have been drinking?

It very likely would help. Ignition interlock devices, which detect blood alcohol content (BAC) in a driver's breath and prevent the car from starting if a driver has been drinking, are commonly employed DUI prevention devices. But they are almost always only installed when mandated by court order, and even then are often waived because of high cost. Moreover, they require regular recalibration to operate effectively. A passive system would not check for BAC, instead presumably matching driver reactions or behaviors to those displayed by the typical dangerously intoxicated driver. If reliable, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates passive monitoring would save 9,000 lives a year.

The problem is, it may be beatable. Delayed onset of alcohol, learned operation or behavior, or extra concentration by the driver may in fact steer the vehicle accurately until it is, for instance, on the freeway. At that point, suddenly interrupting the operation of the car may be dangerous in and of itself. Moreover, these devices would only be in new cars. The same economic factors that make ignition interlocks unfeasible for many would create a period of a decade or more before onboard incapacitated driving controls are in the majority of the cars most people can afford.

More broadly, to assume that onboard algorithms are, themselves, sufficient or optimal to ensure safe drivers assumes that intoxicated drivers are isolated problems. People who drink dangerously then get behind the wheel are going to specific places to drink. They are drinking products made by specific companies, who benefit economically. And they are driving because it seems like the best way to get to the places where they drink.

Time and time again, Alcohol Justice has gone into hearings in Sacramento and listened to legislators extoll the benefits of selling more alcohol whilie minimizing its consequences. "Alcohol sales are an economic boon, alcohol is fun, any mention that of the harms it cause are just empty moralizing, there's nothing we can do about drunk driving anyway." The automated DUI prevention idea plays into this same bloodless rhetoric--alcohol-involved wrecks are just the individual's fault. If we can fix people, then alcohol will not have any more harms. It plays hand-in-hand with the inadequate or deliberately self-defeating "enjoy responsibly" campaigns favored by Big Alcohol. Which in turn allows them, and their water-carriers in government, to dump any responsibility for alcohol harm on the people harmed.

This is not to say we should reject built-in protections against driving while intoxicated. It is to say we need to get louder still--it is time for Big Alcohol to own up to the deaths and injuries it causes. It is time for legislators to understand that their constituents suffer costs not paid for by bar receipts. It is time to embrace public transit, reject endless cycles of alcohol tax cuts, advance policies that promote intentionality in drinking, and confront alcohol harm as a community. A person in a car watched over by a computer is alone. A person moving through a healthier and more humane world is part of something greater.

Image by VCU Capital News Service. Used under Creative Commons license.


Taking Local Power Back in Santa Barbara

State Street in downtown Santa BarbaraAs the alcohol industry chips away at protective regulations on the state level, cities are left to shore up the breaches on the local level. On Tuesday, September 21, the Santa Barbara city council mortared in place a new set of policies designed to do just that. By an overwhelming vote, the council enacted a "deemed approved ordinance," or DAO, that gives the city the ability to restrict alcohol licenses to stores when there is clear evidence of harming to the community.

The ordinance was pushed by a coalition of local groups concerned with public nuisance in the Milpas area. Along with local residents, student action group Future Leaders of America chimed in to support the new codes, which also target retail practices that promote "impulse buys" of alcohol. Alcohol Justice provided consultation to concerned locals, but the advocacy, testimony, and solution arose completely from within the community.

The plan around increased enforcement included a surprising, and potentially socially significant, caveat. The Future Leaders of America proponents emphasized that they would like to see alcohol enforcement done through the Community Planning Department, not the police. In a city with extraordinarily high levels of wealth inequality, not only would that reduce the burden on the low-income and/or communities of color that suffer inequitably from the costs and consequences of police action, it would center the issue on the businesses who benefit from alcohol sales, not the individuals harmed by alcohol consumption.

The DAO would address numerous quality of life issues in the city, which already has a love-hate relationship with the alcohol industry. As a resort town, hospitality forms a cornerstone of its economy, yet between vacationers and the outsized "party school" reputations of its massively overcrowded local colleges and universities, businesses navigate the constant temptation to promote and profit from dangerous drinking behavior. The ordinance is an attempt to thread that needle, and one that serves as a promising model for other, similarly impacted communities.

"Congratulations to Santa Barbara for making a safe and smart decision," said Michael Scippa, Public Affairs Director of Alcohol Justice. "We hope other towns and cities look at them and see that by working together, we have the power to draw the line."

Image used under Creative Commons license.