These 108 Mexicans were killed for defending our forests and rivers


In the last decade, 82 of 125 defenders of land and water victims of homicide or disappearance have been native peoples, mainly Nahuas, Purépechas, Rarámuris, Triquis and Wixárikas

The portrait of Antonio Esteban Cruz is on the altar table of the house of Xiloxochil, Cuetzalan, in the great cloud forest of the Sierra Northeast of Puebla. A burning copal in an incense is consumed before the image of the most emblematic Nahua environmentalist in the region.

Her granddaughter Soledad recharges in the door frame of the small room where the photo of her smiling grandfather is, with her hat. Turn to see it.

-What do you remember about your grandfather? I ask the 10-year-old girl.

-When they killed him -his answer is instantaneous.

Antonio Esteban was shot four years ago , with four bullets, on the banks of the Apulco river , which he defended when he returned from doing his work on the plot. He was the state leader of an organization that stopped the Cuamono hydroelectric project, participated in the foundation of the Indigenous Peasant Front of Mexico (FICAM), and explained in Nahuatl to monolingual communities the devastation caused by extractive projects.

His murder is part of the list of 125 crimes against environmental activists in Mexico in the last decade: 108 murders, among them six women, and 17 disappearances, including that of a woman.

The list has a revealing figure: 82 of the 125 victims were indigenous, 66 percent of the total; that is, two out of three cases, according to the database processed by

This basis arose when crossing a document of Global Witness, with another of the Mexican Center of Environmental Law (CEMDA), and with the thesis of the researcher Lucía Velázquez Hernández entitled Environmental Defenders in Mexico and Human Rights (1995-2015) , of the University National Autonomous of Mexico (UNAM), among other sources.

But none of these investigations focuses on the indigenous condition of the victims.

The Mixteco lawyer Francisco López Bárcenas, author of the book ¡La Tierra se se vende! The lands and territories of indigenous peoples , is amazed at the figure of 66 percent.

“It’s so high!” He says. “And it is very likely that these crimes carry in themselves a racial charge.”

The indigenous population in Mexico is 12 million and represents 10 percent of the national population.

Antonio Esteban was the leader of the Independent Peasant and Peasant Workers Movement-National Plan Coordinator of Ayala Movimiento Nacional (MIOCUP-CNPA-MN). After his murder in 2014, he was replaced by the Nahua lawyer Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez, who received threats since he assumed the leadership that same year and was also killed.

The portrait of Antonio Esteban Cruz is on the altar table of the house of Xiloxochil.
The portrait of Antonio Esteban Cruz is on the altar table of the house of Xiloxochil.

Manuel Gaspar led the fight against open-pit mining, fracking, hydroelectric projects, the construction of the electric substation of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) in Cuetzalan, and achieved the closure of an open-air municipal dump. He was killed with a sharp weapon on May 14, 2018.

Sandino Rivera, a legal representative of the MIOCUP, details: “weeks before he was killed he received death threats and, two days before, both of us were in a forum speaking against megaprojects.”

Erwin Slim, a member of the Committee of Integral Territorial Ordering of Cuetzalan -which has a unique municipal regulation in the country that prohibits the development of megaprojects and protects the ecosystems of its 168 communities-, exposes on the two murders: “if Cuetzalan is the municipality more protected of Mexico (against these megaprojects), and what happens, how will be vulnerable the other municipalities of the country that do not have this coverage “.

After the murder of Manuel Gaspar, two other Nahua defenders opposed to hydroelectric plants suffered crimes in Puebla in 2018: Adrián Tihuilit was assassinated on June 1, in Zacapoaxtla, and Sergio Rivera Hernández was disappeared on August 23 in Zoquitlán.

According to the database of, the Nahua people register the highest number of cases nationwide (45), followed by Purépecha (19), Rarámuri (8), Triqui (4), Wixárika (3), and with one case, the Yaqui, Ayuki, Tsotsil, and Mixtec peoples.

Albino Limón Hernández is a member of MIOCUP and lives in Xiloxochil. The Nahua locality is located in the exuberant Sierra Poblana, with a hot and humid climate, neighboring Veracruz, where there are abundant lime, orange, guanábana, banana, guava, pineapple, pepper and mamey trees. A mountainous paradise.

Albino shows the canvas that was sent to do with the photographs of Antonio Esteban and Manuel Gaspar demanding justice for their murders committed during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto .

He met them both. Antonio Esteban, a man who was close to 65, with a calm attitude and a body forged by agricultural work. And to Manuel Gaspar, a dark-haired thirty-something, of a cheerful and impetuous character.

“They were companions who had been fighting for years, we walked together, they are our example”, Albino expresses hurt.

Of the total of 125 crimes against defenders, 49 occurred in the government of Peña Nieto and 76 in that of Felipe Calderón. In 2011, during the sexennium of the PAN, the largest number was recorded: 30. It was followed by 2017, under the PRI government, with 19. In the last year, 14 have occurred.

water or life

In a room in the house of Antonio Esteban, in the mountain town of Cuauhtapanaloyan, Cuetzalan, a mural depicted the wrestler carrying long-stemmed flowers. The blue strip painted at the base of the wall represented the mighty and wide Apulco river that the Nahua defended with his life.

-Because they killed him? -Asked his daughter Antonia Gabriela.

-To defend the territory, the water … -responds without doubt.

The base of reveals that in 65 of the 125 crimes, that is, in the middle, the defense of water is involved. Be it because the victims were opposed to mining projects, hydroelectric, industrial pollution or dispossession of liquid. Forest defense is at 74. Land tenure at 56.

Cuetzalan is in the corridor that goes from the forested Sierra Poblana to the veracruzana and is one of those that receive more rainfall in the country.

In 2013, a year before the murder of Antonio Esteban, the CFE began to buy operating permits in Cuamono and Cuauhtapanaloyan land to start up its Cuamono hydroelectric project in Cuetzalan, without the information or consultation that by right constitutional have the indigenous peoples.

It relates Violeta Valdés, Antonio Esteban Human Rights Center, created in honor of the fighter.

The communities organized themselves and opposed the idea that the project was the outpost of the mega-mining that consumes millions of cubic meters of water. Also, that anticipated the extraction of energy through hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This is an aggressive method of drilling that requires between 9 and 29 million liters of water per well, according to the Mexican Alliance against Fracking .

In the mural that reminds Antonio Esteban is his daughter Antonia Gabriela.
In the mural that reminds Antonio Esteban is his daughter Antonia Gabriela.

The dissatisfaction in the area came together in the founding of the aforementioned FICAM on March 8, 2014, which brought together indigenous wrestlers from 16 states with various causes, including Antonio Esteban, a small pepper producer, already established as a recognized regional leader.

Violeta Rodríguez recalls: “His role was very important for the organization and cohesion of the communities because he had the ability to transmit in Nahua the very technical terms that came in the environmental impact demonstrations of the megaprojects.”

He narrates that in response to the creation of the FICAM came the criminalization and arrest of leaders, such as Enedina Rosas, San Felipe Xonacayucan ejidal commissioner, and the attempt to shoot Rodrigo Esteban Mora, the leader’s son, while crossing the Apulco river.

Antonio Esteban took possession of a strip of land adjoining the Apulco River in order to create a human settlement that would protect the wide tributary. Three months later he received the four bullets that took his life.

Absences that hurt

The photo of Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez is on the altar table of the family home in the community of Ayotoxco, municipality of Cuetzalan. It is the last that was taken during his speech at the “Forum in defense of water and our mother earth”, held in Chignautla on May 12, 2018. He was murdered a day and a half later, at dawn on the 14th.

“If there is no justice for the people that there is no peace for the government !!”, says a phrase written in the portrait. Next, to the candles, there is a plate with a slice of cake for a family birthday. His sister Rosario put it on, although it is not the Day of the Dead. They suffer their absence four months earlier.

“Unfortunately it was a fatal loss,” says Rosario with grief before showing the photos of her adolescent brother, who won several athletic trophies in local competitions.

Puebla records four cases of crimes against environmental activists, but Michoacán is the state with the highest number of cases: 54 of Nahua and Purépecha origin. Oaxaca follows with 16, of which 7 are from Triquis, Mixteco peoples.

In Puebla, there are 310 mining concessions covering an area of 182 thousand 185 hectares. This area is equivalent to 5.3% of the surface of the state, according to a calculation based on data from the Ministry of Economy on Mining Concessions. And the Antonio Esteban Human Rights Center estimates that the government of Peña Nieto planned the drilling of 10 thousand 92 wells through fracking in the Sierra Norte of Puebla.

The photo of Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez is on the altar table of the family home in the community of Ayotoxco.
The photo of Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez is on the altar table of the family home in the community of Ayotoxco.

Manuel Gaspar led a community movement that stopped the project El Aretón de la Minera Autlán, of the Ferrominero group, in the municipalities of Tlatlauquitepec, Hueyapan, and Teziutlán. Participated in protest caravans that arrived in the capital of the country, or in the capital of Puebla, demanding the right of indigenous peoples to decide on their territories and against the privatization of water.

And also participated in the sit-down of CFE’s offices in Cuetzalan, which lasted 10 months, protesting the electric substation project of Cuetzalan-Entronque Teziutlán, considering that, as in the case of the hydroelectric power plant, it is part of the infrastructure to be developed for the benefit of the extractive industry.

In January 2018, the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) initiated a criminal investigation process for the crime of opposition to public works against seven activists from different social organizations, including Manuel Gaspar.

On Saturday, May 12, 2018, Manuel Gaspar participated in the Forum in Defense of Water and Our Mother Earth in Chignautla. He was brutally murdered early Sunday morning with a long double-edged knife in a hotel in Cuetzalan, a few meters from where the works of the high voltage line and the CFE electrical substation would start, according to the FED research folder. / PUE // HUA / 0000172/2017.

Enrique López Hernández of MIOCUP, manifests about the two losses of its leaders: “this road we have taken has no return, our organization is being built based on effort, sweat, tears and especially the blood of our colleagues and we can not back”.


In Cuetzalan’s environmental movement there are reservations about what will happen with the suspended projects of the hydroelectric power station, the Cuetzalan electric substation, and the miners and hydrocarbons before the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency.

Erwin Slim believes that the López Obrador nation project document is of an “extractive” nature.

She says that the uncertainty permeates environmental defenders, although a well-known local activist, María Luisa Albores -independent agronomist of Chapingo, member of the Union of Teosepan Cooperatives Teosepan Titaniske, which produces coffee and pepper and is famed in the international fair market-, will be the next owner of the Welfare Secretariat of your government.

Billy Kyte of Global Witness, warns that respect for human and environmental rights in Mexico should be a priority for the incoming president.

“López Obrador must ensure justice for the murdered activists, strengthen the implementation of the Protection Mechanism for defenders, and guarantee that the communities can give their prior, free and informed consent on the use of their lands,” he said.

The cases of Antonio Esteban and Manuel Gaspar, like the other crimes against environmental defenders, will go unpunished indefinitely.

Antonio Esteban's hats hang from a wall in his family's house.



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