MEXICO CITY — A peasant farmer who forged a prize-winning grass-roots campaign against rampant deforestation in southwestern Mexico was convicted Monday of drug and weapons charges, evoking outraged protests from environmental and human rights groups.
Lawyers for Rodolfo Montiel said a judge in the small town of Iguala had sentenced Montiel to six years and eight months in prison. A colleague of Montiel, Teodoro Cabrera, received a 10-year sentence. Both had been held without bail since they were arrested by an army patrol in Guerrero state on May 2, 1999.
The reasoning of federal Judge Maclovio Murillo was not immediately clear. Through his secretary, Murillo said he was not allowed to comment on his verdict except to the parties involved.
The verdict prompted a barrage of protests from Mexican and international activists who had likened Montiel's anti-logging campaign to the efforts of Brazilian forest champion Chico Mendes, who was killed in the Amazon jungle in 1988.
In early 1998, Montiel pulled together peasants from villages scattered along the rugged western slopes of the Sierra Madre to fight the commercial logging that Montiel believed was stripping the hills of water and ground cover, causing widespread erosion and crop losses.
In April, Montiel was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the premier environmental awards in the United States. Richard N. Goldman, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Goldman Foundation, said by telephone that he was shocked to hear of Montiel's conviction.
"I cannot believe that this kind of decision would be reached based on what we know about the circumstances," he said.
Montiel, who has a near-toothless grin and a first-grade education, launched his campaign by writing eloquently simple letters to state and federal authorities, pleading for a halt to the logging. "When there are rows and rows of trees, the clouds crash and water falls, but if in one row there are no trees, the clouds pass by and one or two drops fall and the crops are lost," he wrote in one letter.
When the government didn't respond, the group blocked logging trucks as they drove down steep dirt trails to sawmills on the Pacific Coast near the resort town of Zihuatanejo.
His campaign brought him into conflict with local political bosses in a violence-prone region where a small guerrilla group, the People's Revolutionary Army, is active and drug-trafficking is rife. Montiel was arrested by an army patrol in the highlands village of Pizotla.
Montiel's lawyers contend that the only evidence against him was a confession he made under torture. And the National Human Rights Commission complained in a detailed report on the case in July that the army had violated Montiel's and Cabrera's civil rights by holding them incommunicado for 2 1/2 days after their arrest. The commission called on the army to investigate possible charges against the officers involved.
However, prosecutors and army witnesses offered a different version, saying Montiel and four other men, all allegedly armed, fled from a house when the 43-member army patrol entered Pizotla. Ignoring orders to stop, the five allegedly turned and opened fire, army officers said. One of the five, Salome Sanchez Ortiz, was killed in the firefight while two men escaped. Montiel and Cabrera were arrested; Montiel was accused of being armed with a .45-caliber Colt pistol, and also of growing marijuana nearby.
Defense attorneys from the Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City who handled Montiel's defense said the evidence was contradictory and inconclusive.
Edgar Cortez, a lawyer who is director of the center, said attorneys had immediately notified the court that they would appeal the verdicts and the sentences.
"We consider it an extremely unjust decision because we are convinced the only proof against Rodolfo and Teodoro are the self-incriminating confessions they made during torture," Cortez said.
"A sentence condemning someone to jail for defending forests can discourage and intimidate other peasants who also want to defend their natural resources," he said in a phone interview.
The federal prosecutor's office in Guerrero referred queries to the national office in Mexico City, which had no immediate comment. In June, Deputy Atty. Gen. Everardo Moreno Cruz said in a letter to Cortez that an internal probe "came to the firm conviction that in no way were the persons being charged subjected to torture."
Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace in Mexico, said angrily: "This is a sentence not only against these two but against all those who are fighting for the environment in this country. It is an expression of the Mexico of the caciques [local chieftains], which still exists in states like Guerrero. It is a display of the barbarity of judicial power in these states and the absence in Mexico of environmental justice."
Homero Aridjis, a noted Mexican poet and environmental activist, said ecology groups would pressure President-elect Vicente Fox to take up "this enormous injustice."
During Fox's visit to the United States and Canada last week, he was confronted by environmental activists challenging him to address the Montiel case.
Aridjis called the case a "perversion of Mexican justice" in which a poor, isolated activist was charged with much more serious crimes than his real offense: opposing powerful economic interests.
"I believe the message here is: Beware, watch your step, because if you are in environmental activism, especially grass-roots activism, you can go to jail and there is nobody who can set you free," Aridjis said.