In 2018 at least fourteen Mexicans gave their lives to defend their homes, forests, and rivers against industries that include mining, forestry, real estate development, and agribusiness. Countless more were silenced through violent attacks, arrests, death threats, or lawsuits.
In the early hours of 14 May, last year, indigenous environmental rights defender Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez died from a massive loss of blood caused by three deep stab wounds. According to his autopsy, injuries caused by a sharp, hot object, as well as marks on his face, suggested other possible forms of violence. Manuel was a prominent member of the Antonio Esteban Human Rights Centre, an organization opposing energy projects, mining concessions, and the construction of a high-voltage power line in the northern mountain region of Puebla State.
The perpetrators remain unknown. Puebla’s State Attorney General’s Office has opened an investigation into his death, but are withholding his lawyers’ access to the case file. And it is not yet clear whether lines of inquiry include his work as a human rights defender.
Rolando Crispín López was killed on 22 July 2018. He was a member of the Assembly of the Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory, of the People’s Assembly of the Juchiteco People (APPJ) and of the People’s Assembly of Álvaro Obregón. At eight o’clock that morning, when his shift as a community police officer ended, Rolando went to a store located in Benito Juárez to make some purchases.
Almost immediately, a masked man arrived on a motorcycle and repeatedly fired at Rolando, murdering him and wounding an 8-year-old girl who was walking down the street. Several neighbors identified the perpetrator as Alejandro Matus Chávez, an active municipal police officer assigned to the municipality of Juchitán. The APPJ and the members of the Totopo community condemned Rolando’s murder and demanded justice from the state government. They warned that the violence that is brewing in the region against land rights defenders falls within what they called “state terrorism” since it is caused by different levels of government.
On 24 October, environmental rights activist Julián Carrillo was assassinated after receiving multiple death threats for his work defending indigenous land in the Sierra Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) from environmental exploitation including mining. Carrillo had seen five members of his family killed in recent years.
There were eleven more documented cases of murders of human rights defenders in Mexico last year, and this year is not looking any better.
The data, analysis, and human stories are contained in a recent report (https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/enemies-state/) by Global Witness. It’s an international NGO established in 1993 that works to break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses.
Of course, if communities were consulted about how land and water were to be used before the shovels hit the ground or dams were built, conflicts could be avoided. If laws were passed that favored the needs of the majority instead of the interests of wealthy corporations and entrepreneurs, our communities and ecosystems would be safer and healthier.
But they are not. In some places, laws are passed that are designed to intimidate and criminalize people and environmental organizations that work to defend our fresh water, land, oceans, and air. These laws and the legal systems responsible for using them can be used to destroy reputations, choke off funding, and involve activists in ruinously expensive court challenges that last years.
For example, in Nicaragua, last December, land activist Medardo Mairena Sequeira was convicted of terrorism and organized crime and sentenced to an unbelievable 200 years in prison. 200 years! His crime? He had been campaigning against a huge canal project that was set to displace thousands of people. Frontline Defenders claim that his trial and detention were rife with irregularities and ill-treatment, including evidence of witness manipulation by the prosecution. It was a set-up.
These non-violent attacks by governments don’t make the headlines like killings do. That is why they are so useful to those who want to crush dissent.
Turning to the local scene, on Sunday, 25 August it will be our turn. At 11 am, a march for the conservation of the environment and natural resources will start at Park Hidalgo. If you are angry at the privatization of our natural resources and want transparency from local public servants, bring your placards and signs and let’s march together with others who want to protect the environment. Don’t worry; you won’t be deported.
Remember, you can’t do everything, but you can do something!