WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 Aug 2010 | News

Torture Case Involving Mexican Military reaches Inter-American Court This Week

The Mexican government will be taken to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in a hearing in Costa Rica on August 26 and 27, 2010, for the torture of peasant environmentalists Teodoro Cabrera García and Rodolfo Montiel Flores by members of the Mexican military in 1999. This is the fifth case against the Mexican government to go before the Inter-American Court since 2009; four of these five cases involve military abuses in the state of Guerrero.

Since their detention, Rodolfo and Teodoro's case has caused a national and international uproar and it has become emblematic of the impunity enjoyed by the Mexican military regarding the use of torture. While they were in prison, Rodolfo and Teodoro received important national and international support. In March 2000, Amnesty International declared both men prisoners of conscience. Rodolfo Montiel was also awarded the 2000 Goldman Environmental Prize, and in 2001, Sierra Club awarded both environmentalists with the Chico Mendes Prize.

WOLA actively worked for the release of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera and supports their search for justice. Rodolfo's and Montiel's persecution for their environmental activism changed their lives in many ways. After their release in November 2001, both men decided to leave Guerrero with their families; they have not returned. Fearing for his life, Rodolfo Montiel made the difficult decision to seek political asylum in the United States. He was granted asylum in 2007 and he is currently working with the US immigration system to have his family join him in the United States. Teodoro still lives in Mexico.

WOLA can put you in touch with the lawyers of the case and with Rodolfo Montiel.

Background of the case

The events leading to the human rights violations against Rodolfo and Teodoro go back several years before they were detained by the Mexican military. For over half a century the Costa Grande region of the state of Guerrero has been the target of intense and often illegal logging. After witnessing the environmental destruction caused by the logging, including soil erosion and lack of water, a group of peasants from the region, including Rodolfo and Teodoro, decided to form the Organización de Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán y Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP) in 1998. At this time, Costa Grande Forest Products, a subsidiary of the US company Boise Cascade, was one of the main companies operating in the communities.

As part of their organization's efforts, the members of OCESP worked with the communities, they set up roadblocks to prohibit logging trucks from moving the wood down the mountains, and they worked with the media, Mexico's Secretary of the Environment and the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) to try to stop the excessive logging in the region. The same year OCESP was formed, Boise Cascade announced that it was leaving the area due to "unfavorable business conditions."

While Boise Cascade's flight was an important success for the organization, several local logging companies continued to operate and the peasants believed that illegal logging was also occurring. In early 1999, the local political boss (cacique) Bernadino Bautista, who had signed the original contract with Costa Grande Forest Products, requested that the Mexican army intervene in the situation, alleging that he had been harassed by armed groups.

Human rights violations against Rodolfo and Teodoro

On May 2, 1999 soldiers from the 40th Infantry Battalion arrived in Pizotla, a town in the Costa Grande and began to fire at a group of people who were meeting in front of Teodoro Cabrera's house. Salome Sanchez Ruiz was killed as a result of the attack and Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were detained by Mexican soldiers. Rodolfo and Teodoro were held incommunicado by the military for five days. During this time they were physically and psychologically tortured. They were given electric shocks on their testicles, beaten on the head, stomach, and back; the soldiers also threatened to kill them and their families. As a result of the torture, they were coerced into signing self-incriminating confessions saying that they were in possession of weapons of exclusive use of the military and that they cultivated marijuana.

The legal proceedings against Rodolfo and Teodoro were wrought with irregularities. The judges who handled different stages of the case against them accepted the validity of their confessions despite the overwhelming evidence submitted by their lawyers from the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) that the confessions had been obtained through torture. The torture and the names of the soldiers responsible for the abuses against Rodolfo and Teodoro was recognized and documented by Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (see Recommendation 8/2000). Experts from Physicians for Human Rights also certified the torture. In spite of the evidence of human rights violations against Rodolfo and Teodoro, on August 28, 2000 they were sentenced to prison terms of six years and eight months and 10 years respectively.

Thanks to national and international support and intense pressure on the Mexican government, President Fox granted their release for "humanitarian reasons" in November 2001. While Rodolfo and Teodoro were finally out of prison, the Mexican government has never recognized their innocence. The soldiers responsible for torturing Rodolfo and Teodoro have also never been brought to justice.

The case before the Inter-American Court

Just days before they were released, on October 25, 2001, the Center Prodh, the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil), the wives of the two environmentalists, and other organizations presented a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regarding the human rights violations against the two men. The Commission issued its final report on the case in October 2008 and declared the Mexican government responsible for human rights violations against Rodolfo and Teodoro. The IACHR also issued a series of recommendations for reparations of these abuses. Because the Mexican government failed to comply with the recommendations, the Commission sent the case to the Inter-American Court in June 2009. In its complaint, the Commission states that it "considers that the case reflects the abuses committed by the armed forces in the state of Guerrero, as well as the impunity that remains for these acts, primarily as a consequence of the use of military jurisdiction in the investigation and processing of the abuses."¹

The case of Rodolfo and Teodoro illustrates that the current human rights violations perpetrated by members of the Mexican army in the context of counter-drug operations are part of a broad history of abuses that many communities and activists in the state of Guerrero and elsewhere have suffered at the hands of the Mexican military. Effectively investigating and prosecuting the soldiers responsible for the human rights violations committed against Rodolfo and Teodoro would be an important step to bringing justice to their case. It would also contribute to combating the impunity that prevails for past and present human rights abuses by the military in Mexico.

Resources and contact information

For more resources on the case of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, including a recent documentary on their case, please visit the website of the Centro Prodh: http://centroprodh.org.mx/

To speak with Rodolfo Montiel or the lawyers at the Centro Prodh, please contact Quetzalcoatl Fontanot: [email protected]
Tel: (52-55) 5546 8217 ext 110

To speak with the lawyers or others during the hearing in Costa Rica, please contact the Centro Prodh's director, Luis Arriaga at: [email protected]
Cell phone: (52-1-55) 3222 2391

To download the media advisory, click here

¹English translation: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, "Demanda ante la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos en el caso de Teodoro Cabrera García y Rodolfo Montiel Flores (Caso 12.449) contra los Estados Unidos Mexicanos," June 24, 2009.