Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-MEXICO: Yet More Casualties in War on Indigenous Activists

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 23 2005 (IPS) - The "war" waged on indigenous environmental activists by loggers in Mexico has claimed the lives of two more victims, including a nine-year-old boy, while local and international non-governmental organisations report continued arbitrary arrests of campesinos struggling to protect the forests.

"Campesino (peasant farmer) environmentalists are being systematically attacked. The latest incidents only serve to underscore the persecution and repression they suffer, and the total impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators," said Verónica Bassot, spokesperson for Tlachinollan, a human rights group that works with campesino organisations.

The mountains of the southwestern state of Guerrero are plagued by uncontrolled logging.

There are 17 municipalities in the region with predominantly indigenous populations – either full-blooded or mixed-race members of the Nahuatl, Mixtec and Tlapaneco ethnic groups – and 11 of these have been classified by official government studies as "highly marginalised". One is considered the poorest municipality in the entire country.

Satellite images reveal that between 1999 and 2000 alone, some 86,000 of the 226,203 hectares of forest cover in the mountains disappeared, according to figures from the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.

The latest casualties in this undeclared war were a nine-year-old boy and his 20-year-old brother, shot dead Thursday night in the Guerrero mountains.

The victims were the sons of Albertano Peñalosa, leader of the Campesino Environmentalist Organisation of the Sierra of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP), who was wounded in the attack, along with two other sons.

The next day, the Mexican army arrested three of Peñalosa’s fellow OCESP members, on charges of killing a logger’s son. They will join Felipe Arreaga who has been in jail since last November for the same reason, and is considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

In a telephone interview from the mountains of Guerrero, Bassot told IPS that the destruction of the forests and the violence against environmentalists fighting to defend them are the work of "powerful caciques (local political bosses) who do as they please, and even enjoy a certain amount of protection from the military troops that patrol the area."

"The government of the state of Guerrero (led since Apr. 1 by Zeferino Torreblanca of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD) and President Vicente Fox are not taking action, and that is why impunity and fear continue to reign here in these mountains," she added.

Like the rest of the campesinos from the Guerrero mountains currently in custody and the father of the two boys murdered last week, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera are also OCESP members. In 1999, they were arrested and tortured by soldiers on trumped-up weapons and drugs possession charges.

Montiel and Cabrera were finally released in 2001, after Fox granted them a presidential pardon on health grounds.

While still in prison, the two men were awarded the Goldman Prize, established by U.S. non-governmental organisations and considered the "environmental Nobel". They were also granted the Chico Mendes award, named for the Brazilian campesino, trade unionist and environmentalist murdered in 1988.

The 2005 Goldman Prize – which comes with a 125,000-dollar cash award – went to another indigenous environmental activist, Isidro Baldenegro, who was imprisoned on weapons and drug charges in March 2003.

Baldenegro was released in June 2004 after numerous denunciations of irregularities in his case, and campaigns waged by environmental and human rights groups who declared him a prisoner of conscience.

Local and international human rights groups maintain that OCESP members are persecuted solely for the fact that they oppose the destruction of the forests, much of which is caused by illegal logging.

The campesinos taken into custody on Friday are accused of participating in the 1998 murder of the son of Bernardino Batista, the leader of a loggers association.

"All of these cases are fraught with injustice and irregularities, in which the army and the police work as instruments of the loggers," stressed Bassot.

"It is shameful to see the way defenders of the environment are persecuted and their struggle is criminalised," she added.

London-based Amnesty International has repeatedly highlighted the "misuse of the judicial system in Mexico to silence or deter dissidents or opposition by civil society through the use of fabricated or unfounded criminal charges," particularly in the case of environmental activists.

According to reports from Tlachinollan, "the army has taken over as the authority exercising both police and military control" in the Guerrero mountains.

Army troops force their way into indigenous communities, eat their food, drink their water, and interrogate, arrest and intimidate locals on the grounds that they are enforcing the federal weapons and explosive laws and fighting drug trafficking, state the reports.

"Let me put this very clearly: you get in the way of certain interests, and that’s the problem, that’s why I’m here," OCESP member Felipe Arreaga told IPS in November, shortly after being sent to prison.

Similar statements were made by Montiel and Cabrera during their own incarceration. Since their release, they have been living practically underground outside the state of Guerrero, for fear of an attempt on their lives.

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