It was two in the morning when I was awakened to begin a journey that would take me high into Mexico’s Sierra Madre del Sur and deep into one of the most troubled and remote parts of the state of Guerrero, the region that includes the Petatlán and Coyuquilla river valleys. The Organización de Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán y Coyuca de Catalán (OCESP), perhaps Mexico’s best known environmental group, is active there. The zone is also a center of marijuana and opium poppy production. On a two week trip last February, I was to learn how deeply the environmental and drug issues have become intertwined, and what OCESP is doing about both.
It was still pitch dark when, riding on a rickety old quatrimoto—a four-wheeled motorcycle—OCESP President Juan Bautista Valle Sánchez, Secretary General Felipe Arriaga and I began the twelve-hour trek to a ranch high on a mountain peak in the Petatlán valley. There I was to interview seven OCESP activists who had been hiding out for several months after local authorities accused them of drug trafficking and membership in a guerrilla group.
These charges were similar to the ones which had been used to jail OCESP’s now internationally known leaders Rodolfo Montiel y Teodoro Cabrera for three years, until they were freed following the suspicious death of their lawyer Digna Ochoa. [See “Drugs, Guerrillas and Politicos in Mexico.”]
Six hours into the journey, the road became too steep for the ancient quatrimoto, and we hitchhiked by truck until the road ran out altogether. Then we got a ride on another, newer quatrimoto to the ranch where the seven young men were anxiously waiting to tell me their version of what was happening in the region: “The caciques are accusing us of crimes we haven’t committed,” Roberto Cabrera Torres told me, “every time we ask for a legal action in our favor they accuse us of a new crime. They’ve accused us of being guerrillas, murderers, cattle rustlers and marijuana growers; we’ve been unable to keep working to defend our forests and our people because we’ve had to keep hidden from the police and the military. Meanwhile, they continue con sus cosas—with their things.”
This phrase—”their things”—echoed one that Arriaga and Bautista had used earlier. They had told me they believed OCESP’s work was responsible for “clear differences” between Petatlán valley, where OCESP is strongest, and neighboring Coyuquilla valley, where OCESP had been losing influence. When I pressed them about what these differences were, they were happy to talk in detail about promising new enterprises, like shrimp farming, that were underway in Petatlán, while about Coyuquilla they would only say vaguely that “the same things as always” were occurring.
As I learned more about the region, however, I understood that “things” referred to illegal logging and drug production: The local caciques—who already control the region’s best lands—first log the sierra’s forests, making big profits from the sale of the wood. Then they turn most of the cleared land to poppy or marijuana production. Many local farmers, their own lands degraded by the environmental aftereffects of uncontrolled logging, find themselves forced to grow drug crops in order to survive.
For evident reasons, the OCESP leaders did not feel safe in discussing the caciques’ activities openly; but reading between the lines I came to understand their strategy in confronting the powerful local figures: First, OCESP wanted to put an end to illegal logging and then it would provide area residents with economic alternatives to drug crops.
The environmental group had first become nationally and internationally known because of the peaceful road blockades it had organized to keep trucks loaded with illegally logged wood from reaching area sawmills. They had suffered abuse, assassinations, and the jailing of their top leadership, but they had won over public opinion and had succeeded in preserving a large part of the local forest. Sierra caciques and their political buddies found this particular source of illegal income cut off. Because less forest was being cleared, less land was being converted to drug crop production.
At the same time, OCESP is trying to encourage new kinds of economic activity in this impoverished region. These include the production of river shrimp, organic fertilizers, and avocados—as well as the sustainable commercial production of iguanas, which are locally viewed as both a food source and an aphrodisiac. On my trip down from OCESP’s mountain hideaway, I met another of the organization’s activists, Jerónimo Orozco Tapia. He had been one of the first to take the risk of trying to make a living from one of the alternatives. He raises shrimp in a tank, even though he has received no outside aid to do so. “At first everybody laughed at me,” Orozco commented, as he proudly offered me what turned out to be a delicious ceviche made with shrimp he had produced. “But now that they see I’m able to feed my family,” he said, “they all want to know how to do what I’m doing.”
Activists like Orozco make it a point to attend local community meetings and they travel to the most remote parts of the zone to encourage those local people who are still involved in “the same things” to try the new alternatives. They try to dispell the fear of reprisals from the caciques. They are now even trying to extend the model into the much more problematic Coyuquilla valley.
OCESP’s high national and international profile has helped the group gain a hearing from state and local officials when they demand greater resources for their region. I attended a meeting in the Petetlán community of El Zapotiyal where federal officials seemed to be listening attentively to alternative development proposals put together by each of the valley’s villages and settlements.
Alternative development is nothing new and there is reason to be sceptical about such plans; they have so far failed in many other drug producing nations, including Peru and Bolivia. But what seemed to me important about what was happening in Petatlán valley was that there the impulse for change was coming from the farmers themselves rather than being imposed by the government. The communities themselves see these iniciatives as the key to their economic independence and their freedom from the power of the local caciques.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jordi Pius Llopart is a human rights lawyer and NACLA staffer whose Guerrero fact-finding mission was sponsored by Global Exchange and Mexico’s Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center.