Environmental Activists Under Attack in Mexico

05/26/20 (written by mvillaseñor in collaboration with aherrera) – Mexican environmental activists have increasingly been under attack. Just in the last five months, at least six environmental activists have been murdered. According to a 2019 report from the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental, CEMDA), homicides are increasingly becoming the primary form of attack against environmental activists in the country. According to the report, environmental activists are at a particularly high risk of retribution due to their vocal criticism against political and economic interests, such as large infrastructure projects and developments. 

Between 2012 and 2019, Mexico has seen a total of at least 499 attacks against environmental activists, including but not limited to threats, criminalization, assault, and homicide. According to data from CEMDA, the number of attacks gradually increased from 24 in 2012, 64 in 2013 and 78 in 2014 to its peak of 107 in 2015 and 85 in 2016. This represents a 346% increase in attacks against environmental activists from 2012 to 2015.

Mexico’s Energy Reform

These observed increases in attacks against environmental activists coincide with the implementation of Mexico’s energy reform. In fact, the aforementioned 2019 report from CEMDA notes the ratification of the energy reform as a relevant factor in the significant increase in homicides of environmental activists. The energy reform was first introduced by Enrique Peña Nieto on August 12, 2013. The reform was backed by his political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) as well as the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN) and was intended to modify the constitution to allow foreign investment in its energy sector. Prior to the energy reform, state-owned Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos, PEMEX) ran the country’s energy industry after President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río expropriated Mexico’s oil sector in 1938. The constitutional reform was debated by congress and approved on December 12, 2013. This was the first time in 75 years that private and foreign investment became allowable in Mexico’s energy sector. On August 2014, further legislation was approved that leveled the playing field for all investors in the sector.

Read more about Mexico’s New Energy Reform in this 2018 report from the Mexico Center at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Read more here about how legislation from the Energy Reform has impacted transparency and human rights as well as infringed on citizen participation at the local and national level. 

Increase in Attacks Against Environmental Activists

Overall the number of attacks has been decreasing with 53 in 2017, 49 in 2018, and most recently 39 in 2019. However, homicides, within this time span, have seen an increase. According to CEMDA, in 2019, homicide was the primary form of aggression with 21.1% of incidences resulting in death, followed by threats with 19.3%, criminalization with 15.8%, and intimidation with 14%. Moreover, CEMDA points out that the primary aggressor is often the government itself. CEMDA attributed 40.5% of overall attacks committed towards environmentalist in 2019 to the government, tied with unidentified aggressors and followed by community members and organized crime each with 4.8%. Attacks perpetrated by the government are primarily attributed to local prosecutors, the National Guard (Guardia Nacional), and state police.

Environmental Activist Homicides in 2020

Mexico has lost at least six environmental activists in 2020. The first case surrounds the murder of 50-year-old Homero Gómez González, an outspoken critic of illegal logging and manager of El Rosario’s monarch butterfly sanctuary in the state of Michoacán. He was last seen on January 13 and was found dead more than two weeks later on January 29. His body was floating in a holding pond near the mountain forest reserve Gómez González was protecting. Initial reports from Michoacán’s state prosecutors pointed to drowning as the cause of death, but a more detailed autopsy later revealed evidence of a head injury. Days before Gómez González was found, another environmental activist from the same region was reported missing. Raúl Hernández Romero, a 44-year-old conservation activist and part-time tour guide at El Rosario was reported missing on January 27. His body was found five days later at the top of a hill in El Campanario monarch butterfly sanctuary. According to news reports, he too had a head injury and his body was covered in bruises.

Following the deaths of these two activists, a third activist was reported missing on March 19, 2020. Paulina Gómez Palacios Escudero, a 50-year-old environmental activist from the state of San Luis Potosí disappeared when she was traveling from Matehuala in her home state to the community of El Salvador in the neighboring state of Zacatecas. Her body was later found on March 22, according to the autopsy, she died from a gunshot wound to the face. She was considered a guardian of the sacred territory Wirikuta and a friend of the indigenous community, Wixárika. According to a report published by Intercontinental Cry, the Wixárika community has been actively fighting for years to protect their sacred lands from mining companies. On September 2013, a federal district judge approved a temporary suspension on all concessions to mining companies in the sacred territory of Wirikuta. In 2009, 36 concessions had been granted to Canadian mining company, First Majestic Silver, 70% of these concessions were within the Wirikuta territory.

A day after Gómez Palacio Escudero’s body was found, the fourth environmental activist was murdered. On March 23, 2020, Isaac Medardo Herrera Aviles was murdered in his home in Jiutepec, Morelos when gunmen knocked at his door and shot him point blank, fleeing the scene before they could be apprehended. Herrera Aviles was a longtime activist and lawyer in the state of Morelos. Most recently he had stopped the company, Casas Ara, from developing a real estate project in the premises of “Los Venados,” a 56,000 square meter forest in the middle of Jiutepec. Herrera Aviles and community members had successfully stopped the project and were waiting for local authorities to deem the land a natural reserve. In 2007, the activist had legally represented advocates of 13 communities who were attempting to stop another real estate development project in Emiliano Zapata, Morelos, near the Chihuahuita natural spring where developers were also seeking to extract the water.

Two weeks later, Adán Vez Lira became the fifth environmental activist to be murdered in Mexico. He was from the state of Veracruz and founder of the ecotourism cooperative, “La Mancha en Movimiento”. According to news reports, Vez Lira was shot to death on April 8 while riding his motorcycle from La Mancha to Palmas de Abajo, Veracruz. He had dedicated more than two decades of his life to defending the bird observatory in La Mancha Ecological Reserve and El Llano. According to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, he had also actively opposed mining projects by Almaden Minerals and Candelaria Mining, both Canadian mining companies with interests in the region.

The most recent homicide targeted Eugui Roy Martínez Pérez, a 21-year-old environmental activist from the state of Oaxaca murdered in San Agustín Loxicha, Oaxaca. Martínez Pérez was studying biology at the Technological Institute of the Valley of Oaxaca (Instituto Tecnológico del Valle de Oaxaca, ITVO) and was a member of the Organization for Environmental Protection in Oaxaca. Additionally, people close to Martínez Pérez indicated he had a particular passion for the care, defense, and conservation of reptiles and amphibians. According to Oaxaca’s Attorney General office, he was murdered on May 7 when a group of armed individuals forcefully entered his home and removed him from the premises. He was later found nearby with signs of torture and a gunshot wound. According to his sister, Martínez Pérez decided to spend his quarantine in San Agustín Loxicha, “collecting insects, studying, writing for a magazine, looking after a few deer’s, [in addition to] creating content for his blog.”

Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has called these deaths “regrettable” and “painful,” but human rights groups are demanding the government do more. For example, the Center for Human Rights Zeferino Ladrillero is asking the government to prioritize the lives of individuals defending the environment, land, forests, and water over the interest of private entities. Others are calling for better monitoring and prevention mechanisms to protect marginalized communities, particularly indigenous groups, who are vulnerable to the loss of land and private interest groups entering their territory. Furthermore, environmental activists point out that at least 80% of activists murdered defending the environment have been indigenous. A recent released report from Front Line Defenders, an international foundation based in Ireland that seeks to protect human rights around the globe, showed Mexico and Brazil tied as the fourth most dangerous countries in the world for activists. However, it is worth noting that Front Line Defenders’ report encompasses all human rights activists, not only environmentalists.  Nonetheless, looking forward, it is imperative that the government analyze and address the divisive culture it is promoting against activists.

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