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.

“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.”

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 Berta 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.

This month Chihuahua state prosecutors said they had arrested Baldenegro’s killer, whom they identified only as Romeo, age 21.

Authorities say he confessed to shooting the 50-year-old Baldenegro with a .38 Super pistol, hitting him in the chest, abdomen and right leg, because of long-time “personal” animosities.

But activists and relatives suspect a crime boss deployed Romeo as a sicario, or hired gunman, to eliminate once and for all the meddlesome anti-logging campaigner, one of Mexico’s best-known environmental advocates.

“We acknowledge that Romeo was the killer of Isidro, but not the mastermind behind the assassination,” said Isela Gonzalez Diaz, an anthropologist who heads the Sierra Madre Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We urge authorities to…