Mexico is world’s deadliest spot for environmental activists

VICAM, Mexico – Mexico has become the deadliest place in the world for land and environmental activists, according to a global survey released Wednesday, and the Yaqui indigenous people in Northern Mexico is still mourning the discovery of water defense chief Tomás Rojo dead in June 2021.

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

Latin Americans account for more than two-thirds of those killings – often the bravest and most respected people in their communities.

Such was the case with brief Rojo, who authorities claimed was killed by a local drug gang who wanted to make money that Yaquis sometimes earned by collecting tolls at checkpoints. unofficial highway.

Since 2010, when the state government built a Yaquis aqueduct for use in the state capital Hermosillo, to 2020, Rojo has led a series of protests and civil disobedience acts, including a continuous blockade lasting many months for the state. major highways, causing millions of dollars in damage to businesses and industries.

Those who know Rojo don’t believe in the toll theory: They say he was killed by powerful interests profiting from Yaquis’ land and water rights in the northern border state of Sonora, across the border with Arizona.

“Tomás has demonstrated his ability as a born leader. He is a descendant of warriors,” said Fernando Jiménez, who fought alongside Rojo in the tribal water movement after the government built a dam to divert water from Yaqui to the growing Hermosillo. rapidly in 2010.

Rojo’s body was found half buried near Vicam, nearly three weeks after he went missing. He was initially identified by the red scarf he wore when he left home.

Rojo is a descendant of Tetabiate, a Yaqui leader killed in a 1901 battle with the government, who banished the surviving Yaquis to work in slave-like conditions in old plantations in the remote Yucatan. The last battle against the Yaquis took place in 1927, and included the government’s use of aircraft against fighters still armed primarily with bows and arrows.

In 2014, Sonora state authorities attempted to arrest Rojo and Jiménez for what Yaqui leaders saw as allegations of kidnapping – which were later dismissed; Rojo avoided capture and fled to Mexico City, but Jiménez was imprisoned in the state capital at Hermosillo. Both kept the movement alive by speaking in the Yaqui language in prison phone calls.

“In prison, they made you speak Spanish,” recalls Jiménez. “They don’t want me to speak my mother tongue because they want to know what I’m saying.”

The Yaquis are the rightful owners of at least half of the water in the basin that bears their name, and they have protected through nearly five centuries of slaughter and extermination. But they have seen much of their water diverted to feed burgeoning industries and desert avocado and grape growing projects.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last month apologized to Yaquis for past abuses and promised a series of infrastructure programs to improve their lives. But López Obrador refused to stop siphoning their water, although the local water district director, Humberto Borbón, said it was “100% illegal” and court rulings supported Yaquis’ position. .

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

César Cota, a bricklayer and farmer who used to work with Tomás Rojo, sits by the river Yaqui – now a dry ravine – and recounts 500 years of Yaqui’s struggle.

Near their home, in the village of Cocorit, the Yaqui warriors confronted the Spanish invader Diego de Guzman in 1533.

“Our ancestors drew a line on the earth and said, ‘If you get through this, you’ll be at war with us,’” Cota said. “Since then, we have not stopped fighting. Now, in 2022, we don’t need to fight anymore. “

Cota says the river is important to Yaquis. When the currents are regular, sturdy reeds grow on its banks that the Yaqui people use to build everything from houses to funeral crates.

“It is an injustice, it is a great sadness to see our river without water,” Cota said. “That river bears our name. That’s where our animals, our medicinal plants, our reeds live. We don’t have any more reeds,” he said. When someone dies, relatives have to buy reeds for the funeral.

“If this river flows into the sea again (the Gulf of California), that would be the greatest victory we could have,” Cota said.

Rojo’s father, Guillermo Rojo, 84, lives in the traditional Yaqui village of Potam. In the family’s modest home, almost everything – the fence, the walls, the roof, the sleeping mat and even the fireplace – is made of woven reeds. Due to the semicircular landscape, the trees that grow here are small and crooked, so mud-covered reed mats are used as walls and cooking surfaces.

Elder Rojo recalled his son Tomás as “a man of iron will since he was a boy.”

“He didn’t forget his hometown, who his ancestors were, and that may be what made him an activist.”

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

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

Even today, most of the Yaquis in Potam live in reed houses; Only those rich enough to buy and operate small electric pumps had running water.

While some people still farm the surrounding fields, most Yaquis work as gardeners, bricklayers or laborers in nearby cities. They only grow corn and wheat on about 42,000 acres (17,000 ha), because they don’t have enough water to irrigate, although a 1930s presidential decree ensures they have enough water to irrigate more often than not. three times that land area.

That water shortage threatens the survival of the Yaqui culture, where traditional Lenten dance performances are depicted in statues across the state – even as the people and background their culture dies.

With little water, widespread poverty, and no farm work, young Yaquis began migrating to nearby cities and the U.S. border city of Nogales, and rarely returned to complete their work. role in traditional dances. The drug cartels moved in because they saw the Yaqui territory as a lucrative route to smuggle drugs to the US. And lithium mines are located north of Yaquis, and are also reported to be intruding on their territory.

“They have granted about seven mining franchises in our territory without even consulting us,” said Jiménez. “The violence that started in our community, with rival gangs, kidnapping and everything has led to the decline in Yaqui society. Addiction is on the rise, with the use of methamphetamines depleting our youth.”

Rojo’s father shook his head and added, “In the past, they tried to destroy us with guns. Now they are trying to destroy us the evidence of addiction.”

The outbreak of drug violence in Sonora has claimed the lives of many Yaqui. In September 2021, just a few months after Rojo was killed, one of the gangs rounded up five young Yaqui in the village of Loma de Bacum and massacred them.

The gangs have set up secret landing sites for drug flights over Yaqui land. When the Mexican military found and destroyed the runways, the cartel blamed Yaquis for reporting the runway to authorities. Yaquis says that’s not true, and the young men are just innocent victims.

But Yaquis’ main complaints have not been answered by the government, which has defended the industrial use of water in Hermosillo, home to a huge Ford car factory and rapidly expanding industry. industry and suburbs.

Yaquis himself would not say who they think ordered the killing of Tomás Rojo; they live in a largely lawless situation where a drug cartel, corrupt politician or powerful businessman can order such killing with impunity.

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

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