Tensions from water-sharing deal with U.S. boil over in Mexico

BOQUILLA, Mexico -- The farmers armed themselves with sticks, rocks and homemade shields, ambushed hundreds of soldiers guarding a dam and seized control of one of the border region's most important bodies of water.

The Mexican government was sending water -- their water -- to Texas, leaving them next to nothing for their thirsty crops, the farmers said. So they took over the dam and have refused to allow any of the water to flow to the United States for more than a month.

"This is a war," said Victor Velderrain, a grower who helped lead the takeover, "to survive, to continue working, to feed my family."

The standoff is the culmination of long-standing tensions over water between the United States and Mexico that have recently exploded into violence, pitting Mexican farmers against their own president and the global superpower next door.

Negotiating the exchange of water between the two countries has long been strained, but rising temperatures and long droughts have made the shared rivers along the border more valuable than ever, intensifying the stakes for both nations.

The dam's takeover is a stark example of how far people are willing to go to defend livelihoods threatened by climate change -- and of the kind of conflict that may become more common with increasingly extreme weather.

Along the arid border region, water rights are governed by a decades-old treaty that compels the United States and Mexico to share the flows of the Colorado River and Rio Grande, with each side sending water to the other. Mexico has fallen far behind on its obligations to the United States and is now facing a deadline to deliver the water this month.

But this has been one of the driest years in the past three decades for Chihuahua, the Mexican border state responsible for sending the bulk of the water Mexico owes. Its farmers have rebelled, worried that losing any more water will rob them of a chance for a healthy harvest next year.

Since February, when federal forces first occupied the dam to ensure water deliveries to the United States continued, activists in Chihuahua have burned government buildings, destroyed cars and briefly held a group of politicians hostage.

For weeks, they've blocked a major railroad used to ferry industrial goods between Mexico and the United States.

Their revolt has alarmed farmers and politicians in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, appealed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month, demanding that he persuade Mexico to deliver the water by the deadline next week or risk inflicting pain on American farmers.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed that his country will make good on its water obligations to the United States -- regardless of whether the state of Chihuahua likes it.

He sent hundreds of members of Mexico's National Guard to protect Chihuahua's dams, and his government temporarily froze bank accounts belonging to the city where many of the protesters live.

For farmers, the government's stance is a betrayal.

Velderrain, 42, said he never saw himself as the type of person who would lead hundreds over a hill to overwhelm a group of soldiers protecting a cache of automatic weapons. But there he was in a video posted on Facebook, escorting a Mexican general out of the Boquilla Dam on the day he led the takeover.

Surprised and heavily outnumbered, the National Guard quickly surrendered. Later that day, one protester was shot and killed by the Guard.

The federal government argues that the protesting farmers are also hurting other Mexicans by preventing water from flowing to their compatriots downstream and that the growers would still have access to at least 60% of the water they need for next year.

With the intensity of the drought in Chihuahua this year, Mexico has fallen far behind on its water shipments to the United States. It now has to send more than 50% of its average annual water payment in a matter of weeks. The Mexican government insists it will still comply despite the takeover of the dam, which spans the Conchos River, a major tributary of the Rio Grande.

But some Texans have their doubts.