From Campesino to Environmental Hero
The story of Rodolfo Montiel Flores
A Farmer Becomes an Activist
Until recent times, the mountainous Sierra de Petatlan region of the State of Guerrero on Mexico’s Pacific coast was completely covered by a dense forest. But when massive logging operations moved into the region in the 1980s, the forest began to disappear at an alarming rate.
Rodolfo Montiel had been born and raised in these mountains, and had worked there as a campesino (subsistence farmer) all his adult life. Around 1995, he began to notice that the water in the local streams was drying up, that the fish in the streams and the animals in the forest were dying as a result of the loss of water, and that he and other campesinos were beginning to have trouble growing their crops.
Montiel began to mobilize the campesinos to protest against this deforestation, forming the “Farmer Ecologists from the Mountains of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catalan,” or OCESP. His small group sent letters to the Mexican government seeking assistance to halt the deforestation, but the government never responded. Finally, the OCESP seized several logging trucks that had been loaded with freshly cut timber, and then took this timber and used it to build a church and homes for the poorer members of their community.
The Mexican Military Responds
The dedication that Montiel and his organization displayed in defending the forests led to an aggressive response by the Mexican military, which singled out Montiel for repeated acts of torture and persecution. In 1998, armed soldiers surrounded Montiel’s house. They forced him into a nearby river, where they held his head under water until he nearly drowned. Later that year, Montiel was kidnapped and told by his abductors that he should stop interfering with the logging of the forest or he would get a bullet in the head.
On May 2, 1999, Montiel and fellow OCESP member Teodoro Cabrera were captured by the military and beaten and tortured for over two days in a remote area of the forest. On the second day, military helicopters landed and men emerged carrying guns and branches of marijuana. Montiel was forced to hold the guns and drugs while the soldiers photographed him. The photographs would later be used by the government to convict Montiel of fabricated charges.
Montiel was then taken to a military base where he was ordered to sign a confession. When he refused, the solders resumed torturing him. Eventually, in an effort to stop the torture, Montiel acquiesced and signed the false confession. He was later examined by several doctors from the international community, who confirmed that he had suffered injuries consistent with his account of his recent torture.
- Rodolfo Montiel, in a letter from the Iguala prison
New York Times advertisement calling for Rodolfo Montiel's release