Environmental defenders reel from Mexico and Central America attacks

Human rights activists in Mexico City demand the safe return of Ricardo Lagunes and Antonio Díaz, community defenders who disappeared on 15 January 15. Photograph: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Rex/Shutterstock

The Guardian | 10 Apr 2023

Environmental defenders reel from Mexico and Central America attacks

At least two dozen activists in Indigenous and rural areas murdered, disappeared and jailed in wave of attacks

Nina Lakhani and Analy Nuño in Guadalajara

A wave of attacks against environmental defenders has left Indigenous and rural communities across Mexico and Central America reeling amid a lack of government protection and widespread impunity.

At least two dozen defenders have been murdered, disappeared and jailed across the region so far this year, according to research by the Guardian. On Wednesday, the Indigenous rights and anti-mining activist Eustacio Alcalá Díaz was found dead in Michoacán, Mexico, three days after he was abducted by armed men while traveling with Catholic missionaries.

Díaz, who spearheaded a legal campaign to stop a transnational mining company – and won – was the ninth defender murdered or disappeared in Mexico so far this year.

Across the region, others have been harassed, threatened and criminally charged in retaliation for opposing land and water grabs linked to mining, dams and industrial agriculture, cementing the region’s ranking as one of the world’s most perilous for environmental and land rights defenders.

While the specific context of the repression varies from country to country, experts say a toxic mix of impunity, corruption and organised crime have permitted – and even encouraged – the imposition of extractive industries such as mining, energy and plantation crops in areas where communities depend on the land and water sources to thrive.

Across the region, authorities fail to consult local people over land use and major infrastructure projects, prompting protests and opposition that imperil the safety of community leaders, said Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders.

“We all know too well that the majority of crimes and attacks on environmental defenders remain largely unpunished, leaving victims and their families in great distress and sending the message that certain lives are worth less than economic profit … the roots of conflict are often found in the exclusion [by governments and businesses] of potentially affected communities from decisions regarding their land and natural resources,” Forst told the Guardian.

The rise in attacks against environmentalists and land rights activists comes as the rule of law and democracy is under threat in much of the region, as political leaders double down on militarisation and neoliberal economic policies.

Constitutional rights have been partially suspended by states of emergency in El Salvador and Honduras; in Guatemala, a network of corrupt political, economic and military elites is systematically dismantling the justice system; and in Mexico the media, rights groups and independent electoral system are under sustained attack by the populist president.

After the Covid economic crisis, governments across the region are looking to extractive industries such as mining and cash crops in hopes of securing much-needed foreign investment, despite warnings about dwindling land and water resources.

The Bajo Aguán region in northern Honduras is the region’s most deadly, where six men associated with an entrenched land struggle between African palm conglomerates and poor campesinos have been murdered since late December.

“The violence has escalated in response to our demands for justice in the Aguán, with a coordinated campaign to kill campesinos to generate terror,” said Yoni Rivas, a campesino leader who for years has been persecuted by paramilitary groups linked to palm magnates and military leaders. “It’s the same agroindustrial criminal structure as always, trying to create a false narrative that the violence is down to internal conflicts.”

The killings have continued unabated as the government claims that it is working on a long-term solution to resolve the decades-old dispute between the palm conglomerates and campesinos. With the recent spike, more than 180 campesinos are reported to have been murdered since the Honduran coup in 2009 with over 95% of cases unsolved. Many more have fled or withdrawn from the struggle in fear of their lives, while others have been co-opted.

Two water protectors have also been killed in Bajo Aguán this year. In January, Aly Domínguez, 38, and Jairo Bonilla, 28, co-founders of the Guapinol community resistance against an iron ore mine owned by one of the country’s most powerful couples, were shot dead in broad daylight.

Rights groups are increasingly frustrated with President Xiomara Castro, the ostensibly leftist leader who replaced the post-coup 12-year narco government in January 2022, but this week extended the country’s state of emergency.

In Mexico, 2023 got off to a terrible start when the Amuzgo Indigenous rights defender Remigio de la Cruz was shot dead at his home in Guerrero on 1 January. Twelve days later, members of the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel ambushed and murdered Isaúl Nemesio Zambrano, Miguel Estrada Reyes and Rolando Magno Zambrano, community guards in Santa María Ostula, a Nahua community in Michoacán that since 2009 has tried to defend their territory against criminal gangs.

On 15 January, in the same coastal-highland region of Michoacán, lawyer Ricardo Lagunes Gasca and Indigenous leader Antonio Díaz Valencia were abducted by armed men after attending a community meeting against mining. Both are still missing and their relatives have condemned the lack of effort by authorities: “Their duty was to find them quickly and alive, and they failed,” said Antoine Lagunes, brother of Ricardo.

Michoacán has become the most dangerous state for environmental and land defenders in Mexico, amid almost total impunity for the perpetrators and masterminds motivated by the natural resources – minerals, forests, rivers –concentrated in Indigenous territories, said Édgar Cortez from the Mexican Institute of Human Rights and Democracy. Several of the victims were under state “protective measures”, due to threats linked to their activism.

“The numbers are scandalous, governments must take more rigorous and consistent measures to stop the upward curve of violence … which is meant to intimidate defenders to give up and abandon their land, territory and community,” said Cortez.

One glimmer of good news came last month when the Indigenous Wixárika leader Santos de la Cruz Carrillo was released after being held by unknown men with his wife and children for 40 hours in the Sierra de Durango in northern Mexico. The abduction appeared to be in retaliation for a rare Wixárika victory, as just a week earlier De la Cruz had celebrated the restitution of 11,000 hectares of ancestral lands taken illegally from his community more than five decades earlier.

“I don’t want to go too deep into the facts, it’s a very delicate and really complex issue,” said De la Cruz, 43, after his release. “Fortunately we are safe and alive.”

In El Salvador five community leaders who played a crucial role in securing a historic mining ban in El Salvador were detained in January for alleged civil war-era crimes, in what rights groups fear is a ruse by the government to weaken opposition as it seeks to overturn the ban.

The anti-mining campaigners, who have been denied bail and access to their families and lawyers, are among 66,000 Salvadorans rounded up during the year-long state of emergency.

El Salvador’s water resources are in a perilous state due to unchecked industrial pollution and construction, and several water protectors were recently charged with trespass after reporting alleged environmental permit violations at a new residential complex.

“There is ample evidence that the government is seeking to reverse the 2017 mining ban, while creating conditions to increase persecution against environmental organisations,” said Pedro Cabezas, the El Salvador-based coordinator of the Central American alliance on mining.

Criminalisation – perverting the justice system to silence or weaken opposition to state and corporate abuses – is increasingly deployed against environmental defenders. In neighbouring Guatemala, there has been an exponential rise in trumped-up criminal charges against community and Indigenous leaders opposing environmentally destructive projects, according to data collated by the Protection Unit for Human Rights Defenders Guatemala – known by its Spanish acronym Udefegua.

“Incidents of defamation, stigmatisation, hate speech and arbitrary criminal complaints have gone up at least threefold since 2018 or so,” said Jorge Santos, coordinator of Udefegua. “Today in Guatemala, the principal repressive strategy has changed from physical violence and murder to killing people civilly.”

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