Raramuri home in the Sierra Tarahumara

On the frontline: Defending Indigenous lands and Indigenous women’s bodies in northern Mexico

By Mariana Villarreal Frías, Coordinator of the Network for Defense of Indigenous Territory in the Sierra Tarahumara (REDETI, see * below). Mariana has been working with Indigenous communities in the Sierra Tarahumara for more then 15 years. She holds a Masters in Cultural Studies and was awarded the Chihuahua Prize for Social Sciences in 2018.


Indigenous women in northern Mexico are on the frontline of struggles to defend ancestral territory. They face constant threats from a patriarchal society, from organized crime and from the denial of Indigenous women’s rights as they seek to defend the territory of their bodies and the territory of lands, homes and families. In the mountains of the Sierra Tarahumara, Indigenous women also defend the right to enjoy and make decisions about the natural resources in their territory.

I have endured many threats for defending my territory. They frightened me twice by holding me at gunpoint. They said they’d kill me and my brothers and sisters if we did not control ourselves and shut our mouths.

Bertha Rivas Vega, Indigenous Odami defender

In the Sierra Tarahumara, drug traffickers have taken advantage of being able to hide in the rugged terrain to grow marijuana and poppies, and to produce synthetic drugs. These criminal groups have diversified into illegal logging. All of this has led to the forced displacement of Indigenous women and their families.

Panorama view of the Sierra Tarahumara
View of Barrancas del Cobre from the Indigenous community of Bacajipare [Photo: M Villarreal Frías]

Women and their communities also face incursions by mine and hotel projects, which have moved in to Indigenous territory without consultation or consent.

We were here long before they arrived. And now they tell us we are foreigners, when we are truly from here. It should not be like that. That’s what the elders say. We have always been here and now we are the foreigners in this state.

Irma Chávez, Indigenous Raramuri defender

Indigenous women are the first to experience the violence from drug trafficking including sexual violence on their way home, and threats with weapons. They also face material losses due to their houses being burnt down and the murders of loved ones.

A woman walks up a path to her home
In the community of Guitayvo, Urique. Note: no Indigenous woman’s face is shown in this blog because of concerns for their safety. [Photo: M Villarreal Frías]

Odami Indigenous defender Candelaria Vega tells such a story in Defendiendo mi cuerpo, mi alma y mi territorio (Defending my body, my soul and my territory): “My husband was killed for defending the territory and I have received threats for the same reason … my husband Miguel taught me to care for my territory. I care for it to leave something behind for my children. If I don’t tend to it … that would be the end of us all, no more water or forests, the rivers would go dry, the land would wash out, and there would be no more trees, it would all be bare…”

My husband was killed for defending the territory and I have received threats for the same reason … If I don’t tend to it … that would be the end of us all, no more water or forests …

Candelaria Vega, Odami Indigenous defender

Indigenous communities in the Sierra Tarahumara – and especially women – continue to resist dispossession, defending land, water, and forests. To do so they must confront fear, pain, discrimination, criminalization, powerlessness and violence.

My cosmovision tells me that territory is life. Without it, we are nothing because it is also the body, the soul and the spirit.

Catalina García Ruíz, Chatino Indigenous defender

As women in the Sierra Tarahumara organize in different ways – from legal action to peaceful resistance – to defend their territory and their rights, international solidarity can support grassroots networks of Indigenous communities and ally organizations that work together. Solidarity must be grounded in the rights of Indigenous peoples, established in ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, among others.

International allies should call for the Mexican State to implement adequate regulatory frameworks that are consistent with international standards and grant legal recognition of Indigenous territories. This would allow the possibility for Indigenous peoples to exercise their right to make decisions about what belongs to them. Also needed are legislative measures to help prevent, attend to, and compensate for forced displacement in the Sierra Tarahumara and other regions of Mexico, along with resources to ensure essential services are consistently available to Indigenous women survivors of violence and forced displacement.



Bertha Rivas Vega, Candelaria Vega, and Catalina García Ruíz are quoted from testimonies in Bertha Rivas Vega and Catalina García Ruíz, Defendiendo mi cuerpo, mi alma, y mi territorio, Unidad Regional de Culturas Populares, Indigenas y Urbanas (PACMyC), 2023 Mexico.


The Network for Defense of Indigenous Territory in the Sierra Tarahumarai (REDETI) is formed by the Indigenous communities of Bosques de San Elías Repechique, Arroyo del Pajarito; Bawinocachi; Coloradas de la Virgen y Mala Noche, Huitosachi y Mogótavo, and organizations that support the struggles of the communities: Alianza Sierra Madre A.C. (ASMAC), Awé Tibúame A.C., el Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos e Indígenas A.C. (CECADDHI) Consultoría Técnica Comunitaria A.C. (CONTEC). The Network’s mission is legal defense of territory and the free determination of Rarámuri and Odami communities in the Sierra Tarahumara, with the goal of achieving legal recognition of ancestral territories and respect for the rights of Indigenous communities to decision-making about the natural resources found there.