By Nancy De Lemos
SAN JOSE – The Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Thursday began hearing the case of a Mexican environmental activist detained and allegedly tortured by soldiers, proceedings that will delve into the role of Mexico’s army in law-enforcement activities.
In an interview with Efe in San Jose, where the court is based, Rodolfo Montiel looked back on the events that led to his May 2009 arrest in the small town of Pizotla, in the southern state of Guerrero, as well as his time in prison, where he says he was tortured to extract a confession.
Montiel, who currently lives in exile in the United States, was a peasant leader who headed a campaign to protect mountainside forests in an area of southern Mexico known as the Sierra de Petatlan from widespread logging.
He was arrested along with Teodoro Cabrera, another peasant environmentalist, by a group of 40 soldiers who burst into their community and detained them without warrants.
Another associate of theirs was killed during the raid.
The two illiterate farmers were tortured into confessing that they were cultivating marijuana and had links to leftist guerrilla groups, Montiel said.
His attorney, Mario Patron, told Efe that “these serious human rights violations were in reprisal for their work to protect the environment” through their grassroots group, known as the Organization of Campesino Ecologists of the Sierra de Petatlan and Coyuca de Catalan.
Montiel and Patron say one of the most serious aspects of the case is the role the army played in monitoring and arresting civilians, usurping the functions of police.
The issue has taken on greater importance since President Felipe Calderon militarized the struggle against drug cartels after taking office in late 2006, Patron said, noting that current Mexican law does not require that cases of alleged human rights violations by the military be heard in civilian courts.
“The army used to carry out selective operations; now they are assigned public-safety duties,” Patron said, referring to Calderon’s use of the army and federal police to battle violent cartels blamed for tens of thousands of deaths in recent years, as well as to root out notoriously corrupt local police.
“Complaints against the army have tripled in the country since (the militarization of the struggle) against drug trafficking began, and there are serious doubts as to whether the rights of civilians are being safeguarded,” the attorney, a consultant for the Mexico City-based Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, said.
Both Cabrera and Montiel, who were freed in November 2001 for health reasons, had been declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International but their allegations of torture have not been investigated in their homeland.
This case “fits into a context of persistent repression of grassroots groups in Mexico and the illegitimate and abusive involvement of the army in public-safety duties,” according to the Center for Justice and International Law, a non-governmental, non-profit organization that protects and promotes human rights in the Americas.
CEJIL also cited “the practice of torture and abuse with impunity (in Mexico) and the existence of a criminal justice system that tends to recognize statements obtained by those methods.”
Montiel’s bid for justice will allow the Inter-American Court “to rule on the duty to prevent or minimize all risk of abuses or arbitrary actions in activities that fall within the framework of public-safety policies,” CEJIL said.
According to a press release Monday by the Washington Office on Latin America, the two-day hearing will be 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 southern state of Guerrero.”
WOLA said of the case before the IACHR that “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.” EFE