The dual isolation of displaced indigenous people from San Lorenzo Azqueltán

18 de Noviembre de 2020
Por: Alberto Pradilla.

Noé, Ricardo and Rafael are displaced indigenous men in Guadalajara, Mexico. Months ago, they were forced flee because their efforts in San Lorenzo Azqueltán to defend the land, their way of life and their relationship with nature almost cost them their lives. Now, because of threats and the pandemic, they suffer dual isolation in the country's second largest city. 

Noé Valentino Aguilar Rojas, a Tepehuano Indian from San Lorenzo Azqueltán, in the state of Jalisco, is 35 years old and has already survived two attempts on his life. The first was in May 2018, when he was kidnapped by a group of hitmen. After being held captive for 24 hours and hearing them talk about how they planned to dissolve his body in acid, he was released. The second was in November 2019, when he was seized by several landowners from Villa Guerrero, the municipal area where his community is located.  They hauled him off to a spot in the middle of nowhere and nearly beat him to death.  

Since that day, Aguilar Rojas has been an internally displaced person. He went from living in the autonomous indigenous community of San Lorenzo Azqueltán to residing in a rented apartment in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, which is 231 kilometers from his community and 200 kilometers northwest of Mexico City. His wife and three children also were forced to leave everything behind and follow him to protect their lives. 

The family left their small ranch, located in an area with only two thousand inhabitants, to live in the country’s the second largest city, with more than 1.5 million inhabitants. Aguilar Rojas went from cultivating the land and being a community leader, to depending on local food banks run by the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, an agency of the federal government. In other words, he went from being an active and leading citizen to being a passive and secondary one.  

Until the end of last year, Aguilar Rojas was president of the Communal Property Commissariat, a position of considerable responsibility within the organization, according to its purpose and customs. For decades, the local indigenous people have been fighting to defend their territory. According to a colonial deed from 1733, San Lorenzo Azqueltán owns 94 thousand hectares in the northern part of the state of Jalisco. It is an area that combines arid zones and pre-desert vegetation with more leafy landscapes, born on the banks of the Bolaño River, and even forests atop the hills near Villa Guerrero. This ancestral land, registered by the Spanish conquerors, is part of a vast expanse of territory where the Tepehuanos and the Wixárikas make their home. They are two of the 68 indigenous groups in Mexico.

According to Carlos Chávez, who is president of the Jalisco Association in Support of Indigenous Groups (AJAGI), the community is located on the edge of a vast territory of more than 400,000 hectares inhabited by indigenous people. It extends from Jalisco and Zacatecas to the northern states of Durango and Chihuahua. 

However, their territory has been shrinking since the advent of the modern state. In fact, 19th century land distribution never took into account the communities that were living there already.  In its most current version, the situation is one where cattle ranchers from Villa Guerrero, which is the municipal area nearby, and Bolaños, another neighboring town, are pushing to appropriate more and more indigenous land, and are willing to do anything to expel the indigenous population. 

The logic that has been imposed for decades is that people from town: that is, families with money who earn a living from cattle ranching, try to secure for themselves the area where indigenous people have always lived. It is of little use to argue that their crops and sacred site are there, that these lands are where they obtain their food and where they practice their ancestral rites. It is as if the original inhabitants do not exist. The ranchers buy the land at ridiculous prices, if possible. And, if the owners refuse, they are ousted forcibly. 

Tired of seeing their territory diminish, the community filed a complaint with the Agrarian Court of the XVI District of Guadalajara. Assuming they might not be able to keep all the land that once belonged to them, they limited themselves to defending their possession of 36 thousand hectares, which is far less than what would be theirs according to Spanish colonial documents. These are not only areas where members of the community grow corn, beans and pumpkins. They also contain sacred sites such as Colotlán Hill, where their ancestors performed rites to ask nature for a good harvest or to keep their families healthy.

Tepehuanos and Wixárikas cleaning peyote for ceremonial use during celebrations observing the anniversary of the appointment of autonomous authorities.
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.


Peyote used by the Tepehuanos and the Wixárikas for ritual ceremonies. 

Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.

The original indigenous people are the Tepehuanos. In fact, Azqueltán is a derivative of Atzqueltlán, which means “land of many ants” in the language of this ancestral group. However, in the 1970's, a number of Wixárikas families were accepted by the local assembly, which is where all important decisions in San Lorenzo are made. They have lived together since then, while maintaining their separate identities. The Wixárikas settled in the upper part of the village, where there is an oak-pine forest. The Tepehuanos live in the lower part, on the banks of the river and next to a low deciduous forest. This union fostered a process of cultural regeneration and an increase in community organization. The local Tepehuanos were on a path to deculturalization that even led to the loss of their original language. The last elders who spoke the language had died and Spanish prevailed. The Wixárikas, for their part, maintain their language and customs, and have helped to guide their hosts in trying to recover theirs. 

Although they are from two different ancestral groups, the Wixárikas and the Tepehuanos live together in San Lorenzo and defend their territory as if they were a single unit. The exile of some of their members is an example of this blend of cultures. There are two other men with Aguilar Rojas: Ricardo De la Cruz González, a 35-year-old Wixárika Indian who was in charge of community surveillance, and Rafael Toña, a 67-year-old Tepehuano and member of the Council of Elders. They also were attacked on the day Aguilar Rojas was left half dead in the middle of a field. For that reason, they had to flee as well.

All three have been recognized as displaced persons by the federal government's Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which is the agency in charge of risk analysis and providing refuge to activists whose lives may be in danger. In the case of Aguilar Rojas, De la Cruz González and Toña, their responsibility as heads of indigenous institutions and their participation in protest demonstrations to protect their land has put them in danger. In Mexico, there are 1,282 human rights defenders and journalists under the protection of the federal government, according to Elei Espinosa, a member of that agency.  Sixty-four of them are in the state of Jalisco.

Mexico is a dangerous country for environmental activists and those who defend the land.  A total of 83 environmentalists were killed between 2013 and 2019 according to the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA). In its 2020 report, Global Witness ranked this North American country as the fourth most dangerous for those who defend nature, surpassed only by Colombia, the Philippines and Brazil.
 
If fleeing their community is a bitter pill to swallow, the situation was made worse by the onset of the pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 was detected in Mexico on 29 February of this year, when these displaced men and their families were just getting used to their new home in Guadalajara. Since then, Mexico has been one of the countries in the world most affected by the novel coronavirus. At the end of August (31), it reported more than half a million cases of inflection and more than 64 thousand deaths from the virus. Exceeding 60 thousand cases was regarded as a "catastrophic" scenario by epidemiologist Hugo López Gatell, the government’s spokesman on COVID-19. In absolute numbers, Mexico ranks fourth among the countries with the highest number of deaths, surpassed only by the United States, Brazil and India.  According to the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, it ranks tenth in the world, with 50.84 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. 

For Aguilar Rojas and his colleagues, the coronavirus has made their living conditions even more complicated. The hospitals where their wounds would have been treated were reengineered to handle only patients with COVID-19. So, that care was denied to them. The courts where they have filed complaints about the attacks were paralyzed, and communications with San Lorenzo Azqueltán – where they cannot return - were cut off. 

"We are locked up because of the disease, and my family is desperate," Aguilar Rojas said during a telephone conversation in August. 

Isolated from everything, these Tepehuanos and Wixárikas indigenous families are forced to live in a city they do not know, without a network of friends, and separated from their lifelong environment and their roots, all because they tried to defend their territory. The 36 thousand hectares the community claims as theirs are in the area between the municipality of Villa Guerrero and San Lorenzo. It is land in the form of a ravine. At the top is the municipal seat; at the bottom, the community. The path between the two is marked by the Bolaño River, which the community uses for fishing and other domestic purposes. It is not a large tract of land, nor is the subsoil rich in minerals. But, it is their land, after all: land that has been passed down from one generation to another. It is the only territory they can call their own and one with which they maintain a special, sacred relationship.

"For us, apart from being nature, it is something sacred: a part of our roots. It's what our grandparents taught us," says Aguilar Rojas.

"The indigenous concept of territory is something different. Water is communal property, like the sand banks, the fish in the river or the forest," explains Quetzal Prado, a lawyer with AJAGI, an organization that advises the community. 

As part of their cosmovision or world view, the Wixárikas and the Tepehuanos make offerings to the hills in the hope that nature will be benevolent.  For them, Goat Hill, Lioness Hill and Bone Hill are venerated places. On Colotlán Hill, which is very near the village, they found the remains of a Tepehuano ceremonial site dating from the time when these people still owned the land and did not have to prove so in a court of law. Invaders and government authorities ignore these traditions. For example, as explained by Cristian Chávez, an advisor to the community, people from outside the village were hired in 2018 as part of a project to build barriers to protect the soil. However, being unfamiliar with the area and the local environment, they used the carved stones the indigenous people have for their ceremonies.  

"Homage is paid to the hills for many reasons. There are different sacred places. Some are for living. You live at the foot of the hill, and you go up and pay homage so everything will be fine and nothing will happen to your family. That's what you do. It's about paying homage there, so it rains enough, so the soil is productive, so there are good harvests, so families don't get sick, and so there is a good season," says Ricardo De la Cruz González, one of the indigenous men who was displaced after the attack in 2019.

Participants in an evening ceremony in San Lorenzo Azqueltán during celebrations commemorating the fifth anniversary of the appointment of traditional authorities in 2018. 
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.



A traditional musician plays the violin during a celebration in San Lorenzo Azqueltán.
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.



Indigenous people line up to help build a roof on the community center in San Lorenzo Azqueltán. 
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.

Indigenous people do not believe the land is theirs to exploit. Their relationship with nature is different, more harmonious. Carlos Chávez, a member of the Jalisco association that supports indigenous communities, explains this by referring to a time when they tried to find the equivalent of "natural resources" in the Wixárika language. In conversations between the community and people like him, from the city, it soon became apparent they were not talking about the same thing. They did not have synonyms for the same concept. In Wixárika, the closest thing to a "natural resource" would be iuramenka, which translates as "essences of life". It is something completely different. 

"Natural resources are interrelationships with the world and with living tradition. Everything is filled with essences that float, evaporate [and] pass through", explains Chávez. This is evident, for example, in the way farming is done. While invaders use machines and a model based on exploiting the land for commerce, the Indians rely on manual techniques and subsistence agriculture. In doing so, they defend a territory inhabited by their ancestors and a way of life linked solidly to nature. 

Being convinced the Mexican authorities would not guarantee their ownership of the land, the people of San Lorenzo Azqueltán declared their autonomy. The Supreme Court of Mexico has recognized this as one way indigenous people may organize themselves according to their use of the land and their customs.  

Usually, establishing a traditional government or authority is a way to prevent natural resources from being exploited or to stop pressure from organized crime. The example in Jalisco would be the neighboring community of San Sebastián Teponahuaxtlán, the only one in the state to win an appeal to have its own budget and to decide how it is spent, which is done by consulting the community.  

Although San Lorenzo Azqueltán is recognized by the Jalisco State Indigenous Commission, it continues to depend on the municipality of Villa Guerrero. However, the indigenous people do not trust this relationship. They argue the powers that be in Villa Guerrero, that is, the major landowners, are the ones who are trying to steal their land. In fact, the people of the community have singled out the mayor of Villa Guerrero, Aldo Gamboa Gutiérrez, (a conservative and member of the National Action Party-PAN) as being one of the instigators of the violence perpetrated against them

Organized crime also plays a role in the region. Sources from the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists say they have identified possible links between criminal organizations and the assailants. According to the indigenous community, the violence is in response to their efforts to regain their land.  

"Seeing so few indigenous people remaining in the territory, pressured by the chaos created by the big landowners, they launched a fight to have their lands returned to them," explains Ramiro Reyes Márquez, who is chairman of the Agrarian Property Authority and one of the leaders who remains in the community, despite the violence. Although this local organization started in the 1940s, the last two decades have seen its legal battle come to a head.

In fact, the lawsuit filed with the Agrarian Court in 2015 was the beginning of the current campaign of violence. Since then, the community has filed more than 30 criminal complaints in response to personal attacks (kidnapping, attempted murder) and acts involving misappropriation of land. This is according to Denise Montiel, director of the Justice Center for Peace and Development AC, which advises indigenous people on legal action. 

Animal Politico tried to obtain Gamboa Gutiérrez's opinion on these allegations. His communications officer claimed the mayor would grant an interview, but never scheduled one, despite repeated requests up until the first week of September, when this article was submitted for publication.  A similar request was made to Jalisco state authorities, who also failed to reply.  

It may seem like nothing new, but it is why Noé, Ricardo and Rafael are now displaced within their own state. The land in question belongs to them, as indigenous people, but the dynamics of colonization and misappropriation have reduced it to minimum.

Participants in the celebration commemorating the fifth anniversary of the election of traditional authorities in San Lorenzo Azqueltán.
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.

Participants in the celebration commemorating the fifth anniversary of the election of traditional authorities in San Lorenzo Azqueltán.
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.

A man taking part in the celebration marking the fifth anniversary of the election of traditional authorities in San Lorenzo Azqueltán.
Photo: ©ScottBrennanphoto.

***

"I lived with my parents. I helped them out and took care of them. I have three children and I was with them, looking after the family. Now, they are here with me. My parents are back at the ranch. My family had to come with me. And, now, we are like this: locked up. I can't even work because I'm sick in the head. They give us a house and food, nothing more. So, I have to get help with my family.” 

Noé Aguilar Rojas has been confined for too long. He cannot go home, because he is afraid of being killed.  He cannot work, since his skull is fractured in two different places as a result of the latest attack, and he sometimes he gets lost and doesn't know where he is. He can barely leave the house due to the possibility of contracting COVID-19. Although Mexico has never gone into quarantine, the motto is: stay home if you don't have a good reason to go out. And, this man doesn't. 

In his former life, when he was growing corn and his neighbors regarded him as a man of authority, Aguilar Rojas was the farming commissioner in San Lorenzo Azqueltán. The moment the community obtained its autonomy, he was going to be one of the authorities in charge, even though everything is decided collectively, at an assembly.

His history as a victim of violence goes back a long way. 

On 19 April 2018, he was seized and hauled off in a van by several armed men. This abduction occurred in Tamastián, a town next to Villa Guerrero. With him was Catarino Aguilar, who was a member of the Indigenous Government Council. Both were kidnapped, or "picked up" as it is popularly referred to in Mexico. They were missing for day, during which they were beaten by their captors, allegedly hit men who conversed via walkie-talkies about disposing of their bodies by dissolving them in acid. 

The community had established important ties with activists and institutions. So, even the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights demanded they be returned unharmed. They have always thought it was that pressure that saved them. "Here, people who disappear are not found the next day," says Carlos Chávez. 

In the first half of 2020, 888 of the more than fourteen thousand murders reported nationwide were committed in Jalisco. Moreover, it is the second state with the highest number of missing persons in Mexico, with more than 10,000 of the 73,000 registered by the National Search Commission (CNB).

Jalisco is a violent region. It is the birthplace of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CGJN), one of the criminal organizations with the most territorial control in Mexico. The toughest area of the state is the southern portion, on the border with Michoacán and Guanajuato, where criminal groups fight for territory and control over the prime routes that are essential for moving illegal drugs to the border with the United States. 

Although San Lorenzo Azqueltán is located hundreds of kilometers from the border with El Paso (Texas) and Nogales (Sonora), it is important due to its lack of close proximity to any large urban area.  To get here, a military or police patrol would have to drive for five hours, if coming from Guadalajara, the state capital. This makes it a very porous venue for organized crime. The cartels take advantage of the impoverished nature of the area, which is dedicated mainly to farming, and establish alliances with the powers that be to allow them to transport drugs.

Since there were no arrests for the 2018 kidnapping, the idea that they were very vulnerable took hold among the people of San Lorenzo Azqueltán. So, Councilman Catarino Aguilar, who was kidnapped along with Noe, fled to the United States. He did not even ask for asylum, knowing how difficult it is to find mercy on the other side of the Rio Bravo. He escaped as a 'wetback' (illegal immigrant), like millions of his fellow countrymen.

The other victim, Aguilar Rojas, stayed among his own. During that period, the community multiplied its efforts to defend their territory.  In addition to seeking legal recognition as the legitimate owners of the 36,000 hectares being claimed, they also staged demonstrations and sit-ins.   There was a cultural resurgence as well.  Although the Tepehuanos lost their language decades ago, ancestral activities began to resurface within the community, such as the pilgrimages to Virikuta in San Luis Potosi, a sacred spot where various indigenous groups perform their peyote rituals in the middle of the desert. 

These are two parallel processes: the indigenous revival and misappropriation of the land. As Carlos Chávez explains, misappropriation originates on a number of fronts, but mainly with large landowners. They encroach on a few meters of land from one day to the next and make it theirs. Every day, the community finds a new group of workers operating on the orders of a major landowner. They come in, fence off part of the surrounding area, and turn it into an extension of their employer’s land. 

These are not the only examples of theft and looting.  For instance, three sand banks on indigenous land were stolen.  According to the local community and the agencies that advise them, the municipal authorities in Villa Guerrero sent heavy equipment into the area in 2018 and began to extract earth for a variety of projects.  The community prevented the work from being completed, having grown weary of the authorities in Villa Guerrero acting as if they did not even exist and had nothing to say about how their land is used. The community blocked the roads and prevented trucks from coming in, but the confrontation with municipal authorities escalated. 

Pollution in the Bolaño River is another of their complaints. Since Villa Guerrero is located upstream and the indigenous village is along the creek, the water arrives contaminated with spills and garbage. "It is bad for us, because we have the river as a source of life. We fish there [and] the pollution is worse every year, “protests Ricardo De la Cruz González. 

The water in the Bolaño River is no longer fit for human consumption, but the Tacuache Creed is still used by the local indigenous population as a source of water.  According to Christian Chávez, this is the last basin of clean water that flows into the river before it receives industrial waste from the Bolaños Mining Company, which is located in the municipal seat and owned by Grupo México, the country's largest mining company. 

This is the context resulting from the last few years of indigenous protests and incursions on the part of large landowners.

The highland in San Lorenzo Azqueltán. Land invasions for extensive cattle ranching are common in this area.
Photo: the community’s archives.

The wooded area of San Lorenzo Azqueltán.  Some parts have been invaded for illegal logging.
Photo: the community’s archives.

The most serious attack occurred on 3 November 2019 and turned these three community leaders into displaced persons. Chávez says the community had tried, a few days earlier, to recover a plot of land that had been seized from them by a major landowner. The area is important, as it is where the indigenous community gathers pitayas, a highly coveted fruit they sell on the local market between April and May. Since pitayas have to be sold the same day they are harvested, the work is done at night, so the fruit reaches the market in the early morning. 

The community's attempt to mark out the land they claim as theirs brought reprisals. The first to be attacked was Ricardo De la Cruz González, chairman of the Surveillance Council.

"I was heading home, on my way back from town, when they stopped me.  The rest is what you know already," he says.

De la Cruz González does not like to talk about what happened. He says it makes him uncomfortable. There is no mention of the beatings, the threats or the fear. He only remembers having had time to call the community before he was detained. He regained consciousness when he was being moved to Zacatecas, which is 185 kilometers to the north and the capital of the neighboring state of Zacatecas. He had several broken ribs and a damaged lung. Actually, Zacatecas is closer than Guadalajara for the inhabitants of San Lorenzo. However, since his injuries were so serious, he was transferred a few days later to Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, 230 kilometers south of San Lorenzo. He remains there with his family, safeguarded by the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. 

That day, Noé Valentino Aguilar Rojas was the victim of violence once again.  Alarmed by a call that warned of a possible attack against De la Cruz González, he went to see if he could help. 

It was Aguilar Rojas who found Ricardo lying on the ground, badly wounded, and took him to Zacatecas. When he returned to the community, they went to get him. 

"A pick-up truck was blocking our way. I don’t know how they got there.  I just remember the truck was white and was parked crosswise on the road," he recalls. 

A person he knows got out of the truck. It was Fabio Flores, alias "La Polla" (The Cock). He is one of the large landowners who have been blamed for the constant violence. "He got out of the vehicle with a gun. They grabbed me by my hands and feet, and started hitting me hard. I don't remember how many there were. I didn't know any more until I woke up in Guadalajara," says Aguilar Rojas. With him in the vehicle was Rafael Toña, a member of the Council of Elders, who also was injured in the attack. Although the journalist who wrote this article tried to contact the mayor to talk about these incidents, his calls were not answered.

The last time the three indigenous leaders from San Lorenzo Azqueltán set foot in their community was on the 2nd of November. 

From the hospital in Guadalajara, they were transferred to a hotel. Later, the federal government rented apartments where they could stay with their families. Groceries arrived every fifteen days, with staples such as pasta, oil and rice. Shortly before the pandemic hit, the system changed and they were given a type of debit card to buy food. It is a plastic card that is valid only in supermarkets and cannot be used to withdraw cash. Their life had changed completely and they were stuck in Guadalajara, still seriously injured. The Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists plans to assess the situation once a year to determine if they continue to require protection or are able return home safely. Jorge Ruiz, a member of this state agency, explains these are voluntary measures taken in consensus with those under threat. There are no time limits.  In fact, several cases from 2014 are still active.  

The three men from San Lorenzo Azqueltán were adjusting to their new situation when the coronavirus hit and, with it, the measures on confinement. 

"I had to look for work, which is very difficult with this pandemic," says Ricardo De La Cruz Gonzalez. 

If he still lived in San Lorenzo Azqueltán, he would be going out every day to farm corn, beans or pumpkins on the small piece of land that once fed him and his family.  But, no.  He knows he might be killed if he returns home, even now.  "Things are still tense," he acknowledges. From time to time, he talks on the phone with his friends who remain in San Lorenzo Azqueltán, or receives a visit from a local leader who is traveling to Guadalajara to follow the legal proceedings that are part of the community’s struggle to protect indigenous land. And, they tell him the threats and pressure continue. 

So, it was time to adapt to a new reality. 

"There were days when they didn't let people out, and I had to take at least two trucks [buses] to get to work. I'm afraid of getting sick, and that's it. I know the disease is out there and it is dangerous. But, on the other hand, my duty is to support my family and that’s what forces you out onto the street, no matter what," he explains.

The beating left him wounded, but not disabled. However, his two companions are unable to work because of the injuries they sustained. "They don't receive a penny [in economic aid] from anywhere," says Carlos Chávez of AJAGI. And, although they have food and shelter, they left their village with almost nothing. Now, it’s even difficult for them to buy clothing. And, that's a problem when, like Aguilar Rojas, you have three children who quickly outgrow their clothes. 
 
"They had to flee, leaving everything behind. The only [aid they] receive is in kind. They went from being independent heads of households, with certain capabilities, to a situation where they have lost those capabilities and don’t know if they will ever be able to recover them,” says Carlos Chavez.

And, conditions have not improved. 

"The risk is still there", says Aguilar Rojas, who complains his assailants have not been brought to justice.  Despite the kidnapping, the beating and the fact that he came close to being killed, no progress has been made in the criminal investigation. The 11th District Criminal Court opened case file 522/2019 and, although the community wanted the incident to be investigated as an attempted homicide, it remained a personal injury case. Moreover, the judicial process was held up during the early months of the year, because of the pandemic. 

At the same time, the State Commission on Human Rights initiated procedure 94/06/2019, and its recommendations are expected to be announced in September of this year, according to Aldo Reynoso, the third visitor from that agency.  These commissions only take action in the event of complaints against public servants. In this case, the members of the community claim the state police did not go to the scene of the crime, despite having been warned of the attack.  In their opinion, this is evidence of collusion between the kidnappers and the authorities. 

Since the attack, the lives of these three displaced community leaders have been put on hold, as have criminal proceedings against the suspected assailants and the case that is now before the Agrarian Court.  "The process is extremely slow," complains Quetzal Prado, a lawyer. COVID-19 forced the courts to close, and the backlog of cases is growing. Gradually, with partial reopening of the judicial system in early August, the proceedings were resumed, but no date has been set for any of these cases to be heard.

The only thing that did not stop during the peak months of the pandemic were the attacks against community members. The coronavirus proved to be no excuse in that respect. 
 
On July 20, the municipal police in Villa Guerrero "picked up" a young man from the community and took him to the station, where he says he was tortured. To be “picked up” refers to being taken against one's will. A "pick up" in Mexico can be a kidnapping, a disappearance or a case of arbitrary detention. The authorities in San Lorenzo Azqueltán asked for support from the state police, who arrived at the station but did not find the young man. He had been released without there being any record of him having been taken into custody by municipal authorities. The All Rights for Everyone Network (TDT), an alliance of 86 organizations in 23 states of Mexico, publicly denounced the apprehension and regarded it as part of a strategy to harass the indigenous people of San Lorenzo. 

This practice sparked a warning among activists who advise and support the community, and brought to mind similar events in the state of Jalisco. A month and a half earlier, in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, a town on the outskirts of Guadalajara, a young man named Giovanni López was beaten to death by several municipal police officers, after he refused to wear a face mask. 

The members of the community warn that harassment by the municipal police, who are aligned with the major landowners who invade indigenous territory, could lead to a new "Giovanni case". 

"All of this has been for the same reason, for defending our land and our community," says Ricardo De La Cruz González. 

"This land belonged to our ancestors for years. But, there are people who are trying to take it away," he insists. 

For now, he works as a bricklayer in Guadalajara, but his goal is to return home. "I hope to be able to go back soon. I trust in God that I can return before long to continue with my community and with the people who know me," he says. 

Aguilar Rojas, who survived two attacks, hopes for the same.  "There, I have my work, my friends, my corn [and] my land. It is where I was born, and I hope to return there, to my ranch, to be able to work.” 

Meanwhile, state authorities in Jalisco have been asked to set up peace committees to avoid further violence. But, nothing has been done so far. There is only the fear and anguish of three families who are trapped dozens of kilometers away from their homes and becoming more resigned as the days go by. 

"Now, if it happened again, if there was an attempt on my life, I might die, right?  That's what I think could happen. But, I also have faith and confidence in justice. In my opinion, I have done nothing wrong. Everything I do and what we have done goes hand in hand with the law, with what is fair, with reason. And, that's why I’m not so afraid to go back. It’s my land and I’ve never thought of abandoning it,” says Ricardo. 

Note. This article is part of #DefendingWithoutFear, a journalist series that tells the story of women and men who struggle to defend the environment in a time of pandemic. Developed by Agenda Propia, in coordination with twenty journalists, editors and allied media in Latin America, the series is made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global NGO.