Political Class Formation in Opposition to the Zapotillo Dam

  • Darcy Tetreault
  • Anahí Copitzy Gómez Fuentes
Part of the Environmental Politics and Theory book series (EPT)


Tetreault and Gómez Fuentes analyze the struggle against the Zapotillo Dam in the Highlands of Jalisco. They seek to explain the formation of a collective agency of resistance in a local and regional context characterized by Catholic conservatism, high levels of migration to the USA, and highly concentrated private ownership of land and water resources. After contextualizing the Zapotillo Dam project in a brief review of historical and contemporary dam-building policies and trends in Mexico, and after critically analyzing the logic behind this particular project, the authors center their investigation on the formation of organized resistance in Temacapulín, the largest of the three towns threatened by flooding. Regional culture, leadership types, and state mediation are examined in order to explain the formation and evolution of popular organized resistance and networking, which has so far prevented the Dam from being completed and filled.


Jalisco landLand damsDams womenWomen USAUnited States 
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The construction of the Zapotillo Dam has been halted. In August of 2013, the Second Chamber of the Nation’s Supreme Court of Justice emitted a sentence that frustrated plans to increase the height of the dam to 105 meters. An 80-meter dam wall has been erected over the Verde River, approximately 70 km northeast of Guadalajara, in the Highlands region of Jalisco,1 between the municipalities of Yahualica and Cañadas de Obregón (see Fig. 4.1). The dam stands empty, subject to political forces that push in different directions to determine its destiny and that of the three towns threatened with flooding: Temacapulín, Acasico, and Palmarejo. These communities have a combined population of almost one thousand people and as many as three thousand migrants, known as “absent sons and daughters,” who maintain links to their community of origin and visit periodically.
Fig. 4.1

El Zapotillo Dam and Aqueduct

From this population, organized resistance has emerged to contest the Zapotillo Dam, in alliance with civil society organizations and university groups in Guadalajara, and connected to networks operating on the national and international level. In this chapter, we analyze this resistance movement with a focus on the political formation of collective agency in Temacapulín, the largest of the three towns threatened to be flooded. In a region characterized by Catholic conservatism and high levels of migration to the USA,2 in a local context where land and other natural resources are concentrated in private hands, how have local actors managed to construct and sustain collective forms of resistance? In an effort to explain this paradox, we follow Otero (2004) who analyzes three key factors in political class formation: regional culture, styles of leadership, and state mediation. Before developing these lines of analysis, the first section presents a brief analysis of the history of dam building in Mexico, the institutional origins of the Zapotillo Dam, and the principal lines of criticism levelled against it. The following three sections examine the three key factors just mentioned in the same order; the last presents a series of conclusions.

4.1 The Hydraulic Mission in the Highlands of Jalisco

4.1.1 The Golden Age of Dam Building

After the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), the Mexican state gave impetus to the construction of large dams in order to extend the frontier of irrigated land and, in this way, increase agricultural production. The government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) redistributed some of the most productive land in the country, including large extensions of irrigated land, such that, by the end of his administration, at least half of the surface area included in the irrigation districts on the national level were in the ejidal sector (Warman 2001). From that point on, in the context of a development strategy guided by the model of Import Substituting Industrialization (ISI), successive federal governments directed a large share of public spending to the construction of dams, especially in the northwestern part of the country, in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora, where water was channelled to large private farmers who produced cash crops for export (Hewitt de Alcántara 1980).

Between 1943 and 1955, around 80% of the public resources invested in the agricultural sector were used for the construction of dams and infrastructure for the purposes of irrigation (Wionczek cited in Romero Polanco 2002: 24). The development of hydraulic infrastructure in Mexico during this period went hand-in-hand with the investment of public resources in the development of green revolution technology: hybrid and high-yielding seeds, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. In a vision of state-led development, increasing the productivity of the agricultural sector would help to keep down the cost of food in urban areas and thus the cost of reproducing labour, while agricultural exports from the private sector would generate foreign currency to help finance the industrialization process.

With this strategic development orientation, new tendencies in water management began to emerge in Mexico during the 1940s. According to Aboites and his collaborators, although the construction of the first big hydroelectric dam had begun in 1942 (the Miguel Alemán Dam in the state of Oaxaca), “it was not until 1947 that the nation’s financial resources began to diversify in terms of water management; no longer just for irrigation, but also for [the construction of] hydroelectric dams and something very important, projects for the provision of water and sewer-systems in urban centers” (Aboites et al. 2010: 31). According to Wester et al. (2009: 396), the creation of the Ministry of Hydraulic Resources (SRH) in 1946 marked the beginning of the “golden era” for the Mexican “hydrocracy,” that is, the powerful centralized bureaucracy that emerged in the federal government with the mission to “develop hydraulic infrastructure to capture as much water as possible for human uses.” The SRH brought together under one federal ministry all of the faculties for managing water, except the construction of hydroelectric dams, which stayed within the domain of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). The first Basin Commissions were created in 1947 (Papaloapan and Tepalcatepec), based on the model of the Tennessee Valley Authority (Barkin and King 1986). In this scheme, investments in hydroelectric projects and irrigation infrastructure were integrated into regional development programs (Dávila Poblete 2006: 50).

From 1947 to 1976, the year that the SRH was replaced by the Ministry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources (SARH), 1040 dams were built in Mexico, with a combined capacity to store 109.2 billion cubic meters (Olvera 2011: 253). It was a boom period for dam construction, not just in Mexico but around the world (WCD 2000). As Olvera observes with reference to the Mexican experience, during that period “big hydraulic projects required broad state intervention, large investments, international loans and centralized administration” (2011: 253). Aboites (2009) refers to this as the “nation’s water model,” where the state is the proprietor of water resources and uses administrative and fiscal mechanisms to act as the main protagonist in capturing and channelling water to diverse branches of the economy and to provide running water to the urban population.

The hydraulic mission in the Highlands of Jalisco manifested in plans made in the mid-1940s to construct a series of dams in the region, based on feasibility studies carried out by an engineer named Elías González Chávez. Since then, water authorities have had building the “Zurda” dam on the agenda, as a part of a series of dams in the Highlands of Jalisco, originally to generate electricity and to make water available for irrigation and for recharging aquifers in the same region (Frajoza 2013: 202–204). It was not until the 1970s, according to Frajoza, that plans to construct a large dam in the Highlands region were reformulated with the purpose of supplying potable water to the city of Guadalajara.

After various failed initiatives, these plans finally began to materialize in the early 1990s with the termination of two projects: the Calderón Dam, to the east of Guadalajara, on the river of the same name; and the El Salto Dam, on a river called Valle de Guadalupe, which is a tributary to the Verde, “in the very heart of the Highland region” (Casillas Báez et al. 2010: 48). The Calderón Dam, otherwise known as the Elías González Chávez Dam, has provided water to the Metropolitan Area of Guadalajara (MAG) since it was inaugurated a quarter century ago. Today, it provides 8.8% of the water that is consumed in the metropolitan area; the rest comes from Lake Chapala (62%), local aquifers (27%), and springs (3%) (SIAPA 2016: 5). The El Salto Dam, by contrast, was filled upon completion without using the water in its reservoir for any purpose other than recreational fishing until 2013, when the municipality of Tepatitlán constructed a 30-km aqueduct from it to its municipal center. Currently, there are plans to use the water from El Salto to increase the supply available for public-urban and industrial consumption in Guadalajara, as part of a series of dams that include El Zapotillo and another dam, El Purgatorio , projected to be built at a site before the Verde River joins the Santiago River, on the outskirts of the MAG (see Fig. 4.1).

4.1.2 Dam Building in the Neoliberal Era

While the Calderón Dam and El Salto Dam were being completed in the Highlands of Jalisco, structural reforms were carried out on the national level in order to manage water in accordance with the precepts of neoliberalism, by recognizing the economic value of water, creating markets for the exchange of usufruct rights over water sources, and providing attractive conditions for the participation of transnational companies in building hydraulic infrastructure. The first big step in this direction was taken in 1989 by the federal government under Carlos Salinas de Gortari when it created the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), with far-reaching faculties which include granting concessions to private companies for the construction, expansion, operation, and maintenance of federal hydraulic infrastructure.

For Aboites (2009), the promulgation in 1992 of the National Water Law (LAN) marked the definitive end of the “nation’s water model,” after a prolonged period of crisis, and it marked the beginning of a new model dubbed “mercantile-environmental .” While this model implies the construction of environmental laws and governmental agencies on all three levels of government (federal, state, and municipal), it has not—as Aboites (2009) observes—translated into improvements in key water indicators such as levels of contamination and the overexploitation of aquifers. As Dávila Poblete (2006: 66) concludes, the LAN “serves as a base for creating incentives for the active insertion of the private or business sector, as well as the consequent privatization of public entities.”

Decentralization is another element of what we can refer to as the neoliberal model of water management in Mexico. The government under Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000) gave impetus to decentralizing diverse responsibilities for the management of water to newly created state-level and regional agencies, among which the most important include: State Water Commissions (CEAs), Basin Councils, and Groundwater Technical Committees (COTAS). According to Dávila Poblete (2006: 58), decentralization in water management “does not represent an objective in itself, rather a means for reorganizing and redistributing the resources and programs of public administration, and for getting private enterprises to be partially responsible for covering operating expenses and for conserving the resource.” This includes private participation in the provision of water for urban consumption. Along these lines, Zedillo’s decentralizing initiatives built on reforms made in 1983 to Article 115 of the Constitution to assign to local governments the responsibilities of providing potable water, sewer systems, and water treatment to local populations. Without technical or financial capabilities to meet these responsibilities, local governments look to the private sector for help.

In the same direction, in the aftermath of the 1995 economic crisis in Mexico, the Zedillo administration introduced a financial arrangement called Projects with Deferred Impact on the Budget (PIDIREGAS) in order to facilitate private investment in the construction of dams. PIDIREGAS are meant to “triangulate public debt, by obtaining external credit to pay the developers—also external parties—of the [hydroelectric] energy infrastructure” (Lina Montes 2007: 53). Likewise, since the 1990s, there has been a general trend toward building hydraulic infrastructure in Mexico via “Buy, Operate and Transfer” (BOT) schemes to promote private sector participation. In this way, dam- and aqueduct-building construction companies are invited to participate in the construction of infrastructure and to cover a certain percentage of the costs with a recoverable investment. In exchange, these companies obtain a concession for operating the infrastructure for a period of time, during which they extract rent under monopoly conditions. This is the scheme that has been employed in the case of El Zapotillo.

4.1.3 The Zapotillo Dam Project

The hydraulic mission to construct a dam on the Verde River acquired new meaning on April 7, 1995, when a presidential decree was published in the Federation’s Official Gazette reserving volumes of water from the Verde River for public-urban consumption in the states of Guanajuato and Jalisco: 119.8 million cubic meters per year (hm3/yr) and 384.7 hm3/yr, respectively. It was later specified, in modifications made in 1997 and 2005, that of the volume of water reserved for Jalisco, 69.364 hm3/yr are designated for public-urban consumption in the Highlands of Jalisco and 12.6 hm3/yr for agricultural use in the same region.

Under these legal parameters, during the first decade of the new millennium, CONAGUA, the executive branch of Jalisco’s government, and its recently created State Water and Sanitation Commission (CEAS)3 promoted the construction of two large dams: the Arcediano Dam, in the Huentitán-Oblatos Canyon to the north of the MAG, a few hundred meters below the union of the Verde and Santiago rivers; and the San Nicolás Dam on the Verde River, upstream from El Zapotillo, where it was projected to flood the town of San Gaspar (see Fig. 4.1). Both met with resistance.

The Arcediano Dam was meant to supply 10.4 m3/s of water to the MAG. The estimated cost just before the project was cancelled was calculated at $15 billion pesos. With a projected height of 125 meters, and a storage capacity of 404 hm3, the dam was designed to capture highly polluted water from the Santiago River, including toxic pollution from industrial sources (see Chapter  5). Because of the dangers this implied for the urban population, high operating costs, and many other reasons, for over eight years the dam was opposed and criticized by university groups, community-based groups, and civil society organizations. When it was finally announced in October 2009 that the dam would be cancelled, officials cited technical difficulties associated with a geological fault. Shortly thereafter, the Purgatorio Dam was announced as the alternative, on the Verde River before it converges with the Santiago, at an estimated cost of $5.8 billion pesos (CONAGUA 2011).

The government’s plans to build the San Nicolás dam in the Highlands of Jalisco also met with resistance. In this case, it ran up against strong social opposition in the town of San Gaspar. Negotiations to buy land from the affected population collapsed and CONAGUA could not proceed with its geological studies (Casillas Baéz et al. 2010). Finally, on May 31, 2005, then governor of Jalisco, Francisco Ramírez Acuña, announced the cancellation of the San Nicolás dam, promising that if another were to be built on the Verde River, it would not displace any communities. These declarations notwithstanding, a few weeks later plans were announced to build the Zapotillo Dam, with a height of 80 meters, which would result in a reservoir surface area of 2051 hectares, implying the need to relocate 344 persons from Acasico and 167 persons from Palmarejo, both in the municipality of Yahualica, and the need to build two protection dikes, each 10 meters high and 220 meters long, with the objective of protecting Temacapulín, with a population of 480 inhabitants, in the municipality of Cañadas de Obregón (CONAGUA 2012: 20–21). Although this scenario did not convince the inhabitants of Temacapulín, who began staging protests just a few days after the first announcement, even the possibility of living behind dikes vanished on August 1, 2007, when it was announced that Ramírez Acuña’s successor as governor of Jalisco, Emilio González Márquez also of the PAN, had petitioned for the height of the dam to be raised to 105 meters, in order to increase storage capacity and use the water not only to supply León, but also Guadalajara. With this modification, the surface area of the reservoir would be 4816 hectares and put Temacapulín under water, without the possibility of protecting the town with dikes.

One of the criticisms levelled against the dam has to do with the Environmental Impact Assessment required by Mexican law (MIA). The Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) approved an MIA corresponding to the original proposal of building an 80-m dam, but as the affected population and their allies pointed out repeatedly, for over four years dam construction proceeding illegally since there was no MIA for the 105-m version of the project.4 And this is not the only irregularity. Others include: hiding information from the affected population and the public in general, invading the jurisdiction of municipal governments, irregularities in the bidding process, the lack of consultation of affected communities, and the harassing and threatening of local inhabitants and the organizations who support them (Espinoza Sauceda and Gómez Godoy 2012: 14).

From a regional development perspective, the Zapotillo project has also been questioned because it implies the transfer of water from a region that exhibits signs of hydric stress (the Highlands of Jalisco), to others where water shortages are even more acute (around the cities of León and Guadalajara), without constituting a long-term solution and without seriously considering alternatives that seek to reduce the demand for water and use it more efficiently in these two cities. As Ochoa García and his collaborators observe, this ecologically irrational transfer of water means that “the industrial city of León would transfer the environmental costs, with its consequent socioeconomic impacts, to the agricultural region of the Highlands of Jalisco” (2015: 33).5

Agricultural activities in the Highlands of Jalisco are of considerable economic value. The industrialization of these activities began in 1944, when Nestlé built a factory in the urban area of Lagos de Moreno, which stimulated the reorientation of regional ranching activities to the production of milk, and this process was complemented by the construction of the first chicken factories in the 1960s (Casillas Baéz et al. 2010: 42–43). Today, there is a concentration in the region of highly capitalized producers of eggs, milk, pork, chicken, and beef, such that between 2006 and 2011, the region’s agricultural product represented between 50 and 60% of the state’s gross agricultural product, reaching an annual value of about 67 million pesos.6

The growth and intensification of agricultural activities in the Highlands of Jalisco have brought with it an increasing demand for water, besides contributing to the contamination of superficial and underground water sources (Ochoa García et al. 2015). In addition, unexpectedly high demographic growth rates in recent years, due to the return of migrants from the USA since the 2009 financial crisis, combined with the consolidation of a long process of urbanization in the region, contributed to increasing demand and pressure on regional water resources (ibid.: 54). Nevertheless, in accordance with the decrees mentioned above, only 16% of the surface water in the Verde River basin is reserved for the Highlands of Jalisco. In the context of global warming, there is no doubt that the operation of the Zapotillo Dam would exacerbate hydric stress in the region, where there has been a long history of droughts, the worst of which in 70 years occurred in 2011.

Beyond these regional distributional matters, critics of the Zapotillo Dam have questioned CONAGUA’s and the state-level water authorities’ insistence on building large-scale infrastructure to increase the volume of water available for public-urban and industrial consumption, without seriously considering the alternatives proposed by civil society groups and the affected population. As sketched out and promoted by the Guadalajaran-based Collective of Citizens’ Organizations for Water (COLOCA),7 these alternatives include: fixing leaks in the municipal water system, which accounts for as much as 40% of the volume of water consumed in the MAG; treating municipal wastewater and using it for irrigation; rainwater capture, recycling gray water and using more water from streams, springs, and small dams; escalating tariffs to discourage profligate water consumption; regulation, measurement, and control of water used in agriculture; and pollution prevention and control (McCulligh and Tetreault 2011). These proposals resonate with what Wolff and Gleick (2002) call “the soft path” for water. This path seeks to reduce the demand for water, make consumption more efficient, and diversify supply sources, according to local hydrological, economic, and cultural circumstances and possibilities; it contrasts with the “hard path,” characterized by the large top-down infrastructure projects to increase water supply.

The promoters of the Zapotillo Dam—mainly CONAGUA, the executive branch of the governments of Jalisco and Guanajuato, and Jalisco’s CEA, with the support of business organizations such as the Mexican Chamber of Construction Industry—justify the costs of the project with a discourse couched in terms of “progress” and “development,” asserting that the relocation of a thousand people is a necessary sacrifice to guarantee a supply of water for 2.4 million people living in León, Guadalajara, and 14 municipalities in the Highlands of Jalisco. According to official discourse, El Zapotillo will help prevent the depletion of aquifers around the two cities which stand to benefit from the project and to protect Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico and the main source of potable water for the MAG. However, as Ochoa García et al. point out (2015: 16), information disclosed by the government has been imprecise; the authorities have not made public projects to recharge and protect aquifers; nor have they revealed the specific zones that will be supplied with water in the interior of the cities that stand to benefit; the projected savings in extracting water from Lake Chapala have not been quantified; and projects to build water infrastructure to provide water for the Highlands of Jalisco have not been elaborated or assigned a budget.

Faced with this scenario, the opponents to El Zapotillo have suggested that the water destined for León, Guanajuato, will benefit, in the first place, the large landowners and agroindustrial producers close to León, including Vicente Fox, who was president of México between 2000 and 2006, when the federal government pushed for the construction of the Zapotillo Dam with the agency of CONAGUA; and Javier Bernardo Usabiaga Arroyo, Minister of Agriculture for Fox’s administration, nicknamed “the king of garlic.” In addition, critics have pointed out that El Zapotillo will help to guarantee the supply of water for the large and growing industrial sector in León, including a number of tanneries which stand out for their contribution to contaminating local water resources (Estrada 2010; Pacheco Vega 2014; Peña Ramírez 2012). Likewise, according to opponents to El Zapotillo, the dam will help to guarantee a supply of water for the project to expand a “dry” or “interior port” in Guanajuato, located 25 km to the southeast of the center of León, in the municipality of Silao de la Victoria. Díaz Vera (2015: 5) explains:

The dry port [in Guanajuato] is the largest business center in Latin America, the first dry port in Mexico and third in the world […] It currently provides water at a rate of 2.018 hm3/yr, equal to 64 litres per second, to the companies who are installed there, including for example: Prudential, L&W, Softer, Semmaterials, Hino, Flexy, Emyco, Acero Sueco Palme, Intermex, Teco WestinHouse and LubyRec, representing the automotive industry, plastics, information technologies, metal-mechanics, footwear and logistical services.

From a critical perspective, the construction of mega-dams is driven by the logic of capital accumulation via the dispossession of common and public goods, with reference not just to water and other natural resources, but also to funds in the public purse. It is notorious that the cost of the Zapotillo project has risen from 6.8 billion pesos when it was first announced to more than 13.1 billion pesos in 2016. The breakdown, excluding taxes and minor miscellaneous expenses, is as follows: for the dam wall, the federal government contributes $4077 million pesos while the state governments of Guanajuato and Jalisco contribute $233 and $195 million pesos, respectively; and for the aqueduct to León, $3319 million pesos comes from the National Infrastructure Fund and $3754 from the private sector to be recuperated through a BOT scheme (CONAGUA 2016).

The winner, in September 2009, of the tendering process to build the dam wall was a consortium comprised of Peninsular Constructora, the financial branch of Grupo Hermes, which belongs to Mexican businessman Carlos Hank Rohn, and the Spanish company Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas (FCC), which was bought by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in 2016. There were accusations of irregularities in the tendering process. Two consortiums (ICA and Cota, Vise e Infrocsa) submitted bids with budgets 40% lower than the winning one, but they were disqualified because of “technical insolvency.” They complained to the proper authorities (Función Pública), but in vain. In light of this, it is noteworthy that FCC has been implicated in the Acuamed fraud in Spain, for its alleged bribing of public officials to obtain a contract and then inflate prices.

In September 2011, the Spanish company Abengoa was awarded the contract to build the 144-kilometer aqueduct from El Zapotillo to León, thereby securing the right to operate it upon completion for a period of 25 years. From this endeavor, it anticipates generating a profit of US$1.3 billion (Abengoa cited in Ochoa García et al. 2015: 20), equivalent to more than twice the total cost of the Zapotillo project.

On the other side of the coin, there has been a systematic violation of human rights. Summarized succinctly by the legal aids of the affected population:

The construction of the Zapotillo dam threatens the life and fundamental rights of 15,000 people,8 mainly the right to property, a healthy living environment, health care, housing, food, development, consultation, information, legal security, democratic planning and cultural patrimony. (Espinoza Sauceda and Gómez Godoy 2012: 14)

The denouncement of these human-rights violations has been at the center of the legal battle to resist the imposition of the Zapotillo Dam from a specific territorial base. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to trace this struggle, something which has been well documented by Espinoza Sauceda and Gómez Godoy (2012) and Gómez Godoy and Espinoza Sauceda (2015). Our intention, rather, is to present in the following section a brief description of the cultural, historical, architectural, and natural environmental heritage of Temacauplín, in an effort to explain its material and symbolic value for the defenders of the town.

4.2 Culture, Identity , and Class9

The phrase painted in large white letters near the top of a hill called La Cruz, at the southwest edge of the town, welcomes visitors: “Since the sixth century Temacapulín salutes you” (Desde el siglo VI Temacapulín te saluda). This message makes reference to the first inhabitants of the region, the Tecuexes and later the Caxcanes. According to Frajoza (2013: 31), the few archaeological studies that have been carried out in the region suggest that distinct ethnic groups settled along the Verde River during the seventh century B.C., where they developed polyculture agrosystems comprised of crops typically found in traditional milpas (maize, beans, squash, and chilli), and supplemented their diet with fish caught in the Verde River (trout and catfish).

While the indigenous past of Temacapulín is a source of pride for local inhabitants, they do not consider themselves to be indigenous. They do not claim indigenous identity in their struggle against the Zapotillo Dam, but rather point to the historical importance of their territory. As in many other parts of the region and country, successive generations of inhabitants of Temacauplín went through a long process of miscegenation and loss of indigenous identity, or what Bonfil Batalla (1987) calls “de-indianization.” By the end of the seventeenth century, the town was completely surrounded by private property (Frajoza 2013: 45). It was still officially recognized as an indigenous canonry (cabildo indígena) during the first half of the nineteenth century. Since then, however, it has lost not only the denomination but also the corresponding collective identity. In this way, Temacapulín reflects the tendency of the dominant culture in the Highlands of Jalisco which “does not make its own the discourse of miscegenation, rather it marks the distance from this and its indigenous past. It is a community that claims to be creole, proudly Hispanic and very careful with purity of blood” (Palomar cited in Montalvo Méndez 2015: 25).

From a different angle, the indigenous origins and posterior process of cultural syncretism in Temacapulín have resulted in a symbolic fusion between the worship of nature and the Catholic faith, most patently evident in the veneration of Señor de la Peñita, a figure resembling Christ that can be discerned in the relief of one of the cliffs that surround part of the town. The “Indians” of Temacapulín called the Church’s attention to this image in the mid-nineteenth century in the context of a dispute over the location of the regional vicariate, between Temacapulín and Cañadas (Frajoza 2013: 77–78). Afterward, it acquired fame for having inspired a poem written by Alfredo R. Placencia, a priest who lived in Temacapulín between 1908 and 1912.

With regard to religion, since the uprising of the Cristeros in the late 1920s, the Highlands region of Jalisco has been famous for being a bastion of Catholic conservatism.10 This is still the case. In fact, in recent years, religious tourism has taken off, not only in devotion to Our Lady of San Juan de Los Lagos (Virgin de San Juan de Los Lagos), represented by a small doll-like statue who receives around seven million visitors annually, but also because of the canonization of the Cristero martyrs and the use of public resources to promote this sort of tourism throughout the region (Martínez Cárdenas 2009). In this cultural context, the religious affiliation of the people who live in Temacapulín is no exception. “We are all Catholics,” is the invariable response one gets to questions on the subject.

Accordingly, the Basilica in Temacapulín is the most important center of worship in the town. It is a historic monument whose construction began in 1735 and concluded in 1759, named after Our Lady of Remedies, the patron saint of the local population. The patron saint festivities take place in Temacapulín during the first days of January every year. The participants include the people who live in town permanently, “absent sons and daughters” and visitors who come to pay homage to Our Lady of Remedies. During the festivities, masses are held at the Basilica; people get together to recite the rosary; and families and neighbors spend time together preparing meals, eating, and socializing. In the evenings, a local band called Banda La Peñita plays music, there is dancing, and fireworks are set off.

The venerated image of Our Lady of Remedies has been incorporated into the struggle against the Zapotillo Dam since the beginning. As a unifying symbol of collective identity, it is carried at the front of marches and presented during public displays of protest and demand. Along with Cristo de la Peñita, it inspires hope and confidence among the local population that the dam will not displace them. One woman from Temacapulín, Teodora Carbajal, expresses it this way:

There is a God who is watching and knows everything. And he is not going to abandon us. If we have faith… hope is the last to die, and we do have faith that God will not abandon us. We, with Our Lady of Remedies, say that Our Lady will not want to move to another place. […] We were born here and we will die here […] They will not flood us, because Our Lady will defend us. They will not get us out of here. Our Lady and Señor de la Peñita will take care of us.11

The symbolic relation that the inhabitants of Temacapulín have with their ancestors and territory is most vividly expressed in their maintaining and visiting of local graveyards, of which there are four. People visit the graves daily, bring flowers and sing songs. For many absent sons and daughters, their desire and hope are, upon dying, to be buried in Temacapulín, beside loved ones. Some have made donations to reserve a place for themselves and immediate family members.

Besides the Basilica, Señor de la Peñita and the old graveyard, the local population calls attention to the following points of interest in their community: the central plaza and the old estates that surround it, some of which date back to the middle of the eighteenth century when the Basilica was built; the Verde River which winds around the town on all sides but the south and whose grassy and treed river banks serve as a place for recreation and organized events; the community’s hot springs, where people bath and wash cloths; the waterfalls that form during the rainy season; and the picturesque cliffs that surround the town. These are essentially local commons, imbued with symbolic value.

To this point, we have mentioned the most important points of reference for the symbolic construction of territoriality in Temacapulín. Now, we turn to a brief analysis of the social relations of production in the same territorial space, although in these terms it might be somewhat misleading to speak of territory, since the town is surrounded by private property. What is more, the local hot springs, which are the most valuable natural resource on the local level because of the rent they generate, are mostly in private hands.

Besides the small public bathing pool mentioned above, there are two private bathing areas in Temacapulín which function as businesses: Baños de Zenaida, which belongs to the Sánchez Agredano family, is comprised of two rustic pools; and La Peñita, which belongs to a man named Francisco Camarena Torres, is an aquatic park comprised of three large pools, individual baths, grassy areas with trees, dressing rooms, bathrooms, a restaurant, and a parking lot. With an entrance fee of 80 pesos for adults and 40 for children, the latter receives thousands of visitors annually, especially on weekends and during vacations. As one migrant from Temacapulín comments on his blog: “grandma cannot find her childhood here […] Camarena is the name of the man who bought the land, to charge us for water that was until then ours.”12

As regard to land, it is significant that there are no ejidos in the municipality of Cañadas de Obregón. As in other parts of the Highlands of Jalisco, the atomization of land blocked the agrarian reform on the local level during the twentieth century. This does not imply, however,

that all farmers have their own land to work for their subsistence. It has been proven that the atomization of the municipal territory [of Cañadas de Obregon] and the highlands region in general, is due to the divvying up of larger properties through inheritance. This means that large tracts of land continue to belong to a handful of families that control the local economy, but in a atomized form. (Frajoza 2013: 195)

Who are the large landowners in Temacapulín today? The locals’ answer invariably begins with Lupe Sánchez. It is not known how much land he has, but the productive part under his own name which receives subsidies from the Program for Direct Support for Agriculture (PROCAMPO) amounted to 42 hectares in the spring–summer season of 2013. On the other hand, according to the local farmers interviewed as part of our field research, more than half of the land around Temacapulín has been left uncultivated in recent years, among other reasons because of the invasion of a weed known locally as “Johnsson,” whose scientific name is Shorgum Halepensis.

A variety of crops are planted on the land that is clean and fertile: “chilli, maize, beans, peanuts, squash, sweet potato, cucumber, barley, oats, alfalfa, [and] some fruit like watermelon, cantaloupe and jicama” (Montalvo Méndez 2015: 37). Of these crops, the most emblematic of Temacapulín is chilli. Since 2009, an annual chilli festival has been organized on the local level, in late August, which forms part of a collective project of cultural recognition that goes hand in hand with the struggle against the Zapotillo Dam. During this festival, local chilli farmers exhibit their products in public spaces and there are contests for the best hot sauces.

What remains hidden behind this display of cultural vindication are the social relations that sustain the production of chilli on the local level, based on the exploitation of sharecroppers and day laborers.13 The sharecroppers have to pay between two and three thousand pesos to rent one hectare of land or less, taking on all of the risks and costs of the production process. An experienced sharecropper can do the first harvest by himself. After that, he has to hire at least two or three day laborers to help with the next two harvests. The majority of day laborers are women. The most experienced, hard working, and efficient can pick between 60 and 70 kg of chilli in one day, for a pay of 3.5 pesos/kg.14

How has the organized resistance movement dealt with these social relations of exploitation, based on the privatization and concentration of the community’s most valuable natural resources? Part of the answer lies in the culture that predominates in the Highlands of Jalisco, characterized by “a system of values that promote an attitude conducive to mystifying labour, similar to the Protestant ideals of asceticism, frugality [and] individualism” (Camarena Luhrs et al. 2003: 156). Some of these values have been reinforced through migration to the USA and the conformation of transnational family and community relations. At the same time, remittances sent from the USA—which constitute the main source of income for many inhabitants of Temacapulín, especially the elderly—delink part of the local population from the relations of production in the local ambit.

From another angle, it is important to mention that the large property owners in Temacapulín have not participated in the struggle against the Zapotillo Dam. Lupe Sánchez, for example, says that he still has not sold his land because the government has yet to offer him the right price,15 and Francisco Camarena Torres, who lives in Tepatitlán (one of the main urban centers in the Highlands of Jalisco), was not even prepared to make his parking space available for the Third International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies, which took place in Temacapulín in October of 2010. As such, while class differences exist in the interior of the local resistance movement, they are minimized by the (auto-)exclusion of the large property owners.

4.3 Leadership Styles

Leadership to the local resistance movement against the Zapotillo Dam has evolved over time. At the beginning and during the first years of struggle, natural leaders emerged from within and outside of the community. Since then, leadership has become more plural and with greater representation of women. In addition, local spaces for discussion and collective decision-making have been created, most importantly the Committee to Save Temacapulín, Acasico, and Palmarejo (CSTAP). In this section, we examine grassroots leadership around four themes: religion, women, committee formation, and allies.

4.3.1 Leadership from Within the Catholic Church

As we have seen, the Catholic faith has permeated the symbolic expressions of struggle in Temacapulín against the Zapotillo Dam. This is made evident by everything from parading Our Lady of Remedies in marches and protests, to the “marathon of prayers” that was held in May 2010 for 51 consecutive hours outside of the governor of Jalisco’s residence in Guadalajara. It is not surprising, then, that one of the most outstanding leaders of the movement is a priest: father Gabriel Espinoza Iñiguez, whose parents and ancestors are from Temacapulín.

Father Gabriel was serving as a parish priest in the MAG when he heard the announcement in 2005 of plans to build the Zapotillo Dam. He went into action immediately to help circulate information about the plans for the dam and their implications for the local population. From the pulpit in the Básilica in Temacapulín, among many other places, he warned of the Dam’s consequences and encouraged the community to resist, much to the chagrin of his superiors in the Church hierarchy, particularly Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez in Guadalajara.

At a certain point in the struggle, father Gabriel began assuming a lower profile, among other reasons because he did not want to have to leave the priesthood. His continued involvement in the struggle, however, caused constant friction with his superiors, so that he eventually felt obliged to solicit dispensation from his priestly duties. “I don’t have anything against the institution,” he clarified in an interview in March of 2016, a few weeks after having made his request to leave the priesthood, “no resentment, nothing, it’s just a matter of respect […] I’m not looking for someone to blame, it’s just my conviction.” This conviction, he explained, has to do with the injustices associated with the Zapotillo Dam, and that God’s will “is not that we sit around with our arms crossed, waiting for him to save us […] for this he gave us intelligence, he gave us creativity, and he gave us strength to overcome obstacles.”

4.3.2 Women ’s Leadership16

Gabriel Espinoza Iñiguez is not the only leader to have emerged from the Basílica in Temacapulín: a group of women who take charge of the work around church festivities and day-to-day cleaning have also taken on responsibility for collectively leading the movement and for carrying out the related organizational work. These include Abigail Agredano, María Alcaráz, María Félix Rodríguez, Isaura Gómez, Martha Álvarez, Graciela Álvarez, Imelda Gómez. These are the people who constantly participate in assemblies, decision-making, public declarations, organizing, and demonstrations of protest and demand. They have become moral leaders of the movement. Abigail Agredano is the president of the CSTAP. As she explains:

Among those of us who are actively involved in the struggle, the majority are women. I’d say that women represent the strength […] We are stronger than men, although not physically, but in this type of strength, to endure more, like women […] Besides, it’s easier for them to hit a man, for them to dare to hit a man, than a woman. In this way, it is easier for a woman to command respect, even if it is minimal.17

Women also lead grassroots organizing in Guadalajara. Since the beginning of the struggle, a committee was formed in the state capital, which acts as an articulating axis between the CSTAP and its multiple allies in the same city. This committee is made up of several families with roots in the Temacapulín, among whom Mary Chuy García and her three daughters (Margarita, Bety, and Emma) stand out for their constant participation and leadership roles.

4.3.3 Committee Formation

The CSTAP was created in June of 2008, during the Fifth Meeting of the Mexican Movement of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers (MAPDER), which took place in Temacapulín. Since then, the CSTAP has been the main institutional vehicle for organization resistance to the Zapotillo Dam on the local level, and the principal space for deliberation, decision-making, and planning in coordination with the committees formed by absent sons and daughters and diverse allies. While the CSTAP’s assembly has exhibited certain limitations—for example, ups and downs in participation and the absence of youth (Montalvo Méndez 2015: 72–73)—it has nonetheless contributed to democratizing the decision-making process within the resistance movement, thereby conferring greater legitimacy to the collective declarations of the affected population.

Besides the CSTAP, there are committees formed by absent sons and daughters in various cities in Mexico and the USA, most importantly Guadalajara (Jalisco), Monterrey (Nuevo León), León (Guanajuato), and Los Angeles and San Francisco in the state of California. The most active is in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco and an important center of governmental power promoting the Zapotillo Dam, as well as the base for several civil society organizations and university groups who support the resistance movement. As such, there have been innumerable meetings, presentations, and events held in Guadalajara, with the constant presence of local committee members, especially Mari Chuy García and her daughters, as mentioned above. The committees in Los Angeles and Monterrey stand out for collecting funds to support forms of collective action against the dam, thereby complementing a long tradition of sending remittances to family members who live permanently in Temacapulín and to help finance the town’s annual festivities.

4.3.4 Civil Society Organizations and Networks

Father Gabriel is not the only person to have disseminated information in Temacapulín early on about the Zapotillo Dam and to have encouraged organized opposition to it. Social activists without family ties in the region, many of them linked to civil society organizations and universities in Guadalajara, also contributed in this way. Two people stand out: Marco Von Borstel, a representative of the Mexican Institute for Community Development (IMDEC); and Miguel Ángel Casillas Báez, a journalist and historian of the Highlands region. Both were very active in the struggle during the first years. Between 2009 and 2010, in the context of a media campaign promoted by the government of Jalisco to delegitimize the resistance movement to the Zapotillo Dam, they received death threats. This situation provoked a change of strategy and facilitated the emergence of new grassroots leaders. Von Borstel (2013) explains:

Because the risks are greater for the members of the community and those who accompany them in their struggle, it has been necessary to implement protection and security mechanisms, and to rotate leaders, where myself, Father Gabriel and others who were more visible at one time, we have assumed very different roles, changing the way that we participate and minimizing our appearance in the press. Something that seems fundamental to me is there have been efforts to strengthen collective leadership, and to change the ways of organizing, representing and speaking [for the movement].

In this context, leadership roles began to multiply, with greater representation of women, not only in grassroots organizations, but also in the civil society organizations that have provided assistance to the affected population, beginning with IMDEC. Founded in 1963, IMDEC is the oldest civil society organization in Guadalajara. It has accompanied and provided assistance to the population affected by the Zapotillo project since shortly after the dam was announced, bringing with it experience from having participated in struggles against the Arcediano Dam and to clean up the Santiago River.18 IMDEC has played a key role in linking the struggle against El Zapotillo to network organizations which operate on the national and international levels, among the most important MAPDER and Rivers for Life. By working with the affected population and collaborating with researchers from the University of Guadalajara and the Jesuit University (ITESO) in the same city, members of IMDEC have contributed to producing and disseminating critical information and scientific analysis of the Zapotillo project.

Another organization that has played a key role in assisting the local population in their struggle against the Zapotillo Dam is the Coa Collective, a group of lawyers with experience helping Huichol indigenous communities to defend their territories in the northern part of Jalisco. Representatives of the Coa Collective participated in the Fifth Meeting of MAPDER in Temacapulín, when the CSTAP was created, and have since provided technical assistance on the legal front of the battle. Between 2008 and 2014, the Coa Collective presented 63 legal actions in federal- and state-level courts, in an effort to prevent dam construction and to protect the rights of the affected population, as well as five actions to contest related court decisions (Gómez Godoy and Espinoza Sauceda 2015: 91). In this way, the Zapotillo Dam has become “the most legally contested project in the country during this epoch” (Del Castillo 2015).

4.4 State Mediation

In our analysis of state mediation, we start from the premise that the state is not monolithic. The capitalist state has to comply with two basic and in many ways contradictory functions: facilitate the accumulation of capital and legitimize the economic system and existing socioeconomic order. As such, even in the case of Mexico, where the most powerful governmental agencies in the country are committed to the neoliberal agenda and resort with frequency to the use of diverse forms of violence to protect the interests of capital, there are state agencies or “actors” who seek to protect human rights enshrined in the Mexican Constitution and diverse international treaties. In the case of the conflict around the Zapotillo Dam, the following state agencies, among others, have intervened at certain moments or emitted sentences in such a way as to favor the resistance movement: Jalisco’s State Commission for Human Rights (CEDHJ), the Congress of the State of Jalisco, the Administrative Court of Jalisco, and the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN). It is beyond the scope of our analysis to analyze these interventions in detail. Our intention, rather, is to point to the main governmental agencies involved in the conflict and to key moments and actions taken during the course struggle, since it began in 2005 until 2016.

For this purpose, we adopt a three-stage periodization scheme that coincides with changes of government on the national level and in Jalisco, thereby facilitating the explanation of shifts in strategies pursued by the main promoters of the Zapotillo project, namely: CONAGUA, Jalisco’s State Water Commission (CEA), and the executive branch of the government of Jalisco, especially under the control of the National Action Party (PAN). Thus, the first period, from the announcement of the Zapotillo project in mid-2005 to the end of 2006, coincides with the last year and a half of Vicente Fox’s presidency on the national level and Francisco Ramírez’s governorship in Jalisco, both from the PAN, the political party “of businessmen, for businessmen” as Vicente Fox put it frankly during the inauguration ceremony for his government. During this stage, grassroots resistance manifested immediately in public displays of rejection; the affected population made contact with Guadalajaran-based civil society groups and network organizations on the national level; and the first attempts at dialogue with the promoters of the dam took place. The second stage, from 2007 to 2012, coincides with Felipe Calderón’s presidency on the federal level and the governorship of Emilio González Márquez in Jalisco, both of the PAN. This period is characterized by the entrenchment of governmental plans to carry out the project, the use of diverse tactics to delegitimize the resistance movement and intimidate participants, and from below, an adaptation strategy which included drawing greater support and attention from national and international network organizations, the strengthening of collective leadership in Temacapulín and more visible leadership roles for women. The third stage, from 2013 until the end of 2016, coincides with the first half of the six-year terms for Enrique Peña Nieto and Aristóteles Sandoval Díaz, on the federal and state levels, respectively, both from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It is characterized by mix messages and stalling from above, and persistent rejection from below.

4.4.1 The Origins of Conflict and Formation of Alliances, 2005–2006

The first public acts of protest against El Zapotillo took place on June 16, 2005, when children from the primary school in Temacapulín carried signs with messages of rejection in front of the media, while adults from the community requested support and information from state-level congressmen. After several failed attempts at establishing a dialogue, on September 20, 2005, representatives of the Government of Jalisco, CONAGUA, and CEA attended a meeting in Temacapulín in order to provide a technical explanation of the project. When they arrived, they found the streets filled with banners and messages against the dam.

On the national level, MAPDER was operating to bring together local-level struggles against dams and water pollution since its creation in 2004. In March of 2006, while the World Water Council held its Fourth Meeting in Mexico City, a series of alternative activities were carried out in the same city by representatives of water justice movements from around the country. Shortly thereafter, a caravan of MAPDER representatives began visiting sites of conflict throughout the country, arriving to Jalisco in May of the same year, where public declarations were made to denounce the high levels of contamination in the Santiago River, as well as the government’s plans to build the Zapotillo and Arcediano dams. Thus, in this first stage of the conflict, the battle lines were drawn between the promoters of the Zapotillo Dam and the incipient formation of a collective agency of resistance.

4.4.2 Entrenchment, 2007–2012

In 2006, Emilio González Márquez was elected governor of Jalisco. His would be the third consecutive PAN government on the state level. In the neighboring state of Guanajuato, also, the National Action Party would stay in power for another six years with Juan Manuel Oliva Ramírez as governor. And on the national level, Felipe Calderón became president through elections stained with fraud and preceded by a massive smear campaign against front-running left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obredor. In a bid for legitimacy, Calderón brought the army out of its barracks and declared war on drug traffickers, thereby creating conditions conducive to intimidating and repressing manifestations of protest and demand. In this political context, the Zapotillo project was re-dimensioned on a more ambitions scale; more aggressive tactics were employed to impose it from above, prompting variegated strategies of resistance from below.

On August 1, 2007, the director of CONAGUA at that time, Luege Tamargo, publically announced that the project to build the Zapotillo Dam had been modified to raise the wall’s height from 80 m to 105 m. These plans were formalized on October 16, 2007, through a coordination agreement signed by the governors of Jalisco and Guanajuato, and by CONAGUA as representative of the federal government. Jalisco’s CEA, under the direction of César Coll Carabias, assumed responsibility for carrying out technical studies regarding the social implications of the expanded dam project.

On May 23, 2008, inhabitants of Temacapulín were finally able to meet with Emilio González Márquez in his official residence in Guadalajara. During that meeting, the governor spoke of the many benefits of the dam, including a new location for the inhabitants of Temacapulín, with “awesome houses” (casas poca madre) and greenhouses, so that they would not need much land to farm. He also reiterated a promise which he had made earlier, that is, to move the Básilica to the new urban center, stone by stone, and he stated that if “half plus one” of the inhabitants of the town were against the project, it would be cancelled.

Three weeks later, close to 300 people from Temacapulín gathered at the entrance to their town to manifest their collective rejection of the negotiations that CEA officials had come to carry out with the owners of affected property. The CEA had convoked a meeting at the town’s only hotel, but instead, the local population decided to boycott the meeting and to carry out a peaceful demonstration on the outskirts of town, where they held mass to celebrate Father’s Day.

Almost a year later, on May 25, 2009, the municipal government of Cañadas de Obregón announced a consultation process around a proposed “Urban Development Plan 2008–2025,” with questions pertaining to the relocation of the Temacapulín. Legal action was taken with the help of the Coa Collective to denounce this consultation process as a fraud and members of the affected community attended a meeting held on October 5 of the same year in the municipal center of Cañadas de Obregón to manifest their rejection of any sort of relocation plan. Nevertheless, a plan was approved by the municipal government of Cañadas de Obregón on October 14, 2009, the same day that a contract was signed between CONAGUA and the consortium that won the tendering process to build the dam. Two months later, the Fifth Court Room Unit of the Administrative Tribunal of the State of Jalisco ruled in favor of the affected community, provisionally suspending the construction of the relocation center, called Talicoyunque, whose construction continued at any rate on an arid piece of land overlooking Temacapulín. This would be the first of a series of important legal victories for the resistance movement.

In 2010, the CSTAP learned of the existence of a report, elaborated by the CEDHJ, with recommendations concerning the population affected by the Zapotillo Dam, and demanded that it be made public. The CEDHJ’s report, which was made public in March of that year, recognized that the human rights of the affected population had been violated; it recommended that the government of Jalisco suspend construction of the dam wall, study alternatives, and refrain from further acts of intimidation, which by this time had multiplied (Von Borstel 2013 for a detailed description). The governor of Jalisco, however, refused to accept the recommendations, arguing fallaciously that: “The dam is being built by the National Water Commission, so we cannot receive a recommendation about a project that we are not constructing” (El Informador 2010).

One of the most visible moments of the struggle took place during the first week of October 2010, when the Third International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies took place in Temacapulín. For seven days, community members hosted more than 600 participants, including 300 delegates from 64 countries, who discussed the impacts of large dams all over the world, the violation of basic human rights, and alternatives. On the sixth day, community members accompanied by some of the participants in the event visited the construction site for the Zapotillo Dam, symbolically cancelling it with the slogan “water for life, not for death.”

On 8 November of the same year, community members not only symbolically cancelled the construction of the new population center, Talicoyunque, but also began a week-long blockade of the entrance to that site to demand that the aforementioned court decision to provisionally suspend construction be respected. On the first full day of the blockade, protests were coordinated in seven cities in Mexico and in front of Mexican embassies in 24 different countries. The next day, about 700 people took part in a march in Guadalajara to manifest solidarity with the resistance movement.

The most cogent action taken by the resistance movement to El Zapotillo began on March 27, 2011, when members of the CSTAP and their allies took over the construction site of the dam and blocked access. In an immediate response, CONAGUA and the consortium in charge of building the dam laid criminal charges. A week later, an agreement was reached whereby the blockade would be lifted on the condition that criminal charges be dropped, that no more aggressive action be taken against the protestors, and that a series of roundtable discussions take place. These discussions consisted in four programmed sessions within a two-month period. At the end of the process, the CSTAP concluded that they were “a media charade of supposed dialogue […] in order to justify in the end continuing with the construction of El Zapotillo” (CSTAP 2011).

A decisive legal process began on July 30, 2012, when the majority of the LIX Legislature of the Congress of the State of Jalisco voted in favor of taking to the Supreme Court a constitutional challenge to the coordination agreement between CONAGUA and the governments of Jalisco and Guanajuato to raise the dam wall to 105 m, on the grounds that it violated measures in the Constitution to guarantee a certain degree of autonomy at the municipal level. The vote passed with the support of congressmen belonging to opposition parties to the PAN.

4.4.3 Standstill, 2013–2016

In January 2013, the governor-elect of Jalisco, Aristóteles Sandoval Díaz of the PRI, declared in his Twitter account: “We are not going to flood Temacapulín.” After that, he was silent about the matter, refusing petitions for dialogue from members of the CSTAP. Meanwhile, the PAN governor in the state of Guanajuato, Miguel Márquez, proclaimed his support for the Zapotillo Dam, with a height of 105 meters.

On August 7, 2013, the SCJN finally emitted its sentence regarding the constitutional controversy put before the court by the Congress of the state of Jalisco, invalidating the coordination agreement between CONAGUA and the states of Jalisco and Guanajuato, to raise the dam wall’s height to 105 m. From that moment on, the height of the dam wall and the implications for Temacapulín have been the subject of debate. The CSTAP has urged for the Dam’s height be less than 80 m, suggesting 60 m in August of 2013. The Secretary to Government of Jalisco, Arturo Zamora, expressed the will to not flood Temacapulín, stating that his government would advocate for a dam height of 80 m and investigate technical solutions for building dikes to protect the town. CONAGUA’s position remained unclear for months, while the dam’s construction proceeded according to the technical specifications corresponding to a height of 105 m. In 2014, the Director of the Lerma-Santiago-Pacífico Basin Council, José Elías Chedid Abraham, stated that a 80 m dam with dikes would put the inhabitants of Temacapulín in grave danger, thereby discarding that possibility on technical grounds (El Informador 2014).

In January 2014, the CSTAP began a campaign to pressure Aristóteles Sandoval Díaz to follow through on his promise not to flood Temacapulín. Three months later, the governor of Jalisco finally replied by publically declaring that the matter was out of his hands, rather up to the Supreme Court. On July 28, 2014, the construction company building the Zapotillo Dam sent a letter to Chedid Abraham to inform that construction had been halted, leaving the dam wall 30 cm under a height of 80 m. The project has been at a standstill since then.

4.5 Conclusions

In this chapter, we have sought to analyze and explain the political formation of a collective agency of resistance to the Zapotillo Dam, based in the town of Temacapulín, by taking into consideration three key factors: regional culture, leadership styles, and state mediation. In this last section, we seek to distill some general observations and conclusions regarding how these three factors have combined to build, sustain, and adapt collective forms of resistance in an atypical setting for social activism in Mexico.

To begin, we can affirm that the social cohesion behind the struggle against the Zapotillo Dam is based, not so much on a common condition of class “in itself” (as an objective relation to the means of production, e.g., “peasant”), but rather due to regional culture and community ties brought to bear on the formation of a political class “for itself.” This political class—or what we refer to more frequently as “collective agency”—has been formed on the basis of shared living experiences in Temacapulín, whose infrastructure and surrounding area have, for those who struggle to keep them from being submerged, a material and symbolic value which is incommensurable with cost–benefit calculations quantifiable in monetary terms.

The town and surrounding area constitute the material substance of what is in dispute. The same territory is the point of origin and of meeting, not only for the people who live there permanently, but also for the town’s absent sons and daughters. For this population, the cultural landscape of Temacapulín constitutes one of the most important symbolic references to denote identity and a feeling of belonging. As such, the territoriality of Temacapulín is symbolically constructed with reference, not to a common-property regimen as in the case of an ejido or indigenous community, but rather to the elements of the natural environment and architectural heritage which constitute the community’s “commons” for social and cultural reproduction.

At the same time, the Catholic faith confers a collective identity that unifies the people from Temacapulín who are engaged in struggle. Solidarity is bound in a network of family and community relations that are knit around religious festivals and ceremonies. Leadership has emerged from within the Church; the Basilica has been used as a space to share information and encourage acts of resistance; and Our Lady of Remedies and other religious symbols are brought to public displays of inconformity with El Zapotillo. In this way, the Catholic faith has been interpreted and practiced so as to permeate the symbolic and organizational struggle against the dam, in spite of reactionary pressure from higher up in the Church hierarchy.

With reference to Otero’s (2004) typology of leadership types in rural Mexico: charismatic-authoritarian, corrupt-opportunistic, and democratic-participative, we can affirm that the evolving leadership in Temacapulín leans toward the third prototype. As outlined above, multiple leaders came to the fore after the initial emergence of a smaller number of natural leaders from both inside and outside of the community, and as a strategy for dealing with threats of violence directed against them. Women became far more visible in their leadership roles. Moreover, the CSTAP was created to serve as a space to deliberate and make decisions democratically. To be sure, our analysis suggests an inclination toward democratic-participative leadership, not the incarnation of an ideal type.

Related to this, high rates of emigration for more than a half a century have resulted in a diaspora of people with roots in Temacapulín, some of which are concentrated in various cities in Mexico and the USA. As we have seen, this social network of family and community relations has been mobilized and strengthened through engagement with the struggle against the Zapotillo Dam, giving rise to the development of grassroots leadership in geographical locations other than Temacapulín.

At the same time, the community’s allies in civil society have contributed to co-producing information and critical scientific analysis, to giving technical direction to the legal battle, to calling public attention to the systematic violation of the affected population’s human rights, and to linking the struggle on the local level to national and international networks. In this way, together with the affected population, these allies have helped to expose the perverse logic and elite economic interests behind the construction of El Zapotillo and, more generally, behind the neoliberal model of managing water as a carrier of exchange value, where market forces drive the construction of mega-hydraulic projects aimed at increasing the supply of water to industrial and urban centers.

In our case study, the mediation of the state exhibits certain nuances. Key agencies have insisted on imposing the project from the top down and in an authoritarian way. Along these lines, CONAGUA, the executive branch of the government of Jalisco, and its CEA have together displayed a lack of transparency and an unwillingness to negotiate alternatives. Peaceful acts of protest have been criminalized and participants in the resistance movement have received death threats from anonymous sources. At the same time, other less-powerful governmental agencies have contributed to denouncing these violations and the multiple irregularities associated with imposing the project from the top down, without seriously consulting the affected population (e.g., the CEDHJ). Also, in the case of opposition-party members in the Congress of the state of Jalisco, one can observe a partially offsetting form of state mediation insofar as it has led to a favorable sentence from the SCJN (another state actor) to suspend construction of the Zapotillo Dam.

To conclude, we concur with Gómez Godoy and Espinoza Sacueda (2015: 93) in their affirmation that “the future of Temacapulín is not in the hands of the SCJN; rather it lies in the strength and determination of the affected communities to oppose a model of development which seeks to displace them, which does not respect their rights and which signifies a loss in the future of all the cultural, environmental and family patrimony of Temacapulín.” And we would add that the community’s future, and that of other communities who struggle against large dams, also depends upon how broader struggles unfold between the hegemonic ideas and political–economic forces that drive the construction of mega-hydraulic infrastructure in Mexico and elsewhere, and those associated with social environmental movements of resistance which seek to build alternatives that are more democratic, sustainable, and equitable.


  1. 1.

    The Highlands of Jalisco has been officially delimited as the region including eight municipalities which make up the North Highlands Region (Encarnación de Díaz, Lagos de Moreno, Ojuelos de Jalisco, San Diego de Alejandría, San Juan de los Lagos, Teocaltiche, Unión de San Antonio y Villa Hidalgo) and the twelve that compose the South Highlands Region (Acatic, Arandas, Cañadas de Obregón, Jalostotitlán, Jesús María, Mexticacán, San Julián, San Miguel el Alto, Tepatitlán de Morelos, Valle de Guadalupe, Yahualica de González Gallo y San Ignacio Cerro Gordo). A more general regionalization centered on cultural and historical factors defines the Highlands of Jalisco as “the triangle formed by Lagos de Moreno—currently the most important economic center in the region—, San Juan de Los Lagos—the second most important ecclesiastical center in the country, with respect to the number of pilgrims who visit each year—, and Tepatitlán de Morelos—the southern point for delimiting the Highlands culture, not only geographically, but also with respect cultural traditions and politics” (Camarena Luhrs et al. 2003: 151).

  2. 2.

    Of the 20 municipalities included in the official delimitation of the Highlands región, 17 have a migration index that is high or very high, according to CONAPO (2012).

  3. 3.

    CEAS was created in May of 2001 and renamed Comisión Estatal de Agua de Jalisco (CEA) in 2006, although in practice it has not abandoned sanitation.

  4. 4.

    In June of 2011, CONAGUA finally elaborated a modified MIA for the Zapotillo project corresponding to a height of 105 m. This MIA seeks to minimize the environmental impacts of the Zapotillo Dam by signalling that the projected surface area of the reservoir “only represents 0.19% […] of the same regional environmental system” (CONAGUA 2011: 2), besides asserting that the region’s current productive activities use natural resources in such a way as to “externalize costs to society” and that this situation, which is “aggravated by irregular settlements, tends to accelerate environmental deterioration because of its excessive demand for materials and energy.” Thus, from CONAGUA’s perspective, the dam’s reservoir has the added attraction of putting an end to the ecologically destructive activities of the displaced population.

  5. 5.

    León has a population of almost 1.6 million people. The Palote Dam provides 4.7% of the water consumed in the city; the rest comes from underground sources, most importantly the Valle de León aquifer (SAPAL 2009), which has a deficit of 177.7 hm3/yr (CONAGUA 2015), equal to almost 50% more than the volume of water promised by the Zapotillo Dam. About 80% of the water extracted from the Valle de León is used for irrigation, 17% for public-urban consumption, and 2% for industry (Peña Ramírez 2012: 126).

  6. 6.

    Authors’ calculation based on information presented by Ochoa Garcia et al. (2015: 60).

  7. 7.

    COLOCA is comprised of the following organizations: Congreso Ciudadano de Jalisco, IMDEC, the Union of Public Employees of SIAPA (which is the Spanish acronym for the MAG’s Inter-municipal Potable Water and Sewer System), Fundación Cuenca Lerma-Chapala-Santiago, Asociación Jalisciense de Apoyo a Grupos Indígenas, MAPDER Jalisco, and researchers from the University of Guadalajara, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO) and Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) Occidente.

  8. 8.

    This figure is an estimate that includes, not just the population threatened with displacement (including absent sons and daughters), but also the communities that would be directly affected by extracting water from the micro-region.

  9. 9.

    The Ethnography presented in this section and the next borrows elements from Gómez Fuentes (2013) and extends the analysis in new directions, in particular to analyze social relations of production on the local level, based on field research comprised of periodic visits to Temacapulín, direct observations, interviews, and ongoing conversations with participants in the resistance movement who reside in Guadalajara.

  10. 10.

    In early 1927, there were armed uprisings in most towns in the Highlands of Jalisco, led by Catholics who refused to accept “Calles’ Law,” whose purpose was to reduce the size of the Church’s landholdings and restrict its participation in political affairs and public education. Although there were no uprisings in Temacapulín, Cañadas, or other nearby towns, this had nothing to do with these being less religious. Rather, as Frajoza (2013: 166) explains, it had to do with the peculiar configuration of political power in a micro-region unofficially known as “La Caxcana,” comprised of the municipalities in Jalisco to the east of the Verde River, where local political and economic power was concentrated in families related to each other and to the president of Mexico at that time, Plutarco Elías Calles. This situation translated into coordinated support of the federal agenda among the municipal governments of La Caxcana.

  11. 11.

    Interview recorded on August 24, 2014.

  12. 12.
  13. 13.

    An exception is Don Pancho, one of the leaders of the resistance movement, who has a small parcel of land, much smaller than a hectare, where he plants chilli.

  14. 14.

    The information presented in this paragraph comes mostly from an interview carried out on March 26, 2016, with Don Luis Rodríguez, an experienced sharecropper in Temacapulín, and it has been triangulated with information collected through interviews with other local farmers.

  15. 15.

    This information was provided by the participants in a focal group, made up of six members of the community, who reflected on the resistance movement in Temacapulín with the first author of this chapter, on March 24, 2016.

  16. 16.

    This section reproduces and elaborates on elements of analysis originally presented in Gómez Fuentes (2014).

  17. 17.

    Interview recorded on August 24, 2014.

  18. 18.

    For an actor-oriented analysis of these conflicts, see McCulligh et al. (2012) and Tetreault and McCulligh (2012).


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Darcy Tetreault
    • 1
  • Anahí Copitzy Gómez Fuentes
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Development StudiesAutonomous University of ZacatecasZacatecasMexico
  2. 2.College of JaliscoGuadalajaraMexico

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