Rodolfo Montiel, a dirt farmer from the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero, walks into the visiting room of the state penitentiary with a tip of his straw cowboy hat. He’s 45 but looks older, his hands and face leathery from a life of hard work under the sun. In his two years behind bars, Montiel has become internationally known as an environmentalist. Tortured and jailed after leading a peasant movement against unsustainable logging, he has succeeded in drawing attention to the rapid deforestation of Mexico—and the strong-arm tactics of those who profit from it. Montiel says he became an activist out of love for the forests near El Mameyal, where he was raised, 40 miles up a rough road from the coast highway, which runs southeast to Acapulco. “The woods were full of trees—pines and cedars,” he recalls. “When I was 12, there were big trees and little trees all around us. I remember one five-feet thick, and I remember today the day I saw it was cut down. When they started destroying the forest, I began to feel sadness. I felt like a weight was on top of me.”
That weight grew as he watched the forest disappear, lost to logging trucks. Nino Bautista, the most powerful man in the valley, a man with connections in Guerrero’s state capital and in the military, had formed an alliance with the logging companies, and they had begun taking the trees faster and faster after free trade came to Mexico. Satellite photos show that roughly 40 percent of the forest in and around El Mameyal—215,000 acres—has been logged or burned since 1992. What was once deep green in the images has gone gray. And the same thing is happening all over Mexico: 200 square miles of forests vanish every month. At that rate, they’ll all be gone by mid-century.
This deforestation drove Montiel first to despair, then to political action. Three years ago, he drafted a peasant’s manifesto—”I, Rodolfo Montiel, do not accept the destruction of the forest”—and organized about 100 of his neighbors in the high sierras into the grandly named Organization of Campesino Ecologists. On February 20, 1998, the group mounted a roadblock and turned back dozens of trucks coming down the mountain to the Pacific coast highway and the sawmills. “The men put rocks and branches on the road, and they would stay there all day, and the women would bring them food so the truckers couldn’t take the rocks away,” recalls Ubalda Cortes, Montiel’s wife and the mother of their six children. “This was the only way to stop them from taking wood down the mountain.”
The roadblock was a dangerous thing in Guerrero, where the law makes few allowances for environmental activism. “I learned that to struggle for the woods is to struggle for your life,” Montiel says. Within six months of the roadblock, three of its organizers were dead, shot by men identified by eyewitnesses as soldiers or gunmen beholden to local political bosses. That August, soldiers hung a noose from a tree and told people it was for Montiel.
Denounced as an “eco-guerrilla,” Montiel was eventually seized by the army and sentenced to nearly seven years on charges of possessing guns and marijuana. His friend and fellow environmentalist, Teodoro Cabrera, received 10 years on similar charges. Their conviction in August 2000, upheld in October, came despite findings by the Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission that they had been falsely arrested and tortured.
Montiel has since become an international symbol, a man who embodies the stand of local peoples against the destruction of the world’s forests. He has been awarded numerous environmental prizes and been declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. And the attention surrounding his imprisonment has posed a major political problem for Mexican president Vicente Fox.
Fox, who took office last December, has pledged to establish the rule of law, end torture, reduce logging in old-growth forests, and, in his words, “make Mexico’s environment, its water and forests, a national security issue.” Montiel and Cabrera’s case was sufficiently embarrassing to Fox that, in March, he quietly assigned government lawyers to assist them in their appeals. He also, quite publicly, sent his environmental minister, Victor Lichtinger, out to the Guerrero state prison to meet with them. Lichtinger says there is some hope that Montiel and Cabrera will be released in the not-too-distant future. But as of late spring, the men remained in prison, with their case still under appeal.
“They’ve been judged twice and found guilty, and we cannot intrude on the judiciary,” Lichtinger told me. “But I want them to get out. I want them to get out because I want to work with other Montiels and Cabreras in the future.”
Such a meeting with the nation’s environmental minister would have been inconceivable five years ago, when Montiel and his neighbors began writing letters to the government seeking to halt the deforestation near El Mameyal. Montiel knew that a central cause of the environmental devastation around him was crooked logging deals cut between local strongmen, state officials, and soldiers. He also learned that anyone calling himself an environmentalist in the mountains of Mexico is likely, sooner or later, to run into a man with a gun who is turning trees into cash.
Confrontations of this kind—the campesinos against the caciques, or local bosses—have been going on in Guerrero for more than 100 years. Guerrero means “warring,” and the wars here almost always have been over land and the power that land conveys. The Mexican revolution of 1910 promised the peasants “tierra y libertad,” land and liberty. It broke huge landholdings into smaller collectives called ejidos, which, under law, belonged to the local campesinos. But in practice, the land has remained under the control of the caciques, who wield their power on behalf of business interests, politicians, and army officers.
While things may be changing in Mexico City, where Fox ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, after 71 years of rule, not much has changed in Guerrero. Like a majority of Mexico’s states, Guerrero still has a pri governor and a pri power structure, dominated at the local level by the caciques. “The local Mexican logging companies support the pri with money, and the government allows them to keep logging,” says Maximino Piñeda, a member of Montiel’s environmental group. “The governor decided how much wood would be exported; the governor himself made the agreements with the logging companies.” Under this old patronage system, Guerrero has remained one of the poorest states in Mexico, its riches flowing to outsiders and the handful of caciques who do their bidding.
In El Mameyal, the head cacique was Nino Bautista. He ran the logging operations, including illicit cutting, the activists said, which was done in cooperation with the army. Following the passage of NAFTA in 1994, he pushed to sell ejido lumber to foreign and domestic corporations. “The destruction of the forests was the result of all these contracts,” says Montiel.
Before long, the mountains around El Mameyal were denuded, covered with stumps, and the resulting erosion caused soil to run down the slopes, choking rivers and killing the springs. “What once were rivers became little brooks, and what once were brooks dwindled away into little trickles of water,” says Montiel. “Many people knew the Mameyal River. It was a large river with lots of freshwater fish and shrimp. Now it has only heaps of trash.”
After the roadblock, Montiel says, Bautista sent a written note to the ecologistas: “You guys aren’t going to stand in the way of progress.” Bautista has since disappeared from the mountains of Guerrero and his version of events is unavailable, but there is plenty of firsthand testimony on what happened next: Bautista called in the army. “The caciques just imposed their will,” says Albertano Peñaloza, who worked as a cattle herder for Bautista for 12 years before joining Montiel’s organization.
In August 1998, the army came for Montiel. “The soldiers picked him up at night,” says his wife, Ubalda. “They wanted to disappear him, to make him stop. And they wanted money. They said he must have money because he was in the organization, and they imagined that somebody was supporting us. They said they’d let him go for money. So I went and got 3,000 pesos, and they let him go.” This sum, less than $300, was nearly all their life savings.
By the end of 1998, nearly 50 families from El Mameyal and nearby villages had fled or gone underground—among them Montiel and his family, who came down the mountains and into the town of Pizotla, selling clothes to try to make a living. The soldiers came into Pizotla on the morning of May 2, 1999. Eyewitnesses say that they stormed into town shooting, looking for Montiel and his fellow organizer, Cabrera. According to the two men and the testimony of two doctors who later examined them—testimony that the Mexican courts have now ruled must be considered at their appeal—the soldiers took them down to the river, hog—tied them, and tortured them over the course of three days. “I thought they had killed my husband,” Ubalda says.
Fifteen months later, Montiel and Cabrera were convicted and sentenced for gun and drug possession, effectively crushing the Organization of Campesino Ecologists. “We’ve become disorganized, sure, because they started killing us, because people were terrified by the caciques and by the government,” Montiel says. Members of the group tried to convene near El Mameyal last October, but they were ordered to disband by a force of 40 soldiers.
The campaign of intimidation may have worked at the local level, but Montiel’s group had already succeeded in bringing pressure to bear in Mexico City. Last November, a month after soldiers broke up the meeting in El Mameyal, the federal forestry ministry took an unpublicized and unprecedented action that Montiel and his followers had been seeking for more than five years. It ordered the “immediate and total suspension” of logging in the ejidos of El Mameyal and six surrounding communities, citing the unauthorized destruction of thousands of acres.
Montiel’s little war has taken on a global dimension. After his arrest, he was awarded the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest environmental award in the world, and though his family was just scraping by, he donated all of the money to his organization. Since then, the campaign to free Montiel has slowly been gathering steam, with Amnesty International and the Sierra Club joining forces in an international campaign for his release.
As his lawyers continue to appeal his case through the Mexican courts, Montiel has come to see himself as part of a broader struggle. For with the world’s forests disappearing before the forces of development, governments and corporations will increasingly find themselves forced to deal with individuals like Rodolfo Montiel. “We all have the same rights, no matter where in the world we live,” he says. “Wherever we are, we breathe the air, we need to drink water. Fighting for the forests is fighting for the right to live.”
Tim Weiner is a reporter for the New York Times in Mexico City.