July 1, 2005

Mexican Forest Defenders Face Jail, Death

Mexico’s Sierra Madres are the stuff of legend. Rising high from north to south, the mountains have been the scene of mining fever, epic railroad building, armed uprisings, foreign invasions, narco-cultivation galore, and much more. They likewise have been the stage of widespread struggles over the environmental sustainability of timber harvesting. June 28 marked the 10th anniversary of the Aguas Blancas Massacre in Guerrero state, an incident in which 17 unarmed farmers were gunned down by state police in part due to the campesinos’ protests against logging in the mountains near Acapulco.

Since 2000, two Mexican forest activists who supporters say were imprisoned on trumped-up charges to curtail their activism have won the Goldman Environmental Award. They are Rodolfo Montiel of Guerrero state and Tarahumara activist Isidro Baldenegro of Chihuahua state. In this feature article, Frontera NorteSur portrays the case of Felipe Arreaga Sanchez, a co-founder along with Rodolfo Montiel and others of the Campesino Environmentalist Organization of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan in Guerrero, who was arrested and imprisoned last year on murder charges. Arreaga has been since named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

The Case of Felipe Arreaga Sanchez

By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur

Clutching his three-year old granddaughter Dayra Itzel, Felipe Arreaga Sanchez speaks about the destruction of the environment in the noisy visitor’s courtyard of the Zihuatanejo jail. While an evangelical Christian group blares redemption songs and invokes brown-uniformed prisoners to praise the Lord through a sound-system that almost rattles the bars, Arreaga strains his words to recount episodes of the long-struggle against forest exploitation in the southern state of Guerrero which he says landed him behind bars on a murder charge.

The former secretary of the Campesino Environmentalist Organization of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan (OCESP) was one of the principal founders of a movement that gained international recognition in the late 1990s when its members stopped logging trucks from delivering timber to a Mexican Pacific coastal mill operated at the time by the Boise Cascade Corporation. The protesting small farmers charged contractors for the United States-based company were overcutting the forest and drying up water sources.

In November 2004, Arreaga was arrested by Guerrero state police and charged with the 1998 murder of 15-year-old Abel Bautista, the son of onetime Boise Cascade logging contractor Bernardino Bautista. Save for a brief visit to the hospital during which he was handcuffed to his bed, Arreaga has been in prison awaiting trial since last fall.

Arreaga maintains he is innocent, and is puzzled why he was jailed years after the Bautista murder happened. “What I am clear about is interests have been affected,” he affirms.

A longtime forest advocate, Arreaga has had previous scrapes with the authorities. In 1999, Mexican soldiers arrested OCESP activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera and charged them with possessing weapons and drugs. According to Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission, evidence existed that Montiel and Cabrera were tortured by their captors. Arreaga and other OCESP members spent months running and hiding in the mountains from soldiers they charged were out to do them harm.

World attention on the Guerrero forest conflict is picking up due to Arreaga’s incarceration. In recent months, the campesino activist has received letters from supporters worldwide, and dozens of Mexican and international environmental and human rights organizations have sent e-mails, faxes and letters to Guerrero state authorities demanding Arreaga’s freedom. Arreaga has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, and he has received the assistance of the Salt Lake City-based Environmental Defenders Law Center and prominent Seattle attorney Marica Newlands of the Heller Ehrman law firm.


When asked his reaction to the international movement on his behalf, Arreaga doesn’t answer in the first person. Instead, he trails off to his favorite subject-ecology. “It brings a moment of pleasure and happiness to know that there are people committed to the environment,” says Arreaga. “I say don’t do it for me, but for the environment, for those that will come and for those that have been here before.”

Never receiving a formal education as a child, Arreaga later took adult basic education classes and is now using his prison time to practice reading and writing. But the son of the Sierra Madres is well-versed in ecological themes, learning about clear-cutting, species extinction and climate change from first-hand observation as a small farmer. Arreaga readily recalls how it was in the Guerrero mountains when he was a boy, growing up in a region rich with deer, iguana, jaguar, iguanas and “guacayamas in the pines.” Gradually the young man grew alarmed as he watched the animals disappear, vast tracts of land burned for cattle pasture, patches of forest stripped for timber, and water dry up high in the mountains. “There are no crayfish, iguana, wild plant and animal life,” sighs Arreaga.

Nowadays, Arreaga laments the fate of the forest. “That’s my home, it’s the home I defend. My job is to educate the people in the countryside and in the city,” he says. Contrary to some popular versions in Guerrero, Arreaga and the other campesino environmentalists do not have a strict no-logging stance, but Arreaga insists that proper studies need to be done and immediate reforestation projects undertaken before a plot can be cut. “I’m not against exploiting timber, but it has to be done in a rational way,” he says.


Maria Elena, who was present when her father was arrested outside their home in Petatlan, points to a report issued by the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of La Montana, a non-governmental organization which is providing legal assistance to Arreaga. The report details numerous irregularities in the authorities’ case, including the fact that one of the men co-indicted with Arreaga, Crispin Sanchez Cortes Santana, had been dead for two years before the murder of Abel Bautista. “We brought photos of his grave in Petatlan and the lawyer got his death certificate from Petatlan,” says Celsa Valdovinos, Arreaga’s wife. “It’s clear the crime of which my husband is accused is a fabrication.”

The case against Felipe Arreaga essentially rests on a signed statement by a man who has vanished. His name is Prisiliano Bautista, and he was ambushed while traveling in the mountains with his half-brother Abel. Prisiliano supposedly saw Arreaga and more than a dozen gunmen —including the deceased Crispin Sanchez— hiding near a large rock. Staff from Tlachinollan inspected the site, as did Maria Elena, and concluded that no such rock capable of concealing a large group existed.

Then there are the video and statements from witnesses who place Arreaga several hours from the scene of the murder on the day in question in 1998, first being treated for a back problem and later attending a wedding. Finally, another prosecution witness has retracted his testimony, saying it had been pressured.


The case against Arreaga is proving to be an embarrassing one for Guerrero state authorities, who inherited it from the previous Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)-dominated state government. The new state government is headed by Governor Zeferino Torre-blanca Galindo, a longtime civic activist and former mayor of Acapulco who was elected on the ticket of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Before winning office last February, Torreblanca campaigned for the respect of human rights and the law.

Arreaga’s supporters criticize the Torreblanca administration, saying numerous requests for a personal meeting with the governor have so far fallen on deaf ears. In late June, a group of Arreaga’s Mexican and U.S. supporters met with Guerrero State Government Secretary Armando Chavarria, who promised the activists that a three-lawyer commission would review the case. But supporters contend that enough information exists for the state to simply withdraw the charges. “On the contrary, they should find out who is fabricating these charges and accept that there are some corrupt elements inside their own offices, powers that need to be cleaned up,” says Veronique Bassot, the international relations coordinator for the Tlachinollan human rights center.

Arreaga confronts 50 years in the hoosegow if a guilty verdict is delivered. Even with the slammer hanging over his head, Arreaga says he is most pained by not being able to contribute to the ecological struggle. Even inside, he is a passionate disseminator of the e-word. While he is stymied from pursuing projects he once had in the works, Arreaga maintains a vision in which the Guerrero mountains are reforested, slash-and-burn agriculture abandoned, and iguana nurseries built to repopulate the species.

Before he was jailed, Ar-reaga and Celsa Valdovinos were involved in the promotion of organic farming and a massive seeding of red cedar trees to revive the scarred landscape of Petatlan. The president of the Women’s Environmentalist Organization of Petatlan, Valdovinos attempts to maintain the eco-projects going while traveling back and forth to Zihuatanejo to visit her husband and garner support for his cause. Arreaga, meanwhile, hones up on his reading and writing. And he chats ecology with visitors.

As the Christian fellowship lays down its Bibles, a guard approaches to tell visitors the day is almost over. Arreaga crushes a plastic Pepsi bottle and begins explaining how trash needs to be properly compacted and recycled. He then clutches Dayra Itzel again, her distant, baby eyes giving a hint that even at her young age she is aware that something is not quite right.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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