In the desert of San Luis Potosí, the Wixárika search for peyote.

In the desert of San Luis Potosí, the Wixárika search for ikhuri, their word for peyote.

​​A Mysterious Murder in the Peyote Guardians’ Sacred Desert



After years of defending sacred land, Margarito Díaz, a water defender and shaman representing the Wixárika Indigenous people in Mexico, was assassinated in his sleep. 

As the sun goes down on March 13, the celebrations begin in Wirikuta, a sacred gathering point in the semi-arid desert of San Luis Potosí in Mexico. An icy wind fans the fire as men dance around it. Suzana, in her 50s and an experienced marakame, or shaman, is a first-time master of ceremonies this evening. She is in charge of invoking the spirits with her songs and “awakening” the power of peyote, a psychedelic cactus at the heart of the Wixárika people’s spiritual rituals. To her left sits Noelia, her seven-year-old niece. The little girl had a vision a year ago after consuming peyote: One day she, too, will become a marakame. In turn, she will invoke Takutzi Nakawé, a water God in the form of a grandmother who is believed to quench man’s thirst. 


Known as the guardians of peyote, several communities of the Wixárika people travel on a pilgrimage to the Wirikuta desert each March. Wirikuta, an area of 140,000 hectares located within the desert of San Luis Potosí, is considered the most sacred place of Wixárika culture. This community in west-central Mexico, who speak Huichol, a language of Aztec origin, numbers some 50,000 members nestled in the Sierra Madre Occidental, a mountain range 1,250 kilometers long with peaks rising above 3,000 meters. Due to their isolation, they are one of the Indigenous communities who have best preserved their traditions and beliefs in Mexico. 

Buckets of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus used in religious ceremonies.
For centuries, the Wixárika have foraged peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus used in religious ceremonies.

This March, 80 members of the community from San Andrés Cohamiata in the highlands of Jalisco traveled hundreds of kilometers in three school buses. These worshippers cut kilos of cactus, 150 “buttons” of peyote per family, which they used to commune with their ancestors and the gods. But these days, drought threatens peyote populations, putting the longstanding cultural pilgrimage at risk. 


“If we don’t do anything it’s going to disappear,” said Puwari, a Wixárika artist. 


“There used to be like a peyote carpet here,” recalled Silviño, who runs a desert lodge frequented by tourists. But in the last five years, a drought has dried a region. “Now you have to look for them. With a little rain, hundreds of them could grow very quickly, but without rain, they dry up before they even have the chance to grow.”


For the Wixárika, water is both vital and sacred. It is a gift from the gods, bearing powers of purification, healing and fertility. Life on the land was born from a single drop of water, according to Wixárika cosmogony. But as drought blankets their region, rain ceremonies like those led by Suzana are becoming regular occurrences. 

For the Wixárika, water is both vital and sacred.


Perhaps just as frequent are ideological clashes between desert-dwelling Indigenous people and industries like tourism, mining, and agriculture, which threaten to seize their sacred land and what little water remains. It’s against this precarious backdrop that Latin America faces a moral and legal crisis: a killing spree of environmental defenders. 


Across the globe, 1,733 environmental activists have been killed between 2012 and 2022—one environmentalist killed every two days, on average—and Latin America has the highest concentration of deaths. Indigenous people are disproportionately targeted, accounting for more than a third of the deadly attacks, even though they make up only 5% of the world’s population. 


The Wixárika haven’t been spared. For one marakame, Margarito Díaz, the fight for environmental justice cost him his life—a grueling loss for the community that, five years later, still has not been resolved. 

The Death of a Water Protector

September 8, 2018 was a hot evening. 


Margarito, 59 at the time, and his wife, Modesta Chávez de la Rosa, moved their bed outside, underneath a screen they made to escape the heat of their tin house. Between them, their two-year-old niece was sound asleep—until about 10:30 PM. 


Where does the music come from?” a mysterious voice uttered in the darkness. Then BANG. The intruder fired, striking the marakame in the head and killing him on the spot. 


“We knew that he was [not making] friends by defending the water and the culture of our Indigenous people, but we never imagined it could cost him his life,” said Arsenio Díaz, the eldest of the shaman’s six children, speaking from the house where his father was killed.


Margarito had always been a staunch defender of water and the environment. He was the only marakame in his village of Aguamilpa in Nayarit, population of 200, having been appointed to the spiritual role as a child.


Prior to his death, he was secretary of the Union of Ceremonial Centers of Jalisco, Durango and Nayarit and a member of the Wixárika Security Council. His son, Arsenio, remembers that his suitcase was always ready by the door. Three days before he was killed, Margarito attended a meeting organized by the authorities in the town of San Blas, 100 kilometers north of his home on the Pacific coast.

A Wixárika woman seeks divine permission to enter Wirikuta, the most sacred site for their religion and culture.
A Wixárika woman seeks divine permission to enter Wirikuta, the most sacred site for their religion and culture.

This small port town is one of the five most sacred places of the Wixárikas. Offshore, a gigantic white rock stands tall amidst the pummeling waves. It is known as Tatei Haramara, which means Mother Sea. The Wixárikas believe that the goddess of water rests there. Pilgrims come regularly to make offerings and to pay their respects. 


It was here that, five years before his death, Margarito, dressed in a self-woven outfit of multicolored animals and a hat trimmed with pearls—the traditional trappings of a marakame—spoke up against a movement to turn the sacred place into a temple of tourism. He and his allies prevented the construction of a hotel complex and airstrip on the neighboring island, which the Ministry of Environment and Local Administration had granted a concession to two years earlier, winning by the skin of their teeth.


That was neither his first fight nor his last. In October 2011, for example, Margarito organized a march to Los Pinos, the presidential residence in Mexico City, to protest mining on sacred lands. Thanks to this mobilization, in September 2013, a judge ordered the provisional suspension of all 78 concessions granted in the territory of Wirikuta.


Juan Bananas, 72, a representative of an environmental association and defender of the Indigenous cause, was regularly involved in the same negotiations as Margarito. “His role in the meetings was to represent his people and defend their culture, which was not easy in the midst of so many interests, including those of organized crime, in this coveted coastal zone,” he recalled.

Industrial tomato factories loom behind the mountains on the pilgrimage to Wirikuta.
Industrial tomato factories loom behind the mountains on the pilgrimage to Wirikuta. Before his death, Margarito Díaz was concerned that these agribusinesses were exacerbating drought in the region.
A window view of Santa Ana Mine in Mexico.
After a 10-year suspension, operations at the Santa Ana Mine will resume soon.

Margarito’s wife, Modesta Chávez de la Rosa, now 56, always worried about the powerful interests at play, questioning whether their six children could be put in the crosshairs. She remembers telling him, “Stop doing that, you don’t earn anything from it.” Even so, the marakame pressed on. 


In his final days, he advocated for the establishment of a sanctuary on sacred sites from which companies would be prohibited. Although the Wixárika territory has been on UNESCO’s list of sacred natural sites since 1988, companies are still permitted to develop there. A sanctuary would disallow future projects, but even five years after the shaman’s death, the matter still remains unresolved. 


Equally unresolved is the investigation into Margarito’s murder. On July 29, 2022, Llimer Breide N. was arrested by Mexican police for the crime. Díaz’s widow, Chávez de la Rosa, recognized the suspect’s voice after he was arrested in another case, which helped prosecutors bring him to trial.


In October 2022, Chávez de la Rosa was threatened by a group of four armed men, warning her: “We will give you 50,000 pesos [about 2,700 euros] in exchange for a video in which you say that Llimer Breide N. is innocent.” Another lifted up his shirt, brandishing his revolver. But Modesta Chávez de la Rosa would not give in to threats and blackmail. She is currently waiting for a formal investigation to be opened into the alleged murderer of her husband.


To date, it remains to be seen whether the suspect will be released or prosecuted. There are no leads on the mastermind who orchestrated the crime. In Mexico, 90% of murders end in impunity.

Three peyote guardians sitting near a source of water in Wirikuta, Mexico.
The fight for water, like the source in Wirikuta seen here, cost Margarito Díaz his life.

Thirsting for Water and Justice

The drought has taken a toll on the desert’s non-Wixárika denizens, too. Average high temperatures in the summer approach 40 degrees Celsius, and in the small desert town La Pasadita, the only refuge is the tiny living room of the Villanueva Moncada family home. 


There, a woman drenched in sweat is breastfeeding her baby: “I was five months pregnant the last time it rained. I remember, because here a rainy day is counted as if it were something extraordinary,” she said. 


The family has had no choice but to buy water pipes. A 10,000-liter tank costs 700 pesos, roughly equivalent to 38 euros. That lasts “less than a month” for this family with 12 children. They are worried about the corn and beans that no longer grow and that used to feed the whole family before the drought that started in 2022—a dry spell caused by La Niña and climate change according to Jerusalén Ceja, a meteorologist at the Satellite Observatory of the Autonomous University of Nayarit.

Across the globe, 1,733 environmental activists have been killed between 2012 and 2022.

The Villanueva Moncada family is part of a so-called Water Committee, a group of activists from the region who are fighting against water privatization. In the struggle for natural resources, even non-Indigenous families like them leave their fate in the hands of Wixárika leadership like Margarito. “We know how important the desert is to them and we know that they will not let it die because their survival depends on it,” the matriarch who often attends meetings led by Wixárika leaders said.


Will the Wixárikas ensure the protection of their land and water before the drought takes it all away? Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s current president, has opened the door to dialogue, as he had promised during his campaign in 2017. He made his first visit in September 2022, and announced that the community would be entitled to “a justice plan,” including a “decree for the conservation of the five sacred sites of their culture.” As Margarito dreamed, the president promised to sanctuarize the territory of the Wixárikas by establishing a catalog of these sacred sites through the National Institute of Anthropology (INA). 


Puwari, the Wixárika artist, said it remains to be seen if this promise will be fulfilled or if it will amount to “big theater.” Even if pledges are kept, the late Margarito will not be around to see his dream come true. As is the case with the investigation into his murder, the Wixárikas’’ fate rests in the hands of the powers that be, all the while their community, without the late shaman at the helm, continues to thirst for water—and for justice. 

Wixarika people traveling by bus since their village of San Andres Cohamiata in Jalisco towards Wirikuta.

This article is part of a three-chapter investigation into three water defenders murdered in Latin America, conducted with the support of the Journalism Fund.

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