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Mexico's War on Terror

By Sam Parry
November 25, 2001

On Oct. 19, the body of human rights attorney Digna Ochoa was found in her Mexico City office. She had been shot to death at point blank range in the back of her head. Next to her body was an obscenity-filled letter threatening other human rights activists.


The murder of Digna Ochoa – coming as the world was focused on a war against international terrorism – was a stark reminder of the political terror that was commonplace in Latin America in recent decades. It was the terror of shadowy “death squads” executing political dissidents who threatened the established order. During the Cold War, this terror often enjoyed benign neglect from Washington, if not covert encouragement.

This time, however, the murder of Digna Ochoa drew a swift condemnation from the State Department, which denounced the “utterly deplorable assassination.” Rep. James Moran, D-Va., assailed the murderers as bullies “who stand behind guns and … operate without character or courage.” Amnesty International blamed Ochoa’s murder, in part, on slothful government investigations that had failed to probe very deeply into earlier death threats against the well-known human rights lawyer.

The killing and the consequences caught the administration of Mexico’s President Vicente Fox flatfooted. Fox hesitated for three days before expressing outrage over the assassination.

Still, the murder of Digna Ochoa set in motion a train of events that led Fox, three weeks later, to bend before international pressure and release from prison two of Ochoa’s past clients, Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera Garcia. The events also might be pushing Fox into finally taking action against the political and military forces long implicated in human rights abuses.

Montiel and Cabrera, two anti-logging activists, were convicted last year on drug trafficking and weapons charges after leading opposition to the cutting down of forests in the mountains of the Southern Sierra Madres on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The convictions were based heavily on confessions that were extracted through torture and later renounced by the two men.

On Nov. 8, Fox freed the two activists amid a growing suspicion inside Mexico that that their imprisonment and the Ochoa murder might be linked. The cases also have taken on larger dimensions for the international community, which views them as the types of front-line battle that will be fought over the future of democracy in an age of rapid global economic transformation.

For President Fox, the challenge is two-fold: on one hand, he has made promises to reform the Mexican political system, while on the other, he is facing entrenched interests that have a stake in the old system of repression, a system that involves elements of the Mexican military.

The Tree-Trade War

For Montiel and Cabrera, the two peasant activists, the story began in the mid-1990s when a U.S. timber company, Boise Cascade Corp., stepped up logging in the mountains of the Southern Sierra Madres. Montiel and Cabrera were peasant farmers – or campesinos – who scratched out a living in the rough terrain of Guerrero province north of the Pacific Coast resort city of Acapulco.

Their lives were hard but manageable until the mid-1990s. In spring 1995, one-and-a-half years after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexican forestry ejidos – villages organized as production units – signed a five-year deal with Boise Cascade.

The deal called for Boise Cascade to move one of its mills from Idaho to Guerrero. The U.S.-based firm's Mexican subsidiary, Costa Grande Forest Products, also received unrestricted access to several square kilometers of forest and promised to pay 60 pesos per cubic meter of wood, about three times the local rate.

Under the agreement, vast tracts of trees were cut down and hauled away. Sometimes, the logging and the trucking went on around the clock. Enthusiastic landowners found the deal lucrative. So did the powerful local bosses known as caciques, who operate like mafia networks and helped control the logging operations.

But the logging also sped up the destruction of one of North America's last old-growth pine and fir forests, denuding majestic mountains that rise nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. As the logging expanded, so did its drastic effect on the local environment. Rivers dried up and irrigation became difficult for peasant farmers.

“In 1995 and 1996, we began to see that the river was drying up,” Montiel told journalist John Ross. “By '97, there was nothing but garbage and plastic in the riverbed. Everyone knew it was the fault of the logging – without the trees, the rivers dry up. We had to do something.” [Sierra, July/August 2000]

Montiel and Cabrera did do something. They began to organize other campesinos in the area to try to stop the logging. They wrote letters to the Mexican government complaining of illegal over-logging by loggers harvesting more trees than they were permitted. When those letters fell on deaf ears, the campesinos began to block the logging roads, preventing logging trucks from reaching their destinations.

`Soul of the Water'

The campesinos saw their struggle as partly preserving their way of life and partly defending the forests and the natural balance of the region's environment. “The soul of the water is found in the shade of the tree,” Montiel wrote in a flyer distributed throughout the Southern Sierras.

As anti-logging activism spread and soldiers began massing in the area, Boise Cascade subsidiaries agreed to listen to some of the campesino complaints. Back at corporate headquarters, Boise Cascade began to cool to its Mexican operations.

In 1998, the logging giant abruptly left the Sierra, citing the inconsistency of the wood supplies. Boise Cascade denied that the protests were a factor in the decision. But many Mexicans believed that Montiel, Cabrera and other environmental activists had soured Boise Cascade on Guerrero and its business opportunities.

The caciques didn't take kindly to the lost profits. The local boss, Bernardino "Nino" Bautista Valle, was known to have a small army of hired gunmen as well as close connections to local Mexican military officers. Environmentalist Silvestre Pacheco told journalist John Ross, Bautista “often boasted of his friendship with certain generals.” [Sierra, July/August 2000]

Local farmers believe the caciques turned to these armed forces to hunt down and capture Montiel and Cabrera. Members of Mexico’s 40th infantry battalion mobilized and began searching from village to village for the environmentalists, who fled to the mountains.

On May 2, 1999, the environmentalists ran out of luck. They came down from the mountains to sell clothes in a small village called Pizotla. They were on the streets with friends and family when soldiers stormed the town with guns blazing. A peasant farmer, Salome Sanchez, was shot in the head and died.

The soldiers captured Montiel and Cabrera, who were held incommunicado for eight days. The environmentalists later said they were tortured, beaten with broomsticks, tied up and submerged in a river with their heads and mouths just above the water line. Electric shocks were applied to their testicles. They said the torture stopped only after they signed blank pieces of paper later filled in with false confessions.

Subsequent human rights investigations supported the men's charges of torture, including one report by Mexico’s own national human rights commission. Nevertheless, Montiel and Cabrera were convicted of drug trafficking and weapons charges and sentenced to seven and 10 years respectively in August of 2000.

A Political Star Rises

While the cases against Montiel and Cabrera progressed, a businessman and relative political outsider was seeking Mexico's presidency.

Conservative candidate Vicente Fox was challenging the 71-year presidential monopoly of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI. Fox campaigned on a platform for change and pledged to end political corruption and economic inequality. He promised to address human rights problems and to build a record in defense of the rule of law.

On July 2, 2000, only a month before Montiel and Cabrera’s convictions, Fox made history in Mexico by winning a three-way race for president. The victory of Fox and his National Action Party, the PAN, brought a wave of enthusiasm among Mexicans who hoped the change would end the rampant corruption that had come to mark successive PRI administrations.

Since his inauguration on Dec. 1, 2000, Fox has carried the mantle of reform, especially in his public statements to the world community. On a visit to the United States to attend President George W. Bush’s first state dinner one week before the Sept. 11th terrorists attacks, Fox penned an opinion article in the New York Times, declaring that a new day had arrived for Mexico where the relationship between the government and the people was improving.

“Political reform in Mexico is seeping into all structures of the federal government and out to the state and local levels,” wrote President Fox. “The relationship between government and Mexican society is being rebuilt on the basis of accountability and the rule of law.” [NYT, Sept. 4, 2001]

Slow Pace of Reforms

Yet, in Mexico, many observers who were once hopeful about reform grew impatient. While Fox voiced support for victims of human rights violations, he did little to rectify these cases.

Earlier this year, at a pivotal moment in the appeal case for Montiel and Cabrera, Fox had a chance to make a public statement in support of the environmentalists. Instead, his attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, a former military general, filed an opinion of guilt with the court.

This opinion, and the decision of the court denying Montiel and Cabrera’s appeal, took into account undisputed evidence that the men had been tortured into signing false confessions, the only substantial evidence against Montiel and Cabrera.

Thus, the attorney general’s opinion and the judge’s court ruling found that evidence obtained under duress of torture is not only admissible in court, but sufficient to convict. Fox spurned requests that he issue a contradictory opinion or split with his attorney general.

To many human rights observers, Fox's selection of a military man to fill the important position of attorney general already had raised red flags. The selection was viewed more as a move to placate the Mexican military than to institute the rule of law. The crux of the problem was that the military was implicated in many human rights abuses, including the Montiel/Cabrera case.

Mario Patron, the legal coordinator for the human rights group that represents the environmentalists, told journalist Kent Paterson that one of the officers in the battalion that tortured the two environmentalists was the son of then-Defense Secretary Enrique Cervantes, who was Macedo's boss. In other words, to thoroughly investigate the case against Montiel and Cabrera, Attorney General Macedo might well have had to investigate the actions of the son of his former boss. []

So, while it may not have been a surprise that Macedo backed the conviction of Montiel and Cabrera, what was disappointing for many of human rights activists was Fox’s silence.

The Death of Digna Ochoa

That situation changed on Oct. 19 when Digna Ochoa, one of Mexico’s most prominent and well-respected human rights lawyers, was found murdered in her office in Mexico City. A letter was found next to her body threatening other human rights activists that they were next.

This event, as well as another letter sent to the Mexican newspaper Reforma, which threatened five human rights activists by name, brought a tense situation to a head. While once reformers in the Fox administration seemed content to push for incremental steps, Ochoa’s death was a warning that the opportunity for meaningful change may be slipping away.

On Nov. 8, Fox threw his support behind those pressing for a strong signal on the human rights front. He ordered the release of Montiel and Cabrera. "Today, exercising the legal powers that the Mexican legal system invests in the President of Mexico, I ordered that the necessary measures be taken to free Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera García," Fox declared.

To some observers, Fox's primary worry was his international image. Some human rights activists, however, believe that Fox suspects a link between the murder of Ochoa and the torture of Montiel and Cabrera. If true, the Fox administration could be heading toward a showdown with the “old guard.”

It's also possible that those opposed to reform murdered Ochoa to force a showdown. Behind such a challenge could be the powerful Mexican military, which is closely allied with wealthy landowners and allegedly shares in illicit profits from the drug trade.

In support of this theory are other cases involving brazen threats against politicians, judges and other activists in Mexico. Earlier this month, in a scene that could have come out of the movie "Traffic," two federal judges involved in drug-trafficking cases were mowed down in a barrage of AK-47 rifle fire while on their way to a baseball game. According to the Washington Post, the murders represent a “dramatic escalation in Mexico's war with organized crime.” [Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2001]

In another attack in the early morning hours of Nov. 1 in the town of El Venado, unidentified gunmen sprayed a local transport truck with gunfire, killing three people including a seven-month-old baby. According to a report in Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper, the attack may have hit the wrong target. The report suggested that the real targets were leaders of the environmental group founded by Montiel, the Ecologist Organization of the Mountain of Petatlan and Coyuca of Catalan. These leaders were on the same road at about the same time heading to Mexico City to express concerns about security threats to President Fox.

A Test for Trade

Mexico is the second-leading U.S. trade partner with about $250 billion in trade last year. This compares with just over $80 billion in trade in 1993, the year prior to the passage of NAFTA, meaning that in just seven years, trade with Mexico has quadrupled.

In promoting "free trade," political leaders often argue that trade will benefit the world by spreading economic wealth and expanding political freedom. Yet, the growing U.S.-Mexico trade has not changed some realities on the ground.

In Mexico, entrenched forces have dug in to protect their interests by using violence and repression. Indeed, there is evidence that these forces, including elements of the Mexican military, now are escalating the use of political terror to thwart the rule of law.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Mexican military is absolutely corrupt,” said Rep. Moran on Nov. 13.

A first test of President Fox's seriousness about battling this corruption could come with a complete investigation of the circumstances surrounding Ochoa’s death and the torture of Montiel and Cabrera. Such a move could launch Mexico's own war on internal terrorism.

That could become more than just a test for President Fox and the legitimacy of the Mexican government. It could be a challenge for the future of Mexico's relationship with the United States. Washington could face questions, too, about the consistency of its principles in the war against political terrorism.

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