He was shot point-blank in the face while asleep in bed, in front of his wife. Margarito Diaz Gonzalez was an indigenous spiritual leader of the Wixarika community. He was also an environmental activist who defended ancestral territory from encroachment by mining companies and hydropower plants, and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights has asked Nayarit state to investigate whether his opposition to the construction of a dam was the motive.
It’s a familiar story in Mexico, where none of the 15 murders of environmentalists in 2017 has been solved, according to the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, known as Cemda.
Disputes over mining, logging, and water-protection rights raise the ire of powerful business interests and organized crime in a country with a deeply flawed justice system, according to a recent report by Global Witness, an international group researching natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses.
“Defending the land has become extremely dangerous in Mexico,” said Andrea Cerami, a human rights lawyer at Cemda. “In the six years that we have tracked the violence, we have watched environmentalists become the target of hate campaigns, being thrown in jail, being killed. And the danger keeps growing, especially for those working directly with indigenous communities.”
The process of approving development in Mexico gives environmentalists an avenue to protest but not to prevail, leading to obstruction that can anger powerful interests. Weak law enforcement makes violence a tempting response. Drug cartels are aggressively moving into deforestation and trafficking in endangered species, where environmental protectors can get in the way.