Números previos




Past Issues



Violence against environmental activists increases

By Miguel Ángel Torres*

Yaqui spokesman

Yaqui tribal spokesman, Mario Luna Romero, in a meeting with Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (Photo: Courtesy of Mario Luna Romero).


Family members of Mario Luna Romero, a Yaqui tribal spokesman, were attacked in their own home by unidentified persons who entered their patio and set fire to a car in the early morning hours of June 27, 2017.

For Luna Romero, the attack follows the pattern of constant pressure that is being exerted against the Yaqui tribe and its members because of their continued defense of their lands and the progress they have made in their struggle against the looting of Yaqui River water for the city of Hermosillo by means of the Independencia Aqueduct.

In spite of requests for help, authorities did not respond, indicating a passivity by officials that raises suspicion about the origin of the attack. Additionally, Luna Romero and his family are beneficiaries of the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which in this and many other instances did not function.

Luna Romero was imprisoned for a little more than a year on trumped up charges during the administration of ex-governor Guillermo Padrés (who is now imprisoned himself). Once again in his role as spokesman, Luna Romero has continued to defend his people, both in international forums and public offices of the federal government.

A number of organizations have come to the defense of the tribe's representative. Servicios y Asesoria para la Paz (Serapaz), a Mexican NGO working for peace and social conflict resolution, demanded that the Ministry of the Interior, the state government of Sonora and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs take immediate and effective measures to adequately protect and guarantee the safety of Mario Luna and his family, in accordance with the precautionary measures required by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Recommendations being considered by the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) include: a complete and independent investigation of the June 27 incident as well as all prior acts against Mario Luna and his family; assuring that all those responsible for the acts are held accountable; and public recognition of the legitimate and valuable work that Mario Luna and the Vicam tribal authorities have accomplished. The CNI made it clear that they will not tolerate any new attacks against them.

CNI came to Luna Romero’s defense when it repudiated the attack against the Vicam tribal authority secretary and member of the Indigenous Governing Council. CNI recognized the attack as part of the ongoing harassment against the tribe and its fight to halt operation of the Independencia Aqueduct which is stealing water from the Rio Yaqui and threatening the existence of the tribe.

In order to understand the timing of the most recent violence against Luna Romero and his family, CNI pointed to several recent events. First, it notes that on June 23rd, just four days before the attack, Luna Romero and the Vicam tribal authorities sent their written response to a notice from the National Water Commission (Conagua) regarding compliance with an amparo ruling on the aqueduct's operation.

The document is an important step since it is evidence that Conagua wants to hold an alleged indigenous consultation far from the Yaqui territory, as well as other irregularities that violate the right to a consultation and informed consent.

Secondly, Luna Romero participated and spoke out in front of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in May. Since May, he has also been a member of the Indigenous Governing Council of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), and has registered an independent candidate to run for the presidential elections in 2018.

In January 2017, his wife Anahí Ochoa was involved in an automobile incident while driving home in which an unknown car tried to cut her off. Terrified, she ran off the road, which is where her husband found her. When they got home, they found the front door open in spite of her having locked it. They entered with a police escort but found nothing amiss.

In February 2016, Luna Romero son Carlos was thrown off his motorcycle by men driving a pickup truck. He suffered injuries to his face and body. The investigation went nowhere. As a result of this incident Luna Romero decided to join the Mechanism for Protection and the IACHR asked the Mexican government to implement preventative measures.

The year 2016 has been the worst for environmental activists/land defenders, according to an annual report by Global Witness, with almost 4 people murdered every week for protecting their lands, forests, and rivers from mining, lumber, and agriculture companies.

At least 200 people were murdered in 2016, which is more than twice the number of journalists killed. The trend is growing (from 185 in 2015) and expanding, with murders now reported in 24 countries, which is up from 16 countries in 2015. Latin America continues to be the most affected region, with 60 percent of the total deaths.

Because there are major limitations on access to information, the global total is probably much higher, the organization estimates. The murders represent the extreme of a series of tactics utilized to silence defenders that include death threats, arrests, sexual assault, kidnapping, and aggressive legal attacks.

"The facts paint a bleak picture...The battle to protect the planet is rapidly intensifying and the cost can be counted in human lives. More people in more countries are being left with no option but to take a stand against the theft of their land or the trashing of their environment...Too often they are brutally silenced by political and business elites, while the investors that bankroll them do nothing,” says Ben Leather, member of the Defenders of the Earth Campaign at Global Witness.

Almost 40 percent of the people murdered were from indigenous communities, since the land that they've inhabited for generations is being stolen by companies, landowners, and state actors. Usually the projects are imposed on the communities without free, prior and informed consent, and backed by force, since it is suspected that police and soldiers are the authors of at least 43 assassinations.

Protest is usually the only recourse left to communities who exercise their right to weigh in on the use of their land and natural resources, pitting them against those who are looking to profit at any cost.

Among the key findings of the report were:

The murders in India have tripled while police brutality and State repression of peaceful protesters has gotten worse. In 2016, 16 murders were recorded, primarily linked to mining projects.

The report also points to the growing criminalization of activists around the world, including the United States. They are usually depicted as criminals and face trumped up charges and aggressive civil suits mounted by governments and businesses attempting to silence them.

"States are breaking their own laws and failing their citizens in the worst possible way...Brave activists are being murdered, attacked and criminalized by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Governments, companies and investors have a duty to guarantee that communities are consulted about the projects that affect them, that activists are protected from violence, and that perpetrators are brought to justice," says Leather.

[1] A Mexican legal proceeding that serves to guarantee constitutional rights.

Translation references:
Global Witness report: 2016 ‘deadliest year yet for environmental activists’. Annette Gartland, July 14, 2017.

*Codirector of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness