A classic David and Goliath battle has been playing out for some time in the sleepy Pacific coast town of Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, but for the time being at least, a key player on the David side — lawyer and activist John Moreno — will have to continue the fight from behind bars.
On one side are the developers of a massive residential project called Tres Santos which, when completed, will turn a tranquil stretch of the coastline into two touristic communities with almost 4,500 luxury homes, two hotels and a restaurant.
The project is being developed by Mexico City-based MIRA Companies, a subsidiary of the Black Creek Group of Denver, Colorado, and seemingly has the backing of state Governor Carlos Mendoza Davis, who pledged his support for it while visiting the site last month with MIRA CEO Javier Barrios.
On the other side is a group of fishermen called the Punta Lobos Fishing Cooperative, which has opposed the development because of its encroachment on their fishing grounds and the damage they believe it is causing and will continue to cause to the coastal environment, placing their livelihoods at risk.
Local residents have also expressed opposition to the development, fearing that it is unsustainable for a town of its size and would place excessive pressure on an already limited water supply.
Developer attempts to assuage the concerns of both fishermen and other local residents, such as building a workspace for fishermen and a water desalination plant, have largely been rejected.
For the past two years, John Moreno has acted as a legal representative and spokesman for fishermen and residents, providing his services on a pro-bono basis.
However, his work for the group came to an abrupt halt on May 19 when he was arrested in Todos Santos and transported to the state capital La Paz where he remains in custody.
Moreno was arrested on a charge of aggravated property theft but Moreno’s lawyer, Arturo Rubio Ruíz, says that both the charge and the documents in the case file are fabricated.
One of Moreno’s former clients, Joella Corado, was also arrested the same day on the same charge, considered by some as collateral damage.
Rubio Ruíz, civil organizations and citizens of the state argue that the real reason Moreno has been detained is because he has been outspoken about the Tres Santos development and authorities want “to silence public protest.”
There have been protests and petitions calling for the release of the two detainees, and protestors have questioned the influence of the Tres Santos developers in the arrests.
Moreno had apparently suspected he could be arrested for his activism and legal work after finding out that state Attorney General Erasmo Palemón Alamilla had met with Javier Barrios, allegedly with the intention of discussing what they could do to silence the outspoken critic.
He outlined the details of the alleged meeting in a March interview with Baja TV, which was uploaded to Facebook.
In February this year Moreno and well-known environmental lawyer Alberto Szekely filed an accusation before the federal environment agency Profepa on behalf of a citizens’ group against the developers of the Tres Santos project for environmental damage and non-compliance with environmental and zoning laws.
Moreno expressed his fear of being arrested shortly after that process was completed.
While Profepa has not yet announced a ruling on the case it did send inspectors to assess the site in April.
Residents are requesting that construction cease while authorities revise the legality of the permits issued for the construction project. For its part, Tres Santos says it already has all the required permits but they have not been made available to the public.
Economic Development, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Rodrigo Guerrero Rivas says the state government is not aware of any environmental damage caused by the Tres Santos activity.
Tres Santos had previously taken legal action against Moreno and other activists who publicly opposed the development, accusing them of trespassing but none of the cases went ahead due to lack of evidence.
In this latest case, Moreno’s lawyer and supporters believe that a previous unrelated file that Moreno worked on has been illegally manipulated to facilitate the arrest and detainment of the environmental lawyer.
In that case from 2014, Moreno represented Joella Corado in an ultimately successful case to evict an illegal occupant of a building owned by Corado.
However, with alleged manipulation, Moreno and Corado are now being accused of aggravated property theft by the person who had been evicted.
In a video uploaded to Facebook Rubio Ruíz claims that the state has used the Attorney General’s office (PGJE) to pursue his client and that their acts amount to the creation of a “state of terrorism.”
The lawyer also alleges that the PGJE has altered documents and forged signatures in order to bring charges against Moreno. An expert opinion from a graphologist backs up his accusation.
Humberto Franco Merlos, an expert in criminology, graphology and dactylography who is working with Moreno’s defense team, is certain that the documents are not authentic.
“For me no doubt exists that the document is a falsification . . . [but] even if the falsification is proven, it’s not taken into account and the public ministry is given priority as an untouchable institution. In this case, I ask myself what would happen tomorrow if someone we care for, or love, or a family member or oneself came to fall into the same situation and they falsified proof. In my 30 years as an expert I’ve never seen anything like this.”
However, when Moreno’s case was presented before Judge Rosalía Cota Domínguez she didn’t take the evidence into account and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Moreno is said to have signed a document notifying him of his changed status in the aggravated property theft accusation but his defense claims that it’s a forgery.
In the Facebook video, Rubio Ruíz claims that the judge said “even if the proof is false, it doesn’t matter, because the public ministry acts in good faith.”
Efforts to gain access to a copy of Moreno’s file have so far been fruitless.
The Baja California Sur government denies that there is any political motivation for Moreno’s arrest.