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He defended the sacred lands of Mexico’s Tarahumara people. Then a gunman cut him down

He defended the sacred lands of Mexico’s Tarahumara people. Then a gunman cut him down
A friend of Isidro Baldenegro Lopez visits his grave site in January. Baldenegro was the fifth environmental defender killed in the last year in the community of Coloradas de la Virgen, Chihuahua, in the Golden Triangle. (Luis Cortes/El Universal via AP)

Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, a son of the jagged and often lawless terrain of the western Sierra Madre, had no illusions about the threats he faced from sundry foes — drug traffickers, illegal lumber harvesters and other criminal elements who have infiltrated the remote highlands that are home to Mexico's Tarahumara people.

But relatives and friends say the indigenous leader, who won global acclaim for his defense of the region's ancient forests, could not be deterred from returning to Coloradas de la Virgen, his remote home village, a place cut off by mighty canyons and thuggish violence.

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"Isidro felt like he had work to do, he had to help his people," recalled his sister-in-law, Maximina Carrillo Torres, who, like much of the extended family, has fled Coloradas de la Virgen. "That's what he always did. That was his life."

Maximina Carrillo Torres, 40, left, sister-in-law of slain activist Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, said that after his death relatives and friends fled their hometown of Coloradas de la Virgen.
Maximina Carrillo Torres, 40, left, sister-in-law of slain activist Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, said that after his death relatives and friends fled their hometown of Coloradas de la Virgen. (Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

Baldenegro — a 2005 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the so-called Green Nobel — was shot six times on Jan. 15 at his uncle's adobe home in Coloradas de la Virgen, south of majestic Sinforosa Canyon.

Two weeks later, a second Tarahumara community leader and environmental campaigner, Juan Ontiveros Ramos, 42, was forcibly taken from his home in the same rural municipality and shot and killed.

The killings — like the slaying last year of Bertha Caceres, an indigenous anti-dam campaigner in Honduras and 2015 recipient of the Goldman Prize — dramatize how environmental issues have become a front-line human rights battleground in Latin America and elsewhere.

At least 185 environmental activists worldwide were killed in 2015, the highest such death toll on record, according to Global Witness, a British-based watchdog group. At least 33 ecological activists were killed in Mexico between 2010 and 2015, Global Witness said.