Julián Carrillo defended the forest with his life

By Rodrigo Sales, researcher for human rights defenders for the Americas at Amnesty International
28 November 2018, 12:48 UTC

The first time I arranged a meeting with environmental defender Julián Carrillo, I wanted to visit him at his home in the Rarámuri community of Coloradas de la Virgen in the Sierra Tarahumara, Chihuahua. But various people and organizations told me that if I went there, “the bad guys” (organized crime), would not let me through and if I did manage to get there, it would put my life and the lives of members of the community in danger.

The alternative was to meet somewhere else in the Sierra. To get to the right place I had to drive along a secluded winding road that allowed me to see for the first time the beauty of the Sierra Tarahumara. For Julián, on the other hand, it meant walking all day and taking a plane.

We had breakfast together and went to a quiet safe area on the outskirts of the city. The place could not have been better: it overlooked the stunning Sierra Tarahumara and we could see the ravines, the roads opened up by Indigenous Peoples to travel around in the region and the Urique River in the distance. 

Julián told me that he had been defending the territory since 1992, when the community chose him as Police Commissioner for las Coloradas, a position in the community responsible for the security of the territory. Then, they chose him as “president of communal assets”  (presidente de bienes comunes) for almost 10 years. His job was to take care of the territory, the water, the forest and the wildlife.

In 2007 he became aware that their territory was at risk because the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources had approved permits for exploratory operations in the forest.  Julián together with other Rarámuri Indigenous people united to ask the courts to declare the permits null and void. Their arguments were straightforward: the exploration was clearly going to have an impact on the environment and the Indigenous communities affected had not been consulted.

For more than 15 years Julián struggled to defend the territory and, because of this, he received numerous death threats and in the last three years five of his relatives have been killed. The day we met, he told me with great sadness that the same thing had happened to other community leaders.

Julián also admitted that he was afraid to go on living in las Coloradas and that for the first time he had left the community for a while because the threats against him had intensified. In July, displaced and living in Sinaloa, Julián was told by someone in the community that “the bad guys” were still looking for him; they said that they were going to “chop his mouth” for denouncing the violence in las Coloradas.

The risks faced by Julián and his community led the Federal Mechanism that protects defenders and journalists to grant specific measures in 2014 to protect him, three other members of the community and two members of the Alianza Sierra Madre AC organization, which provides accompaniment and legal support.

They were given a satellite phone, because in the community there is no ordinary telephone signal, and they were offered a police escort for journeys that involved leaving the community. However, Julián explained to me that the satellite phone frequently did not work and that the police told him that they feared for their own safety because, according to them, the community was very dangerous place.

The next time I saw Julián was two months later during a meeting with members of las Coloradas in a nearby city. They had just learned that the Secretary for the Economy had granted a mining concession on part of their territory. Julián spoke up once again, this time to express his concern about the problems this would bring. He warned us about the impacts that this could have on the lives of people and on the forest and predicted an increase in the number of deaths.

When I said goodbye to Julián, I thought that I would soon see him again in las Coloradas de la Virgen. But two weeks later I woke up to the news that Julián had been killed. I felt frustrated and helpless; his death had long been predicted and it was evident that the state, despite knowing the risks he faced, had not taken the necessary measures to guarantee that he would stay alive.

Julián is not the only person to lose their life protecting the territory and the environment in Mexico. In September 2018, the Mexican Mechanism for the Protection of Defenders and Journalists stated that so far this year, 16 defenders have been killed. Moreover, the Mechanism faces a serious financial crisis that could put at risk the 702 people who are currently receiving protection.

Mexico must take immediate steps to overcome the structural causes behind the threats, killings and attacks faced by human rights defenders in the community of las Coloradas de la Virgen. It must also redouble its efforts to put in place an effective national protection mechanism, backed by comprehensive public policies, to prevent stories such as Julián's from being repeated.

Julián taught me that fear must not stop us from fighting for our planet. Each killing of a defender of the forest means the loss of thousands of trees.

In the context of the current climate and environmental crisis, we must not allow defenders, and with them our forests, to be killed. We demand justice for Julián and protection for all human rights defenders.

This article was originally published in Spanish by Aristegui Noticias