Mexican Environmentalists Convicted on Weapons, Drug Charges

IGUALA, Mexico, August 29, 2000 (ENS) - Despite the pleas of distinguished environmentalists from around the world, a Goldman Prize winning Mexican activist was convicted of marijuana and weapons charges Tuesday.

The Fifth District Judge of Iguala, Guerrero convicted and sentenced Mexican environmental activists Rodolfo Montiel Flores, the Goldman Prize 2000 winner for the Americas, and his co-defendant Teodoro Cabrera García.

Montiel

Rodolfo Montiel receives the Goldman Prize in Iguala State Prison, April 2000. (Photo courtesy Goldman Foundation)
The two men are leaders of the Organization of Peasant Environmentalists of the Mountains of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán, a group founded by Montiel in 1997 to fight logging of his home state of Guerrero in southern Mexico.

Judge Maclovio Murillo Chávez handed Cabrera a 10 year prison sentence for possession of weapons licensed exclusively for the army. Montiel was sentenced to six years, eight months for marijuana cultivation, possession of weapons without a license, and possession of weapons licensed exclusively for the army.

From Mexico City, the Human Rights Centre Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (PRODH) issued a statement maintaining the group's "firm belief in the innocence of the environmentalists, who were tortured and forced to sign confessions that served as the only evidence against them."

The human rights group was created in 1988 by the religious order of the Jesuits in Mexico. Throughout the course of the trial, PRODH defense lawyers offered evidence to corroborate the environmentalists' innocence.

The torture was revealed during an interrogation of soldiers Calixto Rodríguez Salmerón and Artemio Nazario Carballo, who the environmentalists identified as their torturers. Rodríguez and Nazario admitted that they held the environmentalists in their custody for five days after they were arrested in May 1999. Instead of turning them over to the Public Ministry, the proper authority, Rodríguez and Nazario transferred them to the 40th Infantry Battalion base, they admitted.

The prosecution provided no evidence upon which to base their accusations, according to the PRODH statement. The soldiers accused Rodolfo Montiel of growing marijuana on his plot of land, but a report from the National Agrarian Register shows that Montiel does not own property in Guerrero state.

Neither did the Public Ministry certify the existence of weapons or drugs in Pizotla, Guerrero, where Montiel and Cabrera were arrested.

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) concluded in its recommendation on the case that the evidence that Montiel and Cabrera were in possession of guns was fabricated. The commission based this conclusion on a report issued by the Commander of the 35th Military Zone to the Commander of the 9th Military Region which stated that weapons were not found on the environmentalists, but during a search of homes in Pizotla community, Guerrero.

The CNDH also found that drug charges were untrue, since the Public Ministry never registered the existence of a marijuana plot and the soldiers could never determine its location.

National and international organizations have pleaded the innocence of Montiel and Cabrera, including the Goldman Foundation, Sierra Club, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Naturalia, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. On repeated occasions they have asked for the immediate and unconditional release of the environmentalists, concluding that the Montiel and Cabrera's imprisonment is due to their struggle against clearcutting in the forests of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán, Guerrero.

Goldman

Richard Goldman, founder of the Goldman Environmental Prize (Photo courtesy Goldman Foundation)
In San Francisco today, Richard Goldman, president of the Goldman Environmental Prize, condemned the conviction. "The international community should not tolerate the persecution of environmental activists. The conviction of Montiel and Cabrera is unjust and is directly linked to their commitment to protect their forests."

"The Goldman Environmental Foundation calls on President-Elect Vicente Fox to prove his commitment to human rights and environmental protection by repealing the conviction of these men immediately upon assuming office," Goldman said.

In Washington, DC today, the Sierra Club and Amnesty International condemned the conviction of the two Mexican environmentalists as "a severe blow to human rights and environmental protection in Mexico."

"The arrest, torture and conviction of Montiel and Cabrera are clearly linked to their efforts to protect the forests in Guerrero," said Alejandro Queral, director of the Sierra Club's Human Rights and the Environment Program. "This represents a serious blow to Mexico's fragile environment."

Diego Zavala of Amnesty International said, "The Mexican authorities have demonstrated complete disregard for the human rights of these two men and sent a chilling message to other environmental activists."

PRODH describes the environmental situation that prompted Monteil to bring together the activist group of peasant farmers. Logging operations started in 1995 in the mountainous Costa Grande region of Guerrero state. The farmers saw that their fields no longer yielded adequate harvests. "The rivers had been converted into threads of water choked with garbage, broken glass, and plastic jugs. Soap suds, toxic fluids, and ash from forest fires killed off the rivers’ fish and crayfish. The rains that had once made the rivers rush stopped falling. Their crops withered and died."

PRODH claims that this environmental disaster is the result of a deal made by then Governor Ruben Figueroa Alcocer with the transnational U.S. based lumber company Boise Cascade.

Montiel

Rodolfo Montiel before his troubles began. (Photo courtesy Goldman Foundation)
"For decades, Guerrero’s peasants had lived on ejidos [communal farms] and their collective rights to these inalienable lands were guaranteed by Article 27 of the Constitution. To facilitate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Article 27 was amended to allow ejidos to be privatized; furthermore, NAFTA terms allow timber companies to buy from local forestry ejidos," PRODH says.

"Governor Figueroa’s deal with Boise Cascade was set up to benefit the Ruben Figueroa Ejido Union, a group of 24 ejidos led by Bernardo Bautista, a powerful local landowner," says PRODH. Logging intensified as a result of this deal. Mexican owned mills pushed production to compete with foreign companies. Neither Mexican nor foreign companies reforested the land as required by law.

But Boise Cascade denies any involvement with or knowledge of a deal with Governor Figueroa. In May 1995, says Boise Cascade in a statement on its website, the company retained the Seattle firm of NDG, Inc. to renovate and conduct commercial pilot sawmill operations in the town of Papanoa, Guerrero. Boise Cascade bought out NDG and took over operations in July 1995. The company assumed NDG's agreements to buy logs from local landowners, leased the mill at Papanoa and built a drying and finishing facility at nearby Cocopa.

"Boise Cascade neither conducted or supervised any logging in Mexico," the company states.

Although no environmentalist blockades disrupted its activities, Boise Cascade found it impossible to maintain a steady supply of wood to its Mexican mill. Citing heavy rainfall, lack of infrastructure, and the commitments of local ejidos to sell to other mills as business problems, the company closed its mill and other facilities in 1998 and has sold the assets.

Boise Cascade disclaims knowledge of the arrests or treatment of Monteil and Cabrera beyond media reports, but says, "we sincerely hope that no injustice has occurred. We share in the values of protection of individual liberties and the free expression of opinions, in the United States, in Mexico, and everywhere."