He defended the sacred lands of Mexico’s Tarahumara people. Then a gunman cut him down

The recent killings of two Tarahumara community leaders dramatize how environmental issues have become a frontline human rights battleground in Latin America.

photo He defended the sacred lands of Mexico’s Tarahumara people. Then a gunman cut him down images

    Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, a son of the jagged and often lawless terrain of the western Sierra Madre, had no illusions about the threats he faced from sundry foes — drug traffickers, illegal lumber harvesters and other criminal elements who have infiltrated the remote highlands that are home to Mexico’s Tarahumara people.

    But relatives and friends say the indigenous leader, who won global acclaim for his defense of the region’s ancient forests, could not be deterred from returning to Coloradas de la Virgen, his remote home village, a place cut off by mighty canyons and thuggish violence.

    “Isidro felt like he had work to do, he had to help his people,” recalled his sister-in-law, Maximina Carrillo Torres, who, like much of the extended family, has fled Coloradas de la Virgen. “That’s what he always did. That was his life.”

    Baldenegro — a 2005 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the so-called Green Nobel — was shot six times on Jan. 15 at his uncle’s adobe home in Coloradas de la Virgen, south of majestic Sinforosa Canyon.

    Two weeks later, a second Tarahumara community leader and environmental campaigner, Juan Ontiveros Ramos, 42, was forcibly taken from his home in the same rural municipality and shot and killed.

    The killings — like the slaying last year of Bertha Caceres, an indigenous anti-dam campaigner in Honduras and 2015 recipient of the Goldman Prize — dramatize how environmental issues have become a front-line human rights battleground in Latin America and elsewhere.

    At least 185 environmental activists worldwide were killed in 2015, the highest such death toll on record, according to Global Witness, a British-based watchdog group. At least 33 ecological activists were killed in Mexico between 2010 and 2015, Global Witness said.

    “The kids draw pictures of hooded men with guns,” noted Diana Buticos, a teacher at a preschool here in this drab but generally secure town of Guachochi, where many Tarahumara have relocated. “That is what they are used to seeing.”

    Violence was all too familiar for Baldenegro, and it informed his activism.

    His father, Julio Baldenegro, was murdered in 1986 because of his opposition to a local strongman’s logging activities, according to family members, who say the young Isidro saw his father die. That motivated him to dedicate his life to the cause of developing non-violent resistance against exploitation of Tarahumara lands, say relatives and associates.

    In the early 2000s, he organized sit-ins and marches and a human blockade to halt logging operations, gaining fame across the region and, eventually, internationally. He was arrested in 2003 and spent 15 months in prison on what would later prove to be false charges of arms and drug possession, noted his official biography from the San Francisco-based Goldman Foundation.

    “They won’t shut me up,” the jailed activist told Andrew Miller, a young scholar who visited Baldenegro while he was in custody. “They can’t silence the truth,” insisted Baldenegro, recalled Miller, now an assistant professor at First Nations University of Canada.

    In recent years, associates say, Baldenegro, a father of two young children, resided mostly in various highland towns, including Guachochi, which were more secure than his secluded village. But he frequently went back to Coloradas de la Virgen to sell home-made machetes, buy and sell livestock, and meet with relatives and friends, while continuing his efforts to protect native lands.

    “Isidro knew his life was in danger,” said Gabriel Valencia Juarez, a journalist here and friend of the late activist. “But he didn’t want to leave, his life and work were in the Sierra. In the end, it cost him.”

    Article He defended the sacred lands of Mexico’s Tarahumara people. Then a gunman cut him down compiled by www.latimes.com