Those who defend the Sierra Tarahumara, one of the most important forested areas in Mexico, are up against drug traffickers, local political bosses, extractive projects and government indifference. These defenders are mainly indigenous people whose identities were forged in the mountains, cliffs, forests and creeks. Without their territory, they say, they are nothing. This is why they protect it. It is the reason they oppose their forests being cut down and their springs drying up. It is the reason they confront those who try to cut off their roots.
When someone dies in the family of the Rarámuri, indigenous people from Coloradas de la Virgen, it is their custom to drink tesgüino, a corn fermented traditional drink. They collect the objects that the deceased person cherished or made, everything that identifies that person, and then give them to him or her symbolically. They talk with the person and give them advice. They advise them not to return and to remain with those who have already died. To stay there. To rest.
It must be done three times if the deceased was a man and four times if it was a woman, explains a traditional Rarámuri doctor. He is a defender of the forests of his territory and friend of Julián Carrillo Martínez, a Rarámuri, murdered on October 24, 2018 in Coloradas de la Virgen, a community from Sierra Tarahumara in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
The day after Julián was murdered, his family left Coloradas de la Virgen. They knew the murderers could come back and kill them as well. They abandoned their house, their belongings and their animals. They were prevented from following their custom. Julián did not have the farewell of his community’s tradition.
“He knew that they wanted to kill him”, says María, his wife, in Rarámuri. The traditional doctor translates her words to Spanish. “He said that if something happened to him, we should stay on the farm. If we chose to leave we would not be able to come back to our land. But we had to leave.”
María has suffered the death of her people. In February 2016 they murdered her son Víctor Carrillo. In December that year, they burnt her house down. In 2017 they killed two of her nephews and in July 2018 they killed her son-in-law. And now, she has lost Julián. She is far from home and displaced with her four sons, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren in the north of the country.
The community of Coloradas de la Virgen, including Julián and his family, have been receiving death threats for years. The threats increased when the indigenous people began their legal fight to oppose the cutting down of trees grown in the territory inhabited by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
When Julián was murdered, he was the community’s president of collective property. His role was to protect what belonged to all of them: trees, water and land.
Weeks before his murder, he discovered that the Mexican government had granted concessions for mining in Coloradas de la Virgen.
One of these concessions was granted to Mario Humberto Ayub Touche, a powerful entrepreneur from Chihuahua, and two sons of Artemio Fontes Lugo, a local political boss who has a long been reported by indigenous people as the person responsible for the cutting down of their forest and the dispossession of their territory, as well as being linked to drug-trafficking groups.
Julián was murdered soon after he and his colleagues who defend the forests of Coloradas de la Virgen began denouncing the existence of these mining concessions for the exploration and exploitation of minerals in their community.
Coloradas de la Virgen is only one of several communities from the Sierra Tarahumara that defend their natural resources and territory from local bosses, concessions for mining, touristic projects, illegal logging and drug trafficking.
Defending an ancestral territory
Coloradas de la Virgen lies in the southern part of the state of Chihuahua and the Sierra Tarahumara, in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo. A territory with more than 49,500 hectares shared by the Rarámuri Indians and to a lesser degree by the Ódami, who live dispersed in about 50 small farm houses.
This is the land where Julián was born. He and his colleagues inherited the battle that their parents began years ago to defend their forest. The indigenous people from Coloradas de la Virgen have been claiming recognition of their territory since 1934, without any success.
In 1953 after several of the indigenous people who first campaigned for recognition of their territory had died, the Mexican government registered the most forested area as an ejido (or a type of common land). The remaining territory, in particular the canyons, remained an agrarian community.
“The people from that time allowed him to stay… But then they never wanted to leave. They started to grow poppy and marijuana and cutting down trees”
In 1992 an assembly was held to determine a new list of ejidatarios (common landowners) because many of them had died. Julián and other inhabitants of Coloradas denounced several irregularities that happened during the assembly. For instance, several signatures and “digital prints” of indigenous people who had already died at that time appeared on documents. Seventy-eight new members were included in the ejido, the majority of whom were not indigenous. Artemio Fontes Lugo and some of his relatives and workers were among them.
Artemio Fontes Lugo settled in Coloradas de la Virgen in the 70s. “He arrived with his family”, narrate the elders of the community, “The people from that time allowed him to stay… But then they never wanted to leave. They started to grow poppy and marijuana and cutting down trees”.
The indigenous people reported the abuse of the Fontes family but only encountered indifference from the Mexican environmental authorities. In April 2007, the ejido, which was under the control of Artemio Fontes Lugo, was granted permits for use and exploitation of the Coloradas de la Virgen forest.
Following the advice of the Sierra Madre Alliance, the Rarámuri and Ódami decided to take legal action to demand the cancellation of forest exploitation permits and the recognition of their right to the territory where they have lived for generations.
Poppy instead of trees
Chihuahua, located in the north of Mexico, is the state with one of the most important forest surfaces of the country. It has 16.5 million hectares, of which 7.6 million are coniferous and lowland deciduous forests, ecosystems concentrated in the mountains, cliffs and valleys that shape the Tarahumara Range.
According to researcher Salvador Anta Fonseca of the Mexican Civil Council for Sustainable Forestry, most of the water that disperses throughout the semiarid area of Chihuahua and nourishes large agricultural areas of Sinaloa comes from the springs of the Sierra Tarahumara.
This is also one of the regions with most forest damage. According to the Global Forest Watch monitoring initiative, the region lost 19,100 hectares from 2001 to 2017. The most serious impacts were registered in 2012 (almost 4,500 hectares) and 2017 (nearly 2,000 hectares).
Guadalupe y Calvo, where Coloradas de la Virgen is located, is one of the municipalities that has sustained the highest tree loss. From 2001 to 2017 at least 3,014 hectares of forest were felled, according to data from Global Forest Watch. The most critical years were 2011, 2016 and 2017.
Those who grew up in Coloradas de la Virgen remember the clearing of forest becoming more extensive since the 1980s. From then on, people from outside the community started arriving, began growing marijuana and poppy and cutting down trees. Sometimes they set fire to the area after clearing off all its trees. Most of the time they would take the wood in rolls and sell it in the sawmills of the city of Parral.
What used to happen in only a few communities began to extend into several regions of the Sierra Tarahumara, especially since the federal government of then president Felipe Calderón launched what he called the “war” against drug trafficking in 2008. From that moment on, the mountain region of Chihuahua became an area of territorial struggles between different groups seeking control over opium poppy cultivation, as well as dispossessing local communities of their territory and natural resources.
In 1996, five municipalities of the mountain range were identified as drug crop areas. Today, the number has increased to 20, according to a report published in 2018 by the civil organization Community Technical Consultancy (Contec) titled “Diagnosis and Proposals on violence in the Sierra Tarahumara”.
The report also indicates that while the growing of marijuana stopped in Tarahumara in 2012 when it began to be legalized in some regions of the United States, opium poppy crops increased.
The soil surface of opium poppy crops increased from 25,200 to 30,600 hectares from 2016 to 2017
According to monitoring carried out by the United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the government of Mexico, the soil surface of opium poppy crops increased from 25,200 to 30,600 hectares from 2016 to 2017.
This report points out that the area known as “The Golden Triangle” where the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua share territory (in the south of the Sierra Tarahumara), is among the main producers of opium poppy in the country.
The traditional doctor, granted anonymity because he has been subject to threats, explains how his community began to suffer the loss of their forest:
“Before they began to cut down trees there was lots of water; there was a lot of snow; there was a life for us: a good harvest, it rained a lot, the streams did not run dry. If the wood disappears, the springs of the land will dry up. It will be the end of the wild animals. Everything will be finished. Where wood exists, everything lives.”
Feeding the streams
Rarámuri women meet at the Bahuinocachi school to speak about what they have been suffering during the past few months. Some of them walked for about half an hour to get to the school. Along the way they passed by the remains of what was a part of their forest. Now only scattered branches and stumps remain on the land.
Only the women with their coloured scarfs and shawls wrapped around their heads and bodies attend the meeting. The men went to work the land or stayed at home. Only the women dare to tell their stories. They do it in an organized way, without interrupting each other.
The first forest destroyers arrived in this region of the municipality of Bocoyna in February 2018. They cleared the forest through day and night. This carried on for months. Stones were used to block the paths and complaints were filed before the environmental and state federal authorities, all attempts in vain. The police and inspectors only visited some of the affected areas, but never saw the most impacted ones.
Finally, in October 26, 2018, when 5,000 trees had already been cut down in an area of 226 hectares, some federal and state officials arrived, among them the governor of the state, Javier Corral. They promised a strategy to stop illegal forest clearing in the Sierra Tarahumara. Fifteen days had not passed before the illegal loggers returned.
The women from Bahuinocachi speak very softly as if whispering a secret:
—Now they’ve come back to cut trees. Well, they are making a mess. They are leaving everything completely bald.
—And we, unable to do anything, because they are armed.
—Now they have destroyed everything. How are those trees going to grow again?
—It will be 20 o 30 years before the small pines can become strong and with good seed. We have been planting pines already, but let’s see if they grow because there are no big pines to protect them from the cold anymore. When ice sticks to them they dry more easily.
The women remember what their parents used to tell them, “The trees that are close to the streams should not be cut down because the water will leave”.
They learned a more ancient ritual from their grandparents: to feed the streams with pinole (traditional flower made with corn) and tortilla. And when they feed them, they chat with the water that is born in that place.
—We ask it not to leave. We feed the water for it to become stronger and not leave that place, so we can continue alive ourselves, all our family and also the animals. We talk with the stream about all of that.
When the women are asked if there is a Rarámuri word to name the hills or mountains that are left without any trees, they look each other, speak in their language and then explain that those places are called “bald hills”; places where nothing is left anymore.
Before the Bahuinocachi women reported what was happening to their land, other areas of the municipality of Bocoyna had already suffered illegal forest clearing and arson forest fires.
In July 2017, the indigenous communities and ejidos of the municipalities of Bocoyna, Carichí y Guachochi as well as some civil organizations, appealed to the federal and state authorities to reinstate a forest management policy and “put a halt to the devastation of forests in the Sierra Tarahumara.”
They highlighted what many communities have reported: groups linked to organized crime were cutting down trees and then setting fire to great swathes of land.
Once upon a time nearly 480 Rarámuri families used to live in a community named El Manzano, in the municipality of Urique. Today, the number of inhabitants is uncertain.
El Manzano began to change when it became common to see armed men who were not from the community.
Those who used to live there tell the story.
Before, only a few families dedicated themselves to growing marijuana and opium poppy. They could sell their crop to the highest bidder. For a kilogram of opium gum, for instance, they could get paid up to 15,000 pesos (780 dollars). The “outsiders” arrived, bought and then left.
But as of 2011, “the outsiders” began to stay and force people to grow and sell the crops to them. The payment for a kilogram of opium gum decreased to 3,000 pesos (156 dollars).
The same men that controled the opium poppy crops “recruited” young people from the community. They forced them into their vans, kidnapped them for a few days, threatened them and then forced them to “work” as sicarios (hired assassins). If anyone resisted they were killed. This is what they did to Benjamín Sánchez, murdered on February 27, 2015.
Benjamin’s family was forced to move away from El Manzano. Other families followed them. The same fate was suffered by the inhabitants of at least ten other communities of the Rocoroyvo Ejido, in the municipality of Urique, as claimed in the testimonies of displaced people, who for security reasons ask that their names not to be published, and who have been granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
The displacement of people increased when the group that controls the area decided to impose their own rules, including the management of forests: the ejidatarios are only allowed to sell their logs to them. The ejidos that resist the rule are not allowed to commercialize their wood.
“The forest exploitation, highlighted in the report by Contec, has not brought any benefits to the indigenous communities who do not have a voice in the ejido assemblies, even when they are living inside the ejidos and on private property. ”
According to what has been documented by organizations, among them CONTEC, other ejidos are required to provide official documents in order to use them for “legalizing” illegal forest clearing.
Contec’s report points out that “There is control of forest activity by organized crime. This control goes from the stealing of guides (documents that certify that a tree was cut down legally), illegal and legal tree chopping, transport and commercialization, including imposing regional bans when people refuse to sell to criminals”.
The report also points out that federal environmental authorities grant forest use permits over areas inhabited by indigenous communities without previously consulting with the local population, as required by international and national legislation.
Examples of this are the cases of Coloradas de la Virgen, Choréachi and Bosque de San Elías Repechique. These communities have had to file complaints to courts to demand that these permits be canceled.
The forest exploitation, highlighted in the report by Contec, has not brought any benefits to the indigenous communities who do not have a voice in the ejido assemblies, even when they are living inside the ejidos and on private property.
The report also points out that “the intensive use of the forest in terms of both legal and illegal exploitation has made a serious impact on the living conditions of the indigenous communities, both in terms of domestic forest use and in the environmental conditions affecting the streams that have traditionally provided them with water”.
—Wood (trees) means a lot for the territory because it is what maintains the stability of water. The water that falls from the clouds filters and is saved there. However, when wood is cut down irresponsibly it causes a disaster, the forest burns. When the rain comes it takes everything with it. There is nothing to hold it, nothing to filter it. The water goes away —says José Trinidad Baldenegro, whose father and brother were murdered for trying to defend this environmental stability.
Land, water and indifference
The Mesa Blanca, El Cable and Mesa de las Espuelas, communities of the municipality of Madera inhabited by the O’oba indigenous community (also known as Pimas), were the first communities who experienced what later spread in the Tarahumara region: from 2008 these communities began to lose indigenous people after groups linked to drug trafficking increased violence against them.
Some families opted to lend their lands for the cultivation of opium poppy, but little by little they were dispossessed of their lands when they didn’t agree to work for these groups, recounts one currently displaced leader who asked for anonymity to protect his life.
The anthropologist Horacio Almanza explains that the O’oba indigenous people began migrating from their communities in 2004 because of the lack of water, as happened with the community of Las Espuelas.
Other O’oba communities from the municipalities of Madera and Temósachic have reported the contamination of the Tutuaca river and other water sources due to the Dolores mine activity to different authorities. This mine belongs to the Canadian enterprise Pan American Silver Corp., which began its operations to extract gold and silver in 2009.
The Warijíos, another indigenous group that inhabits the Sierra Tarahumara, have also been victims of dispossession. On March 29, 2011, men dressed in military type uniforms arrived in the community of Jicamórachi, in the municipality of Uruachi. They fired shots in all directions and burned houses and vehicles. The families escaped to the hills. Within ten days the army had arrived and installed themselves in the primary school.
Of the 122 Mestizo (mixed-race) and Warijío families that lived in Jicamórachi only 40 are still there.
The community known as Guasachoque, also as Correcoyote, is a Rarámuri community from the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo. This community was the birthplace of Irineo Meza. He was murdered on December 4, 2014. He was 23 years old. He denounced the dispossession of lands in his community and opposed the opening of mines in the region.
The community of El Tule y Portugal, in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, has also been losing its people. In October 2018, Joaquín Díaz Morales, another indigenous leader, 74 years of age, was murdered. Joaquín was the fire brigade chief of the municipality. They had already killed the ejido commissioner Crescencio Díaz Vargas and threatened inhabitants that decided to sue a family of local political bosses for dispossession of territories.
“They send messages, that if one doesn’t want problems, one should go away… You cannot complain to the police, the judicial, the guachos (military), there is no support. There is not trust. They don’t believe you”, says one of the displaced people from El Tule y Portugal.
Similar words are heard from the displaced Ódami people of the community of Cordón de la Cruz, in Coloradas de la Virgen. They indicate that the Cornelio and Aurelio Alderete Arciniega brothers are responsible for the threats and dispossession of lands.
“They want to appropriate 3,500 hectares; lands where the community herd their cattle. Now they don’t allow us to enter there. Those are lands they want for the opium poppy. There are about 20 complaints filed, but only one has been resolved”, says José Ángel, member of one of the Ódami displaced families.IN THESE IMAGES: SCHOOL OF JICAMÓRACHI, WHERE THE ARMY MOVED; THE FOOTPRINTS OF VIOLENCE LOOKING AT THE TARAHUMARA ROADS; THE DISPLACED FAMILIES WHO NOW LIVE IN PLACES LIKE BABORIGAME; ONE OF THE ASSEMBLIES IN CHORÉACHI AND THE JULIÁN CARRILLO FAMILY THAT HOPES TO RETURN TO HIS LAND.
Puerto Gallego, in the municipality of Urique, is among the localities on the tourist route in the Sierra Tarahumara. It is also the route for drugs traffickers. The Rarámuri leader Fabián Carrillo was born in this community.
He was 40 years old when he had to leave his home in Puerto Gallego; armed men threatened him. They wanted his land. Fabián left his community, but he did not abandon the defense of his territory.
“The men from the government don’t do anything. It has been harder since September (2014) because they arrived with the sole intention of taking our lands away from us. There are still invasions. Many people are forced to cultivate drugs”, narrated Fabián in 2016.
Fabian was keeping a record of all the Rarámuri indigenous governors and the problems they were facing due to the threats to the forest. He persistently sought, even when in exile, to have his complaints heard in courts and in the Tarahumara State Coordination.
He was threatened several times, but he understood the modus operandi of the criminals and method of organization. This understanding allowed him to go through the range avoiding those who did not want him to talk. He died at the end of September 2017 due to tuberculosis.
If they want to use their water they are charged a fee.
The indigenous people from Guapalayna, a tropical region of the municipality of Urique, have been forced to move away from their homes because in this region, indigenous people are not only dispossessed of their lands, they are also deprived of their water supply. If they want to use their water they are charged a fee.
Most of the communities throughout the Sierra Tarahumara know the name and history of the bosses or drug trafficking heads who threaten them and rob them of their lands. Several of those names have been reported to all level of authorities. None of them has been judged.
Isela González, director of the Sierra Madre Alliance, says that terror has been sown in order to depopulate the territory, forcing the men and women who give it meaning to leave, “because their presence is what gives character to the territory. Their intention is to leave the territory empty of the people who were born there, the people who have always lived there, who have been raised as Rarámuri and who have remained there despite all the adversities, the Rarámuri culture.”
The physical strength of the indigenous people from the Sierra Tarahumara begins developing when they are little. They walk for hours and hours throughout the range, among cliffs and slopes, to visit family in other communities, to herd goats, to go to school (when there are teachers) or to see a doctor. Long walks are also in order whenever they have to denounce the dispossession of their trees and territory. For several years they have been organizing caravans in Chihuahua and outside the state.
One of these caravans arrived in Mexico City. It was in July 2014 before the national senators that 35 traditional governors of indigenous communities exposed the illegal land grabbing they were experiencing in the range.
In this meeting, they exposed Artemio Fontes Lugo as one of the people responsible for the threats and murders of traditional authorities in Coloradas de la Virgen.
This exposure was registered in a document written by a group of senators on March 15, 2016 in which they urged federal authorities to tackle the problems and violence in the Sierra Tarahumara.
“They murdered Cirilo because he didn’t want to work for Artemio Fontes taking the wood out; that’s why they ordered his murder”
In the document they mention the case of Cirilo Portillo Torres, an Ódami indian murdered on March 14, 1992. Portillo Torres was the traditional police commissioner and secretary of communal property of Coloradas de la Virgen.
“They murdered Cirilo because he didn’t want to work for Artemio Fontes taking the wood out; that’s why they ordered his murder,” narrates an indigenous former governor of Coloradas de la Virgen, who has received threats for defending the territory and trees of his community. He is now displaced from his territory together with his family and many of his colleagues.
The people who have been displaced from Coloradas de la Virgen and other communities of the Sierra Tarahumara are dispersed throughout the cities of Chihuahua, Guachochi, Parral y Cuauhtémoc. They work in orchards or in fisheries. Others try to find work in construction or survive by laying asphalt.
“On our farm, we could sow corn, beans. With just a little we could always eat. Here we can’t. Neither can we follow our customs or our celebrations as we used to before. We would like to go back, but how can we do that? They burned our home, stole the animals and they are still there,” says one of the displaced women in Baborigame. Their two daughters, 23 and 26 years old, have already suffered widowhood.
As part of our reporting we requested interviews with the governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, and the Deputy Secretary of Human Rights of the federal government, Alejandro Encinas. These requests were made on two occasions through the press officers in charge of their agendas. They responded that there was no space in their schedules.
In defence of community in community
According to the cases collected in the database of this project, at least 15 forest and territory defenders have been killed in the Sierra Tarahumara between January 2009 and December 2018.
These cases have been reported many times by civil organizations.
According to a human rights defender, who asks for anonymity because only by maintaining a low profile is she able to visit these communities, there are other defenders that have been murdered but are not in the statistics because the killings happen in areas where there are no organizations working, either because these places are very remote and difficult to access or because the territories are occupied by drug dealers.
In Chihuahua, the largest state in the country, less than ten civil organizations support the communities in their battle for defense of their territory and environment.
Furthermore, the members of these organizations have also received threats because of their work and they do not have the appropriate resources and personnel to denounce and expose the problems that many communities of the Sierra Tarahumara have been suffering.
Despite these difficulties, over the past five years, together they have achieved legal victories in their battle for the defense of their territory and environment.
“These are projects of death, not of life, because they uphold individual interests, not community interests”Javier Ávila Aguirre.
In 2017, after a seven year legal process led by Contec, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice recognized the right to ancestral territory of the Rarámuri community of Huitosachi, located in the municipality of Urique.
The 260 hectares that constitute the ancestral territory of this community are located in Copper Canyon, one of the most touristic areas of the Sierra Tarahumara. The defence of the territory became necessary in the courts in 2015, when a real state agency owned by Federico Elías Madero claimed that the land belonged to him and tried to remove the Rarámuri from their territory. He was not successful.
Another victory was achieved by the Bosques de San Elías Repechique community, located in the north of the Sierra Tarahumara in the municipality of Bocoyna. The community managed to prevent the TransCanada gas pipeline from passing through their territory. The company had to modify their original construction plan.
“These great mining, touristic or gas pipeline projects have caused serious damage to the atmosphere and ecology, but mostly to the communities. These are projects of death, not of life, because they uphold individual interests, not community interests,” says Jesuit priest Javier Ávila Aguirre, director of the Solidarity and Human Rights Defense Commission (Cosyddhac).
In October 2018, the Agrarian Superior Court, based in Mexico City, recognized the right the Rarámuri community of Choréachi has to their natural resources and ancestral territory, comprising 32,832 hectares. The community that is located in the municipality of Guadalupe has been granted provisional precautionary measures by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CoIDH) due to the threats it has received.
“Communities are demanding that the national laws be aligned with international standards for the rights of indigenous peoples. It has cost a lot, but we have managed little by little to achieve some recognition of collective rights of communities and we have to carry on,” says Ernesto Palencia, legal adviser of Sierra Madre Alliance.
The Rarámuri community of Baquiachi, located in the municipality of Carichí, won 32 trials against cattle ranchers that dispossessed this community of over 7,500 hectares of their ancestral territory.
During this legal process, Estela Ángeles Mondragón, director and lawyer of the Bowerasa association received several threats. Her daughter suffered a murder attempt and her partner, Ernesto Rábago Martínez, was killed on March 1, 2010.
This did not stop Estela Ángeles. She continued fighting for her cause together with the community of Baquiachi. She learned an expression from them that can often be heard in Rarámuri, she now repeats in Spanish: “Without territory, one is nothing. We are nothing.”
The director of Sierra Madre Alliance, Isela González, explains that by uniting to support these communities we are defending “a territory that for them is indivisible, natural resources that are collective and the elements that promote life in the form of community. Tt reproduces material and therefore symbolically their culture. Without territory, this, their culture, is not possible.”
The anthropologist Horacio Almanza, who has been investigating these defense processes, highlights that “the environmental battle is often personified in a leader, but behind the leaders are the communities, and these communities are the ones that give strength to those defenders who are usually traditional authorities that constitute a mature and solid normative system. That’s why the battles for the defense of the environment in the Sierra Tarahumara are collective.”
First were the trees, and now are the minerals
Horacio Almanza explains: “The history of Chihuahua is linked to mining. It has had crisis and times of depression, but it came back strong with the Canadian mining companies”.
Nationally, Chihuahua is the third largest producer of gold and second of silver. Zinc and lead are also extracted.
If we were to place red marks on the areas of the map where mining concessions have been granted in the Sierra Tarahumara, a good part of its territory would be scarlet.
Of the 3,323 mining concessions granted in the state of Chihuahua almost half of them are in the Sierra, according to the public database on mining concessions at the Directorate General of Mines, a department within Mexico’s Ministry of Economy.
The municipalities of the range that have indigenous communities displaced due to threats and murders of their leaders are among the regions with more concessions. In Guadalupe y Calvo, for instance, they have granted 142 mining concessions, according to the above mentioned database. In Coloradas de la Virgen and its surrounding areas at least four permits have been granted for the exploration and exploitation of minerals.
One of the permits involves 3,104 hectares located in the area that the inhabitants of Coloradas de la Virgen are claiming as part of their ancestral territory. The people benefiting from this mining concession are Arcadio and Artemio Fontes Martínez —the sons of Artemio Fontes Lugo— and Mario Humberto Ayub Touche, who belongs to a family of entrepreneurs in Chihuahua.
Mario Humberto and his brothers, among them Sergio Ayub Touche, are business partners in mining companies and real estate agencies. They are also owners of Duraplay Comercial S.A. de C.V., a company that according to documents from Chihuahua’s Public Registry of Commerce specializes in the manufacture of all kind of products related to the forestry industry.
They are also linked to companies in tax havens. Sergio Ayub Touche is the director of Indycom International Holdings Ltd, a company created on December 17, 2012 in the Bahamas, according to documents obtained by the Süddeutsche Zeitung German newspaper and shared in 2016 with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as part of an investigation known as Bahamas Leaks; access to these documents was given to the nonprofit civil association, Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI for its acronym in Spanish).
Apart from the 12 mining permits granted to Mario Humberto Ayub in Chihuahua and Sonora, he was also granted two concessions in 1994 y 1999 that allowed him to extract water for agricultural use.
Regarding Artemio Fontes Lugo, in 2016 he obtained a permit renewal from the Mexican government to operate an aerodrome in the municipality of Cusihuirriachi until the year 2031.
Mexico’s Ministry of Economy granted a mining concession to the sons of Fontes Lugo and to Mario Humberto Ayub Touche on May 24, 2010 which is valid for a period of 50 years.
This concession was granted without previous consultation, as required by national and international law, of the Rarámuri and Ódami indigenous communities of Coloradas de la Virgen. Furthermore, no authority informed them of the existence of these mining permits. Julián Carrillo along with other inhabitants of Coloradas de la Virgen found out when they were attending a workshop about mining.
The first conviction
The Baborigame cemetery houses the tomb of Isidro Baldenegro, the Rarámuri leader who was murdered on January 15, 2017 in Coloradas de la Virgen. This copper-skinned man was part of the group of indigenous people who walked in caravans to denounce illegal logging in their communities. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as the Green Nobel, in 2005 for his defence of the forest. In October 1986, his father, Julio Baldenegro, was murdered due to the same cause. He was the traditional governor of Coloradas de la Virgen.
“We learned to defend the land by watching and by hearing about how others defended it, from observing our parents and the elderly people”, said the now deceased Julián Carrillo.
“We defend what many people before us defended, what is ours, the territory, the forest. If we defend it now, at this time, it means that we are defending it for those that will come after our children and after our grandchildren”, says José Baldenegro, son of Julio and brother of Isidro.
Apart from receiving death threats, Isidro was also confronted with an allegation and spent fifteen months in jail.
“They sowed opium poppy and marijuana seeds on his farm; they sowed everything on his farm, it was all a lie… He was a colleague that was fighting together with us for the forest”, remembers one of the Rarámuri that was with Isidro in one of the caravans that they organized in 2003 to demand that the authorities stop illegal forest clearing in Coloradas de la Virgen. After one of those protests he was accused and arrested.
Isidro was acquitted and released from jail after different organizations conducted a campaign to demand his liberation. Amnesty International declared him a “prisoner of conscience”. He was released in 2004. He returned to live in Coloradas de la Virgen for a while but had to leave the community because he continued receiving threats. He was murdered when he was visiting sick relatives in Coloradas de la Virgen. His two sons were eight and seven years old at that time.
A report about the situation of environmental human rights defenders, published in March 2019 by the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA, for its Spanish acronym), points out that after homicide, criminalization or legal harassment is one of the most frequent aggressions against these defenders.
“They sowed opium poppy and marijuana seeds on his farm; they sowed everything on his farm, it was all a lie…”
The report highlights lack of investigation of crimes committed against defenders, inefficient protection measures when these defenders are threatened, and improper use of the judicial system to criminalize their defence work, underlining that “these are strategies that leave people in a higher state of vulnerability and risk”.
Romero Rubio Martínez was the person arrested for the homicide of Isidro Baldenegro. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison on February 19, 2019. In sentencing him, the judge, Javier Cornejo Páez, did not consider the harm done to the community as an aggravating circumstance.
“Two of our main challenges are making sure that investigations take into account that people like Isidro were led community efforts to defend a collective heritage and that they not only identify the perpetrators of these crimes but also the masterminds behind them”, says Alejandra Nuño, a lawyer at the Centre for the Human Rights of Women (CEDEHM, for its Spanish acronym). This human rights organization follows up on complaints filed for homicides of environmental and land defenders of the Sierra Tarahumara.
Nuño points out that these complaints seek to make the verdict publicly known and that these rulings acknowledge the victims as well as the harm caused by these homicides of leaders on both the community and to our society.
“It is essential that the judiciary values the relevance that their verdict has so that society can understand that defenders make a substantial contribution, not only towards democracy but towards tackling inequalities, violence and injustice that the state has not been able to resolve”, Nuño stresses.
The wife of Isidro Baldenegro, Aurelia Churivista, and their two children are currently living in the city of Chihuahua. They are still not used to living far away from Coloradas de la Virgen. For them, the ruling against the material author (perpetrator) of the homicide was minimum.
“Imagine, he will be set free in nine years because he has already spent two years in jail. My children say, ‘well, he is going to leave and he will return to his town; he will go back to his family; and us? When are we going to see our father again?’’
To recover the Sierra
The threats against the indigenous people of Coloradas de la Virgen have intensified, as proven by the increased number of complaints against forest use permits in courts.
The increase of threats induced the Mexican government to integrate four members of the community, among them Julián Carrillo, into the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in 2014. These protection measures did not shield the life of Julián.
The report “Entre balas y olvido” (“Between bullets and oblivion”) published by Amnesty International in January 2019, indicates that the Mexican state fails in guaranteeing a secure and propitious environment for advocates, in particular because the measures are not adequate in terms of the risk that the community of Coloradas de la Virgen has had to face. The area has a low state authority presence and a strong presence of organized crime groups.
Julián resisted leaving his community. He did not leave after his son Victor or his two nephews were killed.
“If I leave, then who is going to take care?”, he used to ask.
Only in July 2018, after they killed Francisco Chaparro, his son-in-law, did Julián leave the community and seek shelter in Sinaloa with one of his colleagues, who was also under threat.
According to his colleague, Julián returned to Coloradas de la Virgen after his daughter Francisca died as a consequence of not receiving medical assistance during a complicated pregnancy.
Francisca, as in the case of most of the indigenous people born and raised in Coloradas de la Virgen, did not know how to read and write. It has been at least 18 years since the schools of this community have been abandoned because there are no teachers that go to that part of the range. Neither are there any doctors.
“Coloradas de la Virgen is a community that does not have access to the most elemental human rights such as health care, education, or a healthy environment; they do not have a source of employment. The only means of subsistence they have is agriculture”, explains Isela González from Sierra Madre Alliance.
To gradually recover the Sierra and do justice for the communities that have defended their territory and their natural resources, civil organizations that work in the Sierra, together with the Centre for the Human Rights of Women (CEDEHM) and some federal and state authorities, are spearheading an assistance plan for Guadalupe y Calvo, the municipality where Coloradas de la Virgen is located. “If this plan is carried out it would serve as an example to be repeated in other municipalities, even in other regions of the country where they urgently need to have efficient policies because we are tired of documenting aggressions against advocates”, says the lawyer Alejandra Nuño from CEDEHM.
“even in other regions of the country where they urgently need to have efficient policies because we are tired of documenting aggressions against advocates”Alejandra Nuño
Julián Carrillo returned to Coloradas de la Virgen to bid farewell to his daughter in keeping with the customs of the Rarámuri traditions.
The satellite telephone that the authorities had provided to Julián as part of the protection measures, was used by his son to inform them that his father had been murdered. They killed him in front of his eight-year old grandson.
In January 2019, the state government announced the arrest of two people accused of the homicide.
Julian’s wife, María, their four children, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren want to return to Coloradas de la Virgen. They do not identify themselves within the city in which they are displaced. They would like to bid farewell to Julián in the traditional way as determined by the Rarámuri customs.
While they wait for that day, Julián’s colleagues who fight for the same cause, the two men that attended the mining workshop with him, the ones who joined the protest caravans and who have claimed the right to their ancestral territory do not forget his words:
“We have to carry on insisting that the forest is not cut down. That is a priority”.
It is a fight for the lives of an entire community.