3 de diciembre del 2000
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Greenpeace demonstrators demand Montiel's release in Mexico City / Greenpeace.
Greenpeace demonstrators demand Montiel's release in Mexico City / Greenpeace.

Rodolfo Montiel - Criminal or Environmental Hero?
By Diego Cevallos*

Rodolfo Montiel, a Mexican peasant and winner of the Goldman Prize 2000, spoke with Tierramérica in an exclusive interview from a prison in Mexico's Guerrero state.
MEXICO CITY - Judges and prosecutors in Mexico consider Rodolfo Montiel a criminal who deserves to be in prison, but dozens of non-governmental groups see him as a hero who has fought to save Mexico's forests.

''I'm just a peasant who wants those who come later to have forests, water and health,'' Montiel told Tierramérica, from a prison in Guerrero state where he is serving a nearly seven-year sentence for charges of growing marijuana and weapons possession.

Impoverished, semi-illiterate, a victim of torture, military persecution and death threats, last April Montiel received - in prison - the Goldman Prize, granted each year by the US foundation of the same name, and which is considered the environmental Nobel Prize.

He became known in 1998 when he, alongside his neighbors and friends, founded the Organization of Peasant Ecologists of the Sierra de Petetlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP). The region, located in Guerrero, in southern Mexico, is over 3,000 meters above sea level and rich with forested lands, but its people suffer deep-seated poverty.

After confronting loggers - who were working for a foreign company that later changed hands to local owners -, denouncing the destruction of the environment and asking for government backing in order to halt deforestation, Montiel was arrested in May 1999 by the military.

According to local and international human rights groups, and confirmed by the Human Rights Commission of Mexico, Montiel had been tortured and lacked a competent attorney when he confessed before a judge that he had weapons and that he grew marijuana. '

'They threatened to harm my family, but they also subjected me to many psychological and physical tortures, and that's why I said that the evidence they planted was correct,'' Montiel explained.

''What weapons could I have, and what marijuana are they talking about, if I don't even have a little plot of land to cultivate, if my neighbors loan me land to grow a bit of corn. I don't have any money, property - nothing,'' he affirmed.

With a hesitant and quiet voice, and without anger, the peasant, who has completed only the first year of his sentence, told of how the military had administered electric shocks in his legs, hurt his testicles and had beaten him repeatedly.

Medical examinations confirm that Montiel's body still has marks indicating he was tortured.

''The soldiers told me, 'don't forget, we have your entire family located and they could run into trouble, just like you did,''' he said.

''If the soldiers had known they arrested us for defending the forest, they would have been ashamed, that's why the authorities invented all that about the weapons and marijuana,'' he added.

Since 1992, unregulated logging has destroyed 86,000 of the 226,203 hectares of forest that once covered Sierra de Petetlán and Coyuca de Catalán, says the international environmental watchdog, Greenpeace.

But according the judge in Guerrero who found Montiel guilty last August in the first trial, and upheld the ruling in an appeal in October, deforestation has nothing to do with the case. The justice says Montiel's confession was legal and, as a result, the peasant deserves prison.

''There are pressures coming from all sides in the case. The Prosecutor's Office asks for the maximum penalty, the military doesn't want to acknowledge the torture and the government washes its hands of its all. But we continue to insist because Montiel is not guilty of anything,'' Mario Patrón, now Montiel's defense lawyer, told Tierramérica.

The case has attracted so much attention that some environmentalists are beginning to compare Montiel to Brazilian activist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988 for promoting the defense of the Amazon forests.

The Secretary (minister) of Environment, Julia Carabias, agreed in April to meet with environmental and human rights organizations to talk about the Montiel case.

Subsequently, staff from the Secretariat of Environment began to investigate the mountainous areas of Guerrero to find out how much illegal and indiscriminate logging was occurring.

Dozens of non-governmental environmental, humanitarian, political, women's, peasant and youth groups from Mexico and abroad are calling for Montiel's immediate release.

Amnesty International last March declared Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera - another OCESP leader who was arrested - ''prisoners of conscience'' and demanded they be freed.

''The government treats us with indifference and even contempt, but the foreigners recognize our work. Whatever happens to me, when I leave here I will continue defending the forests, because I want my children and my grandchildren to have a future,'' Montiel declared.

With the Goldman Prize, which also consists of 125,000 dollars, the founder and leader of OCESP hopes to set up a trusteeship to benefit forest preservation.

''We continue to be optimistic here in the prison because we know we are right and that we'll get out soon,'' he said.

But his release does not look likely in the short term. His attorneys believe it could take eight months to a year before the ''proceedings to review constitutional guarantees'' are resolved - Montiel's last remaining legal recourse.

If that proves unsuccessful, his case will be brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States (OAS), said attorney Patrón, who works for the human rights group Agustín Pro Juárez, which is linked to the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church.

But there is also another possible route. Several lawmakers have presented before the Mexican Congress a bill to grant Montiel and Cabrera amnesty.

''I am a fighter, I just want to help those who come later, the new generation. For them I am willing to do anything,'' stated the peasant - a hero to some, criminal to others.

* The author is an IPS correspondent.


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