Indigenous Eco-Activists Await Medals, or Punishment
By Diego Cevallos*
Two Mexican indigenous farmers who have fought logging operations could be sentenced to around a decade in prison. To the NGOs, they are prisoners of conscience. To government prosecutors, they are criminals.
MEXICO CITY -Isidro Baldenegro and Hermenegildo
Rivas, two Indians from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua
who oppose the logging of area forests, could face sentences of
10 years behind bars for drugs and weapons possession. Or they could
recover their freedom, wearing the medal of prisoners of conscience.
A little more than a year after their arrest on charges filed by
police and government prosecutors -- accusations that environmental
and human rights groups say are false and aimed at halting the two
activists' anti-logging fight -- the case this month entered its
final phase, and sentencing is expected in July.
"The case is surrounded by irregularities and there are sufficient
elements to order the immediate release of the accused," says
Agustín Bravo, director of the non-governmental organisation
Fuerza Ambiental (Environmental Force), a group active in Chihuahua
and which supports the legal defense of the two men from the Rarámuri
community, also known as Tarahumara.
Fuerza Ambiental and other NGOs, like Greenpeace, Amnesty International
and the Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, a Mexican-based
group that defends indigenous and peasant communities, consider
the two prisoners of conscience.
But the response from officials has been repeated assurances that
there were no irregularities in the arrests of Baldenegro and Rivas,
fully backed by the acting judges, or in the legal proceedings under
Both were arrested in March 2003 just when they achieved -- along
with other Indians -- a temporary halt of logging in a pine forest
in their community, Coloradas de la Virgen, in an area of more than
50,000 hectares that the Rarámuri have inhabited since time immemorial,
and home today to some 360 Rarámuri families.
In the 1950s, the government handed almost the entire area over
to settlers, particularly the forested and cultivable lands.
In subsequent legal cases, the Indians, with Baldenegro as one of
the leaders, were able to recover a portion of their traditional
lands, but nearly all of it in ravines and gullies. But that didn't
stop them from acting as guardians of the native forests.
According to the police report of the arrests, Baldenegro and Rivas
were in possession of weapons. Baldenegro was also accused of possessing
After their arrest, the police photographed the two men with weapons
and drugs, but the accused maintain that the shots were staged and
that it was all part of a plan, encouraged by local bosses and mafias
involved in logging operations.
"We condemn the use of the judicial system as an instrument to harass
and threaten the efforts and lives of human rights defenders, said
Carlos Gómez, director of Amnesty International-Mexico.
Several studies indicate that in the Tarahumara sierra, which includes
Coloradas de la Virgen, organized crime has ties to the police,
logging companies and drug traffickers.
Baldenegro told Tierramérica, shortly after his arrest, that he
felt "powerless seeing how (the mafias) accuse us, and how (the
judges and police) believe them."
According to the Indians' defense lawyers, several of the agents
who were involved in the arrest, "possibly under orders from their
superiors," have repeatedly refused to give their testimony in the
case, and are themselves subject to investigations by the police
for possible involvement in numerous irregular actions.
"In Coloradas de la Virgen there are people who have been threatened
by several individuals involved in logging, but for now we cannot
reveal their names," Fuerza Ambiental's Bravo told Tierramérica.
Testimonies from various sources suggest that one of those Bravo
referred to is Artemio Fontes, whose family has held power in the
community for years, and using presumably legal assemblies has continued
to authorize logging in the Tarahumara forests.
Baldenegro has been involved in an ongoing legal battle against
the Fontes family, but so far has achieved only temporary logging
bans. His father, Julio Baldenegro, was a community leader and was
assassinated in 1986.
His shooting was never resolved, but his son, awaiting sentencing
in prison, says the ones responsible were the mafia bosses involved
in logging operations and who have ties to the illicit drug trade.
"How is it possible that once again those who fight to defend the
environment are in prison, while the predators are allowed to act
with complete impunity?" asks Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace-Mexico.
"Authorities not only fail to comply with the law, they are at the
service of the bosses and loggers," he said.
The U.S.-based NGO Forest Guardians says that in the Tarahumara
sierra, the Fontes family is one of the most violent groups, and
that in their zone of influence the forest is being leveled at an
alarming rate by groups related to drug traffickers.
A report from the Attorney General's Office indicates that in the
more isolated areas of the Chihuahua sierra, "more than half of
the indigenous people... are dragged into" the drug trade, either
growing the illicit crops or trafficking.
Chihuahua, which holds seven million hectares of template and cold
climate forest, borders on the United States, the world's leading
drug consuming country.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent