Nanotechnology: Armed resistance

DGR in Mexico.

Nature assesses the aftermath of a series of nanotechnology-lab bombings in Mexico — and asks how the country became a target of eco-anarchists.

By Leigh Phillips

Under attack: policemen stand guard outside the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education after a letter bomb exploded there in August 2011.

The shoe-box-sized package was addressed to Armando Herrera Corral. It stated that he was the recipient of an award and it was covered in official-looking stamps. Herrera, a computer scientist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, shook the box a number of times, and something solid jiggled inside. What could it be? He was excited and a little nervous — so much so, that he walked down the hall to the office of a colleague, robotics researcher Alejandro Aceves López, and asked Aceves to open it for him.

Aceves sat down at his desk to tear the box open. So when the 20-centimetre-long pipe bomb inside exploded, on 8 August 2011, Aceves took the full force in his chest. Metal pierced one of his lungs. “He was in intensive care. He was really bad,” says Herrera’s brother Gerardo, a theoretical physicist at the nearby Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav). Armando Herrera Corral, who was standing nearby when the bomb went off, escaped with a burst eardrum and burns to his legs.

The next day, an eco-anarchist group calling itself Individuals Tending Towards Savagery (ITS) claimed responsibility for the bombing in a 5,500-word diatribe against nanotechnology that it published online. Police found a charred copy of a similar text in the detritus of the explosion. The bombers said that Herrera had been targeted for his role as director of the technology-transfer centre at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (commonly known as Monterrey Tec), “one of the major universities that has staked everything on the development of nanotechnology”. The text talked of the potential for the field to cause environmental “nanocontamination”, and concluded that technology and civilization as a whole should be held responsible for any environmental catastrophe. Chillingly, the bombers listed another five researchers at Monterrey Tec as presumptive targets, as well as a further six universities.

The incident had precedent. The ITS had already claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in April and May 2011, both targeting Carlos Alberto Camacho Olguín, head of engineering and nanotechnology at the Polytechnic University of the Valley of Mexico in Tultitlán. The first bomb wounded a security guard; the second was identified and disposed of before anyone could be hurt. Last December, the group struck again — this time at the Polytechnic University of Pachuca, where a package containing gunpowder exploded in the hand of a teacher, causing minor burns (see ‘A litany of letter bombs’). No other developing country has suffered a comparable string of anti-technology attacks.

Closing ranks

One year on from the bombing at Monterrey Tec, the repercussions are still being felt. Armando Herrera Corral and Aceves will not speak to Nature about what happened. “It’s too sensitive, you understand?” is all Aceves would say. Herrera has left his job as director of the university’s technology park and is now head of postgraduate studies. Other Mexican universities with nanotechnology research programmes have evacuated campuses in response to bomb threats, and universities across the country have introduced stringent security measures. Some researchers are anxious for their own safety; some are furious about being targets. But all the researchers that Nature spoke to in Mexico are adamant that the attacks will not discourage them from their research or dissuade students from entering the field.

So far, there has been little explanation of where the vitriol is coming from. Why are radical environmental groups targeting nanotechnology? Is this field being confronted with the same sort of militant hostility that has dogged genetic-modification research and animal testing? And why Mexico?

Reporting by Nature suggests that several broad trends have come together to precipitate the violence. Over the past decade, Mexico has invested heavily in nanotechnology relative to other developing countries, because it sees the field as a route to economic development; mainstream green groups worldwide have grown increasingly concerned about nanotechnology’s health and environmental risks; and there has been a shift towards extreme ideas and tactics among radical environmentalists critical of technology. In Mexico, this has been set against a general background of growing violence and political upheaval.

The bombings come at a pivotal moment. Those who study public perception of risk say that the public discourse about nanotechnology is currently fairly moderate but could easily become more polarized. Until the bombings, the radical environmental movement had mostly restricted itself to non-violent actions and property destruction, says Richard Widick, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But, he says, the global economic crisis and the growing perception that ecological catastrophe is imminent could fuel further attacks. “More and more people who have hitherto been able to restrain themselves will just go over the edge,” says Widick. “We are going deeper still into an era of deepening and proliferating extremisms. I see a future of environmental struggles marred by violence of every variety.”

That violence leaves scars. According to Gerardo Herrera Corral, Aceves “still has problems and will do for the rest of his life. There’s a piece of shrapnel in his lung they couldn’t take out, close to his heart.” And only amateurism by the bombers prevented the attack at Monterrey Tec from having more tragic consequences: the police say that only about 8 centimetres of the dynamite in the pipe detonated. The bombers had packed it in such a way that the rest did not burn.

If all the dynamite had gone off, the police say, it could have destroyed the whole building — as well as Herrera, Aceves and dozens of researchers who work alongside them.

Mexico started a concerted nanotechnology push in 2002, when the government identified the field as a strategic sector for development. Dozens of public research institutes signed agreements with foreign institutions, companies and the military, and many opened graduate courses focused on nanotechnology research. Along with other Latin American countries that have invested in the field — Brazil and Argentina, in particular — Mexico views nanotechnology as a pathway to a more powerful research and industrial base. “They see it as a recipe for transition to the knowledge economy. It’s less an option than a necessity,” says Guillermo Foladori, an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Mexico and coordinator of a group of academics studying the regional growth of the field. The most important university in Mexico for nanotechnology, says Foladori, is Monterrey Tec.


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