Mexican farmers in the drought-stricken state of Chihuahua are pitted against riot squads from the national guard in an increasingly violent standoff over their government’s decision to ship scarce water supplies to the United States.
The confrontation has already led to bloodshed: earlier this month, a woman was shot dead and her husband was wounded after guardsmen opened fire on farmers wielding sticks and stones.
The Mexican government, meanwhile, has accused protesters of being backed by opposition politicians and sabotaging La Boquilla dam, which holds some of the water it wants to send north.
The standoff in Chihuahua underscores the severity of water shortages as the climate crisis provokes more severe droughts and puts agriculture under strain.
It has also raised questions about why Mexico’s nationalist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has put such a priority on repaying water debts to the US rather than going to bat for Mexican farmers.
“In all the history of Chihuahua, the army has never been sent to take the dams,” said Mario Mata Carrasco, a federal lawmaker from Chihuahua. “Instead of fighting organised crime and narcotics traffickers, they’re fighting our farmers.”
Disputes over water are nothing new on the high plains of Chihuahua state, where rainfall is becoming increasingly irregular. Neither is sending water to the US, which is required under the terms of a 1944 treaty.
But the unrest has grown amid US demands that Mexico ship more than 100bn gallons by 24 October to meet its five-year quota under the treaty.
Local farmers insist any shortfall on that quota can be repaid in the future, and argue that water held behind Mexican dams – for which they have concessions – has never been part of the agreement.
“When the government comes to steal our property, we don’t have any other option but to defend it,” said Raymundo Soto, a spokesman for the farmers. “The international water treaty clearly establishes alternatives for resolving these problems.”
Under the treaty, Mexico sends water from rivers in the Rio Grande basin to the United States, which in turn sends Mexico water in the Colorado River further to the west.
The treaty was negotiated when Mexico and the US were second world war allies and “is very favourable to Mexico”, tweeted Lorenzo Meyer, a Mexican historian and commentator. “Not fulfilling our treaty obligations would be ending an agreement that would be impossible to improve upon.”
Mexico’s president, commonly known as Amlo, insists Mexico will comply with the treaty. He also revealed that Texas’ governor, Greg Abbott, had expressed impatience over Mexico falling behind in its water deliveries.
Amlo has repeatedly alleged that big pecan farmers, backed by political interests, are behind the protests.
“They’ve been doing their best to get us into a conflict with the United States,” Amlo recently told reporters. “It’s all a plan to take electoral advantage of the situation.”
Mexico has fallen behind in its water payments for the current five-year cycle – and not for the first time, farmers say. They argue that Mexico can postpone payment in drought conditions – something Mexican and US officials say is off the table because Mexico was in deficit at the end of the last cycle in 2015.
As of 24 September, the country had met roughly 86% of its treaty obligations, according to Roberto Velasco Álvarez, Mexican undersecretary for North America.
Mexico now has a month to deliver the outstanding 289m cubic metres and ensure water for 14 major cities and growers in the lower parts of the Rio Grande, said Velasco.
“There are concerns for other water users, especially urban users,” he said, adding: “Chihuahua is illegally retaining water in its dams.”
But farmers say they have already been forced to adjust to a drier environment by reducing planting. Meanwhile, the drilling of illegal wells is rampant.
Many in Chihuahua fear that they may soon see a replay of a severe mid-1990s drought which forced many farmers to migrate, said Jesús Valenciano, a member of the legislature.
“They went illegally to the United States – and never returned,” he recalled. “People don’t want this to happen again. That’s why there’s such a conflict.”