Despite increasingly coming under fire, authorities in Mexico are failing to hold those accountable for targeting Indigenous human rights leaders defending the environment from armed groups and exploitation, underscoring the depth of impunity in such cases.
In the 15 months since armed gunmen entered the Coloradas de la Virgen community in northern Chihuahua state and murdered Indigenous Rarámuri leader Julián Carrillo, Mexican authorities have still not convicted or sentenced those responsible for the crime.
“The brave people who defend the land, territory and the environment face constant danger in Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador must publicly recognize their invaluable contribution to the protection of natural resources and his government must take vigorous action to guarantee they can work in safety,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, on the one-year anniversary of Carillo's October 2018 murder.
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Chihuahua state authorities arrested two individuals thought to be responsible for the crime months later. However, the case against them has not progressed, and neither individual has been charged, according to Amnesty International.
In the weeks before his violent death, Carrillo had been threatened and harassed for defending ancestral territory in Chihuahua’s Sierra Tarahumara region. Carillo told Amnesty investigators that organized crime groups had appropriated Indigenous land to grow and cultivate cannabis and opium poppy, forcing many locals to flee.
Indigenous human rights defenders like Carrillo have long been disproportionately affected by violence in the country. At least five other members of his family have also been killed, according to Amnesty International. The 23 human rights and land defenders murdered in Mexico in 2019, many of whom belonged to Indigenous communities, made it the fourth most deadly in the world for such activists, according to a 2019 global analysis from Front Line Defenders.
InSight Crime Analysis
The continued impunity in cases of murdered Indigenous human rights defenders underscores the Mexican government’s inability or unwillingness to protect those that are most vulnerable to threats and attacks from organized crime groups.
While the state of Chihuahua has long been a hub for drug production, Mexico’s organized crime groups have also diversified into other criminal activities like illegal logging in recent years. This has especially threatened Indigenous community members and environmental defenders in remote highlands like the Sierra Tarahumara.
During a January 2019 field trip to Chihuahua, local community members told InSight Crime that combatting illegal loggers serving the interests of wood companies and drug traffickers often comes with a death sentence, as was the case for Carrillo and many others.
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However, the cases of murdered human rights defenders aren’t the only cases involving Mexico’s Indigenous communities that authorities are seemingly unable to solve. Ten Indigenous musicians from the Sensación group -- including a 15-year-old drummer -- were brutally massacred and their vehicles incinerated on a highway near Chilapa Álvarez in southwest Guerrero state last month on January 17, according to a press release from the state Attorney General’s Office.
A local criminal gang known as Los Ardillos is thought to be responsible for the attack, authorities said in a separate press release. However, none of the six individuals alleged to be involved have been arrested.
Media coverage of such violence also differs. The ruthless attack on the Indigenous musicians garnered far less attention than the grizzly slaying of nine members of the LeBarón, Miller and Langford families -- all dual US and Mexican citizens -- in northwest Sonora state along the US-Mexico border, which was carried out by a faction of the Gulf Cartel known as La Línea in November of 2019.
That slaying captured international headlines for weeks, while the nearly identical story of the murdered Indigenous musicians was much slower to capture Mexican headlines.