Mexican Environmental Activist Murdered

Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, environmental activist and long-time defender of indigenous rights in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, was assassinated in the state of Chihuahua on January 15. Well known for his work protecting old-growth forests and the land rights of his native Tarahumara people, Baldenegro is an award-winning activist and an important figure in the indigenous communities of the Sierra Madre.

Baldenegro’s murderer has been identified by authorities as Romero Rubio Martinez, though the motive remains unclear. Baldenegro had been living in hiding after he received threats in his native southern Chihuahua. When he returned to visit his uncle, Martinez shot him six times and killed him. It is likely his murder is related to his activism.

Well-known internationally for his efforts, Baldenegro received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009. His death marks the second assassination of a Goldman recipient in the last two years. Berta Caceres, who received the award in 2015, was murdered in her home in Honduras last March, raising concerns for the safety of environmental activists all over Latin America.

Baldenegro’s work involved the protection of diverse and rare old-growth forests and their inhabitants in the Sierra Madre from illegal logging, ranching, and drug-trafficking. He has repeatedly demanded that the Mexican government stop issuing logging permits in the region and has filed lawsuits on behalf of the Tarahumara people for the rights to their ancestral lands. Neither effort has produced much change but rallies and protests have stymied logging in the region and organized the indigenous community. According to the Goldman Environmental Foundation, Baldenegro “was a fearless leader and a source of inspiration to so many people fighting to protect our environment and indigenous people's rights."

The Sierra Madre’s old-growth pine forests are some of the most diverse and endangered in the world, with 26 endangered or threatened species including birds, fish, and reptiles.

Baldenegro’s work had previously proven dangerous when he was imprisoned in 2004 under narcotics and arms charges which were later dropped in 2005. He was released after Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.

Mistreatment and violence towards environmental activists has become commonplace in Latin America. Of the 116 killings investigated by Global Witness in 2014, over three quarters occurred in the region. Global Witness has also referred to 2015 as the “deadliest year on record for environmental activists.” In Mexico alone, the Mexican Center of Environmental Rights has reported 303 similar killings in the last six years. Amnesty International’s Americas director, Erika Guevara Rosas, called Baldenegro’s murder “a tragic illustration of the many dangers faced by those who dedicate their lives to defend human rights in Latin America, one of the most dangerous regions in the world for activists.”