Mexico Named Deadliest Country for Environmental Activists

MEXICO CITY — He vanished before dawn, while out on one of his regular early-morning walks. Three weeks later Tomás Rojo was found dead, his body so decomposed it required DNA testing to confirm his identify.

A leader ofthe Indigenous Yaqui community in northern Mexico, Mr. Rojo was exhumed from an unmarked grave, buried near the Yaqui River, which sustains his tribe’s livelihood and traditions and that he had spent much of his life defending.

The Yaquis have been locked in a decades-long battle with the Mexican government for control of the river, which was exacerbated by the construction in 2013 of a giant aqueduct to siphon water to send to the state capital.

“He was a very simple person, very shy, very cheerful, very intelligent,” said Isaac Jiménez, a lifelong friend and the tribe’s secretary, as well as a fellow activist. “I learned many things from him in the fight against the bad governments that we’ve had.”

Mr. Jiménez said he believed his friend was targeted because of his activism.

Mr. Rojo’s death is part of a grim trend: He was one of 54 environmental or land rights activists killed in Mexico last year, according to a report from an environmental watchdog organization, Global Witness, that was released this week. That toll made Mexico the deadliest country for environmental activists in the world.

“With Mexico last year we had four mass killings or massacres,” said Ali Hines, the main author of the report. “That very much sends a chilling effect.’’

The message that sends, she added, is: “It’s not just one particular person we’re after, but none of you are safe.’’

The attacks against activists are part of a broader regionwide pattern: A combination of rich natural resources, powerful international companies, violent criminal groups and entrenched government corruption, including in some cases officials who play a role in killings, has made Latin America a hot spot for violence.

More than three-quarters of the recorded attacks against environmentalists worldwide took place in the region, according to the report, which also states that Global Witness’s data on killings is “likely to be an underestimate, given that many murders go unreported.”

“This is a global problem,” Ms. Hines said. “But in Latin America, part of the reason why we have high numbers of killings is that there is a strong and active civil society that is actively monitoring killings.”

A bulldozer sits idle during repairs as it clears a path through the forest to make way for a major train project in thee Mexican state of Quintana Roo that has drawn objections from environmentalists.Credit…Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

The report was based on a review of credible, publicly available online information, according to Global Witness, which is corroborated with organizations on the ground “where possible or necessary.” To be included in the report, accounts ofan attack must include specific details about the killing, as well as biographical information on the victim.

“There has to be a very clear link between a defender’s work as a land and environmental defender and their killing,” Ms. Hines said.

More than half of the reported attacks worldwide last year took place in just three countries: Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Killings in all three countries have continued this year. In June, a journalist and an Indigenous rights activist were killed in the Brazilian Amazon.

Colombia, which was the deadliest country for environmentalists in 2020, saw the number of killings drop by nearly half last year, but with 33 deaths in 2021, it still remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for environmentalists.

Ongoing contests for land, an issue at the heart of Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict, have made activists who defend the territory, such as Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, prime targets.

A 2016 peace deal that promised state protection and services in areas marked by war has not been adequately put into effect, experts say. Environmentalists are sometimes the only protectors of ecosystems coveted by armed groups for illegal mining and the farming of coca, the plant used to produce cocaine.

Lourdes Castro, a spokeswoman for Somos Defensores, Global Witness’s partner in Colombia, said threats and attempted homicides rose last year for all activists. In some cases, threats were enough to muzzle activists.

An Earth Day protest to demand justice for murdered and missing environmentalists, in Zocalo Square in Mexico City.Credit…Edgard Garrido/Reuters

“Some have decided to keep quiet out of fear, but for us that’s not an option,” said Luz Mery Panche, an Indigenous leader in Colombia and an activist in the Amazon rainforest.

In Mexico, where drug cartels and other criminal groups battle for control of territory, violence is widespread: More than 35,000 people were killed in homicides across the country last year. As the gangs multiply and spread, their activities have diversified beyond drug trafficking, bringing them into conflict with Indigenous groups and environmental activists.

According to Global Witness, the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel has made a foray into illegal mining, perpetrating “violence against the Indigenous community with complete impunity and without an adequate response from the Mexican state.”

Arturo, an environmental activist in western Mexico, said criminal groups “exploit lumber, they exploit mines, they exploit fishing. Whatever there is.”

Arturo, who asked that only his middle name be used for fear of reprisals, said that he had been threatened by a local gang member. And as in much of Mexico, corruption in state and municipal governments has made a difficult situation even more dangerous.

“The governments at the local level are completely occupied by the cartels and by organized crime,” Arturo said.

While corruption is particularly prevalent in Mexico, which ranks 124th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption index, the problem affects environmental activists across the region, according to Global Witness.

“You have corruption of the judicial system, where defenders are trying to seek justice for harms that have been caused, and you see judicial officials kind of being paid off with bribes,” Ms. Hines said. “In a lot of cases, you have governments actively impeding investigations because of their collusion with companies.”

Deeply entrenched impunity makes matters even worse, with perpetrators of attacks against activists rarely brought to justice.

In Mexico “you have cases where defenders are killed, they’re rarely credibly investigated, never mind anyone brought to justice,” Ms. Hines said.“That’s a key driver of killings because it’s essentially just giving the green light to perpetrators.’’

Two environmentalists,Luz Mery Panche, front left, and Antonio Valencia, known widely as El Profe, rear left, on a boat on the Caqueta River in Colombia, in 2021.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

In the Yaqui region, where cartel activity is widespread, three men have been arrested in connection with the killing of Mr. Rojo, but so far the mastermind of the crime remains unknown, Mr. Jiménez said.

“Nothing has advanced: he’s dead, they killed him, but who ordered him killed?” he said. “It’s exasperating.”

Sometimes environmentalists simply vanish. In the Yaqui community alone, eight people went missing last year, and if they were murder victims, finding them might be difficult. Bodies are often hidden or destroyed, leaving little evidence of the crime. The practice is known as forced disappearance, and in Mexico it is widespread: More than 100,000 peopleare considered disappeared since 1964, according to government figures.

Global Witness recorded 19 forced disappearances of land rights activists in Mexico in 2021, including Irma Galindo Barrios, an environmentalist, who had faced intimidation from local officials because of her work defending forests in the southern state of Oaxaca. She went missing last October and has not been seen since.

The violence has continued this year. In March, an Indigenous environmental activist, José Trinidad Baldenegro, was killed in the northern state of Chihuahua. His brother,Isidro Baldenegro, a prominent environmentalist, was murdered in 2017.

Despite the perils, many environmentalists remain committed to preserving their land and resources.

“From when you’re a kid, they teach you that you have to fight for the interests of the tribe, the water, the land,” said Mr. Jiménez, the Yaqui activist. “We keep going with the people, the people are the ones who make us strong.”

Christina Noriega contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia.

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