More Murders Make Montiel's Homecoming Bittersweet
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Two political associates of peasant environmentalists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera have narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt, raising grave questions about Montiel and Cabrera's own safety following their Nov. 8 release from jail by Mexican president Vicente Fox.
Felipe Arriga, the secretary general of the grassroots group Montiel founded to fight logging in the southwestern province of Guerrero -- the Ecologist Organization of the Mountain of Petatlán and Coyuca of Catalán -- said the attack took place at six o'clock in the morning of Nov. 1 in the town of El Venado. Unidentified assailants stopped a truck providing local transport and raked it with gunfire, killing three innocent bystanders, including a seven month old baby. The baby's mother and two brothers were wounded.
According to a report in a leading Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, Arriga was preparing to travel that morning to Mexico City with colleagues to seek a meeting with president Fox to complain about continuing violence and repression in Guerrero. One of those colleagues, Roberto Cabrera Torres, said he and Arriga had passed by the truck stop in the minutes just before and after the attack and believed the bullets could have been intended for them.
"It was known that we were heading down the mountain around six o'clock to meet and travel with the other companeros to Mexico City," Torres told a press conference convened by delegates of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), Mexico's third largest political party. "I passed by an hour before [the attack] and Felipe less than five minutes after."
The attack follows the assassination of Montiel and Cabrera's lawyer, Digna Ochoa, who was shot execution style in her office in Mexico City on Oct. 19. Unnamed Mexican officials told the New York Times that it was Ms. Ochoa's murder that convinced President Fox to act on his own authority to release Montiel and Cabrera, who were imprisoned in May 1999 during a military raid on their village after their group's blockades of logging trucks had driven out the multinational corporation Boise-Cascade and angered local wildcat loggers. The two men were subsequently championed by many environmental and human rights organizations in Mexico and abroad, including the Sierra Club, the Goldman Environmental Prize and Amnesty International, which considered them to be "prisoners of conscience."
President Fox, who has promised to end long-standing abuses by government security forces in Mexico, had wanted Montiel and Cabrera's release to come through normal legal channels, Mexican officials told the Times. But the two men had lost appeals at the state and federal levels after judges refused to admit evidence gathered by the government's own National Human Rights Commission that the confessions they had signed, admitting to weapons possession and drug trafficking, were extracted under torture.
Mario Patron, Montiel and Cabrera's lawyer, told National Public Radio's "Living On Earth" program that his clients "are afraid to return to their home state of Guerrero because their work there angered many powerful interests," including the army and wildcat loggers. As a security measure, said Patron, an "international peace brigade" will accompany the men from Mexico City back to Guerrero this week. Patron said he and his colleagues at the Miguel Justin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center have also been accepting escorts from the brigade after finding a note beside Digna Ochoa's dead body that threatened death to the entire organization. Patron nevertheless plans to pursue Montiel and Cabrera's case, seeking declarations of their innocence and prosecution of their torturers, as well as such broader reforms as a ban on military-run trials in cases where the military is implicated.
"We are delighted by the release of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, but it is crucial to realize that what happened to them is happening now to many more people who simply don't happen to be as well known," said Patron's colleague, Maureen Meyer. "Our organization has documented 22 additional cases of torture in Guerrero province between October 1998 and July 2001. Unfortunately, our organization lacks the money and staff to pursue all these cases. But we believe that the human rights situation here will remain very grave without more of the political pressure that helped get Montiel and Cabrera released last week."
Mark Hertsgaard, a contributor to NPR's "Living On Earth" and the author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future," is completing a book about America and why it fascinates and infuriates the rest of the world.