Dashing and handsome, Gabriel Soto shines as the ecological superhero of the currently hot Mexican soap opera Mujer de Madera. He is cast as Carlos Gómez, a passionate, young official of Mexico ‘s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat who risks his life battling gun-toting caciques (rural bosses), illegal loggers, and psychopathic traffickers of endangered animals.
But in real life Mexico , it’s most often citizen activists like Felipe Arreaga Sánchez who take on the forest predators–and suffer the consequences. A decades-old veteran of timber wars in the southern state of Guerrero, the 55-year-old Arreaga has witnessed relatives murdered and been driven from his home on at least two occasions. Now he sits in a Zihuatanejo jail cell confronted with what his supporters say is a trumped-up murder charge. “The accusation lacks soundness and seems to be the re-initiation of a new wave of repression against forest defenders,” said members of the Zihuatanejo-based environmental group SOS Bahia.
A former secretary of the Campesino (Peasant) Environmentalist Organization of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP), Arreaga was arrested on Nov. 3 by Guerrero State Ministerial Police and charged in the May 1998 murder of 15-year-old Abel Bautista.
The victim’s father Bernardino “Nino” Bautista, was a local cacique who had been at odds with campesinos over timber harvesting practices the OCESP contended were devastating the environment. Contracting a good portion of the trees for its mill in the Pacific Coast town of Papanoa was the Boise Cascade Corp.
Although witnesses stated at a November court hearing that Arreaga was sick and nowhere near the scene of the 1998 killing, the longtime campesino organizer was ordered held in prison for trial by Guerrero State Judge José Jacobo Gorrostieta, who was quoted as saying that previous written testimonies by members of the Bautista family were sufficient evidence to detain the arrested man without bail. For three weeks after his arrest, Arreaga’s friends and family members denounced that he was held with 14 people in a Zihuatanejo jail cell built for 6. Only then did jail authorities move the ailing man, who suffers from back problems, to a cell with at least enough space to sleep on the floor.
The timing of Arreaga’s arrest immediately raised suspicions. A legal complaint against Arreaga connecting him to the Bautista murder was made in 2000. The Guerrero judge waited until this year to issue an arrest warrant and did so with no ratification from the Bautista family of earlier denunciations. “The accusation is very weak,” said Silvestre Pacheco, SOS Bahia project director.
What’s more, Arreaga’s detention came on the heels of one Petatlán forest community’s decision to renew timbering operations. The community’s logging permit had been cancelled previously due to ecological damage. Arreaga spoke out against the renewal at a public meeting, opposing it as long as no environmental impact statement and mitigation measures are presented. The current head of the OCESP, Marcial Bautista, however, is in favor the logging. He is also the brother of Nino Bautista.
Pacheco thinks politics could be another important reason behind the arrest. In gubernatorial elections set for next February, the long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stands a serious chance of losing to a popular and reformist opposition candidate, Zeferino Torreblanca. A former Acapulco mayor, Torreblanca threatens to shake up the corrupt business dealings that have pervaded Guerrero for decades. To prevent such a debacle, the old ruling party is pulling out all the stops. “(Arreaga’s arrest) happens when the PRI is once again re-organizing its system of caciques in all the regions,” said Pacheco. “They are strengthening the local bosses.”
Led by SOS Bahia, supporters of Arreaga are waging a campaign for his freedom. They maintain that local timber interests are using the legal system to take revenge against Arreaga and fellow OCESP members for their environmental activism. Other groups, including many in Germany , where Arreaga once traveled, have rallied to the defense. In a statement shortly after Arreaga’s arrest, Amnesty International said it was “gravely concerned” about the activist’s situation and pointed out “clear indications of political motivation behind this process.”
Arreaga and other Guerrero forest activists were first thrust into the international spotlight after the Mexican Army arrested and tortured OCESP activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera in 1999. A massive, international grassroots campaign for the pair’s freedom was initiated, and thousands of protest letters flooded the Mexican Embassy in Washington , DC . From behind bars, Montiel won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2000, and was transformed into an international cause celebre who drew the support of world-renowned figures including Mikhail Gorbachev and Ethel Kennedy.
Documenting the torture against Montiel and Cabrera , Mexico ‘s National Human Rights Commission issued an official recommendation in 2000 to then-military prosecutor Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha urging an investigation of the soldiers who arrested the environmentalists. But Macedo never acted on that recommendation before accepting his appointment as Mexican President Vicente Fox’s attorney general of the republic. One of Macedo’s current top deputies, Assistant Attorney General Carlos Javier Vega Memije, publicly defended the Montiel-Cabrera arrests while he was serving as Guerrero state attorney general.
Released by Fox on humanitarian grounds in November 2001, Montiel and Cabrera were never legally exonerated by the Mexican government for the drug charges on which they were convicted, although supporters claim the charges were fabricated to destroy the campesino environmental movement.
A complaint over the Montiel-Cabrera case is pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Filed by Mexico ‘s non-profit Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center . The complaint demands that the Mexican state clear the two men’s names and compensate them for the extreme disruption to their lives.
Now, Arreaga, Montiel, and 13 other individuals associated with the OCESP have been named in the 1998 Bautista murder, and warrants reportedly have been issued for their arrests.
Long History of Activism, Repression
Arreaga’s murder arrest is the activist’s latest scrape with trouble. Born into the ruggedly deceptive beauty of the Sierra Madre mountains, Arreaga grew up in an astonishingly scenic land where verdant, cloud-shrouded peaks contrasted sharply with inhabitants’ poverty. Surrounded by rich forest resources, the campesinos nevertheless lacked schools, roads, electricity, and health facilities. An emergency medical situation often spelled death for members of isolated communities who had trouble getting to a doctor. Not much has changed today. While the commercial logging picked up after the 1940s, residents of the collectively owned forest properties known as ejidos stayed mired in poverty. Land ownership disputes prevailed in some areas, occasionally resulting in bouts of violence. Complicating the picture was the clearing of land for cattle pasture and narcotics cultivation, which involved burning off forest cover to make way for Guerrero’s famous opium poppy and marijuana harvests.
In a 2002 interview, Arreaga recalled that he first noticed the ecological impacts of the logging in the early 1970s when water sources began drying up. In those days, clear-cutting was the common practice. Campesinos like Arreaga began raising demands for sustainable timber harvesting and insisted on benefits from the timber trade in the form of schools, clinics, and roads. The environmental struggle broke out at a time when the Mexican Army was engaged in a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign against remnants of the guerrilla movement led by Lucio Cabañas, and the campesino ecologists were tagged as subversive. The government’s “answer was to send the army and start persecuting,” said Arreaga, adding that he was threatened with hanging by an army colonel.
In 1976, paramilitary gunmen attacked Arreaga’s family home in the ejido of Fresnos de Puerto Rico. The bullets killed his mother Leonor Sánchez Arreola and her sister María Sánchez, wounding several others who were present. Almost 30 years later, Arreaga still carries wounds from the incident. The 1970s movement was bloodily suppressed, setting the stage for the birth of the OCESP two decades later–and another round of repression.
Onto this stage stepped the Boise Cascade Corp. Professing ignorance of the trails of blood leading into the Guerrero timber stands, it opened a new sawmill in Papanoa. Local campesinos grew alarmed at the stripping of their forests. Satellite imagery later obtained by Greenpeace Mexico revealed that about 40% of the forest in the mountains of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán had been destroyed by the turn of the 21st Century.
In 1996-1997, Arreaga, Montiel, the late Juan Bautista, and others formed the OCESP to fight the ecocide. “I told the compañeros that the fight is going to be very hard because we’re going to affect interests,” Arreaga recalled. “I feel that they are going to go after us.” His words proved prophetic.
After blockading lumber trucks headed for the Boise Cascade mill, the OCESP drew the wrath of authorities. What followed was a near-repeat of the 1970s. Like its predecessors, the group was accused of being a guerrilla front, this time for the nascent Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), and Arreaga its “general.” However, Arreaga insisted, “I never was involved in this. No way. The struggle is clearly legal.”
From 1998 to 2000, at least four OCESP members and associates were killed; one disappeared; several were tortured and imprisoned, and arrest warrants were issued for nine others. A similar group in another region of Guerrero’s Sierra Madre, the Environmentalist Group of Vallecitos de Zaragoza, likewise suffered death threats for its anti-logging stand at the time.
In 2001, Montiel and Cabrera’s former lawyer Digna Ochoa, prominent human rights defender, traveled to the mountains with Arreaga to see what she could do for the campesinos. Three weeks later, Ochoa was found dead in her Mexico City office. Mexico City law enforcement officials pronounced her death a suicide, but Arreaga and many others rejected the state’s version. “It’s a lie,” said Arreaga. “It cannot be true because a person that feels love for others isn’t going to take her own life.” Indeed, one of the lines of investigation into Ochoa’s death concerned narco-timber interests in the Guerrero mountains.
Despite adverse circumstances, the Guerrero campesinos have forged ahead in their struggle to preserve and renew their mountain homeland. Arreaga and his wife Celsa Valdevinos traveled to Germany in 2003 to learn about that European country’s efforts to manage forests. Valdevinos joined others to launch the Women’s Environmentalist Organization of the Sierra of Petatlán. With support from the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation and Misereor, a German-church organization, the group has planted about 146,000 red cedar trees on more than 700 acres in 13 communities of the Petatlán mountains.
Meanwhile, supporters say that even while locked up and awaiting trial Arreaga remains firm in his message, which he once succinctly summed up as: “Take care of your forests and water, because that’s all we have left.”
KENT PATERSON is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, NM, and a frequent contributor to the IRC Americas Program.