Reporting from Mexico City — Rodolfo Montiel's struggle to protect southern Mexico's mountainside forests from loggers and land barons landed him in prison, where he says he was tortured, and then left him in exile. Now he wants to clear his name.
Montiel was part of a peasant movement in Guerrero state that fought to stop the vast and often illegal denuding of the forests of the Sierra de Petatlan in the 1990s. They blocked roads that logging companies used and staged disruptive demonstrations.
To silence them, Montiel says, the local bosses who were profiting handsomely from the trade had him arrested on trumped-up charges and accused of belonging to a leftist guerrilla group. He was convicted largely on the basis of a confession extracted, he says, through torture at the hands of soldiers.
Prosecutors at the time asserted that Montiel and his associates had opened fire on soldiers attempting to arrest them.
Montiel's is the story of what happens to many grass-roots activists who take on big business or other powerful interests. Ten activists have been killed in Mexico in the last four years and many more attacked, according to a United Nations investigation.
Today, the decade-old case of Montiel and another so-called campesino ecologist will go before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where attorneys are asking that the Mexican government be forced to pay reparations, punish those responsible and clear the activists' names.
The court, which is based in Costa Rica, serves as a venue of last resort for citizens in Latin America with human rights claims who have exhausted their own nations' systems and still feel deprived of justice.
It's the fifth case against Mexico brought before the court in the last year and a half; all but one dealt with abuse by the army. In the two cases in which the court has ruled, Mexico lost.
In a telephone interview, Montiel said he was optimistic that the court would find in his favor, though not so sure the Mexican government would heed the judgment, even though Mexico recognizes the authority of the court and its rulings are binding.
"We were doing God's work," he said. "God gave us the forests, and he wants us to take care of them."
Montiel was granted political asylum in the United States in 2005 and is living in California, where he works packing onions. The Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center in Mexico City, which is handling his case, asked, out of concern for his safety, that his precise whereabouts not be revealed.
Guerrero in the '90s was a tense region. Logging was destroying much of the forest; environmentalists estimated that 38% of the woods in the area was lost between 1992 and 2000. Peasants saw the deforestation's threat to their livelihood as rivers dried and animals fled or died out.
As their protests mounted, so did the presence of the army. Local barons claimed the peasants were taking up arms in the region, which was also plagued by a small guerrilla movement and well-armed drug traffickers.
Montiel and fellow peasant activist Teodoro Cabrera were arrested in 1999 in an army raid that killed a third member of the peasant movement. They have testified that they were held incommunicado for nearly a week by soldiers who beat them on their legs, torso and testicles.
"They threatened us, they said they had our families and would hurt them," Montiel said. Eventually, he and Cabrera signed confessions.
The men were tried and given sentences ranging from six to 10 years after a judge found them guilty of possessing military weapons and growing marijuana. Under intense international pressure, the two men were released in 2001 but never pardoned.
Advocates say the treatment of Montiel and Cabrera demonstrates a pattern of abuse by the military that far predates Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drug war, in which the number of allegations of human rights violations has soared.
And the case highlights flaws in the judicial system that persist today, these critics say, including the use of confessions obtained under torture, the denial of basic rights to detainees and the refusal of authorities to seriously investigate allegations of mistreatment by the army.
"The fact that four of the five cases at the court involve abuses by the military is a clear example of the unwillingness of the Mexican government to hold its armed forces accountable for human rights abuses," said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, which is monitoring the case. "This historic impunity is now contributing to an exponential increase in reported abuses as the military is widely deployed in counter-drug operations in the country."
Montiel, 55, says he still suffers debilitating pain because of the torture. Though he feels safe in California, he misses his children and wife, who remain in Mexico. It may be impossible for him to return to Mexico, regardless of how the court rules, but he longs to do so.
"I'd love to go back and walk the footpaths, see the mountains, the trees, drink water from the brooks," he said. "I would love to return to being a Mexican."