Last year Mexicans ended seven decades of one-party rule with the election of Vicente Fox as president. The new administration assumed the mantle of power with much rhetoric calling for an end to corruption and impunity, a new climate of democracy, and respect for human rights. The highly publicized arrests of human rights and drug-trafficking offenders such as Acosta Chaparro and Mario Villanueva present the international community with a new image of Mexico in which the abuses of the past will no longer be tolerated. For the citizens of the southern state of Guerrero, however, reality is much different. Murder, disappearances, extra-judicial assassination, harassment by caciques (local political bosses,) and military displacement are common occurrences in the impoverished state. Government corruption is widespread, with many officials enriching themselves by selling Guerrero's old growth forests to transnational corporations. In Guerrero, as in the rest of the country, the effects of such human rights abuses and environmental degradation are disproportionately felt by poor communities. Guerrero claims over 60 political prisoners, many of whom have been convicted on trumped up charges of arms possession or drug-trafficking.1
From June 4 to 13, 2001 a delegation of representatives from the Mexico Solidarity Network, Rainforest Action Network, and Global Exchange (all non-governmental organizations) traveled to the state of Guerrero. The delegation met with representatives from various human rights and environmental organizations, academics, and government agencies and investigated human rights and environmental degradation six months into the Fox administration.
Guerrero is laden with victims of past and present human rights abuses -- including political prisoners, children orphaned through massacres, communities displaced by military occupation, and survivors of government-sponsored massacres. The delegation met with such victims as well as leaders of local human rights organizations, legal advocacy groups, and campesino environmentalist organizations.
Political prisoners Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were imprisoned in 1998 on charges of illegal arms possession and drug-trafficking. Part of a struggle to protect native forests that has left five people dead at the hands of security forces and death squads, the environmentalists' real crime was protesting deforestation in their native Costa Grande region. The National Human Rights Commission has conceded that the prisoners' confessions, which form the basis of the cases against them, were obtained under torture by military personnel. Under immense pressure from national and international human rights organizations, legal advocacy groups, and solidarity organizations (the Ecologists received the Goldman Environmental and the Chico Méndez Awards and have been declared Prisoners of Conscience by Amnesty International,) on May 9, 2001 the Segundo Tribunal Colegiado de Circuito in Chilpancingo, Guerrero granted an appeal on the basis of previously inadmissible evidence consisting of medical certificates demonstrating physical evidence of torture. The appeal is scheduled to be heard later this month.
To Guerrerans, the words El Charco mean not just "The Puddle," but another dark stain in a history marred by injustice. On June 6th and 7th local organizations gathered at El Charco in the Costa Chica highlands for the 3rd Anniversary of Mourning for the Massacre at El Charco to demand justice and a general amnesty for Guerrero's political prisoners. The meeting commemorated the murder of 11 campesinos by the Mexican Army on June 7, 1998 during a grass-roots meeting with members of the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI.) Around 4am on that date, the Army surrounded the schoolhouse where the campesinos were asleep and opened fire into the schoolhouse, killing three. Eight more were killed with "tiros de gracia" (bullet to the back of the skull) on the basketball court outside the schoolhouse. The National Human Rights Commission has yet to issue a report on the killings, and there have been no prosecutions of military personnel involved.
While current statistics regarding the number of military personnel in Guerrero are unavailable, the military continues to maintain a heavy presence in civilian life in the state. In 1997 estimated personnel was between 25 and 45 thousand, and there is no indication of a reduction in troop presence since that time.2 In May of 2000 army personnel arrived in the community of La Pie de la Cuesta in the municipality of Acapulco de Juárez and expropriated 70 hectares of villagers' farm lands outside the community. Under the pretext of preserving the ecology of the region, the military sealed off the area and prohibited community members from accessing land they have farmed for over 30 years. The soldiers then proceeded to build roads and assemble barracks -- destroying trees, crops, and other vegetation on the land they were claiming to preserve. The Union of Farmworkers in Pie de la Cuesta has filed numerous complaints with the federal, state, and local government, but the situation has yet to be resolved.
Despite the change in federal administration, PRI-style strong-arm tactics dispensed by caciques also persist. In the community of Leonardo Rodríguez Alcaine in Acapulco, residents have been attempting to gain title to their land since 1991 when the local comptroller was authorized by the state government to grant residents title to their property. Registration has never occurred, however, due to the violent intransigence of the local cacique. Residents who have continued the legal battle to obtain title to their properties have had their utilities cut off, received death threats, been evicted, and had their houses burglarized, sacked, and burned. Despite numerous petitions by residents and legal advocates from the non-governmental Human Rights Commission "La Voz de los Sin Voz," residents continue to live under fear, harassment, and intimidation by hired thugs as well as local authorities.
With both coastal and mountainous terrain, Guerrero has a rich and diverse ecosystem. For over half a century Guerrero's forests have been exploited by local and transnational logging companies who enjoy government concessions and lucrative contracts conceded by local caciques, leaving local farmers impoverished with a rapidly deteriorating environment. In the mountainous regions of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán, for example, 40 percent of native forest coverage has disappeared over the last eight years alone.3 One need only drive the coastal highway of the Costa Grande to see the numerous timber mills and massive volumes of large diameter trees that are still being extracted from the Sierra. Intensified logging activities in Guerrero during the last decade have impacted the entire ecological chain, resulting in soil erosion, depletion of aquifers, increasing frequency of floods, climate changes, and disappearance of local fauna and biodiversity.
Sivestre Pacheco, adviser to the Organization of Campesino Ecologists from the Mountains of Petatlán (OCESP,) estimates that two tons of topsoil (the equivalent of 2cm per unit area) are lost per hectare per year in the Costa Grande region because of erosion due to deforestation. The Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has concluded that the river basins in the mountains of the Costa Grande are in "critical" condition. Disappearance of forest cover has also caused increasing droughts and changed patterns of precipitation. Modest, regular rains during the wet season have been replaced in recent years with heavy storms, accompanied by severe flooding and soil erosion.
Hilda Navarrete of La Voz de los Sin Voz has observed dramatic changes in the Coyuca River that runs adjacent to her community of Coyuca de Benítez. In the mountains inland where the Coyuca River is formed, communities such as El Tambor have experienced heavy logging in the last few years. Soil that washes down the slopes pushes its way down river, filling the riverbed with sediment near Hilda's home. As a result, the river overflows its banks far more frequently now, flooding poor communities on the riverbanks of the surrounding area.
Though numerous actors have been party to the exploitation of Guerrero's vast forest resources -- including peasants, farmers, and Mexican logging companies -- none have left greater devastation in their wake than foreign transnational corporations, especially US giant Boise Cascade. Ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 facilitated logging activity in Mexico by allowing foreign corporations to purchase ejido (communally-held farm land) timber. From 1995 to 1998, Boise Cascade exercised questionable contracts with local ejido unions authorized by corrupt state officials to cut old growth forests.
The Ejido Union Ruben Figueroa Figueroa (UERFF,) operating in the municipalities of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán in the Costa Grande region, was Boise Cascade's principal partner. With the help of local cacique and UERFF leader, Bernadino Bautista Valle, then governor Ruben Figueroa Alcocer granted Boise Cascade exclusive rights to the purchase of wood from the region. According to Silvestre Pacheco, "During the dry seasons from 1995 to 1998, logging trucks came out of the mountains continuously, 24 hours a day. Such quantities of wood-extraction were unprecedented in this area." Furthermore, it is estimated that, in the process of cutting and transporting trees, 50 smaller trees are destroyed for every marketable tree removed.4
Boise Cascade claims to have never cut down a tree in Guerrero -- a true statement as the UERFF contracted local laborers to fell and transport the trees. For this reason Boise Cascade claims exemption from Mexican laws requiring that resources be replenished by parties responsible for their destruction. Additionally, Boise Cascade claims to have funded local community development projects such as schools, basketball courts, and bridges but refuses to disclose information regarding location of the projects and funding provided. When local communities petitioned the state government for repair of roads damaged by excessive use by logging trucks carrying wood destined for Boise Cascade mills, the UERFF set up toll plazas to pay for the repairs -- charging local cars, trucks, and pedestrians for use of the roads. According to SEMARNAT, Boise Cascade was aware of the political relationships between the UERFF, Bautista, and Figueroa, and when violence erupted they pulled out. Their actions were not innocent. SEMARNAT states that Boise Cascade's goal was to capitalize on the commercial potential of the forests, and that they did so without regard to implications for human rights or the environment.
The overwhelming conclusion of persons and organizations with whom the delegation met is that little has changed in Guerrero in terms of respect for human rights and the environment. The absence of large-scale massacres in recent years merely represents a change in tactics by the government. The current modus operandi by which dissents are suppressed and resources extracted are paramilitary activity, caciquismo, and military occupation. Prevailing opinion in Guerrero is that there continues to be a strong correlation between transnational corporate activity, environmental degradation, and human rights violations.
While the Fox administration represents a new face for Mexican politics, the fundamental policies followed by the past three PRI administrations continue at an accelerated rate. The new administration is selling Mexico to transnational corporations based on the comparative advantages of low wages and lax environmental regulations. Rather than developing internal markets and increasing wages, Fox is continuing down the neoliberal road that has meant increased profits for corporations but impoverished Mexican workers and a rapidly deteriorating environment.
- "Mexico is Releasing Political Prisoners it Once Denied Ever Existed," John Ross, December 31, 2000.
- Siempre Cerca, Siempre Lejos: Las Fuerzas Armadas en Mexico; Global Exchange, CIEPAC, and CENCOS; September, 2000.
- "La Lucha por el Bosque," Armando Bartra, March, 2001. Interview with Silvestre Pacheco, MSN, June, 2001.