Mexico’s deadly toll of environment and land defenders catalogued in report

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At least 83 Mexican land and environment defenders were murdered between 2012 and 2019, while hundreds more were threatened, beaten and criminalized, according to a new report.

Latin America is the most dangerous continent in the world to defend environmental, land and human rights, with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala ranking worst.

In Mexico, this targeted violence has taken hold in the context of widespread impunity and escalating generalized violence since the ill-fated war on drugs was launched in 2006.

Quick guide Mexico’s evolving war on drugs
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Calderon sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderon, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacan.

Calderon hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Calderon also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltran Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderon’s successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderon’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Pena Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

“Hugs not bullets”

The leftwing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. Lopez Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

The situation for defenders was exacerbated by energy reforms in 2013, since when scores of renewable energy mega-projects have been imposed on rural and indigenous communities without adequate consultation or compensation.

Almost one in three attacks since 2012 targeted defenders opposing energy projects, especially wind and hydroelectric power, according to the Mexican Centre for Environmental Rights (known by its Spanish acronym, Cemed).

“The data shows persistent structural violence against defenders of environmental rights in our country, which prevents them having the freedom and security to exercise their right to defend human rights,” said a spokesperson for Cemed, which tracks attacks against communities opposing projects threatening forests, water sources and land rights.

The violence is spread across the country, but defenders in the southern state of Oaxaca have faced most attacks over the past eight years.

Oaxaca, one of the country’s poorest states with the highest proportion of indigenous peoples, is rich in natural resources such as minerals, rivers, forests and natural gas. The violence has been particularly marked in the biodiverse isthmus of Tehuantepec – a narrow land mass between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean where 28 mega wind farms now generate electricity.

The overall number of attacks in 2019 was the lowest since 2012. Nevertheless, 15 defenders were murdered and at least 25 others were threatened, harassed or subjected to smear campaigns.

This included the double murder of the indigenous Tarahumara defender Otilia Martinez Cruz and his son Chaparro Cruz, who were shot dead on 1 May 2019 – a year after another family member, Julian Carrillo, was killed.

More than a dozen Tarahumara defenders have been killed in recent years for trying to stop the illegal deforestation of their ancestral land in the Sierra Madre, a biodiverse mountain range in northern Mexico. They include Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, winner of the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, who was shot dead in 2017. The forests have long been targeted by illegal loggers abetted by corrupt officials and landowners.

In 2019, state officials such as police officers, national guard and local prosecutors, were responsible for 40% of incidents registered by Cemed.

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