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An indigenous Mexican people are battling cartels and peyote tourism

As dawn broke on a sacred mountaintop in northern Mexico, a group of indigenous pilgrims dragged a sacrificial calf into their stone circle and slit its throat. They then dipped candles in the warm blood still gushing from the animal’s throat and lit them, creating a circle of light.

The heart was next. The tribesmen cut it from the calf’s chest, cooked it in campfire ashes, and ate it as a gesture of respect for the dead animal.

The ceremony was a plea to the tribe’s gods to defend their ancestral lands from transnational mining companies and their people from displacement at the hands of predatory drug cartels. The Wixárika have inhabited this region of northern Mexico that stretches across four states to the Pacific coast. Today, the Wixárika number 45,000, and they worry that these emerging threats signal the erasure of their culture.

Ceremonies like this one are fueled by peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus sacred to the Wixárika, or Huichol, people, and vital in facilitating conversation with their gods. But thanks to a booming illegal peyote tourism industry nearby, even that part of their culture is in jeopardy.   

Aukwe Mijarez dips candles into the warm blood of a calf that was sacrificed to the gods. Duncan Tucker

Standing up to the cartels

The Wixárika have taken practical measures against these existential threats but they believe they need divine intervention to ensure their survival. VICE News accompanied the indigenous group’s leaders on their annual pilgrimage to the Cerro Quemado, a cactus-covered mountain in San Luis Potosí where they believe the sun was born. This year’s voyage took on added urgency as it came just days after two Wixárika activists were murdered in nearby Jalisco state.

Miguel Vázquez, a prominent land rights activist, was fatally shot by gunmen believed to work for the Jalisco New Generation cartel in the town of Tuxpan de Bolaños on May 20. His brother Agustín was killed after visiting him in the hospital that night.

One of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, the Jalisco cartel has invaded Wixárika territories in northern Jalisco and the surrounding states in the last year, displacing local residents or forcing them to grow opium.

The rocky mountaintop serves as an altar for the pilgrims' elaborate offerings.Duncan Tucker

The situation is getting worse. The Wixárika have policed their own communities for generations but locals in Tuxpan de Bolaños have had to step up their patrols since the beginning of the year, citing a lack of protection from the state.

“We Wixárika are prepared to do whatever it takes to defend our land,” Ubaldo Valdez Castañeda, an activist from Tuxpan de Bolaños, said during a press conference in January. “We don’t have guns, but we’ll arm ourselves with whatever we can get our hands on.”

Despite the community’s resistance, the murder of the Vázquez brothers showed how vulnerable it is. The killings also shed light on the collusion between local police and organized crime.

The Wixárika sprinkle ground maize and other offerings over their campfire. Duncan Tucker

Jalisco attorney general Eduardo Almaguer said his office was investigating municipal policemen who had arrested the suspected murderers in an altercation earlier that day, only to release them moments before the shooting.

“How can we trust the Mexican authorities?” said Santos de la Cruz Carrillo, a Wixárika lawyer and activist. “If this is happening, it’s because the state is letting it happen instead of protecting its citizens.”

The Wixárika vigilantes are armed only with axes and machetes, but Carrillo insisted the community wouldn’t be intimidated. “An attack against any of us is an attack against all of us. We’re going to fight this and move forward.”

A national issue

The Wixárika are not the only native group tired of being on the receiving end of government corruption and lawless drug cartels. Last month Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress and the Zapatista National Liberation Army — Mayan descendants who led an uprising in 1994 and still control parts of Chiapas state — nominated a Nahua medicine woman to represent them in next year’s presidential elections.

María de Jesús Patricio Martínez is the first indigenous woman to run for president, and her campaign is focused on drawing attention to the threats that the government, corporations, and criminal gangs pose to indigenous communities across Mexico.

“They’ve displaced us and appropriated our lands,” she said. “We’ve seen complete destruction carried out by those at the top.”

Dawn breaks over the mountains where the Wixárika believe the sun was born.Duncan Tucker

Patricio’s chances of winning the presidency are slim, but her symbolic run is aimed at creating a national support base to defend Mexico’s indigenous communities.

Greater destruction looms over the Wixárika in the form of lucrative concessions to companies to mine their land. Despite the San Luis Potosí state government declaring it a Sacred Natural Area in 2001, Mexico’s federal government has continued handing out the concessions.

The most prominent beneficiary, Canada’s First Majestic Silver Corp, owns concessions that cover 12,298 acres in the area. First Majestic says it “recognizes the need to protect the cultural heritage of the Huicholes” and “has worked with government to ensure that operations on the property will not disturb these sacred zones.”

But members of the Wixárika Regional Council, who have filed injunctions in a bid to revoke at least 78 concessions, said that mining causes severe environmental damage that puts their heritage and local ecosystems at risk.

“We demand that the Mexican state cancel each and every one of the mining concessions in Wirikuta,” said councilor Aukwe Mijarez during the mountaintop ceremony.

First Majestic’s Mexican subsidiary Minera Real Bonanza responded to these concerns, saying the company was “committed to supporting the preservation of the sacred sites of the Wixárika culture,” and was building wastewater treatment plants and had ceded 1,880 acres of concessions in the area closest to the Cerro Quemado.

 Peyote in short supply

Most of the pilgrims arrived to the sound of tribal music played in the middle of the night, with coyotes howling in the distance and lightning flickering over far-off peaks. Wearing traditional dress and elaborate feathered hats, the Wixárika sprinkled an offering of ground maize over the campfire and chanted for hours in a trance-like state.

After sacrificing the calf at dawn, they prayed in a tiny chapel whose walls are lined with animal scalps and psychedelic artwork. Then came a breakfast of peyote, orange slices, animal crackers, and Coca-Cola.

“If they exploit the spiritual center of our universe, we’ll become extinct.”

Under Mexican law only the Wixárika can consume peyote, but New Age enthusiasts are eagerly simulating this experience by partaking in an illicit peyote-based tourist trap booming in nearby Real de Catorce. The dusty former ghost town is brimming with non-indigenous fixers offering tourists peyote and a place to trip. For the Wixárika, the trend adds insult to injury.

“We’re upset that people come here and steal peyote because for us it’s a deity, not a drug,” Mijarez said. “It’s part of our identity and we respect it.”

With police turning a blind eye to recreational use from tourists, Mijarez warned that outsiders are now testing their limits and illegally exporting the plant.

Pilgrims pray in a chapel decorated with animal scalps and peyote-inspired artwork.Duncan Tucker

“We want this plant to be conserved because it’s part of our culture, but every year it gets harder and harder to find.”

If supply were to run out, the Wixárika would lose contact with their gods, further undermining their ability to resist other threats like mining and organized crime, Mijarez said.

“If they exploit the spiritual center of our universe, we’ll become extinct.”

Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Mexico.

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