Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera are in prison for organizing their Mexican
campesino neighbors to halt clearcutting. They're lucky they're not
by John Ross
Rodolfo Montiel is a dark, wiry man in well-worn huaraches, a poor agricultural
laborer, or campesino, like millions more in Mexico. According to the Mexican government,
he is a narcotraficante, as well as a guerrillero in the Popular Revolutionary Army that
haunts the mountains above the Costa Grande (Big Coast) in the southwest state of
The charges are false, Montiel tells me in his soft sierra drawl. "I am something
even more dangerous to them. I am an ecologista. A campesino ecologista." We are
talking at the heavily guarded "social re-adaptation center" in Iguala, that is,
the state penitentiary, where the grassroots environmental leader has been held since May
of 1999, charged with bearing weapons "whose use is reserved for the armed
forces" and with harvesting marijuana. Seven months after his arrest, he is still
pissing blood from five days of torture at the hands of the Mexican military. The beatings
and the electric shocks only stopped, he says, when he and his compadre Teodoro Cabrera
signed blank pieces of paper that authorities later transformed into
Despite laws against torture, such confessions are still
admissible in Mexican courts. The soldiers claimed the two men had a sack of guns and a
sack of marijuana in their possession when they were detained. Despite repeated requests
by human-rights workers, the physical evidence has yet to be produced.
Montiel first learned the word ecology from television. "I heard about the Mexican
Green Ecologist Party, and I thought people would listen to us if we took the name."
Even though he never completed the first grade, Montiel grew up with a working knowledge
of ecological balance. He remembers how, for example, when he was a small boy, villagers
could still take trout and shrimp from the Coyuquilla River. Today, the river is so dried
up by rip-and-run logging that you can cross it without getting your huaraches wet.
Montiel made the connection, and spread the news along the sierra: "The soul of the
water is found in the shade of the tree," he wrote in a leaflet that reads like a
"Ecology is a city word in Mexico," says Silvestre Pacheco, an
environmentalist from the coast town of Zihuatanejo who advises Montiel and his fellow
ecologistas, "but the campesinos taught us what it really means."
Guerrero's crash course in environmental devastation began in 1995 when the Idaho-based
timber giant Boise Cascade set up shop at the foot of the Petatln Sierra (see
"Treasure of the Costa Grande," July/ August 1996). At the time, Boise Cascade's
domestic operations were hamstrung by increasing restrictions on logging in U.S. national
forests (the company was once the biggest timber buyer in the Pacific Northwest) and
bothersome environmental demonstrators (some 200 of whom were arrested protesting the
company's controversial Sugarloaf cut in Oregon in 1995). Boise Cascade was looking for
fresh forests, and the million or so acres of white and sugar pine in the coastal Sierra
Madre seemed ripe for the reaping-at least from the satellites scouring the forests of the
Third World for likely stands. Down on the ground, the situation proved a little more
Boise's plunge into Guerrero was lubricated by changes in Mexican agricultural and
forestry laws associated with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The
new laws gave U.S. corporations the ability to enter into business partnerships with
ejidos, the communal farming associations that, together with indigenous groups, hold
title to 80 percent of Mexico's native forests. Working through middlemen, Boise set up a
wholly owned subsidiary called Costa Grande Forest Products and rented two mills from
Guerrero's then-governor Ruben Figueroa. At the time the contract was signed in April
1995, Figueroa was enmeshed in a logging dispute with the Organization of Campesinos of
the Southern Sierra (OCSS).
Two months later, 17 OCSS members on their way to a
demonstration were massacred by state police at a lonely mountain wash known as Aguas
Blancas; Figueroa's attempts to cover up the crime eventually drove him from office.
Meanwhile, Boise Cascade's Costa Grande Forest Products teamed up with a union of ejidos
named for Figueroa's father, who was governor from 1975 to 1981. (During the elder
Figueroa's term, some 300 campesino sympathizers of a guerrilla band led by a rural
schoolteacher named Lucio Cabanas disappeared into police custody and were never seen
The ejido was once a radical, egalitarian reform. Literally "the land outside the
village," ejidos were carved from huge private landholdings after the Mexican
Revolution, most notably during the depression-era presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas. But
under the seven-decade domination of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI (the
longest-surviving political dynasty in the known universe), many ejidos have fallen under
the control of local bosses known as caciques.
On the Mameyal ejido, for example, where Rodolfo Montiel scratched out a bare-bones
living from a mountain corn patch, the "vigilance commissioner" (whose job it is
to protect the forests) is one Bernardino "Nino" Bautista. Actually, Bautista
runs the Ruben Figueroa Union of Ejidos with the help of hired pistoleros and an
occasional boost from the Mexican military. The passage of NAFTA greatly expanded his
"Nino Bautista organized it all for Boise," says Pacheco. "His people
controlled the ejido assemblies and kept the campesinos quiet. He often boasted of his
friendship with certain generals." Bautista made sure that Boise got its logs out of
Mameyal, Corrales, Durazno, and the ejidos deeper into the sierra.
"I have seen a lot of logging up there," Montiel reflects, ticking off a list
of cuts dating back to the early 1980s. "But there was never an operation like Boise.
We didn't know the name of the company back then, but whoever was behind it, Nino's people
were taking everything: old trees, new trees, dead trees, live trees. If they had a permit
for six thousand cubic meters, they'd take ten thousand and no one would say
anything." Juan Gómez, ejido commissioner at Banco Nuevo, Bautista's home base,
agrees: "The technicians would mark ten trees and Nino would take a hundred," he
The effects of the logging were soon apparent. "In 1995 and 1996, we began to see
that the river was drying up," says Montiel. "By ninety-seven, there was nothing
but garbage and plastic in the riverbed. Everyone knew it was the fault of the
logging-without the trees, the rivers dry up." And without the rivers, the campesinos
could not irrigate the tiny corn patches that fed their families. "We had to do
The campesinos began to organize, huddling at night in kitchens or the ejido billiard
parlor to discuss their options. "It was my dream to have an organization big enough
to stop the logging," says Montiel. It took a year to put that organization together.
Tramping the mountain tracks between ejidos (there was no money for transportation),
Montiel and his compañeros signed up campesinos in 30 communities, mostly along the
drying-up river, where everyone knew what the clearcuts had wrought.
Most were like Montiel, poor and outside of the ejido structure, day laborers with a
small plot of land to feed their families. Even so, recalls Silvestre Pacheco, the
ecologistas' advisor from the coast, they took their organizing very seriously.
"There was a long debate about the name, which finally became 'The Ecologist
Campesinos of the Sierras of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán.' I thought it was a little
long, but Rodolfo said he wanted to be inclusive." Despite the ecologistas'
meticulous efforts to properly register their organization with the authorities, the
federal environmental ministry (which had repeatedly rejected charges of overcutting in
the Petatlán Sierra) disqualified the group, saying it was a front for guerrillas and
The ecologistas went to the ejido assemblies anyway to register their opposition to
extending Boise's contracts. Most of the ejido's voting members supported the campesinos,
but Bautista and his handpicked board of directors went ahead and signed new contracts. At
an ejido meeting in 1997, Montiel confronted Bautista: "You are the ones who sell off
the forests," he charged. In doing so, Montiel may have sealed his own fate. The
ecologistas took a stand on February 20, 1998, at Palomar on the narrow road near the
bottom of the mountain where the logging rigs have to pass to get to Boise's coastal
mills. For three days, they hung banners across the road that read, "Stop the Logging
and the Burning of Our Forests," and turned back trucks heading into and out of the
mountains-43 on the first day alone.
Such blockades are a tradition in Guerrero whenever
the locals sense their forests are in danger. Back in the 1950s, the ejidos in the
neighboring Técpan Sierra ran a U.S. logger out of the region by burning his trucks, and
the Aguas Blancas massacre came after the Organization of Campesinos of the Southern
Sierra had torched logging trucks just 30 miles to the south. "We burnt the trucks
because we oppose the cutting of our forests," an OCSS farmer told me then.
"Without the trees, we will lose our river." The theme is a recurrent one in
"We were a hundred and four campesino ecologistas," recalls Montiel. "We
weren't against the people-we just wanted the logging to stop. We asked the drivers
politely to take the logs back to the ejidos where they had loaded them-and told them that
if they came back we would burn them up alive inside their trucks." It was just a
threat, he says; the trucks burned in the past were unoccupied, and in this case the
ecologistas actually ended up feeding the hungry truckers. "We thought that if we
stopped the trucks, the agents for the company-we still didn't know its name-would come
out and negotiate. But they sent the military instead."
When the log flow stopped, Bautista summoned the military to patrol the area under the
pretext that the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), a group that had emerged after the
Aguas Blancas killings, was prowling Petatlán forests. (Both the EPR and the ecologistas
are based in the sierra above Costa Grande, but that is the extent of their relationship.)
It wasn't long before campesino ecologistas began turning up dead. According to the Mexico
City-based Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center, on May 3 Aniceto Martínez was shot
down by Bautista's gunmen in Mameyal.
On July 2, soldiers accompanying Bautista at the
Jilguero ejido allegedly killed Elena Barrajas. On July 10 at Banco Nuevo, says the
center, ecologista Romualdo Gómez was killed by the cacique's men. The next day, soldiers
took ecologista Jesus Cervantes prisoner and tortured him until he identified his
companions. On August 10, the soldiers hung a noose from a tree in Banco Nuevo and told
everyone it was for the ecologistas. The 35 families who make up the community packed up
and left town.
Throughout the summer and fall, the troops showed up repeatedly at Montiel's hillside
hovel by the water tank in Mameyal, trying to get him to give up names. In November,
Montiel finally fled with his wife, Uvalda, and six children. All over the sierra,
ecologistas were going underground.
The army caught up with Montiel on May 2, 1999, in the town of Pizotla where he was
selling old clothes on the street. According to the center, soldiers also burst into his
compadre Teodoro Cabrera's place, killing the farmer Salomé Sánchez when he sought to
defend his friend. Montiel and Cabrera were hog-tied and taken down by the river where
they were beaten for two days. The ecologistas were then transported to military barracks
in Altamirano City, where, says Montiel, they were beaten with broomsticks and tortured
with repeated electric shocks to the testicles for three more days. The Mexican government
denies the charges of torture, claiming that a medical examination of the two (conducted a
month after the fact) found no evidence of mistreatment.
When the farmers' arrests were finally reported on May 10, it was big news. Guerrero's
newly appointed attorney general announced that two dangerous members of the Popular
Revolutionary Army had been flushed from the Petatlán Sierra. Montiel and Cabrera were
labeled "armed ecologists" and "narco-guerrilleros." (According to
Montiel, the real narcos are as much of a threat to the forest as the loggers, through the
devastating fires they set to clear land for poppy and marijuana production. "The
narcos burn the forest, plant a crop, contaminate the water, buy cattle, and cut down more
trees for pasture," he charges.)
Strapped by the diminishing log flow from the ecologistas' blockade and unsure of its
legal status following Governor Figueroa's forced resignation, Boise Cascade closed its
mills at Papanoa and Técpan and pulled out of Mexico in June 1998. Company spokesman Doug
Bartels blames the miserable roads (which Boise had promised to improve, but never did),
bad weather, a short logging season, and "an inconsistent log flow." The company
has since shifted its Latin American operations to Chile, where it plans to build a near
billion-dollar chip mill on the shores of a pristine bay near Puerto Montt.
Even with Boise gone, logging continues on the Costa Grande both by Mexican companies
and the U.S.-based Westwood Forest Products, and fear still stalks the remote ejidos up
along the Coyuquilla River. Ejido commissioner Juan Gómez worries about the troops
encamped in Banco Nuevo's remaining community forests. "We do not know what they
want. Sometimes they come down and ask us about the ecologistas. We're all ecologistas
here-we defend our ocoteros [pitch pine stands]. They bring us life. They even accompany
us in death when they give us the wood for the coffin." Gómez's brother Romualdo,
shot down by Bautista's men, lies in his own pine box just a few feet away. Bautista
claims the 17-year-old was part of a guerrilla group that had attempted to ambush him;
Romualdo's father says the young ecologista was cutting wood alone when he was shot.
Miguel Martínez Uriustegui, the ejido commissioner at Mameyal, is nervous too. We stand
high above the thin ribbon of a river, pickups parked nose to nose at a switchback.
"Every time I go down the mountain, I'm stopped and questioned about the . . . the .
. ." He can't quite bring himself to pronounce the e-word. "Look, Rodolfo was my
friend. He was a poor man, a simple man-but I don't want to wind up like him."
Martínez says that when he complains to the environmental ministry about overcutting,
"they say I'm an ecologista and then the army comes up here. There are more than a
thousand guachos [soldiers] on the ejido right now." We scan the deep river valley
below. On the far side, a string of logging trucks is hauling trees down to a giant new
plywood mill outside Zihuatanejo. The sight, I think, would break Rodolfo Montiel's heart.
Like many other conflicts in Mexico and around the world that arise out of disputes
over land and resources, the struggle of the Campesinos Ecologistas of the Sierras of
Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán is as much about human rights as it is about the
environment. Such conflicts often involve the repression of those who speak out against
environmental injustice, like Chico Mendes in the Amazon (to whom Montiel is sometimes
compared) and Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria. In Mexico, however, environmentalists are
increasingly using human-rights guarantees as levers to redress their grievances.
Campesinos on the Plátano y Cacao ejido in Tabasco, for example, won a decision from the
government's National Human Rights Commission confirming that the public oil conglomerate
PEMEX had violated their constitutional rights after a 1996 pipeline explosion killed
seven neighbors and burned up the village's crops.
Citizens of Córdoba, Veracruz, where
agrochemical fires have cost more than 200 lives in the past decade, have applied for
redress to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. And in the Tarahumara Sierra of
Chihuahua, the Catholic Church's Commission of Solidarity and Defense of Human Rights
stopped International Paper Corporation from clearcutting a Raramuri Indian ejido.
Similarly, the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center has taken up the
defense of the campesinos ecologistas. "The charges against Montiel and Cabrera are a
pretext," says Digna Ochoa, the center's legal director. "They are really in
jail because they disturbed the economic interests of local and transnational timber
companies." The defense of the forests, she asserts, is a human-rights issue:
"The right to a healthy environment is fundamental. Human rights are not just limited
to the abuses of the judicial system-although in this case they are flagrant. Human rights
are integral. They are environmental, cultural, social, economic. We must look at them as
While Mexico's inclusion in free-trade covenants give it trade parity with the United
States and the European Union, its ascension to First World status is obstructed by its
gross violations of human rights. More than 70 Indians and campesinos have been killed in
three major massacres the six years that President Ernesto Zedillo has been in office,
while in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, abuses by the military and
paramilitary gangs continue unabated, despite years of international criticism.
Even human-rights workers are threatened, jailed, and tortured. Digna Ochoa, a
forceful, outspoken lawyer, has twice been kidnapped by masked men. Last October, she was
held captive and interrogated for eight hours about her visits to Guerrero to defend
Montiel and other political prisoners, and left tied up in a locked room with an open
propane gas tank. Ochoa is convinced that the harassment-including telephone death threats
and repeated break-ins at the human-rights center-stems from the Mexican military
intelligence service. "Eight of the nine high-profile cases we are handling involve
the military," she says. Her organization has frequently complained about the
military's impunity from prosecution for abuses committed against civilians. By contrast,
the state human-rights commission has rarely taken on cases involving military abuse and
has remained largely silent about the plight of the ecologistas.
Mexico's forests are as abused as its citizenry. Half of the country's tropical and
temperate forests have been lost in the past 40 years, and its last great reserves are
under siege. The Lacandon jungle in Chiapas has been reduced from 5,000 square miles to
less than 2,000, and loses another 125 square miles every year. In neighboring Oaxaca, the
untrammeled hardwood stands of the Chimilapas forests suffered irreparable damage from
forest fires in 1998, of which 38 were deliberately set. And the oyamel firs that form the
monarch butterfly sanctuaries in central Michoacán have been thinned to the point of
extinction by surrounding ejidos.
Each year, Mexico loses 2,300 square miles of forest, laments independent green Senator
Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. The great-grandson of Mexico's first forestry secretary (he was
known as the "apostle of the trees"), Zinser estimates that at the current rate
of devastation, Mexico has only 54 years of forest resources left. Deforestation, he says,
has caused the floods and mudslides that have taken more than a thousand lives in the past
three years. "The destruction of our forests is a national crime."
The link between environmental and human-rights issues has helped to internationalize
both. The Sierra Club and Amnesty International have begun a joint campaign to speak out
on behalf of Montiel and other environmental activists like him. The American Lands
Alliance prominently features Montiel's plight as a warning against what can happen if the
World Trade Organization's global logging pact becomes a reality. And Montiel has won this
year's prestigious Goldman Prize for environmental activism, placing him in the ranks of
heroes like Wangari Maathai of Kenya and Russian whistle-blower Aleksandr Nikitin.
Despite the international attention, Rodolfo Montiel remains, at the time of this
writing, locked up in the Guerrero state penitentiary, where he has plenty of time to
contemplate crime and punishment: "When someone kills many people, he is guilty of
genocide," he told me. "Someone who kills a lot of trees is guilty of ecocide.
The two crimes are related; trees bring us water and water brings us life. When I see a
tree cut down, it wounds me inside. It feels like one of my own children has been
"When I was small," he reminisces, "I loved to walk in the forest with
my father. The old oaks are almost all gone now, and the cedars. The caoba [mahogany]
hasn't been seen since 1985. The paloblanco is almost all logged out; it was such a nice
shady tree." Squatting against the jailhouse wall, he talks as if he were ambling
along a sierra path. He sighs. "If I get out of here I'm going right back to the
sierra to defend the forests."
John Ross's latest book, The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles
1994-2000, will be published this fall by Common Courage Press.