Ten years ago I had my first and only conversation with Rodolfo Montiel Flores, who would go on to win the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2000 and become an environmental icon for the Sierra Club.
I was the first foreign journalist to talk with Montiel who, in March of 1998, was engaged in intense confrontations with loggers in his home area of Petatlán in Mexico’s Guerrero State. Located about 120 miles northwest of Acapulco in the conflict-prone zone known as the Costa Grande, Petatlán and the surrounding counties figure heavily in the Mexican timber and drug trade.
A protester holds a sign in 2000 outside of Boise Cascade HQ in Boise.
The case first came to my attention in a February 1998 article in the Idaho Business Review. Doug Bartels, spokesman for Boise Cascade Corporation, said the company was pulling out of Mexico and cited a “lack of adequate timber supplies” in the region The IBR article went on to blame operational difficulties at the Papanoa site as contributing to the problem but did not mention local anti-logging activism as a cause for the lack of timber.
In the previous year my wife and I had been warned out of the Costa Grande town of Papanoa by a priest who was obviously very scared by threats from local narcotraficantes. He had been warned that talking to strangers could result in his untimely death. His last words to us were: “There is much money to be lost here and they will kill for it, I have only this Bible to protect me and it will not stop bullets. There is a bus, get on it. Adios.”
It seems that word had gotten out that we were asking “leading” questions about the operation of the government-owned sawmill in Papanoa. It was being leased by Boise Cascade subsidiary Costa Grande Forest Products.
An August 1998 copy of El Sur de Acapulco detailing an interview with the “ecologist farmers” fighting logging in Petatlán.
Apparently Boise Cascade’s Bartels, never saw the headlines in the February issues of El Sur de Acapulco a student run newspaper with ties to the Universidád Autónoma de México. The paper proclaimed a shutdown of logging operations in the mountains above Papanoa due to popular discontent. The February 23, 1998 edition of El Sur ran an article attributing the shutdown to local farmers, or campesinos. These campesinos opposed all timber operations in the Sierra Madre del Sur, a two-mile-high mountain range extending more than 100 miles northward from Acapulco.
The campesinos blamed the clear-cutting timber operations for a drought which had ruined their crops and under the slogan “no water, no life in these mountains,” they sought to ban all timber operations from the Sierra Madre.
In subsequent El Sur articles it was revealed that these anti-logging activists who stopped the logging trucks by means of intimidation or sabotage had been organized by Petatlán resident Rodolfo Montiel Flores. His followers were known as the Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán y Coyuca de Catalán and they were dedicated to stopping logging in Petatlán and neighboring Catatlán.
As Montiel spoke to me over his message phone located in a local store, he explained how the local cacique, or strongman, Nino Bautista Valle, and his pistoleros were systematically burning the forests, so that they could plant opium. The effects of the smoke from these fires were felt as far north as Dallas, Texas.
Nino had been the primary supplier of timber to the Boise Cascade mill in Papanoa. But he was barely interested in the timber trade which merely existed as front for his thriving opium business, as documented in several issues of El Sur de Acapulco between 1998 and 2001.
Montiel pleaded with me to publicize their case. He felt that international pressure might help influence the Mexican government to correct the problem. It took more than a year for me to break the story north of the border, a story that had filled the pages of Acapulco papers with the daily accounts of fires, killings by Nino’s pistoleros and hunger due to the drought.
By the time the story broke in the Dallas Morning News with the help of reporter Tracey Eaton, Montiel was in jail with fellow activist Teodoro Cabrera on trumped up weapons and drug charges. Nino had complained to his friends in the military and they took care of business.
Montiel and Cabrera were released two years later on orders from then-Mexican president Vicente Fox after their lawyer, Digna Ochoa, was murdered in her office. During his time in jail Montiel was the recipient of the prestigious Goldman Prize, a $125,000 award given annually to environmental activists. While seeking her husband’s release, Ubalda Cortes de Montiel posed for a photo-op with Hillary Clinton in 2000.
To the best of my knowledge Montiel has not returned to his home town of El Mameyal in Petatlán out of fears for his life. Nino is still in business and the Costa Grande remains the center of Mexico’s opium trade.
I’d like to hear from Rodolfo Montiel again.
Claudio Beagarie is a journalism student at Boise State University and a freelance photojournalist with 40-plus years experience in Mexico.