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Four hundred years on, Mexico’s oldest Black community struggles to survive

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Oaxaca, Mexico – Outside Mama Cointa’s home where she has lived for almost all her life, guests have gathered to celebrate her 101st birthday. Her friend Victor steadies her quivering hand with his own while she tilts a ribbon-wrapped bouquet of wilting flowers to her nose. Her son Don Amado ushers visitors inside their family home.

“Our home is the last of its kind here,” Amado said, ducking underneath a sheet of thatched palm leaves hanging over the entranceway to a windowless, one-room house, where he was raised by his mother, Mama “Cointa” Chavez Velazco, in the village of Tecoyame, Oaxaca.

“But it may not be around next year. There is no support to help us, no money to maintain it as the climate becomes more extreme and threatens us more,” Amado added, before stealing a glance at his mother, whose milky blue eyes have begun to flood with tears.

“We are forgotten.”

Known as “El Redondo”, Mama Cointa’s house is an icon of the Costa Chica, the “short coast”, which spans approximately 400km (250 miles) across two states that straddle the Pacific Ocean. More Afro-Mexicans live here than anywhere else in this country of nearly 130 million people. Longer and harsher dry seasons in recent years have produced intense droughts in Tecoyame and nearby towns, hardening and cracking the land and leaving the parched soil unable to absorb the water from Mexico’s rainy season. Instead, the rainwater careens off the concrete-like surface, splashing up against the village’s homes and weakening their foundations.

Mexico's oldest, Black community struggles to survive
Homes in Mexico’s 400-year-old Black community are threatened by climate change [Mirja Vogel/Al Jazeera]

With circular walls built from mud and sand – and a cone-shaped roof bound together with vines, palm leaves and wooden beams – this type of home was first built in Mexico by African slaves brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

A fraction of them escaped the shackles of slave owners, fleeing quickly through the wild and hidden hills that characterise Mexico’s vast Pacific coastline. Settlements like Tecoyame, which is just a couple of kilometres from the beaches where slave ships landed, were constructed with only the materials that were available at the time, and homes like Mama Cointa’s have sheltered generations of African-descended Mexicans for hundreds of years.

“El Redondo in Tecoyame is a symbol of the important African heritage here, just like food, dance, and music also are,” Victor Guzman, a local historian and hospitality manager, told Al Jazeera. “They are tangible examples of the history, suffering, development and identity of Afro-Mexicans.”

Discovering Mexico’s ‘black pearl’

Guzman lives 30km (19 miles) north of Tecoyame in Cuajinicuilapa, one of the largest cities on the Costa Chica. It is home to 27,000 people, of which 75 percent identify as Afro-Mexican. Cuajinicuilapa is a city like no other in Mexico. Erased years ago from tourist travel guides and largely unknown to much of Mexico, the city is self-made, self-contained, and defiantly proud.

Locals refer to it as Mexico’s “black pearl”, and like the precious gemstone, Cuajinicuilapa’s raw beauty is natural and unpolished, formed by the people who live there. It has also remained enclosed and isolated for much of its history, but not by choice.

With food spicier and flavours punchier than traditional southern Mexican dishes, Cuajinicuilapa has a strong culinary identity, rooted in African staple foods, and combined with Indigenous cooking methods and ingredients native to the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Mexico's oldest, Black community struggles to survive
Women in Mexico’s oldest Black community prepare the region’s unique cuisine [Mirja Vogel/Al Jazeera]

Fried bananas served with condensed milk are often consumed with spicy, crimson-coloured fish stews, slow-cooked pig cheek on fried corn pancakes or “sopes” and tamales de tichindas, mangrove mussels mixed with corn dough and wrapped in banana leaves.

With its proximity to the ocean, fish is a centrepiece of the community’s diet. It’s bought locally at sunrise each morning at a seaside market that resembles an auction, and sits at the edge of a stretch of untouched beach that is a short drive from Cuajinicuilapa. Black fishermen catch hundreds of kilogrammes of shimmering, colourful Pacific fish in the wee hours of the morning, and transport their haul to Cuajinicuilapa’s central market, where it is weighed.

What isn’t purchased there is given as payment to younger fishermen learning the trade, and the remainder is sold to fresh seafood restaurants in popular tourist spots like Acapulco and Puerto Escondido, often at a fivefold markup.

Beyond the food, the world-famous “devil dancers” credit Cuajinicuilapa as the home of their ceremonial dance. Like the local delicacies, the origins of the “Danza de los Diablos” are rooted in slavery, when the dance was performed as a form of prayer to the African god Ruja to beg for freedom from Spanish conquistadors.

Today, the dance has evolved into a vehicle to increase visibility and recognition for Afro-Mexicans. In recent years, devil dancers from Cuajinicuilapa have performed for Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and within international cultural events in New York City’s Times Square and also in European capital cities.

One hundred years of solitude

Still, the region’s isolation, both geographically and politically, has left Afro-Mexicans with few resources to sustain their culture. As one example, Cuajinicuilapa’s Afro-Mexican history museum – one of the first of its kind in Mexico – hasn’t paid its staff a salary for 15 years and is now facing closure.

At his home, Abad Campos Rodriguez, one of the city’s leading dance and music teachers, also explained: “I have performed and taught the Danza de los Diablos to hundreds of children, but I can only continue for a couple more years as I’m getting old.”

He added: “There are not many teachers left here. I worry it won’t continue to the next generation.”

The same can be said for Mama Cointa’s home. With each rainless day, the soil grows harder and the cracks deeper on the farm where her son, Don Amado, works with his sons. The vegetable and fruit harvest that provides for four generations of the family is in peril as climatic conditions worsen, and the need for financial support grows.

Mexico's oldest, Black community struggles to survive
Children play in Mexico’s Costa Chica in the Black community settled by fugitive slaves [Mirja Vogel/Al Jazeera]

Like Mama Cointa’s home south of the city, institutions on the Costa Chica that offered Afro-Mexicans protection from the Spanish slave traders are also on the brink of collapse.

The core of the problem is the community’s social and economic marginalization. It was only in 2015 that the government census afforded Blacks here the opportunity to self-identify as Afro-Mexican, or people of African descent in Mexico. Four years later, campaigners secured a constitutional amendment to add Afro-Mexicans to the national list of 69 distinct cultural identities. Advocates hope that recognition within the country’s legal framework will bolster funding for healthcare, education and cultural projects for Afro-Mexicans, who account for approximately two percent of Mexico’s population.

But the results so far have been underwhelming. Angelica Sorrosa, the manager of the Afro-Mexican museum, told Al Jazeera that “Nothing has changed. We still feel like we are at the bottom.”

Sorrosa hopes that the presidential elections in June will provide her community with some relief. The frontrunner is Mexico City’s Governor Claudia Sheinbaum, a protegee of outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who founded the leftist Morena party that is credited with lifting nearly five million people out of poverty since 2018.

“I want to believe that Claudia [Sheinbaum] will bring more change,” Sorrosa said. “She talks a lot about prioritising culture, but right now, I can’t be sure.”

Compounding that uncertainty is the tendency in Mexico, as elsewhere, to marginalize or “ghettoize” Black culture and uncouple it from Mexico’s broader cultural traditions.

Mijane Jimenez Salinas, president of Mano Amiga de la Costa Chica, a human rights non-profit organisation founded to support Afro-Mexican rights, said:

“We campaign for equality of opportunity. My daughter dreams of learning ballet, not just devil dancing, and she wants to learn languages and travel.”

Taking her daughter in her arms, she told Al Jazeera: “For that, she needs equal opportunities. I always grew up with limits, but I want her to feel she can do anything.”

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North Korea conducts test on new ‘super-large warhead’: State media

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Pyongyang says new warhead designed for cruise missiles, adding that a new anti-aircraft rocket was also tested.

North Korea has conducted a test on a “super-large warhead” designed for a strategic cruise missile, state media reports, adding that it also launched a new type of anti-aircraft missile.

“The DPRK Missile Administration has conducted a power test of a super-large warhead designed for ‘Hwasal-1 Ra-3’ strategic cruise missile”, KCNA news agency reported on Saturday, referring to North Korea by an abbreviation for its official name – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea also carried out a test launch on Friday afternoon of a “Pyoljji-1-2”, which state media said was a “new-type anti-aircraft missile”.

KCNA added that “a certain goal was attained” through the test without providing further details.

The weapons tests were part of the “regular activities of the administration and its affiliated defence science institutes”, KCNA reported, referencing the operation of “new-type weapon systems”.

The tests “had nothing to do with the surrounding situation”, KCNA added, but did not give any further information.

In early April, North Korea said it had tested a new medium-to-long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, with state media sharing a video of it being launched as leader Kim Jong Un looked on.

Cruise missiles are among a growing collection of North Korean weapons designed to overwhelm regional missile defences. They supplement the North’s vast arsenal of ballistic missiles, including intercontinental variants, which are said to be aimed at the continental United States.

Analysts say anti-aircraft missile technology is an area where North Korea could benefit from its deepening military cooperation with Russia, as the two countries align in the face of their separate, intensifying confrontations with the US.

The US and South Korea have accused the North of providing artillery shells and other equipment to Russia to help extend its warfighting ability in Ukraine.

Since its second nuclear test in 2009, Pyongyang has been under heavy international sanctions, but the development of its nuclear and weapons programmes has continued unabated.

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Ecuador weighs security, international arbitration in latest referendum

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Quito, Ecuador – He was elected president at a time of crisis, as Ecuador’s murder rate skyrocketed and gang violence seeped across the country.

Now, Ecuadorian leader Daniel Noboa is taking a plan of action to the voters, with an 11-part referendum on Sunday.

The referendum includes a wide range of proposals, from the militarisation of Ecuador’s police to tougher punishments for crimes like drug trafficking, murder and money laundering.

But Sunday’s vote is set to go beyond beefed-up security practices. One question, for example, aims to reform the judiciary system. Another considers whether arbitration should be the default approach to settling international financial disputes.

Noboa has been pushing for Ecuadorians to vote in favour of all 11 ballot measures, in an effort to streamline the economy and stamp out gang violence.

“Voting yes will strengthen our laws and leave no opportunities for those criminals who wish to joke with our justice [system] with the help of corrupt lawmen,” Noboa said in a public event on Monday.

But the broad nature of the proposals has prompted concern, with critics wondering what the consequences could be for human rights, the economy and efforts to stabilise Ecuador’s security situation.

Some have even questioned whether the referendum reflects a shift towards the “mano dura” or “iron fist” policies popular in countries like El Salvador, where human rights organisations have warned of false imprisonment and a lack of due process.

Daniel Noboa speaks into a microphone.
Daniel Noboa has made the national security referendum a goal of his presidency [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Limited opposition

Still, only one major political group in the country has consistently called for Ecuadorians to vote “no” on all 11 ballot measures: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

The group has accused the government of exploiting the referendum to further Noboa’s political ambitions, as the country approaches its 2025 general election.

Noboa — a 36-year-old politician and heir to a banana industry fortune — was sworn in last November to serve an abbreviated 18-month term, after the departure of embattled President Guillermo Lasso. But he is widely expected to run for a full term in the next race.

In a virtual forum on April 11, CONAIE president Leonidas Iza called the referendum a chance for Noboa to rally support.

“The government needs to consolidate its strength to impose neoliberal policies,” Iza said.

Referendums, he added, are costly to organise, and he called for the policies to instead be considered in Ecuador’s National Assembly.

Another CONAIE leader, Agustin Cachipuendo, was later quoted in the newspaper El Universo as saying any repercussions from the vote would disproportionately fall on marginalised groups.

“This government does not know poverty [but] makes decisions that affect the poor,” he said.

Soldiers in fatigues and combat gear walk through fields in rural Ecuador.
Soldiers patrol during a presidential visit to dairy farms in Poalo, Ecuador, on March 21 [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Rallying public support

Nevertheless, the referendum enjoys relatively broad public support. According to the research institute Comunicaliza, 42.7 percent of voters plan to back Noboa’s proposals.

Still, another 27.5 percent said they have not made up their minds yet.

Maria, a 48-year-old resident of Guayaquil who asked to use a pseudonym for her safety, is among those supporting the president’s measures to tighten security in the country.

Her city has been at the forefront of the crisis. In January, for instance, a criminal group stormed a local TV station during a live broadcast and held employees at gunpoint, generating international outcry.

Maria explained she had been targeted by a criminal group herself: They blackmailed her by threatening her children. But she said she feels safer thanks to the state of emergency Noboa imposed in January, which allowed the military to be deployed to city streets.

“Policemen and soldiers have been patrolling the borough in these months, so we can finally sleep tight at night,” Maria told Al Jazeera.

She credits the soldiers with curbing the violence in her neighbourhood. The referendum could pave the way for the military to have a permanent role in policing, something Maria hopes will happen.

“If they will leave us, what happens then? This is what everyone is worried about,” she said.

A soldier stands in shadow in front of a row of orange-clad prisoners.
A soldier guards cell block 3 of the militarised Litoral prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on February 9 [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Searching for a permanent fix

Noboa’s government has argued that the referendum is a necessary step to curb the wave of violence that has rattled the country since 2018.

Declaring a state of emergency, officials argue, is only a temporary solution.

“The general purpose of the [referendum] is to establish some permanent mechanisms, breaking the cycle of enacting emergency decrees and then going back to business as usual,” said the government spokesperson Roberto Izurieta in an interview with local television station Teleamazonas.

The state of emergency granted the government additional powers, allowing officials to impose a curfew and take stronger action against gangs.

Under the state of emergency, for instance, Noboa’s government labelled 22 criminal groups as “terrorist” organisations, clearing the way for the police and military to focus extra resources towards combatting them.

Security forces also seized 77 tonnes of drugs and detained 18,736 people, 300 of whom have since been accused of terrorism. According to the authorities, violent deaths have reduced by 26 percent since Noboa took office.

But in early April, the state of emergency came to an end. Ferdinando Carrion, a security expert, believes some of the reforms in the referendum could help Noboa to continue his campaign against the violence, but more structural reforms are needed.

“They achieved good results in the first two months,” Carrion said of the government’s state of emergency. “But it looks like the effect has been exhausted.”

He pointed to Ecuador’s prison system as a particular area of vulnerability. Investigations have shown that criminal organisations use prisons as spaces through which they can run their operations.

But under the state of emergency, the military was allowed to intervene. Carrion said that produced positive results.

“They intervened in 18 prisons out of 36, managing to sever [the gang leaders’] relations with the outside,” Carrion explained.

“But the minute the army leaves the prisons and gives them back to the national service SNAI, they will return to business as usual, since it has shown problems of efficiency, corruption and collusion.”

Carrion would like to see even greater reforms to government agencies like SNAI, beyond what is on the ballot on Sunday.

“Strengthening our institutions is paramount,” he told Al Jazeera, calling for the creation of a new body to replace SNAI.

A tank sits in front of a Guayaquil prison
The Ecuadorian government has deployed the military to control prisons like the one in Guayaquil [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Elections in the crosshairs

Still, some analysts question the efficacy of the referendum, even if it is successful.

Carla Alvarez, a professor studying security at the National Institute for Higher Studies, believes that the referendum will fall short of addressing the country’s gang crisis.

“No query made for public consultation will damage the structure of criminal organisations,” she told Al Jazeera.

She echoed concerns that the referendum has done more to bolster Noboa’s public image than to address the roots of crime in Ecuador.

Many experts trace the rise in the violence to Ecuador’s strategic location between the two largest cocaine producers in the world, Colombia and Peru.

They also point out that Ecuador’s economy was significantly weakened during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving unemployed youth vulnerable to gang recruitment.

But Alvarez said Noboa’s emphasis on holding the referendum is also motivated by his future ambitions. “This vote is happening in the middle of an electoral race. And this allows the president to revive his image on social media and achieve more visibility.”

The security situation has a direct impact on the integrity of Ecuador’s democracy. In the lead-up to the snap election last August, a presidential candidate running on an anticorruption platform was gunned down outside of a rally.

And in recent months, politicians have continued to be targets of the spike in violence.

Five mayors have been shot dead since the year began, the most recent murder unfolding on Friday, just days before Sunday’s vote.

The slain mayor, Jorge Maldonado of Portovelo, was the third to be killed in less than a month. His death followed that of Mayor Brigitte Garcia of San Vicente and Mayor Jose Sanchez of Camilo Ponce Enriquez.

Suspects kneel in front of armed police officers. In front of them is a blue table with guns arrayed as evidence.
Suspects and weapons are displayed for reporters at a police station in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on January 11, shortly after a TV station was stormed during a live broadcast [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Chance of a split vote

Critics like Alvarez underscore that referendums are no silver bullet to the security crisis.

Rather, they are a relatively common political tool. Since 2006, Ecuadorians have been asked to express their will through referendums nine times, on issues ranging from oil exploration to presidential term limits.

Paulina Recalde, director of pollster Perfiles de Opinion, also questions whether Sunday’s referendum will create the groundswell of support Noboa seeks.

While Noboa is angling for approval on all 11 items, Recalde’s research suggests that voters will not unanimously back all the proposals.

“Since the very beginning, we never found an overall majority. People won’t vote the same in all the 11 queries,” she said.

Recalde also said there was confusion over the vote. According to her research, 68 percent of respondents knew little or nothing about the referendum a month ago.

She added that the power outages Ecuador is currently experiencing — as well as a controversial police raid on Mexico’s embassy in Quito — could dent Noboa’s popularity, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

“If people vote yes to expand the role of the military, does it mean that they are providing strong support for the president? I would say no,” she said.

An armed soldier in a helmet stands guard on a Quito city street.
A member of Ecuador’s security forces stands guard outside the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito, Ecuador, on April 16 [Karen Toro/Reuters]

Arbitration on the ballot

One of the most controversial ballot measures in Sunday’s referendum asks Ecuadorians to implement a system of “international arbitration” to resolve conflicts between the state and private foreign investors.

In international arbitration, a third neutral party is used to reach a binding decision that settles any claims.

Supporters of the measure feel arbitration could safeguard foreign investment in Ecuador, thereby boosting the country’s economy.

“In a dollarised economy like Ecuador, we need an increase in strong direct foreign investments aligned with our public policies,” said Eric Vinueza, investment counsellor for the Corporation for the Promotion of Exports and Investments (Corpei) who supports the measure.

But activists have criticised this proposal as a tool to discourage the government from enacting environmental reforms that might disadvantage foreign mining interests and other overseas companies.

With arbitration, foreign investors could file complaints and negotiate settlements behind closed doors, leaving the public no recourse to appeal.

“These are private and unilateral judicial spaces which allow transnational companies to sue the states, where the states are only able to defend themselves,” said Ivonne Ramos, a mining expert at the NGO Accion Ecologica.

In the 2008 constitution, Ecuador prohibited any international agreement that would limit its national sovereignty, including through international arbitration.

Sunday’s referendum would undo that protection. Ramos added that international arbitration could come with steep expenses for taxpayers.

Ecuador already owes $2.9 trillion to foreign companies. It is currently involved in 29 different lawsuits before international tribunals, with half of the complaints related to mining and fossil fuels.

“Three of the eight pending procedures could cost more than another $10 trillion, which is our national budget for education and health for 2024,” Ramos said.

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What’s the solution to the rising tensions between Israel and Iran?

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The United States says it was warned in advance of the Israeli drone strike on Iran.

Iran has shot down Israeli drones in the latest confrontation on Friday.

There have been global calls for restraint – with both East and West fearful of what further conflict could mean for the region and the world.

So, what is the thinking in Iran and Israel? And what is next?

Presenter: Elizabeth Puranam

Guests:

Mohammad Marandi – Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran

Gideon Levy – Columnist for the Haaretz Newspaper

Roxane Farmanfarmaian – Professor of Modern Middle East Politics at the University of Cambridge

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