Magazine article Newsweek

Why Mexico's Environmental Activists Fear for Their Lives; A Mix of Powerful Landowners, Cartel Hit Men and Unsolved Killings Has Made Mexico One of the Most Dangerous Place in the World for Environmentalism

Magazine article Newsweek

Why Mexico's Environmental Activists Fear for Their Lives; A Mix of Powerful Landowners, Cartel Hit Men and Unsolved Killings Has Made Mexico One of the Most Dangerous Place in the World for Environmentalism

Article excerpt

Byline: Oscar Lopez

"I'm in shock," says Jose Trinidad Baldenegro. "In despair."

On the phone from the city of Chihuahua in Mexico's arid north, he's telling me about his older brother, Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, an activist and leader of the indigenous Tarahumara people. For years, Baldenegro had endured numerous threats as a result of his work protecting the country's ancient forests from illegal logging. But one stormy afternoon in January, standing by a goat pen outside his uncle's house in the village of Coloradas de la Virgen, Baldenegro was shot six times in the chest, stomach and legs. He died a few hours later.

His killing fits a deadly pattern across the region: Latin America is now the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists, according to a 2016 report by Article 19, a British human rights group. More than 122 activists were killed in the region in 2015, one of the deadliest years on record, according to the most recent study from Global Witness, another nongovernmental organization.

Mexico has emerged as one of the most perilous countries in the region. Organized crime, state-sanctioned intimidation and near-total impunity have proved to be a hazardous and often deadly combination for the many activists trying to protect the country's natural resources. In January, Mexico's Center for Environmental Rights (CEMDA) released a report that documented 63 attacks against environmental activists in 2015 and 2016. However, this only included cases reported on by the media or other NGOs, so the number could be much higher.

The high rate of human rights abuses in Mexico has drawn increasing international attention: Baldenegro was killed while U.N. Special Rapporteur Michel Frost was in Mexico investigating attacks against activists. Still, the renewed global focus on the activists' plight doesn't mean the violence has waned. Baldenegro had been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 for his campaign to protect Mexico's ancient forests from illegal logging--the same work that led to his father's murder 30 years ago. His death came less than a year after the shooting death of Honduran activist Berta Caceres, who received the Goldman prize in 2015. "It used to be that when you got to that level of awareness about your work, it gave you some measure of protection," says Article 19's David Banisar. "Now even that seems to be undermined. It's a good indication that things are getting worse."

The Mexican government has promised a full investigation of Baldenegro's killing. On March 8, authorities arrested Romeo Rubio Martinez, 21, the husband of one of Baldenegro's distant cousins, who claims he killed Baldenegro because of an old family quarrel. But Isela Gonzalez, director of Alianza Sierra Madre, an organization that works with the Tarahumara to defend their land right, is skeptical. "We are urging authorities not to abandon the investigation into his environmental work which has resulted in so much violence, not just against Isidro but against many environmental activists," she says.

Giovanna Garrido Marquez, a subdirector of attention to appeal resources with Mexico's secretary of governance, says that the killing has "raised a huge red flag" and that her department will be holding a special meeting to discuss how to increase protections for environmental activists so that "Chihuahua can be a model for the rest of the country."

But for many, these measures have come too late. Two weeks after Baldenegro was killed, Juan Ontiveros Ramos, another Tarahumara leader, was found dead in the same region. Armed men had kidnapped him the day before, brutally beating members of his family during the attack. "It's incredibly painful," says Gonzalez, who has received death threats herself and had known Ramos for 20 years. "He was very quiet and reserved. But he was an admired and distinguished person given a fundamental task: protecting his people. …

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