Disappeared Mexican activist underscores deadly threat to environmental defenders
Under mounting pressure and media attention around the killings, the federal government has vowed to crack down, initiating talks with authorities and victims to propose a new law for the protection of activists and journalists. "When the Mechanism acts, many times it is too late," said Sara Mendez, a human rights defender who advises the Ombudsman's Office in Oaxaca which investigates violations.
Last October, environmentalist Irma Galindo left her home in a remote indigenous community in southern Mexico to discuss threats she had received from officials running a program specifically designed to protect activists from violence.
Galindo never made it to the meeting, which had been slated to happen in Mexico City. The activist, who was 41 at the time, has not been seen since and her colleagues are convinced her disappearance is linked to her long fight to stop illegal logging in her home state of Oaxaca, a lucrative business in Mexico dominated by organized crime. Authorities have made little progress in her case.
Galindo's story is not uncommon in Mexico. Since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018, at least 45 environmental activists have been killed, according to government data, making Mexico the second-most dangerous country in the world for defending the environment after Colombia.
Her disappearance underscores how environmental activism has become increasingly perilous in Mexico under the government of Lopez Obrador, a leftist president who campaigned on a promise to combat violence, but whose mandate has instead seen a spike in violent crime. The real number of environmentalists killed because of their work is likely even higher because the official figure only includes those who were part of the government protection program for activists and journalists known locally as "the Mechanism."
The program offers varying degrees of protection, from little more than a registration of threats to pagers with geo-locators provided for activists or even bodyguards and assistance fleeing the country. Those familiar with Galindo's case say it had been deemed "ordinary," meaning she received no practical protection from the program beyond the knowledge that federal authorities were aware of her case. Her meeting in Mexico City was to review the classification of her case and see if some protection could be given.
The Interior Ministry, which runs the protection program, declined to comment on Galindo's disappearance or why she was not offered more support. The Oaxaca state government declined to comment. The state attorney's office said it would not comment on an ongoing investigation. Under mounting pressure and media attention around the killings, the federal government has vowed to crack down, initiating talks with authorities and victims to propose a new law for the protection of activists and journalists.
"When the Mechanism acts, many times it is too late," said Sara Mendez, a human rights defender who advises the Ombudsman's Office in Oaxaca which investigates violations. Preliminary investigations have led federal government officials to believe that local authorities are implicated in some 40% of environmental activist killings, although only two of 45 cases have resulted in a suspect being charged.
"We have a serious problem because, ultimately, the local authorities not only do not contribute to the solution but are part of the problem," said Enrique Irazoque, head of the department for the Defense of Human Rights in the Interior Ministry. BURNED DOWN
Galindo first reported receiving threats from local officials four years ago as she fought against illegal logging in the wooded Mixtec region, an area that covers 35,000 square kilometers (13,500 square miles)- about the size of Taiwan - through the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Puebla. Local government officials in the region did not respond to phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.
Over a period of four years, she rallied various other activists against a sawmill she claimed was destroying the forest without the proper permits. Galindo started receiving death threats, which she and the National Network of Human Rights Defenders in Mexico denounced at the time. In 2019, she said she was being harassed by two local government officials.
A month later, her house and the homes of other activists burned down, in what Galindo said was arson orchestrated by local community officials. She fled Mexico briefly but returned and pressed on with her activism in defense of the forests. "I came back because I have no reason to hide... I'm defending a forest that benefits our communities," Galindo told a community radio program in December of 2020.
But by last October the threats had become so bad that she wrote a desperate letter to officials running the protection program. Dated Oct. 22, the letter - seen by Reuters - pleaded for better security. She wrote that she was "afraid of dying," threatened by a "mafia of power."
The next day, while already in Mexico City ahead of her meeting with the protection program, armed men stormed her community, San Esteban Atatlahuca, killing seven people and setting fire to dozens of houses, according to neighbors who spoke to Reuters. The incident was a retaliation for Galindo's activism, her neighbors said. Four days later, on Oct. 27, Galindo disappeared.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)