Daybreak is the best time to hear as many of the 212 varieties of birds in Xochimilco as possible. It is also when the canals are most tranquil, before the daily toil begins. By 8am the waterways fill with local inhabitants steering tourists on brightly painted boats called trajineras.
We arrived at the freshwater lagoon in southern Mexico City just before sunrise, as the birds whizzed past each other, flying low, while skirting the waters. Claudia Zenteno, a local environmental activist, led us deeper into the canal, where several other species sat perched atop trees, playfully whistling at us as we waded through the waters.
We had entered the heart of the Xochimilco wetlands, a protected and contested area where tourist boats cannot enter.
Illegal construction in an ancient ecosystem
Xochimilco, which means ‘where the flowers grow’ in Nahuatl, a Central American language, is home to a historic canal system and is one of the most ecologically diverse habitats in the world.
“Legend says that at night a raging bull enters this lagoon to protect the area,” Claudia whispered to us. We were a small team of journalists, fortunate enough to visit one of the few remaining waterways of the impressive network that the Aztecs built in the 10th century.
Over May 2020, I shadowed Mexican journalist Verónica Basurto and her colleagues as they collected interviews from women land and environmental rights defenders across Mexico for an investigation into the heightened risks that they face in the pandemic period.
The more than 6,000 acres of wetlands in the region have been classified as “protected heritage” by UNESCO. Yet, illegal construction and excessive planting of cash crops are threatening the ecosystem with extinction.
In Mexico, collusion between global corporations, criminal groups and public officials often means environmental crimes go unpunished in the courts. The country’s judicial system calls for “preserving ecological balance” and “protecting the environment” at federal, state and municipal levels. But rampant corruption among government authorities and collusion with the local police and cartels has allowed companies to construct properties over protected land and to exploit natural resources.
Environmental crimes, including killings and disappearances of rights activists, have been on the rise across the globe. In 2019, at least 304 rights defenders were killed in relation to their work, 40% of whom worked on land, environment and indigenous rights. By 2020, this number had risen to 331, with nearly 70% working on environment and land rights.
In Mexico, 18 human rights defenders were murdered in 2020, the highest recorded number for the country. The majority were environment and land rights activists.
Activists like Claudia say that such attacks are on the rise in Mexico due to there being fewer eyes on the ground. Amid pandemic lockdowns, it has been challenging for rights groups to confirm the killings and enforced disappearances, due to limited access to the areas of concern, and restitution mechanisms.
Having lost two of her peers to assassinations in the past years, Evelia Baena, a local land rights activist in Guerrero, a state on Mexico’s Pacific coast, braces herself for attacks every day.
Mining for gold in the mountains
While construction and development projects dominate the lowlands, Evelia's home community in the mountainous parts of southern Mexico has been reeling from the impacts of mining and drilling for minerals. Many locals are forced to work in the mines or related industries, while tens of thousands have lost their homes or left the area due to the violence between cartels affiliated with the mines.
Our second location in the heart of Guerrero could not have been more different from the lush greenery of Xochimilco. As we drove further into the state of Guerrero to reach the municipality of Cocula, the land became scorched, measuring up to its nickname, tierra caliente, or ‘hot earth’.
‘Barren’ is the only way to describe the vast expanses of land surrounding the mineral-rich mountains, where mining companies such as Canadian-owned Torex Gold Resources Inc, have set up extractive empires. These lands were burnt down to chase out the local farmers and herders, and to pave way for the mining projects. Amid this displacement and environmental degradation, corporations, cartels and local officials continue to exploit natural resources.
As we drove past checkpoints in Evelia’s car, she looked back from the front seat with excitement lining her otherwise unmoved demeanour.
“When I fight for the rights of the people in the mountains, I feel alive. So I think that if something happens and I do not return, at least I would have died for something valuable.’
Indeed, travelling past eight checkpoints manned by armed cartel members to enter one of the most contested areas in Mexico was no easy feat.
“You are probably among the very few foreign journalists who travelled this far into Guerrero, especially since the massacre of the 43 students,” Verónica, who had arranged the visit remarked as we were waved through the last checkpoint before Cocula.
She was referring to the enforced disappearances of 43 students in Iguala and Cocula, believed to have been killed by local police and criminal gangs for protesting government policies.
Cycles of Vulnerability
Alongside its abysmal record for violations against rights defenders, Mexico was also ranked the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2020. Verónica, who has more than 30 years’ experience investigating cases of public and private corruption, is no stranger to threats associated with her profession.
She has pressed on with her work to relay the messages of activists like Claudia and Evelia, and to call for their protection. “Giving the activists a voice is vital for safeguarding the rights of hundreds of thousands of civilians” who are losing their livelihoods, local habitats and land, Verónica says.
When the voices of the journalists who cover these stories are stifled, through intimidation and direct attacks, the activists and their communities become more invisible to the outside world.
In 2012, Verónica started to investigate the transfer of illicit drugs and weapons through the Mexico City airport. The story landed her in the midst of a national corruption case involving federal police and high-level public officials from the government of the former president, Felipe Calderón, who had colluded with several well-known cartels.
While Verónica received support from the Mexican Human Rights Commission (independent from the federal government) in establishing her case for immediate protection, the government itself did little to help her. In fact, one of the top investigators who was working on the corruption case Verónica unearthed advised that she leave overnight.
After eight months of death threats and moving home five times, Verónica left Mexico with the help of Reporters Without Borders. She was forced into exile in Spain and France for several years, where she sought support from similar organisations. But bound to her life-long calling, she eventually returned to Mexico and continues to work as a journalist.
Despite having several protection mechanisms dedicated to their profession, journalists in Mexico experience high levels of risks and attacks while performing their jobs.
A Safety of Journalists coalition mission involving 17 international organisations visited Mexico in December 2019, and found that the country had failed to implement its various mechanisms at several levels of its governance. The committee called for extra resources to combat the rampant violations against freedom of expression. When coupled with social stigmas towards investigative journalists and a strong machismo culture, women reporters like Verónica are often left to fend for themselves.
As of this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, marked annually on 30 August, Mexico has registered more than 86,000 disappearances, making the country a high priority for the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances. Among these registered cases are many land and environmental activists. Mexico's National Register for Missing People has a higher estimate of about 91,000 missing people, with 7000 disappearances just over the last year.
So far, the Mexican government has failed to make a concrete commitment to reduce impunity for crimes against journalists and human rights defenders. Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced a pause on much of the work that global observer groups started end of 2019. But many rights advocates have continued to document violations and seek accountability from the Mexican government and global corporations.
To hear their perspectives, join our live session this afternoon to commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared.
The film and the live event have been facilitated by Copenhagen based International Media Support (IMS).
PROJECT CREDITS -
Video, Text and Photos: Preethi Nallu
Editing: Preethi Nallu and Rania Itani
Sound: Omar Safadi
Project Lead: Colette Heefner
Infographic: Kashif Ali
Sub-editor: Indra Warnes
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