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MEXICO
Environmentalists’ “high-risk” work
Lorraine Orlandi
6/28/2007
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Campesinos face threats and violence for defending their land from illegal logging.

Twenty-one-year-old indigenous environmental activist Aldo Zamora was shot to death May 15 near Mexico City, in what Greenpeace and Mexican human rights leaders say was the latest in a pattern of violent repression against peasant activists across Mexico, fighting to defend their lands against illegal logging and other special interests.

Zamora’s 16-year-old brother, Misael, was also wounded when gunmen ambushed them outside the family’s Tlahuica indigenous community of San Juan Atzingo in Mexico state, about a two hour’s drive from the capital.

Witnesses, including Misael, identified the attackers as loggers named earlier in federal complaints for cutting down trees illegally, filed by the victims’ father, Idelfonso Zamora. Arrest warrants tied to the murder were issued against the four suspects in May, but by mid-June no one had been arrested. Activists complain state prosecutors have been slow to respond.

“Every day that passes is a negative sign, a sign that you can commit crimes, destroy the natural heritage and even worse kill those who defend the forests, and nothing happens,” said Héctor Magallón, coordinator of Greenpeace’s forest campaign in Mexico. The organization has led public demonstrations calling for the suspects’ arrests and charged that police, prosecutors and the courts are protecting powerful local loggers.

A family of activists
Idelfonso Zamora has led a campaign against logging in and around his farming village in the Lagunas de Zempoala National Park, and his sons had joined that fight. The three were working with Greenpeace to assess the impact of deforestation and with the federal environmental prosecutor to stop it. Idelfonso Zamora heads a committee of 19 villagers documenting illegal logging for the federal environmental prosecutor, Profepa.

Last year, two pickup trucks approached Idelfonso during a protest march. The occupants yelled out: “Your days are numbered. If you don’t back down we’re going to give it to you where it hurts you the most,” witnesses say.

Now Zamora is demanding justice for his son’s death and pledging to continue his environmental struggle. “In the name of my son Aldo I will continue the battle, despite the fear that I could also be killed,” a somber Zamora told a press conference in Mexico City in May. “In his memory, we must restore the forests.” Activists called for a moment of silence to honor his son. Zamora stood, head bowed, wiping away tears.

Mexico State prosecutor Abel Villicaña Estrada denies any foot-dragging in the investigation. An official in Estrada’s office who asked not to be named said the father’s own public identification of the suspects likely tipped them off to flee.

An valuable area
The forest around the Zamoras’ village covers an important watershed and has been pinpointed by federal authorities as a hotspot of illegal logging. Cutting is prohibited in and around the Lagunas de Zempoala Park, but contraband timber operations have destroyed an estimated 259 hectares (600 acres) of the total 10,800 hectares (26,700 acres) of oyamel and pine forest, and disturbed some 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres), according to Greenpeace.

“This is an organized crime network,” said Alejandro Angulo, who was Profepa’s Mexico State delegate and worked with the Zamoras to stop illegal logging. “There are economic interests that go against the community’s mission to protect the forest,” said Angulo, who heads the federal prosecutor’s wildlife inspection arm.

Villagers led by Zamora collected evidence including videotapes and photographs of loggers in the act, Angulo said. Based on that information, Profepa sought 57 arrest warrants in February. Federal Judge Gerardo García Anzures denied the request, in a decision that was condemned by Greenpeace and appealed by the federal prosecutor. Raids of illegal logging operations followed, with lumber and vehicles seized and a few arrests made, although the suspects were released on bail.

Angulo sees a connection between García Anzures’ decision denying the arrest warrants and Aldo Zamora’s murder. “The judge rejected the request, and there were consequences,” Angulo said. Profepa had already challenged the judge’s decision before the Supreme Court, arguing that it was biased and unfair, and a ruling is expected soon.

The violence echoes several cases in recent years in which peasant farmers defending their natural resources have been persecuted by special interests in league with corrupt authorities, say Greenpeace and other groups.

Felipe Arreaga, leader of a campesino ecologist group that helped force corporate loggers out of the Sierra Madre in the Pacific state of Guerrero, was jailed in 2004 on what Greenpeace, Amnesty International and other rights groups said were bogus murder charges. A judge dismissed the case after Arreaga spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial. In 2005, gunmen attacked the family of Albertano Peñaloza, another member of the Guerrero peasant ecologist group, killing two of his sons, ages 9 and 20. Two Tarahumara indigenous anti-logging activists were released in 2004 after 15 months in a Chihuahua jail when prosecutors withdrew weapons and drugs charges against them as groundless.

“Environmental work in Mexico is high-risk,” said Edgar Cortez, the head of a national network of 56 rights organizations calling for justice in the Zamora case. Grassroots leaders like the Zamoras often represent a threat to entrenched rural power structures consisting of landowners and commercial interests, judges, the military and police, say rights workers like Cortez.

Based on an appeals court ruling, Profepa is preparing new cases against the 57 suspected loggers named earlier. And raids of illegal logging operations in the area have continued, with more arrests and seizures of contraband timber and weapons in early June. “They had the people under submission with threats and payoffs,” Angulo said.


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Protecting forests cost Aldo Zamora (first row, second from the right) his life and serious injuries to his brother Misael (to his left). (Photo: Greenpeace México)
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