Indigenous environmental activist Isidro Baldenegro López. 2005 Goldman Prize ceremony. All rights reserved.
Isidro Baldenegro López was shot dead on January 15 in the Coloradas de la Virgen community in the Guadalupe and Calvo municipality of Chihuahua state. The murder quickly drew attention to collusion between drug trafficking cartels and the illegal timber industry, which López was known for speaking out against.
"Tribal figures [cacicazgos] involved with the illegal timber trade and organized crime are the material and intellectual authors" of the crime, a human rights activist told BBC Mundo under condition of anonymity as a safety measure.
For years, criminal groups have used illegal logging in the region as a means of laundering the dirty money obtained from marijuana and opium poppy cultivation. According to the Proceso correspondant Patricia Mayorga, the illegal trade is not only used to generate profit from the wood sales but also to build houses for those who control the plantations and the drug trafficking, reported La Sierra.
López attempted to defend the Sierra Tarahumara for years. But the area where the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua converge is one of the main marijuana and poppy producing regions in Mexico. This has created fertile ground for the illegal timber trade, as well as growing violence and corruption in the area.
The murder of Baldenegro López is the latest illustration of the uphill struggle for the protection of the Mexican environment, which has been challenged by the illegal extraction of resources and criminal groups operating in the region.
One of the few success stories for environmental activism in Mexico took place in 2011 in Cherán, a town of 20,000 inhabitants in the state of Michoacán. Tired of being harassed and abused by criminal groups from the illegal timber and drug trades, the town took up arms to defend their land. But although the violence has since subsided, the community leaders that led movement are still under threat.
López' path followed that of his father, who was murdered in 1986 by criminals involved in illegal logging. López was threatened and persecuted a number of times, and was even detained fifteen months on marijuana possession charges that were never proven.
Despite the recognition from international organizations that his environmental activism brought him -- López received the Goldman Prize in 2005 -- the activist's life ended brutally. Just like Berta Cáceres, the Honduran environmental activist who was murdered in March 2016, López has become a symbol of the frontal collision between environmental activism and organized crime.
In 2015, 66 percent of the environmental activists killed worldwide were murdered in Latin America, according to Global Witness. Brazil is particularly affected by this issue; an estimated 80 percent of its timber trade is illegal and the country accounts for 25 percent of the illicit trade worldwide worth $30 billion. Just as in Mexico, this creates a strong criminal incentive for illegal loggers to move into rural and poor communities.
According to that same non-governmental organization, there were 150 murders of Brazilian activists since 2012, making the country the most dangerous in the world for such advocates. The most recent case was that of Luis Alberto Araújo; the government official's murder in the state of Pará in 2016 showed that even prominent figures are vulnerable to such threats, not only in the Amazon but across the region.
This article was published previously by InsightCrime.