Indigenous Communities in Mexico Fight for Their Lives and Their Lands

A confederation of Nahua pueblos vows to defend their ancestral homeland from a predatory cartel with alleged ties to extractive industries.

Two Indigenous environmental activists went missing in Mexico in late May this year. They were riding in the same car when they disappeared. Last seen passing through the county seat at Chilapa de Álvarez, they’d been on the way home to their respective villages in the pine-covered mountains of Guerrero state.

Bartolo Morales and Isaías Xantenco were both members of the Regional Coordinator for Community Authorities (CRAC), a constitutionally protected policía comunitaria, or community police force, tasked with protecting the Nahuas’ ancestral homeland. Commonly known as La Montañosa region, these northeastern highlands of Guerrero are rich in minerals and old-growth forests – resources that organized crime groups are willing to kill for.

When the two CRAC officers’ bodies were found, two days later, they’d been dismembered by chainsaws, possibly while still alive, and their remains dumped at a roadside just outside their communities. They were the fifth and sixth Nahua villagers to be murdered or disappeared in the mostly rural Chilapa district in May. Another CRAC officer was found similarly slain just a few days later, bringing the total to seven killed inside a month.

CRAC leaders, local townspeople, and human rights observers all allege that the victims were targeted by a powerful drug cartel called Los Ardillos. In addition to trafficking narcotics, the Ardillos, they say, like many crime groups in Guerrero and other parts of Mexico, also count on extortion fees from logging and mining companies operating in their territories to line their coffers.

The comunitarios, however, oppose transnational mining, illegal logging, and the destruction of their water sources. Local residents and international experts alike accuse the Ardillos of carrying out a months-long reign of terror aimed at subjugating or “exterminating” a string of confederated Nahua villages which sit near or atop valuable deposits of gold, other minerals, and timber concessions. The area also constitutes an important shipping corridor the cartel craves for moving opium and heroin.

In the wake of Morales and Xantenco’s deaths, CRAC commissioner David Sánchez Luna released a statement saying the men had given their lives “to defend our territory from the extraction of what [outsiders] call natural resources, which for us are sacred hills or springs of water and life.”

Located in the country’s southwest, Guerrero is one of Mexico’s most violent states. Yet Chilapa is exceptionally deadly even by Guerrero’s standards. In 2017, the municipal capital at Chilapa de Álvarez was home to a staggering homicide rate of 191 per 100,000. That made it statistically the most dangerous city in the Americas, according to Dr. Chris Kyle, an anthropologist and Guerrero expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In the two years since, much of the bloodshed has spread outward to surrounding settlements.

More than 50 people have been killed, disappeared, or detained so far this year in clashes between CRAC and the Ardillos, and entire villages have been abandoned due to the escalating violence.

Kyle told Earth Island Journal that the Ardillos’ strategy is to “purge the villages of any resistance by killing off community leaders.” The murders of Morales and Xantenco last month also illustrate the “depth and efficiency of the [cartel’s] intelligence operations,” Kyle said.

“The Ardillos were able to identify their car at the edge of town and organize to kill them within three to five minutes,” he pointed out. “Their control [of Chilapa] is complete.”

Local human rights groups claim crime groups in Guerrero and many parts of Mexico act as “armed wings” for the mining and logging industries they extract extortion fees from. Critics say the narcos often further extraction companies’ interests by crushing resistance or driving away residents who occupy valuable lands.

Dr. Oswaldo Zavala, who specializes in Latin American studies at The City University of New York, called this “the most frequent mechanism for extraction” in Mexico, a tactic he labeled “accumulation by dispossession,” in an email to EIJ.

“It begins with a focalized conflict in the targeted region, usually through brutal violence conducted by the paramilitary force [of a] drug cartel.” The “killing or disappearing of local community leaders” often results in “massive displacement.”

Once the original inhabitants have been removed, “official armed forces are then called in to ‘pacify’ the region and establish a secure perimeter,” Zavala wrote, thus “occupying the land to guarantee the unobstructed work of a transnational company.”

In gold- and timber-rich Guerrero, more than 5,000 people were victims of forced displacement by armed groups in 2018, including almost 600 children. Given that Guerrero is home to 25 active mineral extraction projects and some 700 additional mining concessions, and that deforestation in the state is already at record levels, the number of internal refugees could continue to climb.

But the CRAC villages in the Montañosa region around Chilapa have vowed to fight back. Women and children have now joined their male counterparts in CRAC training programs, engaging in drills and practicing small-arms tactics. The comunitarios also maintain barricades and checkpoints on the local roadways to protect against surprise attacks by the Ardillos. In a public letter released about a week after the dismembered activists were found, the local CRAC leadership council wrote:

“The area where we live is rich in natural and resources, and we know that there have been studies to examine the presence of oil, minerals, and [to ascertain the value of] logging trees in our mountains. The national and transnational [extraction companies] have turned the entire state of Guerrero into a war zone.”

The letter went on to make clear the Nahua confederation would continue to resist, “even as we have for the last 500 years,” and concluded with a final promise to keep up the struggle:

“For the sake of all our peoples, we fight for peace and dignity, and for the right to live in harmony with nature.”

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