Tree beatings

Torture of Mexican forest defenders sparks world outrage

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IGUALA, Mexico — Despite the high-profile international campaign to secure their freedom, a Mexican judge has handed down six- and 10-year sentences respectively to Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, a pair of farmers whose only crime is the defence of disappearing forests of this Pacific state.

The harsh sentences came on the heels of a National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) finding that the two men were illegally arrested and that guns and drugs were planted on them by the military.

Montiel, founder of the Campesino Ecologista (farmer ecologist) movement in Guerrero’s coastal sierra, and his nearly blind sidekick have been incarcerated at a high-security penitentiary for 15 months.

Here, they were tortured by soldiers of the 40th infantry battalion into signing false confessions that they were narco-traffickers and leaders of the guerrilla Popular Revolutionary Army.

Federal judge Maclovio Murrillo’s decision, published this week, is just “one more miscarriage of justice” in a case riddled by legal lapses, says Mario Patron of the Miguel Augustin Pro Human Rights Centre (PRODH), which has undertaken the farmer-ecologists’ defence. The PRODH promises an immediate appeal.

Forest defender

Forest defender Rodolfo Montiel was forced to flee for his life from a vengeful local cacique (rural boss) then in the employ of the U.S.-based Boise Cascade Corporation after 104 members of the Campesino Ecologistas of the Sierras of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catalan blocked roads into the mountains in 1998 and cut off the log flow to mills on the Guerrero coast.

Army troops ran Montiel to ground in May 1999 in the village of Pizotla, where he and his wife, Uvalda Cortes, and Teodoro Cabrera, a family friend, were selling used clothes at outlying ranches.

A third farmer ecologist, Salome Sanchez, was killed by the troops during the roundup.

Despite national and international pressure, the CNDH stonewalled on intervening on behalf of Montiel and Cabrera for 14 months. Since its founding in 1990 by then-president Carlos Salinas as window dressing for North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations, the CNDH has been spectacularly silent in cases of egregious violations against civilians by the army.

This past July 14, freshman ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanis quietly issued a recommendation to defence secretary Enrique Cervantes that members of the 40th infantry battalion be investigated for the illegal detention of the two men.

The recommendation of the CNDH — the quasi-governmental National Human Rights Commission — strongly suggests that the physical evidence against Cabrera and Montiel was either planted on the scene or never existed.

While conceding that the human rights commission’s action is a step forward, PRODH lawyer Patron is dubious about the investigation since virtually every other case the centre has brought against the army has fallen into the black hole of the military justice system.

To the immense displeasure of the Mexican government, the relentless persecution of the two farmer-ecologists has become an international cause celebre.

Amnesty International has adopted them as prisoners of conscience, and in April the San Francisco-based Goldman Foundation awarded Montiel its annual prize for the Americas. Other recipients have included Chico Mendez, the assassinated Brazilian rubber worker, and Ken Saro Wiwa, the executed Nigerian Ogani leader and author.

This May, Uvalda Cortes, Montiel’s wife, toured the U.S., rubbing elbows with Hilary Clinton and Al Gore.

But the internationalization of Montiel’s plight appears to have made no impact on the Zedillo regime. International organizations are now looking ahead to his successor, Vicente Fox, a member of the conservative opposition National Action Party, for relief.

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