Fate of US brewery in drought-hit Mexico goes to Amlo poll

President continues direct democracy drive that critics say is skewed towards his desired outcome

The fate of a giant US brewery under construction in Mexico’s parched borderlands will be put to a vote this weekend in the latest attempt at direct democracy by the country’s populist president.

The brewery in Mexicali has provoked controversy in a region where the climate crisis has already caused droughts, and where farmers and residents have taken exception to a US company, Constellation Brands, extracting water to produce beer for export.

But the vote over its construction, due to be held on Saturday and Sunday, has drawn criticism from both sides in the row, and unsettled critics of the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The Mexican leader, popularly known as Amlo, says such plebiscites ensure that “the people have the last word”. But critics say the process is routinely set up to induce the president’s preferred outcomes.

“There’s a symbolism in this: that Amlo knows what the majority thinks – or what the majority supposedly thinks,” said Aldo Muñoz Armenta, a political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State. “Where he wants the project to succeed, the consultation gives weight to his decision and he will mobilise his base to make it happen.”

The president first unveiled the plan to hold regular plebiscites during the presidential transition in 2018. He initially put a series of 10 projects to national votes, ranging from a refinery to railways and mass tree-planting.

To no one’s surprise, all were passed with roughly 90% approval – and barely 1% of the population participating.


Most controversially, he held a consultation on the future of a new airport in Mexico City that was already roughly one-third complete, and voters aligned with his wishes to terminate the project.

Another vote in February 2019 approved a gas pipeline in Morelos state despite strong local opposition. The indigenous defender Samir Flores Soberanes, who led the campaign against the project and a related gas-fired electricity plant, was murdered in the days before the vote, prompting Amlo to claim that the killing, while regrettable, had been carried out to undermine the vote.

The latest vote, announced at the start of March, comes after nearly three years of simmering tension over the brewery, which residents fear will suck up dwindling water supplies to produce beers including Corona, Modelo and Pacífico.

In early 2018, protesters, gathered under the slogan “Mexicali resists”, clashed with riot police and camped for months outside the site of the plant, which is 70% complete.

Police and protesters at the brewery site in 2018
Police and protesters at the brewery site in 2018. Photograph: handout

Business groups have cautioned against the plebiscite, warning that a no vote could risk torpedoing investor confidence at a time when the economy is diving and investors are wary after the airport decision.

Amlo has claimed that Washington has shown a strong interest in the project succeeding, telling a recent press conference that envoys from the US embassy in Mexico City told him “if the consultation is carried out, the country is going to look bad”.

Opponents of the brewery have expressed mixed opinions on the consultation, though they previously pushed for a statewide plebiscite. Constellation Brands declined to comment on the vote.

Alfonso Cortez Lara, a water expert at the College of the Northern Border, said: “Neither of the two sides will accept the results, [which] are not binding.”

He said a more productive posture would be for the state government and national water commission to accept recommendations from the national human rights commission which found that the project “violated the human right to water”.


David Agren in Mexico City

The GuardianTramp

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