Published on Wednesday, April 5, 2000 in the New York Times
Jailed, Tortured Mexican Activist Wins Environmental Award
by Sam Dillon
IGUALA, Mexico - Humble Mexicans who stand in the way of
depleting the country's natural resources have often faced brutal
treatment, but one such man has
discovered in recent days that he has
international friends to help him
fight his cause.
The man is Rodolfo Montiel, who organized peasants to block roads after loggers began felling virgin forests near his village in the mountains north of Acapulco. That peaceful 1988 protest slowed the logging, but it infuriated wealthy landowners and the generals at a nearby garrison.
Gunmen have since killed several members of Mr. Montiel's rural ecological organization, and last May soldiers seized and tortured Mr. Montiel, he said, accusing him of drug and weapons crimes.
The charges were riddled with contradictions, but were enough to send him to a penitentiary pending a felony trial. One of the human rights lawyers defending him has been kidnapped, twice.
But last Friday, Amnesty International declared Mr. Montiel to be a prisoner of conscience, provoking a flood of protest letters to the Mexican authorities. And on Wednesday, a San Francisco foundation is to announce that it has awarded him a $125,000 environmental prize.
"The only award I've gotten from the government is prison, so I don't know quite what to think about this prize from foreigners," Mr. Montiel, a robust, nearly toothless man of 44, said in an interview today in a federal prison in Iguala, two hours' drive south of Mexico City. "Are you sure this doesn't involve some hidden punishment?"
[David Najera, a government spokesman, said Tuesday that President Ernesto Zedillo was unaware of the details of Mr. Montiel's case. "But it worries us, and we'll focus on it now," he said, adding that Mr. Zedillo's government has emphasized respect for the environment.]
The government showed only hostility to Mr. Montiel's complaints in 1995 after local authorities began to promote logging in the mountains of Guerrero State, signing timber contracts with Boise Cascade, the Idaho-based lumber company.
Mr. Montiel, who has only a first-grade education, sent letters to Mexico's environment minister, to the governor of Guerrero and to a dozen other authorities, reporting that laws were being trampled, local rivers were drying up, and thousands of fish were dying.
"Our defense of the forest is a struggle for our way of life," Mr. Montiel wrote in one letter. "The earth without trees becomes a desert, because the soul of the water lives in the cool of the forest."
Only one authority ever responded: a Guerrero official accused Mr. Montiel of belonging to "an ecological guerrilla organization."
Shortly after Mr. Montiel's group blocked roads to stop the timber trucks in spring 1998, Boise Cascade pulled out of Mexico.
[Doug Bartels, a spokesman, said Tuesday that Boise Cascade left because it could not get enough logs to keep its 100-employee sawmill running. Referring to the arrests of Mr. Montiel and a friend in May 1999, he said, "If these two individuals have been wrongly arrested, that's regrettable."]
Soldiers who detained the two men tied and beat them, held them for two days partly submerged in a river, forced them to hold marijuana plants and rifles as soldiers took photos, and later pressured them to sign a confession, Mr. Montiel said. Mr. Montiel urinated blood for months after his torture, he said.
Under cross-examination by Mr. Montiel's lawyers last fall, army officers contradicted themselves over details of his arrest. Days later, one of the lawyers, Digna Ochoa, was kidnapped and beaten by assailants in Mexico City. In October, intruders accosted Ms. Ochoa again for hours in her home.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company