Suddenly, they were interrupted by a squadron of four state police cars, who pulled up and began harassing them, according to a bulletin released by AJAGI, the Asociación Jaliscense en Apoyo de Grupos Indígenas. Police began taunting the maraakame, the spiritual leader, breaking up the sacred circle, handling sacred objects and destroying “Grandfather fire.” They accused the Huicholes, or Wixarika as they call themselves, of breaking the law concerning the gathering of peyote, which they have done for thousands of years as a part of their annual pilgrimage to Wirikuta.
The harassment went on for three hours, when they finally left the pilgrimage participants in peace. But they returned to the encampment at 2 a.m. to continue the harassment, this time recording the proceedings with videocameras and interrupting the song of the marakaame and the words of the ancestors, according to AJAGI.
The news hit me like a rock in the stomach. Only a week ago I was in Santa Catarina, making the two-hour hike down a mountain to the ceremonial site of Las Lajas to interview the maraakame, Don Dionisio. He evoked the ancestors and the importance of the Huichol tradition in an eloquent plea for understanding of their predicament that brought tears to my eyes. On that very day, the community was in the midst of its ritual surrounding the departure of the peregrinos, who had been chosen by the entire community to represent them in this fundamental spiritual practice.
I was there to learn about the community of Santa Catarina’s resistance to a major highway project that the federal government had begun to build through their land, without the community’s consent. After seeing the size of the project, the mass destruction of forest and the location of the highway, which passed through several sacred sites and cut through the millennial pilgrimage route, the community rebelled.
In February 2008, a group of 800 residents picked up their belongings and hiked – in some cases, for several days – to the peak of the highway construction project and set up an encampment, where they remained for six months. Since then, they have filed suit against the government, saying the highway project violates environmental laws as well as their land and spiritual rights.
The highway department responded with copies of a petition signed by 400 residents at a meeting the community says never occurred; they claim the petition was falsified, and just last week, demanded that the agency produce the originals.
AJAGI representatives say the timing of the harassment was no coincidence, and that in fact, this type of harassment has been occurring during the pilgrimage since the group began protesting the highway construction.
“It seems ironic that despite the fact that PROFEPA (the Federal Agency for Environmental Protection) harassed the people of Tuapurie (Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlan) with environmental pretexts and norms whose enforcement is not in the jurisdiction of the state police. This is taking place at the same time that the plunder of peyote in the hands of narcotraffickers is on a sharp rise, and important zones of biodiversity are being destroyed by the multinational agricultural industy.”
Currently, transnational agribusiness companies are buying up and denuding hundreds of hectares of important peyote habitat and destroying it. One transnational tomato company recently purchased 400 hectares of biodiverse desert habitat, including an important peyote site, and set about stripping it of vegetation and constructing deep wells that depleted local water supplies for miles around, the group said.
Other planned developments that have been approved by the government cut across the ancient pilgrimage route in dozens of places with high-power lines, highways and subdivisions.
Additionally, the federal government has drawn up a “Management Plan” for the peyote that regulates the indigenous group’s ritual gathering of the plant, a plan that did not involve the community’s participation and that the group believes violates their rights under Convention 169 of the United Nations International Labor Organization, a key ruling in favor of indigenous land rights.
“Is this the environmental protection that PROFEPA and the state police require?” AJAGI asks. “The situation is delicate and the Wixarika people need for civil society in general and for human rights organizations to be aware of what’s happening with the traditional pilgrimage, as well as the government harassment that has been happening systematically since February 2008,” the group wrote.
Article by Tracy Barnett, The Esperanza Project