May 16, 2003

Tarahumara Community Activists Jailed: Another Montiel-Cabrera Embarrassment for Mexico?

By Greg Bloom
Frontera NorteSur Editor

“My community has always been called Coloradas de la Virgen,” Isidro Baldenegro told Frontera NorteSur in a March 5, 2003 interview. A Tarahumara activist fighting for the survival of his community and its virgin pine forests, Baldenegro was in Chihuahua City to visit his brother Trinidad Baldenegro and another man, Gabriel Palma López, that were in a prison in the state capitol. According to Baldenegro, the two men were jailed on bogus charges of weapons possession.

Despite his brother’s imprisonment days away from their mountain community, Baldenegro was calm and even-toned in discussing Trinidad’s situation. According to Randall Gingrich of the Sierra Madre Alliance, this has always been one of Bal-denegro’s traits. Gingrich says that Baldenegro has the “noble characteristics” that are required of great indigenous leaders, characteristics that have left international forums speechless after hearing him speak about his life and community.

While some indigenous people in the Sierra Tarahumara/Copper Canyon region have been reduced to alcohol dependency by their poverty and the events of their lives, Baldenegro has persisted and grown as an activist despite having lived through the assassination of his father, Julio Baldenegro, and the murders of 35 other Tarahumara between 1986 and 1994. Baldenegro’s father was also a community and forest activist when he died in 1984 after being shot by a high-power rifle allegedly fired by a contract killer working for a local, well-known narco-logging family. Other Tarahumara in the area were killed for doing the same sort of organizing against illegal forest cutting.

Another Montiel-Cabrera Embarrassment for Mexico?

Now, in a situation reminiscent of the high-profile case against indigenous activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, Isidro Baldenegro and another man, Hermenegildo Rivas Carrillo, were arrested on March 29, 2003 for the possession of illegal weapons. According to Gingrich, Baldenegro is innocent of the charges and “Isidro and three others sit in jail, fearing for their lives, in disbelief that the government wants to imprison them for twelve years or more” while the people who spread terror through indigenous communities are free.

Isidro Baldenegro

In a summation of the Montiel-Cabrera case, the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) wrote that in May 1999 Montiel and Cabrera “were pursued and detained by a convoy of soldiers who had burst into their community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Targeted by local authorities because they opposed wildcat logging, they were held and tortured over several days until they ‘confessed’ to marijuana cultivation and illegal arms possession. Despite clear evidence that the men were forced to confess and that remaining evidence was planted, they were convicted of narcotics and weapons charges and sentenced to prison where they remained for over two years in spite of court appeals and other legal interventions. They were kept in jail even after Mexico’s own official human rights commission found over a year ago that soldiers illegally detained and tortured them, and planted evidence.”

Montiel and Cabrera were finally released in November 2001 just days after their high-profile lawyer, Digna Ochoa, was found dead in her office. One particular conclusion that the LCHR reached was that “Montiel and Cabrera’s case illustrates how Mexican criminal justice can be used to put a façade of legality on injustices against persons targeted by authorities for political or other illegitimate reasons. Sadly, many others remain in Mexico’s prisons under similar circumstances. Having taken an important step in releasing the environmentalists, President Fox should now turn his attention to examining and resolving other outstanding cases, ensuring those responsible for misdeeds in these cases are prosecuted, and taking urgent measures to reform Mexican criminal justice so that such injustices are not repeated.”

If what the Baldenegro brothers say is true, then injustices have been repeated and Mexico has more work to do in the realm of human rights. Gingrich says that while high-level Mexican authorities are responding to requests for help, progress is slow in the cases. All of this is hard for Gingrich who states, “I am proud that Isidro Baldenegro is my friend. He is a soul brother to everyone who has ever fought for justice. He is one of the strongest, most gifted and charismatic people I have ever known. I pray that his confinement, and that of his brothers, ends soon and leads to the liberation of his community and the salvation of their forests. I urge others to join his community, Fuerza Ambiental, and Sierra Madre Alliance in our campaign to free these prisoners of conscience and to provide ongoing support to build a just and sustainable future for the survivors of Coloradas de la Virgen.”

Currently, the Sierra Madre Alliance and its Mexican partner, Fuerza Ambiental, are gathering a defense fund and are urging people in the US and Mexico to write Mexican authorities to demand immediate release of the four Tarahumara men.

Frontera NorteSur is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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