MEXICO CITY — Rogelio Rosales Contreras' gaze became clouded as he described how his family and Indigenous community in Ayotitlán in the state of Jalisco were violently attacked after they opposed mining activities in the region and clamored to preserve their territory.
“In December 1993, they took my brother, and on Oct. 26 of last year, they murdered my son,” he said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo in Mexico City.
The case of Ayotitlán, and others from various regions of Latin America, are part of "Decade of Defiance: Ten years of reporting land and environmental activism worldwide," the most recent report by Global Witness, an environmental rights organization focused on the increasing violence against environmental activists.
"It's not fair that for this environmental fight they persecute us as criminals," he said. "We only want a more human, more communal way of life, and they are killing us for that."
The report found that the last decade has been deadly for environmental activists: 1,733 killings have been recorded, a figure equivalent to one every two days.
In 2021, Mexico had the largest recorded number of killings, with 54 deaths, compared to 30 the previous year. More than 40% of the people killed were Indigenous, and more than a third were forced disappearances, including at least eight members of the Yaqui Indigenous community.
In Ayotitlán, Rosales Contreras' voice trembled when he spoke of the death last year of José Santos Isaac Chávez, an attorney and a leader in their Indigenous Nahua-Otomi community who was the only political candidate in a local race who was opposed to a mine in the Sierra de Manantlán, an area on the border of Jalisco and Colima.
According to the report, the leader was found dead in his car, which had been driven off a cliff, and his body had evidence of torture.
Global Witness urged governments to better protect activists by enforcing laws, especially those around the Indigenous community, and to require accountability from companies operating in these regions.
Latin America is the most dangerous region
More than three-quarters of the recorded attacks against environmental defenders in 2021 happened in Latin America, making it the deadliest region.
While Mexico leads figures worldwide, with activists killed every month, countries like Brazil also registered an increase in lethal attacks, from 20 to 26, and India, from four to 14. On the other hand, Colombia experienced a fall in killings in 2021, from 65 to 33, as did the Philippines, from 30 to 19.
Global Witness experts claimed that in countries such as Brazil, Peru and Venezuela, 78% of the attacks occurred in the Amazon.
The investigation found that Indigenous communities faced a disproportionate level of attacks, almost 40 %, although they only represent 5 % of the world’s population.
"These are the people who understand, at the most fundamental level, how the fate of humanity is entwined in the fate of the natural places they are defending," academic Vandana Shiva stated in one of the report's chapters. "It’s why they are prepared to risk everything to defend these places. And it’s why they, more than anyone, deserve protection."
The report highlighted that the control and use of land and territories is a central issue in countries where environmental defenders are threatened. The growing wave of killings, violence and repression are related to territorial conflicts and the search for economic growth based on the extraction of natural resources.
"Before we saw the attacks in the news, in media statistics, but as we're involved in this struggle for our Indigenous communities, we now live them in our own flesh. I am a victim of the threats to resist the exploitation of the resources that we defend," Higinio Trinidad de la Cruz, another Ayotitlán activist, told Noticias Telemundo.
In addition, experts warn that the data on killings doesn't capture the real magnitude of the problem. In many countries, it's difficult to determine the situation around activists because of news media restrictions and a lack of independent oversight, which prevents more detailed reports.
'They treat us as perpetrators'
Another troubling aspect, according to the report, is that most killings go unpunished because governments don't investigate them properly. According to experts, many authorities ignore or actively prevent the investigations because, often, there is collusion between corporate interests and state corruption.
Adriana Sugey Cadenas Salmerón is an attorney for the Tsikini organization, a civil association that legally represents several Jalisco activists. She said the Mexican state "complicates the situation" in Ayotitlán by placing obstacles around legal resources. "It is inhuman because they treat us as perpetrators," she said.
In Mexico, the Global Witness findings come in the middle of a substantial escalation of violence. Mexico registered 33,315 homicides in 2021; the two previous years were the most violent in its history, with 34,690 victims in 2019 and 34,554 in 2020.
For activists such as Rosales Contreras, the defense of their ancestral territories has become an exercise marked by fear. He recounted bitterly that his relatives’ deaths, and Isaac Chávez’s, are part of a list of killings of activists that have kept going: In 2012, armed men took Celedonio Monroy Prudencio from his house, and he was never seen again; Aristeo Flores Rolón was killed in 2007; and Nazario Aldama Villa in 2004.
"I am not going to stop fighting, but what I demand from the government is justice, so that what happened to my family never happens again," he said. "The authorities have to find the culprits because we don't hurt anyone, we only want some equality."