MEXICO CITY — He vanished before dawn, while out on one of his regular early-morning walks. Three weeks later Tomás Rojo was found dead, his body so decomposed it required DNA testing to confirm his identify.
A leader of the Indigenous Yaqui community in northern Mexico, Rojo was exhumed from an unmarked grave, buried near the Yaqui River, which sustains his tribe’s livelihood and traditions that he had spent much of his life defending.
The Yaquis have been locked in a decades-long battle with the Mexican government for control of the river, which was exacerbated by the construction in 2013 of a giant aqueduct to siphon water away to the state capital.
“He was a very simple person, very shy, very cheerful, very intelligent,” said Isaac Jiménez, a lifelong friend and the tribe’s secretary, as well as a fellow activist. “I learned many things from him in the fight against the bad governments that we’ve had.”
Jiménez said he believed his friend was targeted because of his activism.
Rojo’s death is part of a grim trend: He was one of 54 environmental or land rights activists killed in Mexico last year, according to a report from an environmental watchdog organization, Global Witness, that was released this week. That toll made Mexico the deadliest country for environmental activists in the world.
“With Mexico last year we had four mass killings or massacres,” said Ali Hines, the main author of the report. “That very much sends a chilling effect.’’
The message that sends, she added, is: “It’s not just one particular person we’re after, but none of you are safe.’’
The attacks against activists are part of a broader regionwide pattern: A combination of rich natural resources, powerful international companies, violent criminal groups, and entrenched government corruption, including in some cases officials who play a role in killings, has made Latin America a hot spot for violence.
More than three-quarters of the recorded attacks against environmentalists worldwide took place in the region, according to the report, which also states that Global Witness’s data on killings is “likely to be an underestimate, given that many murders go unreported.”
More than half of the reported attacks worldwide last year took place in just three countries: Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. Killings in all three countries have continued this year. In June, a journalist and an Indigenous rights activist were killed in the Brazilian Amazon.
Colombia, which was the deadliest country for environmentalists in 2020, saw the number of killings drop by nearly half last year, but with 33 deaths in 2021, it still remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for environmentalists.
Ongoing contests for land, an issue at the heart of Colombia’s decadeslong internal conflict, have made activists who defend the territory, such as Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, prime targets.
A 2016 peace deal that promised state protection and services in areas marked by war has not been adequately put into effect, experts say. Environmentalists are sometimes the only protectors of ecosystems coveted by armed groups for illegal mining and the farming of coca, the plant used to produce cocaine.
Lourdes Castro, a spokeswoman for Somos Defensores, Global Witness’s partner in Colombia, said threats and attempted homicides rose last year for all activists. In some cases, threats were enough to muzzle activists.
“Some have decided to keep quiet out of fear, but for us that’s not an option,” said Luz Mery Panche, an Indigenous leader in Colombia and an activist in the Amazon rainforest.
In Mexico, where drug cartels and other criminal groups battle for control of territory, violence is widespread: More than 35,000 people were killed in homicides across the country last year. As the gangs multiply and spread, their activities have diversified beyond drug trafficking, bringing them into conflict with Indigenous groups and environmental activists.
According to Global Witness, the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel has made a foray into illegal mining, perpetrating “violence against the Indigenous community with complete impunity and without an adequate response from the Mexican state.”
Arturo, an environmental activist in western Mexico, said criminal groups “exploit lumber, they exploit mines, they exploit fishing. Whatever there is.”
Arturo, who asked that only his middle name be used for fear of reprisals, said that he had been threatened by a local gang member. And as in much of Mexico, corruption in state and municipal governments has made a difficult situation even more dangerous.
“The governments at the local level are completely occupied by the cartels and by organized crime,” Arturo said.
In Mexico “you have cases where defenders are killed, they’re rarely credibly investigated, never mind anyone brought to justice,” Hines said. “That’s a key driver of killings because it’s essentially just giving the green light to perpetrators.’’
In the Yaqui region, where cartel activity is widespread, three men have been arrested in connection with the killing of Rojo, but so far the mastermind of the crime remains unknown, Jiménez said.
“Nothing has advanced: he’s dead, they killed him, but who ordered him killed?” he said. “It’s exasperating.”
The violence has continued this year. In March, an Indigenous environmental activist, José Trinidad Baldenegro, was killed in the northern state of Chihuahua. His brother, Isidro Baldenegro, a prominent environmentalist, was murdered in 2017.
Despite the perils, many environmentalists remain committed to preserving their land and resources.
“From when you’re a kid, they teach you that you have to fight for the interests of the tribe, the water, the land,” said Jiménez, the Yaqui activist. “We keep going with the people, the people are the ones who make us strong.”