A Hollow Pardon in Mexico City

President Vicente Fox's decision to pardon two environmental activists is widely seen as an attempt to quell criticism of his failure to combat corruption.

| Mon Nov. 26, 2001 3:00 AM EST

Rodolfo Montiel was a penniless bean farmer when Mexican soldiers arrested him in 1999. The leader of a small popular movement against illegal logging in his home state of Guerrero, Montiel was sentenced to nearly seven years on trumped-up charges of drug possession and gun running (See the Mother Jones story, "The Roots of Rebellion"). Now Montiel is free following the intervention of Mexico's president.

A middle-aged man who became an activist to protect the forests he loves and his way of life, Montiel soon learned that he was battling not only logging companies, but the judges and politicians who protect them. After the local judiciary rejected Montiel's appeals, President Vicente Fox took the extraordinary step of bypassing the courts to free Montiel and another environmentalist, Teodoro Cabrera, allegedly out of concern for their health.

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Montiel left prison having become a symbol for environmentalists and an embarrassment for Fox, who was elected last year after promising, among other things, to establish the rule of law and to reduce logging in old-growth forests. As has been the case in countless other areas, Fox has found it difficult to reverse the trends of the past. Because of this, many activists in Mexico see Fox's pardon as little more than a presidential attempt to divert attention from the reality that little has changed in Mexico, especially when it comes to protecting human rights.

"When Fox was a candidate, he said the solution was very easy -- all it required was some political will and honesty," said Lorenzo Meyer a political scientist at Colegio de Mexico. "Now he's discovering it's more complex, and the corruption of institutions was deeper than he [was] either told or thought."

Fox's election ended the 71-year stranglehold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, on the presidency. But even as Fox seeks to transform the political landscape in Mexico City, the situation in much of the country outside the capital remains unchanged. In Guerrero, where a PRI governor still rules, power brokers with close ties to the state government remain in control.

In Montiel's home of El Mameyal, the local power broker, known as a cacique, was Nino Bautista. Montiel has said that Bautista, a man with close ties to both the state government and the military, ran the logging operations in El Mameyal. Those operations included illegal cutting of old-growth trees, which the activists have charged was carried out in cooperation with the military.

After witnessing the destruction of the forests, Montiel helped to organize a group of peasant activists to stop the logging. In early 1998, the men mounted a roadblock of El Mameyal's logging roads, turning back trucks carrying freshly-cut timber from the local forests to the sawmills on the Pacific coast.

By stopping the trucks, Montiel, Cabrera and the other local environmentalists placed themselves in direct opposition to Guerrero's power brokers. Within six months, three of the men who had helped to build the roadblocks were killed by unidentified gunmen. In August of 1998, soldiers arrived in El Mameyal.

Over the next nine months, El Mameyal was virtually emptied as families fled. Eventually, the soldiers tracked down and arrested Montiel and Cabrera. In August, 1999, Montiel was sentenced to almost seven years, Cabrera ten, on charges of drug trafficking and weapons concealment.

The sentences were met with outrage by human rights groups, with the National Human Rights Commission finding that both men had been falsely accused and tortured. Having acknowledged early on that Montiel and Cabrera were unjustly jailed, Fox said that he was confident local judges would set them free on appeal. Shortly after his election, Fox even assigned federal lawyers to assist Montiel and Cabrera in their legal battles. Still, a year passed and the men remained in jail, their appeals having been rejected by Guerrero's courts.

As Montiel's case received wider notice, the pressure on Fox's administration only grew. Montiel won an international environmental award -- the Goldman Prize for environmental bravery -- which was delivered to him in prison. And then another incident occurred, one even more damaging to Fox's reformist image.

Digna Ochoa, a prominent human rights lawyer who had represented Montiel, was killed by an unknown gunman in her Mexico City office on Oct. 19. Fox found himself hounded by questions about his administration's apparent failure to establish a rule of law in Mexico. In what has been widely dismissed as an effort to quell the criticism, Fox on Nov. 8 ordered the release of Montiel and Cabrera, arguing that they were physically unfit to serve time.

Two days later, Fox delivered a speech at the United Nations where he declared that today's Mexico "is one that acts with firmness in defending and protecting human rights and democracy at all times and in all places, beginning at home, promoting the full respect of fundamental liberties, based on criteria of tolerance, plurality and equality."

Such assurances convince few in Mexico, where the criticism continues. Fox may be saying all the right things, but Sergio Aguayo, a political commentator in Mexico City, believes that recent events only prove that Fox is too weak to attack the bastions of institutional corruption and power in Mexico -- primarily the military.

"So far Fox has not launched an open challenge to fight impunity," Aguayo said. "Even in this case he took the back door, a lateral exit." Today, at least, Montiel and Cabrera are free men, but it remains to be seen if future activists will be spared similar persecution from state institutions that are designed to protect them.

Despite the ongoing criticism of Fox, environmental activists see some good news coming out of Mexico City following the release of Montiel and Cabrera.

Victor Lichtinger, Mexico's environmental minister, who had argued for releasing the two activists and had even been sent by Fox to meet the two men in prison, said he believes regulators will find it easier "to increase and strengthen the fight against illegal logging in Mexico." Lichtinger's office has already terminated 12 of 15 permits for logging in the Guerrero forests where Montiel was arrested. Lichtinger has also set aside $200,000 in federal funds to replant the hillsides that were denuded by the clear-cuts.

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