In Mexico, environmental activists fear for their lives

Graffiti in the Mexican town of Ayala in honour of Samir Flores, a murdered environmental activist.

Indigenous guardians of the Brazilian Amazon region; Guatemalan peasant leaders; protectors of the forests in Honduras; opponents of mega projects in Mexico; communitarian activists in Colombia.

People from all of these groups have been killed for their environmental activism in recent months.

According to the NGO Global Witness, 164 climate activists were murdered worldwide in 2018 – more than three per week. The majority of these killings took place in Latin America, partly because of the great number of campaign groups in the region.

While the numbers for 2019 aren’t available yet, in Mexico alone, at least 27 environmentalists and human rights campaigners have been killed in the past 12 months, according to the Mexican civil organization Serapaz. In 2018, there were just 14 murders.

In Amilcingo, a rural village with 3,500 inhabitants in the state of Morelos in central Mexico, everything has changed since the murder of Samir Flores, a community activist opposing a thermoelectric plant.

He reported on the plant on the radio and in assemblies, pointing out the dangers of contamination of the Cuautla River, whose water is used for crop irrigation. He also campaigned against a gas pipeline associated with the plant, which passes near a volcano.

Flores was attacked in front of his house at dawn on February 20, 2019 shortly before making his way to the community radio station, which he had founded six years previously. Strangers knocked on his door and tricked him into coming outside, saying they wanted to advertise on the station.

After hearing shots, his family came outside and found him dying on the floor, according to his wife Liliana Velazquez. The killers haven’t yet been identified. There are many possible perpetrators, Velazquez says.

The attack occurred three days before the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador held a controversial referendum to decide whether to continue with the plant. While a majority voted in favour of the project, it has divided families and communities. Appeals are still under way and villagers are holding a sit-in to protest against the plant.

For three years, they have camped on the bank of the river in the district of Ayala, blocking the construction of the last 140 metres of an aqueduct, the only pending work stopping the operation of the plant.

Flores’ wife and children now live protected by barbed wire and security cameras, measures taken as part of a government mechanism created in 2012 to protect activists and reporters at risk. Risks which continue to exist, however, as at least seven activists protected by the mechanism have been killed since its creation.

Jesus Medina, a reporter from Morelos, had to flee to Mexico City after suffering threats and an attempted murder a year ago, having revealed agreements to strip his community of water sources.

“It was like a movie, the way they persecuted me. They wanted to kill me with a truck and as they couldn’t reach me, because I was on a motorbike, they took out a rifle [and started shooting] through the window,” he says.

Dolores Gonzalez Saravia of Serapaz, a Mexican non-profit organization that aims to ease social conflicts, says the majority of attacks on activists are related to the defence of territory and mega projects.

Behind them are people with business interests in sectors such as mining, agribusiness and logging, organized crime and corrupt authorities, and sometimes a combination of all of these.

The village of Amilcingo is full of fear, anger and sadness, but most of all, its people want to keep Flores’ struggle alive. “Samir lives” is spray-painted on various walls in the village as well as the white facade of the thermoelectric plant, located some 30 kilometres out of town.

“It hurts a lot,” broadcaster and farmer Leonel Perez Mendoza, 37, says. “He was the one who got everything moving, who kept us informed. He had so much to do.”

Now, 18 volunteers take turns trying to fill the programme of the radio station. They almost never mention the thermoelectric plant on air anymore. “Of course we are scared,” Perez confirms.

The murders not only silence the activists, but also frighten those in the community and organizations doing similar work, says Marina Comandulli from Global Witness.

“People no longer feel they can continue in the same manner, but we have observed that however much these things happen, it’s impressive, especially in Latin America, how they continue to fight,” she says.