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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 way.

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 marijuana.

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

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


External Links

Greenpeace campaign for activists' release - in Spanish

Amnesty International

Sierra Madre Alliance - action alert

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