In Memoriam: 33 Indigenous Rights Defenders Murdered in 2021 in Latin America

January 18, 2022

En Español

 

Content Note: The following includes disturbing information on violence against Indigenous Peoples. We have strived to provide information on each individual, in celebration of their lives and work, without gratuitous detail on their deaths. While we have worked to avoid linking to sources with graphic imagery, please note that the sources linked may contain further details and images may be changed by websites after we have reviewed them.


On a daily basis, Indigenous communities live in relationship with and protect Mother Earth. Too often, this work is required to take the form of defending lands, territories, and communities against attacks by corporations and governments and resisting extractive projects that contaminate lakes, rivers, and entire ecosystems, contributing to climate change. Indigenous communities defend the planet for all Peoples. In return for this labor, their individual and collective rights are regularly violated through land theft, displacement, cultural repression, contamination, and physical attacks. 

Violence against Indigenous environmental and human rights defenders is rampant worldwide. As part of our advocacy program, Cultural Survival tracks violence against Indigenous defenders in an effort to draw connections amongst these cases and demonstrate that this crisis, rather than being a set of unconnected attacks on individual people, is systemic. It exemplifies a dominant culture in which Indigenous rights are ignored, crimes against Indigenous Peoples are not taken seriously by governments, and perpetrators of violence against Indigenous Peoples are not held accountable. In some cases, government involvement surpasses negligence or indifference and suggests active complicity with the crimes. Frontline Defenders’ Executive Director Andrew Anderson explained, “One of the reasons that attacks and killings of Indigenous human rights defenders is so prevalent is that perpetrators enjoy almost total impunity.”

Cultural Survival’s advocacy work is targeted: we work alongside community partners in various capacities through on-the-ground capacity building, grantmaking, and legal and policy advocacy at the national and international levels. Related to human rights defenders, our role has been to draw attention, illuminate patterns, and denounce violence to international human rights mechanisms. We do this work in order to build awareness of these crimes at the global level. We encourage questioning by investors in development projects as to the practices of companies on the ground in Indigenous communities, and support calls from communities that the murders of Indigenous defenders do not get swept under the rug but be recognized so that perpetrators may be held accountable.

As a result of structural violence against Indigenous Peoples, many crimes against them are not highly publicized. Cultural Survival tracks all of the cases of violence against Indigenous defenders that we become aware of in the languages that our staff members speak; the majority of these tend to be in Abya Yala (Central and South America).

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, has called this trend a “global crisis." Frontline Defenders reported that at least 331 human rights defenders were killed in 2020, 69 percent of whom were specifically defending Indigenous, land, or environmental rights and 26 percent of whom focused on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in particular. Of the total of 331 that Frontline Defenders tracked, 247 defenders, or 75 percent, were killed in Central and South America. In the three years prior to October 2020, over 25 percent of rights defenders who were killed were Indigenous, vastly disproportionately higher than Indigenous Peoples’ proportion of the global population, which is roughly six percent. Global Witness reported that from 2015 to 2019, over one-third of defenders killed were Indigenous.

In some cases, several articles have been published online about a particular Indigenous defender who was murdered with substantial institutional support for community calls for justice. Other times, there may be just one or two local articles published online, or even just a press release passed to us by a partner on the ground. Finally, there are cases that we learn of through social media posts or by word of mouth, with minimal information about the attack or the life of the person who was attacked. The people involved in little-publicized cases are as important to us as the well known ones, and we are just as committed to making their names and legacies known. Every individual was a beloved person, a community and family member, and someone who is mourned for not only the work they did but for who they were.

In the profiles below, we remember and mourn 33 Indigenous people who were killed in 2021. We also recognize and condemn attacks on seven Indigenous defenders, threats against one, disappearance of one, and the criminalization of four. We acknowledge that our scope is limited and that violence against Indigenous Peoples and against particular defenders of human rights and the environment far surpasses the data that we were able to collect, and we honor all of the Peoples and communities who have been affected. We commit to continuing to work towards justice for Indigenous land and rights defenders alongside the affected communities to the extent that we are able. Defenders are listed by country in alphabetical order, then chronologically by date of the incident.
 

Colombia

Honduras

México

Nicaragua

Perú

 

Colombia

Despite the fact that the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia/FARC) signed Peace Accords in 2016, killings of human rights defenders have surged, with Colombian peace organization Indepaz counting 1,283 murders of defenders and social leaders in Colombia since the Peace Accords were signed and 48 killings of Indigenous human rights defenders in 2021 alone. Here, we profile just a small selection of these cases. For further discussion of the root causes of this violence and profiles of additional cases, please see Cultural Surivival’s 2019 StoryMap on Indigenous Defenders in Colombia.
 

María Bernarda Juajibioy and her granddaughter Jazzlín Camila Luna Figueroa (Kamentsá)

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Photo: Maria Bernarda and her granddaughter. Via Jorge Rojas Rodríguez on Twitter.
 

On March 17, 2021, in Orito, Putumayo, a group of armed men in military uniforms shot María Bernarda Juajibioy, Indigenous leader and mayor of Cabildo Kamentzá Biyá, while she was on a motorcycle. She died along with her one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Jazzlín Camila Luna Figueroa. Also shot and injured were María’s 22-year-old daughter, Paola Patricia Pujimuy, and Paola’s own nine-year-old daughter. This violence left the 15 Indigenous Peoples of the Putumayo region grieving.

It is suspected that the killers are members of the illegal armed group Comandos de Frontera, a dissident group that remained armed despite the formal demobilization of the guerrilla group FARC. Days after the double murder, the group began to patrol and intimidate the Indigenous communities and human rights defenders of the region. Different illegal armed groups are fighting for territorial control in the region, which results in a violent situation, particularly for Indigenous, Afro-descendent, and campesino communities. Three months after the murders, police arrested a suspect, Luis Enrique Peteche, a 26-year-old hitman and FARC dissident. 

These situations in which killers go unpunished are unfortunately common in Colombia. Since 2016, and especially under the administration of Colombian President Ivan Duque, killings of human rights defenders have skyrocketed, with Indepaz counting 1,283 murders of defenders and social leaders in Colombia since the Peace Accords were signed. 

 

Rafael Domicó Carupia (Embera Eyábida)

Photo via ONIC.

Rafael Domicó Carupia (Pueblo Emberá Eyábida), reported receiving death threats prior to his assassination by unknown assailants with knives and guns in an ambush at 4:00 a.m. on April 6, 2021. Killed in front of his house in Amparradó Popalito in Colombia, municipality of Dabeiba, Department of Antioquia, Rafael was 63 years old. As Cultural Survival noted in its 2019 In Memoriam report, the Emberá territory is a highly contested zone with the Clan del Golfo, a major narco-criminal organization operating there.

Rafael was a respected elder, leader, and traditional musician for the Emberá Nation. He served a special cultural ambassador and spiritual role in his community as shaman (Jaibaná) and flute player. He was known in his community as “Cultura” because, according to Wilfer Sánchez, spokesperson for the Organización Indígena de Antioquia, Rafael was “one of the greatest musical composers that the Department of Antioquia has had.” The organization noted that Rafael’s murder “leaves the Indigenous Peoples of Antioquia without their best traditional flute player." The Organización Indígena de Antioquia and others are calling for a thorough investigation into his killing. He leaves behind a devastated community and a family, including his wife and children.

 

Sandra Liliana Peña (Nasa)

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Photo via Facebook.
 

Sandra Liliana Peña, a member of the Nasa People in the Cauca department in Colombia, had plans to meet with Colombian officials when she was kidnapped and killed on April 20, 2021, by four unknown and armed assailants. Her driver was murdered as well. Sandra was 34 years old.

The governor of the La Laguna Siberia Indigenous reserve, Sandra was a respected leader even at a young age. She also served as Education Program Policy Coordinator for the reserve. As governor, she was known for working to remove illicit crops from the reserve, which drew attention to her and made her especially vulnerable to repeated threats against her life. Sandra is remembered as a role model who fought for justice for Indigenous women in Cauca. According to La Prensa, she leaves behind her father, Climaco Peña, and her sister, Olga Peña Chocue. Sandra’s sister described her as “very strong, very out front. She wasn’t frightened of anything.” 

Cultural Survival, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, and others have called for a thorough investigation into her killing. On August 23, 2021, several months after Sandra’s murder, authorities prosecuted and convicted three men with connections to the drug trade: Pedro Nel Correa Murcia, Farid Arley Chamorro, and Fredy Hoyos Muñoz, alias Moño Moño. They have all been sentenced to time in prison, with 60 years reported for Correa Murcia and Arley Chamorro. 
 

Argenis Yatacué and Marcelino Yatacué Ipia (Nasa)


Photo via Desinformemonos.org
 

Argenis Yatacué and Marcelino Yatacué Ipia were murdered at dawn on June 9, 2021. Argenis was a professor and Sa’t We’sx (ancestral authority) of her Nasa People on the Paez Indigenous reserve. Marcelino was her partner, and they were both members of the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca. Armed men killed them in the street of Media Naranja, the town where they lived in the Cauca region. Various political leaders, along with many human rights organizations, have expressed outrage at the attacks, including Bogota City Councilor Heidy Sánchez Barreto and Colombian Senator Feliciano Valencia.

Accusations have been directed at the National Liberation Army (ELN), a leftist guerrilla army operating in Colombia, as a sign was reportedly left next to the body of Argenis with the words, “For the death of Cortico ELN.” However, the ELN has rejected these claims and has denounced the murder.

The Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca released a statement grieving Argenis, Marcelino, and many other community members who had recently been murdered, including several for whom a ceremony had been held just hours before the double murder. These murders comprise an organized and ongoing attack against the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, as well as Indigenous women leaders in particular. The statement laments, “Death and anxiety seek to tear apart the fabric [of our communities] and shut down our resistance…Although in these moments words hurt like never before, we keep our heads high and shout ‘ENOUGH!’ In no way will we permit them to silence us. The project of death will also fail; life and dignity are sown here in the territories and their root is impossible to yank out. We hold each other in these times of pain and fury so tomorrow we can continue moving the conversation forward.” Another post on their website displays a painting in memory of Argenis, which demands, “Stop the war against the People!” A video showcases a song and dance performed in homage to Argenis’s life.

Argenis is remembered in overflowing praise by her community members and comrades. A memorial video posted by the Asociación shows images of Argenis in various community spaces filled with children and community life, in front of microphones, weaving in a circle, and at celebrations. As one speaker remembers her: “Valiant woman, empowered authority, admired mother, tireless motivator, comrade with a solid heart and in tireless struggle: you have stayed in the heart of the community, the territory, and the organization that today cries for you. Remember, you are appreciated.” Another says to Argenis, “We make your example ours. Your unfillable footprints of resistance remain in each of us who were lucky enough to hear you, know you, meet you, and walk together in your path as an educator, community member, leader, authority, and unbreakable fighter.”

Hundreds of community members gathered on June 11, under a rainbow, to take part in a symbolic planting to bid farewell and return Argenis and Marcelino to the Earth.

 

Efrén Antonio Bailarín Carupia (Emberá)

Photo via Akubadaura.org.
 

Efrén Antonio Bailarín Carupia, also known as Efraín Domicó, was killed on the morning of September 16, 2021, in Acandí, Chocó, Colombia. He was fishing in the Resguardo Chidima Tolo, the reserve of the Emberá Eyabida People, when people suspected to be members of an armed group shot him. Efrén had served as governor of Chidima Tolo and was part of the Indigenous Guards at the time of his death. He is remembered as a leader of his people and as an example of resistance in defense of their territory and the Tolo River.

According to a statement released by Akubadaura, "The Emberá community of Chidima Tolo has always opposed the dispossession of its territory, refuses to plant illicit crops on their lands, and resists forced recruitment of its young people by any of the armed groups.” Multiple illegal paramilitary groups operate with impunity in Colombia, competing for control of the illicit drug market. Efrén opposed the Ejército Nacional de Liberación (National Liberation Army) and the Las Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), a paramilitary and drug trafficking group. Some allege that the latter group assassinated Efrén and that, prior to his murder, the group had threatened the communities. 

 

 

Honduras 

Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante (Lenca)

Photo: COPINH.
 

Juan Carlos Cerros was a 41-year-old Lenca leader and environmental activist in Honduras. He was killed by multiple gunshots from unidentified individuals on March 21, 2021, in the community of Nueva Granada, in front of his children. Juan Carlos was president of the organization Comunidades Unidas, part of the Colectivo de Defensores de la Madre Tierra, as well as a member of the Movimiento Ambientalista Santabarbarense (MAS). Since the 2009 coup in Honduras, Juan Carlos had been active in the fight for the protection of water, the environment, and his ancestral lands at the community and regional levels. He was a known leader in the fight against the construction of the El Tornillito hydroelectric dam in the Ulúa River. Alongside other Indigenous activists, Juan Carlos actively opposed the construction of the dam, as it threatened to obliterate the municipality of Chinda and would result in the forced displacement of many Indigenous families in at least 10 communities in the departments of Cortés and Santa Bárbara. The dam is being constructed by the Honduran company Hidrovolcán, which markets itself as a renewable energy company focused on social responsibility. It is part of the Honduran investment group Inversiones y Representaciones Electromecánicas, and is being funded by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

An attempt on Juan Carlos’s life had already been made once in 2019, which forced him to leave his community. In response, he had been granted protection measures by a Honduran government program for Human Rights Defenders, the Mecanismo de Protección para las y los Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Periodistas, Comunicadores Sociales, y Operadores de Justicia. However, he had recently commented to colleagues that this “mechanism was not doing anything to protect him,” according to Rel UITA. In Honduras’s 2021 human rights review under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review process, nine different countries recommended improvements to this mechanism, which was initiated through a law in 2015 and was initially funded with support from the United States. Since its creation through 2020, according to data collected by Pasos de Animal Grande, the mechanism registered 547 requests for protection, but only 183 cases remain active. The mechanism has been criticized for its failure to investigate and address the root causes of the threats against Defenders, the lack of human rights training provided to police assigned to security details, and the program’s ineffectiveness in rural areas, where 40 percent of the cases are located. 

Many local and international human rights organizations have asked the government for a proper investigation to be carried out and justice to be served, including COPINH, the organization formerly led by Berta Caceres, another Indigenous Lenca defender who was murdered in 2016 as a result of her activism against a dam on a river in her community. COPINH denounced the killing while sharing on Twitter, “The same patterns of violence against water defenders, like those used against our colleague Berta Caceres, are being repeated.”

 

 

México

Vicente Guzmán Reyes, Ambrosio Guzmán Reyes, and José Luis Chávez Mondragón (Purépecha)

Zitacuaro, a municipality within the state of Michoacán, is home to many Purépecha communities. An increasing presence of organized crime and drug cartels in this region, along with the government's total indifference and lack of action to stop these crises, has led several Purépecha Indigenous communities to establish independent Indigenous Police Corps to patrol and defend their territory. These police corps, made up of volunteers, patrol their territories in order to keep organized crime outside of their communities. Due to the richness in natural resources within their territories, the communities have been subject to increasing violence from organized crime groups who seek to exploit their forests, water, and other resources. These pristine forests are also home to the monarch butterflies who migrate annually from the US and Canada and are an important source of income for the Indigenous communities. 

Vicente Guzmán, Ambrosio Guzmán, and José Luis Chávez were part of the volunteer security corps that worked to keep their community safe. On January 17, 2021, all three were killed while on their community rounds. No further information has been found on the perpetrators, as State authorities have not been sent to investigate the case, nor have they issued death certificates for the victims

 

Fidel Heras Cruz (Chatino)

Photo via: COPUDEVER
 

Fidel was found shot to death aboard his truck on January 23, 2021, in his community of Paso de la Reyna, Oaxaca. He was the president of the Comisariado Ejidal, or communal lands commission, and for more than a decade was a part of the Consejo de Pueblos Unidos por la Defensa del Río Verde, an organization made up of diverse Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Peoples that has successfully defended their territories against proposed megadams on the Rio Verde for over a decade, the first proposed by the State-owned Federal Electricity Commission in 2007 and more recently by private company Enersi starting in 2019.

Paso de la Reyna is an Indigenous community in the state of Oaxaca with approximately 500 Chatino Indigenous inhabitants. In recent years, it has seen an alarming increase in violence towards the community and its activists. Fidel had received various anonymous threats since 2020 related to his activities fighting the illegal extraction of gravel from Río Verde. Two days before his death, he received another threat in the form of a note that was left inside a bag at the headquarters of the Ejido where he often went to work, though he decided not to make it public. Local authorities had also reported the presence of a mysterious vehicle in the area prior to Fidel's death. 

According to Excelsior.com, five days before his death, Fidel presented a report during an assembly of leaders regarding ongoing extraction of gravel from the Río Verde riverbed by a family of local ranchers with approval by the municipal president, Celia Rivas Marquez. “During this meeting, it was revealed that the debt accumulated for this illegal extraction without an environmental impact permit was calculated to be at least 500,000 pesos, which should be collected by the local authorities,” reported the source. A report was made to the State’s Attorney General to collect the fees and open an investigation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Mexico, as well as other local and national organizations, have condemned Fidel’s murder and urge Mexican authorities to investigate the case so the perpetrators do not go unpunished. 

Fidel was known for being kind, community-driven, passionate, and a hard worker.  He is remembered by his community as a fervent activist, a great father, husband, and son. He enjoyed singing, playing basketball, telling stories, and reciting verses.  He thoroughly enjoyed tending to his milpa and cultivating his corn, and he also had a fierce passion for defending his territory. He defended his community and the well being of their territory and spoke publicly about the threats that the extractive industry posed for Río Verde. He was a friendly, calm man and, as his friend Marcos Leyva described him, “He always had a smile.”  



Raymundo Robles Riaño (Chatino)

Image Via: Educa Oaxaca
 

Raymundo belonged to the Chatino Indigenous community in Paso de la Reyna. On March 14, 2021, he was murdered by unidentified attackers. As in fellow community member Fidel Heras’s case, no investigations have been carried out by the authorities to find the culprits. These murders follow a common thread of violence towards the small Paso de la Reyna Chatino community who seek to defend their territory against extractivism and megaprojects that damage their way of life. The community points to a lack of interest by state and federal authorities in relation to these killings and argues that this negligence allows violence against Chatino activists to continue to go unpunished in Paso de la Reyna. 

Raymundo was murdered a day after the celebration day dedicated to thank and honor Río Verde. He was a community police officer in Paso de la Reyna and a member of the Consejo de Pueblos Unidos por la Defensa del Río Verde (Council of Peoples United for the Defense of the Verde River). After the murder of his fellow community member Fidel Heras Cruz in January 2021, the Defensoría de Derechos Humanos del Pueblo de Oaxaca (a governmental office for the Protection of Human Rights of the People of Oaxaca) requested that the Fiscalía General de Justicia del Estado (similar to the Attorney General’s office in the U.S.) implement precautionary measures for affected community members. Despite this request, an additional four community members including Raymundo were killed within the following two months, and the precautionary measures had not been implemented.

Raymundo is remembered by his community as a responsible and trustworthy member of the community who happily took on the tasks he was assigned, including roles on the school and health clinic committees. He had four children and was also grandfather to four little girls. He enjoyed fishing in Río Verde and dedicated all his life to his land, to growing and cultivating corn, and to the protection of the community's seeds. He enjoyed playing basketball and was one of the best players on the Paso de la Reyna team. He is remembered as a happy man who always enthusiastically danced at the community's fiestas. 

 

Noé Robles Cruz and Gerardo Mendoza Reyes (Chatino)


Images Via: Educa Oaxaca (Noé and Gerardo)     
 

Noé and Gerardo, both Chatino, were also members of the Paso de la Reyna community. They were killed by unidentified individuals on March 15, 2021, within the community's territory just a day after the murder of fellow community member Raymundo Robles. The people of Paso de la Reyna are being targeted due to their firm opposition to the development projects, such as the hydroelectric dam, that the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has approved. 

Noé was a loving husband to his wife Cristián and father to two little girls and a 17-year-old boy. He loved working in his fields, where he grew watermelon, corn, and pumpkins, and tending his lemon trees, which he watered every day. He often fished in Rió Verde with his son and hunted for wild iguanas for tamales. After working in the fields starting at the crack of dawn, Noé enjoyed playing basketball, volleyball, and football with members of the community. Whenever help was needed, Noé was always collaborative. He participated in most of the community activities, helped in the organization of local festivities and even worked as the local mechanic in charge of fixing broken cars and patching up tires, among other tasks. Two of Noé’s favorite things to do in his free time were jaripeos, or bull riding, and attending local dance parties. Noé will be remembered in his community for being a happy, kind, and always helpful guy. 

Gerardo was 19 years old at the time of his death. He is remembered as a polite, respectful, and hardworking teen. He had a bright future ahead of him filled with plans and dreams. He loved his parents and his two siblings and was planning to have a family of his own one day. Gerardo enjoyed working in the field, including dedicating time to tending the fields of other members of the community. He was also on the committee for a local clinic. After completing his daily chores, Gerardo enjoyed playing football, spending time with his friends, and going out to the forests to hunt, always in the company of his loyal dog. His friends mourn him, the young man “who knew how to win friends with his heart, the enormous and noble heart God gave him.” 
 

Jaime Jiménez Ruiz (Chatino)

Photo Via: El País
 

Jaime was the fifth Chatino activist from Paso de la Reyna who fought to defend the waters of Río Verde who was killed within two months in 2021. He was an active member of the community, worked as a police agent, and like his colleagues above, participated in the Consejo de Pueblos Unidos por la Defensa del Río Verde. He was murdered on the evening of March 28, 2021, on the road between Santiago de Jamiltepec and Paso de la Reyna. No investigation has been carried out by government authorities. Along with his fellow activists, Jaime opposed the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Río Verde. 

Jaime, father to two children, is remembered as an active leader in the fight to defend his ancestral territory. He was always on board to represent the Consejo de Pueblos Unidos por la Defensa del Río Verde as they toured different states in Mexico to share their experiences and fights to defend their lands. He was always attentive to his community and his people's needs and ready to lend a helping hand. He was also active in the local livestock association and he loved tending to his cows. In 2019, Jaime assembled a community band for adults and children, and he himself played the saxophone. The band played at local festivities, birthdays, burials, and other events. Jaime was a beloved community member and is remembered as the man who once stated that he would give his life for his people and that he would fight no matter the consequences until he succeeded in getting the Paso de la Reina hydroelectric project canceled.

 

Agustín Valdez (Yaqui)

Photo Via: Twitter ONEA México
 

Agustín “El Roque” Valdez, a member of the Yaqui Tribe from Loma de Guamúchil in the state of Sonora, was shot by a group of hitmen at a party during the night of May 1, 2021. Agustín was 30 years old and the son of the governor of Loma de Guamúchil, which is one of the eight Peoples that make up the Yaqui Nation in Sonora. He was chief of surveillance of the Traditional Guard that has maintained a blockade on Federal Highway 15 on and off since the beginning of the construction of the Agua Prieta Aqueduct in 2013. The blockade charges transit fees to any vehicle that wants to cross their territory; the communities consider the fees payment of the historical debt that the federal government owes to the Yaqui Peoples after decades of exploitation of natural resources within their territories. Extractive companies, as well as the government, continue to exploit their resources while ignoring the local population's needs and pushing them to further poverty. 

Agustín had served as the Yaqui communities’ Ethnic Representative to the Sonora State government from 2009 to 2012 during the governorship of Manolo Barro Borgaro. He worked with the local government to advance public policies that addressed his community’s needs. His hard work resulted in the establishment of a computer center with internet access for children and young adults. He was always working to address his community's needs and succeeded in convincing the state government to donate medicines to stock up the community's medical supply.  



Tomás Rojo Valencia (Yaqui)

Photo Via: Sonora informativo
 

Tomás Rojo Valencia was one of the chief Yaqui activists who worked to promote and protect his community's rights and autonomy. Along with several other Yaqui community members, Tomás was one of the spokespeople who led the fight against extractivist projects that threatened their way of life, such as the pipeline project implemented by the company Gasoducto de Aguaprieta, railway lines, and the construction of the Independencia aqueduct. This aqueduct would later be built to supply water to Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregón, two major cities in Sonora, but it made no plans to develop infrastructure to supply water to the eight Yaqui communities. This project would result in the overexploitation of the Yaqui River, the main water source that the Yaqui communities have stewarded for years. This issue was one of the main motivators behind the highway blockades that the Yaquis established on Mexican Federal Highway 15. Tomás was actively involved in the blockades and fully supported charging a fee to vehicles traveling the highway as a form of reparations for the government’s violations of the community’s rights.

Tomás was reported missing on May 27, 2021. According to family members, he went for a walk around his town of Vícam and he never came back. A few weeks later, remains were found nearby in a hidden pit; DNA testing confirmed that they were his. The office of the Attorney General of Sonora has apprehended Tomás’s alleged killers, whose motive for the crime may have been to financially benefit from the tolls that the Yaquis charge at the highway blockades. He was charged with willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated murder. Tomás was 54 years old.

Family members have talked about Tomas’s passion for defending the Yaqui cause and for promoting Indigenous rights and identities. He was a strong proponent of peaceful social struggle and had a deep love and admiration for his Indigenous roots. He also acted as a mediator between Indigenous and non-Indigenous authorities, and he openly talked about the State's role in suppressing and marginalizing Indigenous Peoples. His remains were returned to his hometown, where his community and loved ones said their goodbyes to him through prayers and song. For Cultural Survival’s profile of Tomás, click here.

 

Luis Urbano Domínguez Mendoza (Yaqui) 


Photo: Still from the film “Laberinto Yo´eme” via  Desinformemonos 
 

Luis Urbano belonged to the Loma de Guamúchil Yaqui Peoples in Sonora, the community to which Agustín Valdez (profile above) also belonged. He was a water steward and a vocal activist who fought for the protection of his people's water and land. On June 8, 2021, while leaving a bank in downtown Ciudad Obregón, Luis was shot to death. The Fiscalía General de Justicia (similar to the Attorney General’s office in the US) in Sonora opened an investigation but there has been no progress and no suspects have been identified thus far. Luis’s murder adds to the torment that the Yaqui Peoples have suffered this year, including the murder of leaders Agustín Valdez and Tomás Rojo. 

Friends remember Luis as a happy young man who had a passion for defending his people and his Indigenous identity. In 2012, he joined the fight to protect the Yaqui River and became a leader for the Yaqui cause. He starred in a documentary film titled “Laberinto Yo´eme,” which narrates the Yaqui Peoples’ struggles to protect their territory against the extractive interests of the Sonora state government, as well as the hardships of maintaining their Indigenous identity and the impact that the drug cartels have had on their way of life. In the film, as in his daily life, Luis spoke about the issues surrounding his community. The director of the film described Luis as a person filled with love for others who always had a helping hand to offer and a smile on his face. In 2015, Luis participated in a national caravan that united Indigenous Peoples across Mexico in their fight to defend their lands, their waters, and their lives. Upon arrival in the Mexican capital, Luis gave a speech in front of hundreds of people in which he shared his observation “that they keep walking all over us, mistreating us; thousands of us are being further pushed into marginalization.” Luis was 35 years old. 

 

Simón Pedro Pérez López (Tzotzil)


Photo: Still from video ‘Simón Pedro’ on Vimeo by Xun Sero 
 

Simón Pedro Pérez was shot in a local market in the southern state of Chiapas on the morning of July 5, 2021, while shopping with his son. The perpetrators were on a motorcycle and quickly fled the scene. A few days later, an individual was detained in a nearby municipality by the Specialized Police corps and was identified as the alleged culprit. He was then transferred to the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez where he was to be detained and prosecuted. Ninety-nine days after the murder, the Abejas de Acteal, an organization of which Simón Pedro was a member, published a press release denouncing a failure of justice to date, especially around the lack of investigation into the case, which the Fiscalia claims was delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic. They dispute the argument of the accused’s defense that Simón died from illness rather than bullet wounds to the head, and consented to exhumation for an autopsy despite it going against their cultural traditions.

Simón was a renowned human rights defender and a catechist who preached fervently about nonviolence. He was a member of the Tzotzil Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and a husband and father of seven children. He belonged to Las Abejas de Acteal, a pacifist organization created by local communities who sought justice after the Acteal Massacre of 1997, in which 45 Indigenous Tzotzil people, including women and children, were murdered by a right-wing paramilitary group. Simón was president of the board of directors of Las Abejas in 2020, a role he describes in a video produced by Las Abejas. His murder comes less than one year after the government of Mexico formally apologized for the massacre and took responsibility for the first time. In an interview with Mexican investigative media Animal Politico in November 2020, Simón shared his fears regarding the release from prison of persons sentenced for the 1997 massacre and their return to the region.

His friends remember him as a reserved, modest person who sought to empower Indigenous communities and promote and protect Indigenous rights. He frequently talked about the role of the Mexican government in the Acteal Massacre and the importance of the recognition of this massacre by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Before his death, Simón was working on a formal complaint to stop extortions and threats by criminal groups who regularly collude with local governments and who have taken over the region, forcing Indigenous families to flee their lands due to the increasing violence. Las Abejas de Acteal remembered him in this tribute: “Simón Pedro Perez Lopez’s life was taken for seeking peace in a climate of generalized violence that we live in in the Altos de Chiapas. Our brother Simon Pedro represents the third generation of human rights defenders in his family, and he always participated in the movements to defend Mother Earth against megaprojects that threaten our communities and that have affected other campesinos and Indigenous Peoples in our country and other parts of the world.” Simón was 35 years old.


 

Nicaragua

Eleven people (Mayagna + Miskito), including, among others, Victor Manuel Matamoros Morales, Armando Suárez Matamoros, Borlan Gutiérrex Empra, Armando Pérez Medina, Albert Jairo Hernández Palacios, Sixto Gutiérrez Empra, Kedelin Jarguín Gutiérrez, Ody James Waldan Salgado.

Deforestation for agriculture within the Bosawas Reserve. By Alam Ramírez Zelaya on Flickr.

On August 23, 2021, at least 11 people and as many as 15 were killed in a massacre within the Mayangna Sauni As territory in a mountainous area known as Cerro Kiwakumbai. The victims were members of the Indigenous Mayagna and Miskito communities. The region is in the UNESCO heritage site of Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua, which is the largest forest reserve in Central America and the third largest in the world. Although it has been known as one of the most intact tropical rainforests and cloud forests in the region, invasion by non-Indigenous settlers, loggers, and cattle ranchers has caused ceaseless conflict, leaving the biodiversity threatened and communities with increasing threat to their territories, food sovereignty, and ways of life.

Reports vary on the details of the August 23rd massacre, with official numbers from the National Police identifying only nine victims, while other sources indicated 11 or more. The attackers sexually assaulted two women during the massacre. 

According to local sources, one year prior to this incident, Indigenous people of the area had recovered the Cerro Kiwakumbai, an ancestral site for artisanal gold mining, from the colonos, or non-Indigenous settlers, who had been occupying it. At the time, threats were issued that the colonos would return.

The massacre is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a pattern of regular violence related to land grabs within the Indigenous territory in the context of a decades-long struggle for Indigenous autonomy over their lands. In January 2020 a similar massacre took place in which at least six Mayangnas were killed.  

In 2001, the Mayangna People won a landmark case against the government of Nicaragua in which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that they had a right as an Indigenous Peoples to their collective land. This became known as the Awas-Tingni ruling, named after the community that brought the case. In December 2008, the government completed a process of demarcating and titling the land, securing Mayangna title to a total of 73,394 hectares. 

Since then, community leaders have repeatedly denounced violence at the hands of colonos who enter their territory looking to exploit and take control of natural resources.  In March 2021, six organizations participated in hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about land takeovers and killings that have hit the Miskito and Mayangna communities. On numerous occasions Indigenous authorities have sued the government for their territorial integrity, asserting their rights and expelling the invaders who disturb their lifeways. Communal Property Law 445 requires the Nicaraguan government to complete saneamiento, a “healing” of the land, meaning the removal of colonists and industries from Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples’ territories, but the Nicaraguan government has failed to fulfil this obligation.

According to documents provided to the news site Confidencial, 12 days before the massacre, the Indigenous territorial government of the region, Gobierno Territorial Indígena de Sauni As, issued a complaint to the local police in Bonanza, the closest city, outlining an emergency situation regarding threats received by two individuals. One of these individuals, Armando Medina, was killed on August 23. In a letter to the Bonanza police, the Gobierno Territorial described threats of forced removal against the people who worked in artisanal mining at Cerro Kiwakumbai. However, the police failed to prevent the massacre.

Instead, the police arrived 24 hours after the violence took place. The official police report recognizes nine victims and identifies three individuals, all Mayangnas from the same community that was attacked, as the masterminds and perpetrators of the crime, which they describe as motivated by a “feud” over land. Between August 27-28, the police raided an estimated 40-50 Indigenous people’s homes in Suniwas, Musawas, and Alal as part of their investigation.  According to the Center for Legal Attention to Indigenous Peoples (CALPI), the local community has identified a known criminal gang known as Kukalón, led by Isabel Meneses, or “Chabelo,” as responsible. This is the same group that was identified as responsible for the January 2020 massacre.

In a press release, the Community Forest Guardians of the Mayangna Sauni As Territory declared the following: “Our territory, which is part of the Bosawas Reserve, and the natural resources, are our ancestral patrimony. We again call on the government of Nicaragua to investigate and take the necessary measures to ensure that the bad actors are punished to the maximum extent of the law for this massacre. We call for justice to be upheld and for our petitions to be heard regarding the cessation of invasion into our territory. As Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean Coast, we want to live in peace, with justice, health, well being, and gender equality, as is guaranteed to us in the constitution of Nicaragua and in Law 445 regimenting communal property of the Indigenous peoples, and in Law 28, the Statute on Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast. No more assassinations, no more invasions, respect our territory, respect our lives, respect the law.”  

 

Perú

Estela Casanto Mauricio (Ashánika)

Estela’s daughters holding her ID. Photo by Crédito: Anthony Quispe of Convoca   
 

Estela Casanto, a respected healer of the Asháninka community of Shankivironi, was found lifeless under mysterious circumstances on March 13, 2021, in the Amazonian department of Junín. Her body was found by family members with bruises on her face in a cave 800 meters from her home. Family members report tracing boot footprints in the mud and signs of a body being dragged. However, according to a government autopsy, her death was caused by choking on coca leaves. Her family strongly disagrees with this interpretation, arguing that it was likely she was simply chewing coca at the time of her attack, as is common in the Ashánika tradition.

For years, Estela fought to protect her community's territory from the extractivist interests of local mafias who want to exploit the natural resources within the Indigenous communities' ancestral lands. Before her death, Estela and other members of the community had received threats from non-Indigenous settlers who claimed to have bought their land. Estela’s neighbors had been harassing her for several years, trying to buy her land. The organization Central de Comunidades Nativas de la Selva Central, along with other local groups, demands that authorities carry out a proper investigation so that those responsible can be brought to justice.  

Estela, who was one of the founders of the Shankivironi community, had dedicated most of her life to defending her ancestral territory within the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon. Illegal logging, drug trafficking, land theft, and illegal mineral extraction are some of the issues her community faces. Estela was born in 1964 in her ancestral lands and was the fourth of seven children. She was mother to three daughters and two sons, and grandmother to many more. She was well known in her community for her ability to heal with plants, a skill rooted in her ancestral knowledge and honed during the revolutionary wars in Peru in the 1980s. She also served as a midwife and as a leader of Indigenous women within her community. Family members close to her remember that days before her death, Estela voiced that she had a feeling her time on Earth was coming to an end. She is remembered as a brave woman by community leaders. 
The case remains under investigation by the Chanchamayo provincial government, presided over by Daniel Coronado, who has reported delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, according to Convoca.pe, the family of Estela reports that their neighbors have left the community and at the time of comment had not been seen in over six months.

 

Mario Marcos López Huanca (Asháninka)


Photo Via: RPP Noticias 
 

Mario Marcos López was the secretary of EcoSira, an Indigenous organization made up of 69 different Indigenous communities that was established to protect and preserve the El Sira, a State-protected natural reserve in the central region of Peru. He was an Asháninka leader and lived in the Shirarin community. On the morning of June 28, 2021, he was shot while walking along the Anacayali river in the district of Puerto Bermúdez. Community members found him and brought him to a hospital where he died two days later. He was 34 years old. State authorities are investigating the crime, which community members claim was carried out by local drug trafficking mafias. Several state ministries, along with the National Coordinator on Human Rights, have condemned the attack. 

The El Sira reserve is protected in an effort to preserve the local flora and fauna for the benefit of local Indigenous communities whose ways of life depend on the conservation of the forests. EcoSira emphasizes the importance of the local Indigenous communities’ ancestral knowledge for the sustainable management of the natural environment and established that the exploitation of the reserve’s natural resources requires prior authorization by local Indigenous authorities. For many years, organized crime, drug trafficking, and illegal logging have become more common within the protected territory. Mario, who had been secretary of EcoSira since 2016, was in charge of reporting these issues and had received several threats as a result. Fifteen days before his death, Mario told a colleague from EcoSira that he had recently had an encounter with invaders who wanted to establish illegal coca plantations. EcoSira, in partnership with National Service for State Protected Natural Areas, has been supporting Mario’s family since his death. 


 

Further reading:

 

Acknowledgments

This piece represents months of research by a number of contributors. In addition to Cultural Survival staff members, this work was researched and authored by Cultural Survival interns, including Mariana Navarette and Jessica Aros Castro. Some cases were researched in partnership with the RCA's Human Rights Investigations Lab at the University of California Santa Cruz. We also thank and stand in solidarity with the community members of each individual who have helped bring these cases to light and persevere in seeking justice.

 

 

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