Mexico is the deadliest place in the world for environmental activists


VICAM, Mexico — Mexico has become the deadliest place in the world for environmental and land defense activists, according to a global survey released Wednesday, and the indigenous Yaqui people of northern Mexico are still mourning the murder of the leader of the defense of water, Tomás Rojo, found dead in June 2021.

The killing of indigenous land defenders often conjures up images of Amazon activists killed deep in the jungle – and Colombia and Brazil are still responsible for many deaths. But according to a report by the non-governmental group Global Witness, Mexico saw 54 activists killed in 2021, compared to 33 in Colombia and 26 in Brazil. The group recorded the deaths of 200 activists worldwide in 2021.

Latin America accounted for more than two-thirds of these killings – often of the bravest and most respected people in their communities.

Such was the case of Tómas Rojo, who authorities say was killed by a local gang of drug traffickers who wanted the money Yaquis sometimes earn by collecting tolls at informal highway checkpoints.

Between 2010, when state authorities built a pipeline to siphon water from the Yaquis for use in the state capital, Hermosillo, until 2020, Rojo led a series of protests and acts of civil disobedience, including an intermittent months-long state shutdown. main road, which caused millions of losses to businesses and industry.

People who knew Rojo don’t believe the toll money theory: They say he was killed by powerful interests who profit from Yaqui land and water rights in the northern border state of Sonora, across the border from Arizona.

“Tomás has demonstrated his ability as a natural leader. He was a descendant of warriors,” said Fernando Jiménez, who fought alongside Rojo in a move to defend the tribe’s water after the government built a dam to divert water from Yaqui to growing Hermosillo. fast in 2010.

Rojo’s body was found half-buried near Vicam, nearly three weeks after he went missing. He was first identified by a red scarf he was wearing when he left the house.

Rojo was a descendant of Tetabiate, a Yaqui chief killed in a 1901 battle with the government, which deported the surviving Yaquis to work in slave-like conditions on henequen plantations in the remote Yucatan. The last battle against the Yaquis took place in 1927 and included the government using aircraft against warriors still armed primarily with bows and arrows.

In 2014, Sonora state authorities attempted to arrest Rojo and Jiménez on what Yaqui leaders believe were bogus kidnapping charges – which were later dismissed; Rojo evaded capture and fled to Mexico City, but Jiménez was imprisoned in the state capital at Hermosillo. The two kept the movement alive by speaking in the Yaqui language in prison phone calls.

“In prison, they made you speak Spanish,” Jiménez recalls. “They didn’t want me to speak my native language because they wanted to know what I was saying.”

The Yaqui are the legal owners of at least half of the water in the river basin that bears their name and which they have defended through nearly five centuries of slaughter and extermination. But they have seen much of their water redirected to power booming industries and projects to plant vines and avocado trees in the desert.

Last month, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador apologized to the Yaquis for past abuses and promised a series of infrastructure programs to improve their lives. But López Obrador has refused to stop the siphoning of their water, although local water district manager Humberto Borbón says it’s “100% illegal” and court rulings have backed the position of the local authorities. Yaquis.

The Yaquis find themselves at the center of a perfect storm: everyone from Mexican drug cartels to water-hungry lithium mines covet their land. But they themselves live in poverty and often do not even have running water at home.

César Cota, a mason and farmer who worked alongside Tomás Rojo, sat by the Yaqui River – now just a dry ravine – and recounted 500 years of Yaqui struggle.

Near his home, in the village of Cocorit, Yaqui warriors confront the Spanish conquistador Diego de Guzman in 1533.

“Our ancestors drew a line in the earth and said, ‘If you cross this, you will be at war with us,'” Cota said. in 2022, we shouldn’t have to fight anymore.”

Cota said the river was crucial for the Yaquis. When it flowed steadily, strong reeds grew on its banks which the Yaqui used to build everything from houses to burial brews.

“It’s an injustice, it’s a great sadness to see our river without water,” Cota said. “This river bears our name. This is where the animals live, our medicinal plants, our reeds. We have no more reeds. When someone dies, relatives must buy reeds to make their funeral beer.

“If that river were to flow out to sea again (the Gulf of California), that would be the greatest victory we could ever have,” Cota said.

Rojo’s father, Guillermo Rojo, 84, lives in the traditional Yaqui village of Potam. In the humble family home, almost everything – fences, walls, roofs, mats and even hearths – is made of woven reeds. Due to the semi-desert landscape, the trees that grow here are small and twisted, so mud-filled mats of reeds serve as walls and cooking surfaces.

The elder Rojo recalled Tomás, his son, as “an iron will since he was a young boy”.

“He didn’t forget where he came from, who his ancestors were, and maybe that’s what led him to become a social activist.”

The family tradition is impressive: after Tetabiate – the eldest Rojo’s grandfather – was killed in battle in 1901, the Mexican government sold his surviving family members into slavery.

“When people ask me who my ancestors were, I tell them that I am the descendant of slaves,” he said.

Even today, most Yaquis of Potam live in reed houses; only those who are wealthy enough to buy and operate small electric pumps have running water.

While some still cultivate the surrounding fields, most Yaquis work as gardeners, masons, or laborers in nearby towns. They only grow corn and wheat on about 42,000 acres (17,000 hectares) because they don’t have enough water for irrigation, despite a 1930s presidential decree guaranteeing them enough water to irrigate more than three times as much land.

This lack of water threatens the survival of the Yaqui culture, whose traditional Lenten season costumed dance performances are depicted in statues across the state – even as the people themselves and their culture die.

With little water, widespread poverty and no agricultural work available, young Yaquis began to migrate to nearby towns and the US border town of Nogales, and rarely return to fulfill their roles in traditional dances. Drug cartels have settled because they view the Yaqui Territory as a lucrative route to smuggle drugs into the United States. And lithium deposits are found north of the Yaquis, and apparently in their territory as well.

“They have already granted around seven mining concessions in our territory, without ever consulting us,” Jiménez said. “The violence started in our communities, with rival gangs, kidnappings and everything led to the decline of Yaqui society. Addiction has increased, with methamphetamine use undermining our young people.

Rojo’s father shook his head and added, “Before, they tried to exterminate us with guns. Now they are trying to exterminate us through addiction.

The drug-related violence that unleashed in Sonora claimed the lives of many Yaqui. In September 2021, just months after Rojo’s death, one of the cartels apparently arrested five young Yaqui men in the village of Loma de Bacum and massacred them.

The cartel had set up clandestine airstrips for drug thefts on Yaqui lands. When the Mexican military found and destroyed the airstrips, the cartel allegedly suspected the Yaquis of passing information about the airstrips to authorities.

The Yaquis say that is not true and that the young men were just innocent victims. Indeed, some still doubt the official identification of their remains.

But the Yaquis’ main complaints have gone unanswered by the government, which has defended the use of water for industrialization in Hermosillo, which has a huge Ford car factory and booming industry and suburbs.

The Yaquis themselves will not say who they believe ordered the murder of Tomás Rojo; they live in a largely lawless state where a drug cartel, corrupt politician, or powerful businessman can order such a murder with impunity.

“It’s like every case, here in Mexico and everywhere else in the world,” Jiménez said. “Governments always tend to conquer the strongest leaders, the strongest voices disappear.”

ABC News

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