Juan Carlos Flores Solís: “One of our main goals is to ensure the respect for the right to life, the right to self-determination of indigenous people and the right to decide over what happens in their lands”
Photo and illustration: M. A. Fernández y J. Marcos & Joost Hölscher
Mexico has one of the highest incidence rates of threats and violence committed against human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers in the world. Juan Carlos Flores Solís, in his capacity as an environmental lawyer, has faced threats and been the victim of numerous (attempted) attacks against him and his property.
Mr. Flores Solis has been involved in environmental activism for almost two decades. When he realised that to pursue his cause, legal action was needed, he enrolled in an open university and started his law degree. In 2014, Mr. Flores Solís was wrongfully incarcerated for ten months on charges of extortion, rioting, dispossession and attempting to damage hydraulic infrastructure. While in jail he finished his degree and in 2015, after his release, he started practising. “The most important thing and what carries the most weight is community organising and the defence (of rights) that the community carries out. The legal fight helps to strengthen this defence”.
“I consider myself to be part of the defence for the right to life.” With a principled outlook on his profession, Mr. Flores Solís has taken on the defence of indigenous and environmental rights. These rights are continuously threatened through dispossession, environmental destruction and the drainage and contamination of water sources. This in turn negatively affects the livelihood and health of local communities. “One of our main goals is to ensure the respect for the right to life, the right to self-determination of indigenous people and the right to decide over what happens in their lands.” As he sees it, legal defence is just one piece of the puzzle in the struggle of indigenous communities to secure their rights.
Often, the threat to indigenous and environmental rights comes as a consequence of so called megaprojects. For example, Mr. Flores Solís is the primary defence lawyer in the cases brought by communities against the Proyecto Integral Morelos (PIM). This billion dollar energy and hidroextravist project was conceded by the Mexican government to two Spanish companies and started its operations with the support of public authorities in 2012. The project aims to reconfigure urban and industrial methods in three Mexican states, affecting more than 80 local communities. Since its inception, it has caused concern due the risks associated with having a thermoelectric plant in close proximity to the community of Huexca and a gas pipeline in a danger area due to volcanic activity, as well as the dispossession, overconsumption and contamination of water resources belonging to the shared lands of the community as a result of the industrial expansion and operation of the plant.
In 2019 the Federal government launched a presidential consultation to finalize the construction of the PIM, a project which has brought about seven years of strikes, protests, evictions, sit-ins and a series of acts of repression in order to assure its implementation, without ever being able to fully achieve its completion. In this context Samir Flores, a key organiser and environmental activist, was murdered just a few days before a presidential consult was to take place concerning the denounced environmental impact of the PIM. Some say the criminal group who shot Mr. Flores outside of his house was hired by the government, others say the group had its own reasons to try and stop the protests against the PIM. Most agree that his death was directly related to his work and protest against this megaproject.
In the past year Mr. Flores Solís has been the victim of various threats and crimes perpetrated against him and his property. All of them can be directly linked to his work as an environmental lawyer. In October of 2022, on his way to Morelos, one of the three states affected by the PIM, he noticed the screws on the wheels of his car had been loosened. “This was an attempt on my life. I don’t know if it was just a warning or a failed attempt.” Earlier in the year, Mr. Flores Solis´s house was raided three times in the space of a couple of weeks. “It was a series of provocations. First they entered through one side of the house and the next time through another. It was like they were saying “look, we can do whatever we want”. As a beneficiary of the Mexican Protection Mechanism, a federal initiative which was put in place in 2012, Mr. Flores Solis was able to have cameras installed around his property. However, when a camera was damaged during one of the raids and government employees came to fix it, all his footage was seized and despite Mr. Flores Solis´s many requests, the recordings were never returned to him.
Behind the violence perpetrated against lawyers in Mexico lies a complex system of actors with varying levels of resources, power, and corruption, who often conspire to hinder the work of lawyers acting against their interests. For example, both governmental institutions and private companies tend to use their ample resources to overwhelm lawyers like Mr. Flores Solís, with legal action in the form of countersuits related to procedural matters or criminal cases based on false testimonies. Criminal groups also play a role in hindering the work of lawyers such as Mr. Flores Solís. Outside of drug trafficking, they often conspire with governmental or private parties to threaten or commit acts of violence against those who are perceived as a threat to their interests. As Mr. Flores Solís explains it, “It is part of a collective attack strategy and the attack is not limited to us (lawyers). The hatred towards us is nothing more than an extension of the attack on indigenous communities, their lives and livelihoods. We are just one part of the general attack on indigenous people and their rights, because these directly hinder the interests of big capital.”
The work of Mr. Flores Solís is of extreme importance, yet he encounters obstacles at every turn and on every level. Even the president, who built his campaign around community support, social and leftist narratives and a focus on the environment has turned his back on people like Mr. Flores Solís. Now the president employs inflammatory rhetoric and accuses environmental lawyers of conspiring with foreign companies and investment groups to the detriment of national interests. “This makes it difficult to keep public opinion in our favour, which is one of the few tools we have left.”
Still Mr. Flores Solís holds his head high and is determined to move forward in his legal defence of indigenous and environmental rights. “As the subcommander Marcos says, given the choice between force and reason, you must always be on the side of reason because you can never get reason from force, but you can always get force from reason. Thanks to this, despite everything that is happening around you, you can fight. Even when faced with large legal firms, multinationals, public forces, organised crime, something can be done to continue defending our rights and uphold these rights for future generations.”
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