November 9, 2001
Fighters for the Forests Are Released From Mexican JailBy GINGER THOMPSON
EXICO CITY, Nov. 8 — Faced with mounting pressure from international human
rights groups, President Vicente Fox ordered the release of two ecologists
today after they had been tortured by soldiers and jailed for leading a campaign
to stop the destruction of forests in the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero.
The ecologists, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, who were considered
prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, walked out of a jail in
the town of Iguala, in Guerrero, shortly after noon. The two leaders of the
Organization of Peasant Farmer Ecologists, who had won many international
awards for their work, were rushed away by car. Later in the afternoon, they
addressed a small crowd of reporters.
Mr. Montiel, his voice barely rising above a whisper, reiterated his
commitment to the fight for the forests. "I only want to say that it seems
now, little by little, we can begin to trust in justice," he said. "This
is a first step, but we cannot stop here."
In a terse statement to the press, President Fox said, "With this, we
show by our actions, my government's commitment to the promotion and observance
of human rights in our country."
The government's decision to release the two leaders came less than
a month after the assassination of a high-profile human rights attorney who
had defended them. The lawyer, Digna Ochoa, 37, was shot execution style
in her office here on Oct. 19. She had received numerous death threats, and
was once assaulted in her home by men in ski masks. Investigators have linked
Ms. Ochoa's murder to her work on behalf of the ecologists, and have said
that "lines of investigation" may link the murder to the military.
In the past week, Mexico has been alarmed by new death threats against
several other human rights activists. Yesterday, lawyers for Mr. Montiel
and Mr. Cabrera expressed concern for the safety of their clients.
"It is hard to tell whether or not the threats are serious," said Sergio
Aguayo, one of the human rights defenders who was listed on a death threat
last week. "It could have come from some crazy person. But what worries me
is that it could have come from some powerful forces trying to destabilize
the Fox government."
The lawyers for the two ecologists also said today that they would continue
to seek prosecution for the soldiers accused of torturing Mr. Montiel and
Mr. Cabrera. One lawyer, Mario Patron, also said that Ms. Ochoa's assassination
might eventually be linked to early speculation that the ecologists were
going to be released.
President Fox, the first opposition politician to win the presidency
in seven decades, had promised to impose the rule of law and end systematic
abuses by government security forces.
He had also promised to create a truth commission to investigate the
most important government abuses in recent history and to abide by international
human rights accords. The president had also indicated his willingness to
seek the release of Mexico's most prominent political prisoners.
Since Ms. Ochoa's assassination Mr. Fox has argued that it takes time
to dismantle a 71-year-old system of corruption and injustice. But human
rights activists and government officials said that Mr. Fox's promises have
been stalled by forces from within his own cabinet led in particular by the
Mexican military and Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha.
"I find all this troubling," said Eric Olson of the Washington Office
on Latin America, a human rights group. "When you ask President Fox whether
he is in favor of ending torture, he says all the right things. But then
when it comes to stepping on people's toes, and making things happen, he
backs away. And it makes me wonder whether he has a gut- level understanding
of these issues."
Signs of internal disputes within the government have become evident
in the cases of political prisoners like Mr. Montiel and Mr. Cabrera, who
were detained on weapons and drug charges. Before they were arrested in May
1999, the men had organized a series of roadblocks to stop wildcat logging
by local political bosses.
Human rights groups, including the government's own National Human Rights
Commission, had contended that Mr. Montiel and Mr. Cabrera were illegally
detained by the military and tortured into signing false confessions. Yet
human rights investigators said that in an appeal earlier this year, the
Mexican military submitted a brief that denied the accusations of torture.
Officials at Amnesty International said that the Mexican attorney general's
office had also filed briefs that argued against the release of Brig. Gen.
José Francisco Gallardo, who was convicted of corruption despite inconclusive
evidence. Human rights groups contend that General Gallardo was jailed because
he spoke out about military abuses.
Attorney General Macedo, who is also an army general, was in charge
of military justice before he was appointed to Mr. Fox's cabinet. He was
also involved in defending the army against human rights investigations in
the cases of the ecologists and General Gallardo.
Human right activists speculated that General Gallardo could be released in the days ahead.
Mexican officials said that President Fox had been seeking the release
of Mr. Montiel and Mr. Cabrera for months. They said that the president had
wanted the release to come through legal processes rather than through presidential
decree. "He wanted to help strengthen the judicial system, not short-circuit
it," said Foreign Minister Jorge G. Casteñeda.
But after Ms. Ochoa's murder, officials said, Mr. Fox decided that the ecologists' release could not wait.