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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
of the Water'
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
A Political Star Rises
the cases against Montiel and Cabrera progressed, a businessman and
relative political outsider was seeking Mexico's presidency.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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. [http://www.pacificnews.org/jinn/stories/6.29/010216-transferred.html]
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
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.
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.
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,"
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
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.
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]
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
A Test for Trade
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.
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.
power corrupts absolutely, and the Mexican military is absolutely
corrupt,” said Rep. Moran on Nov. 13.
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.
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.