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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Mexican Activists Freed

Air Date: Week of

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After more than two years in jail, two Mexican environmentalists have been released. Host Diane Toomey talks with Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard about the human rights situation Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera face as they return to their home region.


TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Earlier this month Mexico's president Vicente Fox ordered the release of two jailed Mexican peasants. Human rights groups, including Mexico's own Commission of Human Rights, said the men had been tortured after trying to protect forests in their region from illegal logging. But the homecoming of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera is bittersweet, since activists say the human rights situation in Mexico remains egregious. I'm joined now by Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Mark, remind us about the case of Montiel and Cabrera; How did they wind up in jail in the first place?

HERTSGAARD: Well, Montiel and Cabrera were simple peasants who noticed that the forests that they were depending on for fresh water to grow their crops were disappearing. And so they began to organize against this and ended up blockading the roads that were taking the logging trucks in and out. And this was quite successful. They ended up pushing out Boise Cascade, the large multi-national from North America. They excited the resistance of a lot of the local wildcat loggers. Indeed, it got to be so tense that in May of 1999 the men were arrested after a raid by the police and the Mexican army. They were charged with possessing weapons and growing marijuana, and thrown into jail. There, they signed confessions to these crimes. Human rights groups said later that these confessions had been fabricated by torture and that was later authenticated by the Mexican government's own Commission on Human rights. As a result of this Montiel and Cabrera were considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. They won many international awards including the Goldman Environmental prize, and there was enormous pressure around the world from both activists and the press and government officials to get these men out of jail.

TOOMEY: Last January, Living on Earth spoke with President Fox's environmental minister and at that time we asked him about this case. He said there was evidence of torture but he also pointed out that the two men had been found guilty not once but twice. There were several appeals in this case over the years and they were unsuccessful. So why did President Fox step in and act now?

HERTSGAARD: President Fox stepped in now, according to Mexican officials who were quoted in The New York Times, because President Fox had realized that he could no longer count on these men receiving justice through normal channels in Mexico. Fox wanted them to be released, he had said so publicly, he believed in their case. But, as you mentioned, Diane, there were these two trials - highly irregular trials, I might add, because in both cases, at both the state level and the federal level, the justices in question simply refused to acknowledge the evidence that these men's confessions had been extracted under torture. And I think because of that President Fox realized that normal channels were not going to deliver justice in this case and so he acted on his own prerogative, after, of course, the increase of international pressure. You remember that just last month, in October, the lawyer for Montiel and Cabrera, a woman named Digna Ochoa, was murdered gangland style in her office. And a note was left next to her body, warning that more such murders would follow, for all of her fellow lawyers and people defending Montiel and Cabrera. I think that was the last straw for President Fox and he decided to act on his own prerogative to get these two men out of jail.

TOOMEY: With that murder in mind, will Montiel and Cabrera pick up where they left off and head back home to fight illegal logging?

HERTSGAARD: I interviewed their new lawyer on this, Mario Petron, from the same group, earlier this week, and he said, look, they're not sure what they're going to do. They are very afraid. They have angered very powerful interests down in Guerrero, they saw their previous lawyer murdered gangland style, so it's not surprising that they are very nervous. They are right now about to leave Mexico City, in a caravan, with an escort from something called the International Peace Brigade, that will take them back down to their region. But they are not going home to a safe place. We have new information now, in fact, that the week before they were released there were yet more murders in that region, of people who were thought to be environmental activists. La Jornada, the Mexican daily, has reported that three innocent victims were shot on November 1st, the week before, by unknown assailants who stopped a truck and shot up the inside, and there were three people killed, including a seven month old baby. Apparently, according to the local activists, the assailants believed that the environmentalists were inside that truck, including the new leader of Montiel's group. The environmentalists, in fact, had arrived five minutes later. And so they believe that the hit was intended for them and, luckily enough, they avoided it. So it's a very, very dangerous, tense situation down there.

TOOMEY: In other words, really nothing has changed, then, in terms of the climate for environmental activists, since Montiel and Cabrera were first arrested.

HERTSGAARD: You'd have to say that the situation remains very grim. In the Guerrero region, more than 40 percent of the forest has been destroyed in the last ten years, and the activists who are trying to stop it face continued repression. Not only as shown by these recent murders, but the fact that in the last two years, there have been 22 documented cases of torture at the hands of police and military officials. The lawyers for Montiel and Cabrera said, look, you have to understand that what happened to Rodolfo and Teodoro is happening to many, many other people here right now. They just don't happen to be as well known. And the only thing that is going to stop it, say these lawyers, is more international pressure.

TOOMEY: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks Mark.




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