Murder of Mexican Environmental Activist Isidro Baldenegro Occurred Amid an Atmosphere of Impunity

Violence against the Rarámuri indigenous people is widespread and goes largely unnoticed

By John Gibler

January 20, 2017


Isidro Baldenegro | Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation

MEXICO CITY—Last Sunday, January 15, Isidro Baldenegro, a 51-year-old Rarámuri leader and forest defender, lay down to sleep in Coloradas de la Virgen, a small community in the rugged western Sierra Madre mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. Then he heard someone call out his name, and he got up and went to see who was there. 

Baldenegro, like most of his family, had been forced from his home by the violence and impunity that has plagued the indigenous communities in the Sierra and particularly around the Guadalupe y Calvo municipality, located in the southwestern corner of Chihuahua, near the borders of Sinaloa and Durango. 

One of Baldenegro’s brothers survived a murder attempt last year and then fled the area with his family. Isidro Baldenegro himself left Coloradas de la Virgen two years ago after he received death threats. Since then, he had been working from and living in different parts of the state. 

On Thursday, January 12, he traveled to Coloradas de la Virgen, apparently walking through the mountains, to visit an aunt who had fallen seriously ill. According to another Rarámuri forest defender from the community who spoke to me by phone (he asked that his name be withheld for security reasons), Baldenegro had been trying to find a way to get his aunt medical attention, since doctors rarely, if ever, visit the area. 

It was sometime soon after nightfall on Sunday, January 15, when Baldenegro heard a man shout his name. He got out of bed. His aunt and uncle were also awoken. Baldenegro stepped outside. A young man approached him, shot him six times with a pistol, then turned around and walked away. 

Isidro Baldenegro died from his gunshot wounds hours later, without medical attention, sometime after 1 A.M. on January 16. 

Chihuahua state officials have identified the killer as 25-year-old “Romeo R. M.” The forest defender I spoke with from the community confirmed that identity, saying Baldenegro’s aunt and uncle had heard the man calling at the door and seen him standing outside.  

Patricia Mayorga, the Chihuahua-based correspondent for the Mexican political weekly Proceso, told me that witnesses from the community identified “Romeo” as having participated in numerous murders of other indigenous defenders of Rarámuri territories and forests in the area. 

“We are worried,” the forest defender from the community told me. “They have killed a number of our compañeros. Many people are afraid, and we want justice.” 

Isidro Baldenegro received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 for his work using nonviolent civil disobedience to combat illegal logging in the Sierra Madre mountains. He was the second Goldman prize winner to be gunned down in the last 12 months. On March 3, 2016, Lenca indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras. 

Nina Lakhani from the Guardian reported that Berta Cáceres’s name was on a hit list circulated among Honduran Special Forces officers. In the months following her murder, Nelson García and Lesbia Urquía, both members of Cáceres’s organization, known as COPINH, were killed. On March 19, 2016, in Guatemala, forest defender Walter Mendez Barrios was murdered. On October 13, 2016, municipal environmental official Luis Alberto Araújo was shot dead in front of his family in Altamira, Brazil. 

According to the watchdog group Global Witness, 116 land and environmental defenders in 17 countries were murdered in 2014. Around three-quarters of those killings happened in Central and South America. Most of them never made the news. 

Isidro Baldenegro’s father, Julio Baldenegro, was murdered in 1986 for fighting illegal loggers on indigenous lands. No one was arrested for the murder. Isidro Baldenegro immediately took up his father’s place in the fight. He organized highway blockades in 2002 to prevent loggers from entering the area, or leaving the area with felled trees. The blockades and subsequent occupations of government offices in the state capital of Chihuahua City led to agreements in which the illegal loggers were formally banned from the area. 

Soon thereafter, police arrested Baldenegro, together with his neighbor and friend Hermenegildo Rivas Carillo, and accused them—without evidence—of one of the things Baldenegro was trying to prevent: drug trafficking. Illegal logging and drug trafficking have been intimately linked in the area for decades: Drug traffickers use illegal logging to launder money while also using the razed forestlands to grow marijuana or poppies. 

A meeting of indigenous communal authorities in Coloradas de la Virgen. | Photo courtesy of Alianza Sierra Madre Baldenegro, and the many who struggled alongside him, tried to stop all of that. “We know there are people who want to pillage the riches of the Sierra, and they don’t even live here,” Baldenegro said in his profile video for the Goldman prize. “By fraud and forgery, they manage to get away with it. And we oppose this. They are not going to log the forest.” 

After spending 15 months in jail in 2003 and 2004, during which time Amnesty International declared them  “prisoners of conscience,” all the charges against Baldenegro and Rivas Carillo were thrown out. He immediately returned to the struggle. During the ceremony in San Francisco at which he received the prize, Baldenegro said: “I am proud to receive this prize in the name of my community, my family, and of my late father, Julio Baldenegro Peña, who gave his life to defend the forests and from whom I inherited the struggle and the knowledge of how to support our people.” 

Baldenegro said those words at the cusp of a different time that few in Mexico could see approaching. In 2006, Mexico would experience some of the most intense and energized social mobilizations in decades. But by the close of that year, the newly inaugurated (and for many, spurious) president, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, would declare a “war on drug traffickers.” The "war" would, 10 years later, leave well more than 100,000 people murdered, 30,000 disappeared, and untold hundreds of thousands subjected to abduction, extortion, human trafficking, and all manner of violence and terror.  

During the past several years, the already dangerous context built on decades of violence and discrimination in the Rarámuri regions of the Sierra Madre worsened and became ever more cruel. 

Baldenegro was murdered in Guadalupe y Calvo, the expansive, rural, mountainous municipality in the southwestern corner of the state of Chihuahua. It is about a seven-hour drive from Chihuahua City and has a population of around 50,000. Between 2010 and 2015, 626 people were murdered there. In 2012, there were a reported 208 murders, but only seven people were arrested, tried, and sentenced for murder. 

“The community of Coloradas de la Virgen has been hit hard and remains under grave threat,” Patricia Mayorga of Proceso told me. “Now it’s not just the loggers, but drug traffickers dominate the region. In fact, people there have told me that the logging isn’t only supplying wood for sale anymore. But now, they are using the wood to build houses and keep fires going for the people controlling the drug plantations and trafficking.” 

She said the region has suffered a lot of internal displacement—people forced to leave their homes, often at gunpoint—as was the case with Baldenegro and much of his family. Yet the authorities have done nothing to counter the violence. “There are no current investigations underway for the murders, the displacements, or the threats in the region,” she said.   

“The problem in the region is pretty much invisible,” said Diana Villalobos, director of CONTEC, a community-based technical consulting nonprofit organization that works in the area. “The only thing that the authorities do is go and pick up the bodies. There are no investigations, no arrests made, no resources for the victims of violent crimes. And there’s a military base right there in Baborigame.” 

In the case of Baldernegro, the authorities did not even pick up the body. One of Isidro's brothers, Francisco, had to travel to Coloradas de la Virgen and take his brother's body to the state police.  

When asked if any authorities—municipal, state, or federal—had gone to the community to investigate, to interview witnesses, or look for the killer, the forest defender from the Coloradas de la Virgen said “no.” No one from the government has taken the trouble to travel to the community yet. 

Villalobos said that in addition to forced displacement, youth in the communities—internationally famous for their abilities to run for days in the desert—are often forced to work for the drug traffickers, often carrying drugs across the border for smugglers. Many such youth have been arrested in Texas, where they are put on trial in a language they don’t speak, English, with court-appointed interpreters for another language they don’t speak, Spanish. 

Such youth, like “Romeo,” are often recruited, sometimes forcibly, to become hitmen. 

“The violence started getting worse in 2007,” Isela González, director of the Sierra Madre Alliance, told me, “but by 2012, organized crime had formed an army of hitmen at the service of the political bosses, loggers, and miners in the area. That was when many families were forced from their homes and communities.” 

At the same time, political bosses and their armies forced most of the human rights and forest defense organizations into exile as well. “We’ve also been displaced by the threats and killings,” González said. “I haven’t been able to travel to the communities since 2012.” 

González, like everyone else I was able to reach over the phone from Mexico City, said that Isidro Baldenegro’s murder comes in a context of overwhelming violence, absolute impunity, and a decades-long effort to destroy Rarámuri indigenous territories for logging, drug cultivation, or mining, and to thwart the Rarámuri peoples’ struggles—often tied up in the court system for decades—to gain federal recognition of their ancestral rights to their lands. 

“We are wounded and outraged by Isidro’s murder,” she said, “but we don’t want for people to think that the violence was aimed only at this one individual: This is violence waged against the indigenous communities who have been struggling for years to protect their ancestral territories.” 

Indeed, Baldenegro’s murder is marked by what, at a glance, might seem to be a haunting coincidence. The Rarámuri peoples of Baqueachi, Chihuahua won a long-fought legal battle to secure their territorial rights—a battle during which their lawyer Ernesto Rábago Martínez was murdered—the very same day that Isidro Baldenegro was assassinated on his aunt’s doorstep.