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  Number 183 | Octubre 1996
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What's Behind the EPR Guerrillas?

The appearance in Guerrero of the Revolutionary Popular Army is a new warning sign about what can happen in Mexico if a political reform that involves everybody keeps getting put off and if an economic policy that excludes millions stays in place.

Human Rights Center Miguel Agustín Pro

Mexico's social crisis is quickly catching up with its economic and political ones. The rock bottom issues the country is facing today require rigorous analyses and interpretations, and pose tough challenges for those struggling for peaceful and democratic solutions to the problems with respect for human rights.

The emergence of the Revolutionary Popular Army, the series of violent actions it has carried out and the Mexican state's method of dealing with this emergency all put the country in danger of uncontrolled violence and increased authoritarianism that could shatter society's few democratic achievements in the last couple of years.

From Charade to Terrorism

On June 28, hundreds of men and women wearing olive green uniforms and brown scarves, and carrying AK 47 rifles, put in an appearance at the end of the ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the massacre of Aguas Blancas, in the state of Guerrero. They identified themselves as the Revolutionary Popular Army (EPR).

The surprising appearance of this armed contingent elicited varied reactions in Mexican society. The government's first response was to shrug off the event, dismissing the rebels as a group of already identified and controllable delinquents.

A majority of the social and political organizations reiterated their rejection of arms as a way to solve Guerrero's growing political and economic problems. They warned of the danger of increased violence and human rights violations. Angel Heladio Aguirre, Guerrero's governor, was pressured into assuring everyone that the state was remaining calm, and that "nothing new" was taking place within the military ranks.

The EPR's political and military activities quickly mounted in intensity, triggering a change in the government's statements, from the Secretariat of Government's early categorization of the EPR as a "charade" to President Zedillo's reference to it in his Second Government Report as a "terrorist" group against which all the state's force must be deployed. Amid such contradictory and erratic declarations, the government went from disdain to recognition that the issue was a worrisome one that affected national security.

The EPR's MO

The media have offered confusing reports of the EPR's violent actions, with contradictory data about the specific circumstances of the confrontations as well as the number and nature of the victims. Much of this variation depends on whether the source of the report is a governmental spokesperson or the EPR itself. The following highlight the main events reported in the press.

* June 28: when the EPR announced its existence, it revealed its "Aguas Blancas Manifesto," in which it established that its struggle will be to overthrow the anti popular government, restore popular sovereignty and people's fundamental rights, resolve their immediate needs and demands, establish just relations with the international community and punish those guilty of political repression, corruption, poverty, hunger and crimes against humanity.

* July 16: EPR members ambushed an army troop transport carrier along the highway between Tlapa and Chilpancingo.

* July 24: the EPR and the army exchanged fire in a community near Ahuacuotzingo, Guerrero.

* August 2: another EPR army clash in Papanoa, Guerrero, and an attack by men armed with AK 47s on a vehicle of military zone 18 in Guayabo, on the Acapulco Zihuatanejo highway.

* August 7: a commando attacked an army base in Atoyaquillo, between Coyuca and Tepetixtla. On the same date the EPR met with journalists in the Sierra Madre Oriental.

An Armed Offensive

On August 28 an armed offensive was carried out simultaneously in several states:

Guerrero: According to government versions, unknown individuals in a taxi fired on soldiers on clean up detail outside their barracks in Ciudad Altamirano, a town in the state's northern region, wounding six. Another attack was reported in Costa Grande, Petatlán, and in Tixtla, in which a municipal policeman was killed and two soldiers wounded. In Acapulco, the EPR attacked a police barracks with homemade bombs and a sub machinegun.

Oaxaca: Just after midnight, several men entered the main plaza of Huatulco Bay, a tourist zone, shooting into the air and at shops. According to witnesses, some of the men were foreign, they wore olive green and, with their faces covered, shouted "the EPR exists in Mexico and in Huatulco!" They shot up the area around the Public Ministry and the whole commercial and tourist area with rifles, killing one person sleeping near the shops. No return fire was reported.

Another attack occurred in Tlaxaco, in which 20 heavily armed individuals opened fire against the population, killing two policemen and wounding a shopowner. It was a long night in which, according to a number of versions, the EPR took over a radio station, shot up public buildings and military installations, and made anonymous bomb threat calls to the international airport and the local offices of the Attorney General of the Republic.

Mexico DF: EPR members attacked a number of police agents in Huizquilcan, a zone of Mexico City. A military check point on the Mexico Veracruz highway to protect an electricity substation was later attacked and four armed individuals fired on a Municipal Police patrol in Papalotla.

Puebla: In the pre dawn hours of August 28, an armed group attacked the Nuevo Necaxa military barracks in the Sierra Norte.

Chiapas: A phone call to the local daily newspaper Expreso warned, "We are developing diverse activities at a national level. In Chiapas, it's only propagandistic activity, and we're not going to attack the National Army at all, because we don't want to interfere with the EZLN dialogue with the government." According to several media reports, the guerrillas set up roadblocks in two stretches of the Panamerican Highway, one between Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristóbal and the other between Ocosingo and Palenque.

Tabasco: A radio station and a command center of military zone 30 were taken in Villahermosa, the state capital.

The political aim of all these actions was to feed the climate of fear and uncertainty in the country and to show that the EPR exists well beyond Guerrero, has military capacity, can pull off surprise attacks and is not interested in political negotiations. It is worth pointing out that the targets were mainly installations of the Mexican Army and the state and municipal police. In some cases, the main objective was to paint graffiti, put up a poster or otherwise announce the EPR's presence in the region.

On September 2, a communiqué from the Secretariat of Governance stated that the number of dead totaled 16: 7 from the Army, 4 from the Navy, 8 from the police and 3 civilians. In addition, 28 were wounded, of which 14 were Army, 5 Navy, 6 police and 3 civilians. It indicated that 19 people had been detained: 15 in Guerrero, 2 in Oaxaca and 2 in the state of Mexico.

Reality or Theater?

Are these dark forces in pursuit of destabilization? The possibility exists that the EPR's appearance in national life is being used and politically and logistically assisted by those who are putting their bets on heavy handed authoritarian solutions to Mexico's current crisis.

Could it be a theatrical gambit to justify repression? Whether it is or not, the fact remains that the EPR's emergence has made way for persecution of rural and indigenous social organizations and for increased presence of military and police forces in the marginalized regions.

Could it, on the other hand, be old fashioned and inoperative guerrilla radicalism? Perhaps. The positions this new group claims to uphold, together with its violent actions, have elicited suspicions and rejection from various sectors of civil and political society. Nonetheless, one important element should not be lost sight of amid all the suspicion and characterizations: the economic, political and social circumstances and causes that give the EPR its origins and ideological claims have been sown over years of economic injustice, authoritarian abuse and deafness of power. This is the real root of the problem.

Political Background

The context in which this new dynamic of violence has erupted must be placed in an historical political framework. Thirty years ago Genaro Vásquez and Lucío Cabrón were brutally repressed for demanding political openings in the state of Guerrero. Then in 1968 the democratic student movement's demands were criminally put down. In 1977 Mexico learned of the massacre of peasants in Huasteca mountains of Hidalgo. The response to guerrilla activity in that decade knew no limits; the state's goal was to totally smash the guerrilla movements both in the mountains of Guerrero and in its urban "safe houses."

Throughout that whole period the regime's authoritarian and corporativist mechanisms influenced society's scant protest. These events were justified in the name of hardline conservatism and the anti communist spirit prevailing at the time.

The new round of violent actions Mexico is witnessing today is a way of doing politics or seeking justice outside of the obsolete institutional mechanisms. The issue is not just about the emergence of armed groups with a revolutionary profile. Nor does it have to do only with the worst crisis of public safety in the major cities. The population itself is increasingly taking into its own hands the justice that the state is not applying.

Some Cases of "Popular Justice"

Arguing that they are "tired of the inability of the police to counteract the wave of assaults," some 500 peasants violently burst into the Belisario Domínguez municipal jail in Motozintla, Chiapas, to remove three alleged robbers. They tied the thieves to an electricity pole, doused them with gasoline and burned them alive. This action occurred the day after dozens of people from Tatahuicapán, Veracruz, hung and burned a man from the neighboring community of Paso de Aguila, Oaxaca, for having strangled his wife.

In San Nicolás de los Ranchos, Puebla, members of four communities around the base of the Popocatépetl volcano tried to burn alive two individuals who had attacked a business as well as two presumed lawyers who tried to come to their rescue.

And in the municipality of Aztla de Terrazas, San Luis Potosí, civilians held three State Judicial Police agents for 20 hours in response to the jailing of their community leader, allegedly responsible for land evictions 10 years ago, even though that process had ended with his exoneration.

No Legitimacy

Former Presidents Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas de Gortari did not use the opportunity offered them by the historic moment they were in office to create a new institutionality and a civic culture that would channel society's new pluralism. They decided to arm themselves with authoritarianism, thinking that their legitimacy would grow out of the economic opening and massive inflow of foreign capital.

As a result, the electoral insurrection of 1988 was answered with massive fraud and later with ever more sophisticated selective frauds, and with cruel repression of members of the Democratic Revolutionary party (PRD), the newly emergent political force.

The economic model's failure and the decomposition of the political system are now being matched by a profound crisis of legitimacy in which the web of lies to explain the government's failure to fulfill its responsibilities and commitments no longer snares society. Since no power can sustain itself without legitimacy, authoritarianism is tempting the regime in today's crisis. The Zedillo government's essentially militaristic response to the problems of extreme poverty and demands for democracy is thus cause for serious concern.

Government authorities, erroneously characterizing the EPR as a "terrorist" group with "no social base" so as to artificially distinguish it from the EZLN, have decided to speed up the militarization process slowly occurring around the country. There is now a dual geography of militarization: one that is perfectly superimposed on the areas of greatest marginalization, boundary for boundary, and another that affects the more than 20 states in which the public security agencies are run by military officers.

A Conspiracy?

In the wake of the EPR's emergence, military checkpoints have multiplied along highways and rural roads. The Secretariat of National Defense moved huge reinforcements from the center of the country into the military zones of Oaxaca, Guerrero and the Hidalgo mountains. They include parachutists, armored vehicles and modern armaments. Among the "anti guerrilla" actions announced by the armed forces to combat the EPR in Guerrero, the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI) was requested to turn over its 1990 population census data so that a registry of possible members of this armed movement could be drawn from it, as was done when the Chiapas conflict exploded. The census will be prepared through an intense program of social labor that will allow army forces to penetrate the communities in which the new rebel group is presumed to have influence.

Among other immediate tasks now being developed is the combing of the Guerrero mountain communities for information. Four of the first people detained allege that they were tortured into confessing that they belonged to the EPR. Some of those being held in the state of Tabasco under accusation of participating in the EPR's armed actions turned out to be members of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party's own shock troops. This added to the public suspicion that a conspiracy among the groups in power lies behind the appearance of this "guerrilla" group.

Military Response

The day after the interview given by EPR members in the Federal District was published, the press reported on operations by national security agents to detect "safe houses" and EPR members in Mexico City. On August 30, the Special Reaction and Intervention Group of the Federal District's Judicial Police and other unidentified agencies fingered an alleged safe house and carried out a spectacular operation to take it over.

Over 300 Army soldiers, some 100 agents of the state and Federal Judicial Police, and Federal Road and Preventive Police surrounded presumed EPR members in the glen of a Huasteca mountain community in Guerrero following several clashes and sophisticated pursuit. Some versions speak of eight guerrillas wounded in an army attack by helicopters equipped with infrared spotting devices.

The response to the armed group's demands should not be a new version of the "dirty war, but rather a real and definitive opening up of Mexico's political life. Yet signs of increasingly forceful authoritarianism are appearing. Behind a significant number of repressive events and human rights violations, Mexican society is worried that a "dirty war" strategy of social containment is in fact taking shope against political dissidents and social leaders. This strategy appears to be directed by entities hidden in the shadows of the country's public life, encrusted in the state institutions and apparently out of control, who are treading on society's human rights and democratic aspirations. This strategy incorporates plans that go so far as to decide the framework of constitutional guarantees that Mexicans will be allowed to enjoy.

Mexico's political system should seek its greatest defense against any insurgency in the legitimacy of a democratic opening and unrestricted respect for human rights rather than in the state's military response and violence. The appearance of the EPR has sounded the alarm regarding what could happen in our country if the urgent political reforms at a national level, going beyond the political parties to include the participation of all actors and interests, continue to be postponed.

Ten Causes of Violence

The mounting violence in various regions of the country grows mainly out of these ten factors:

1. The extreme poverty and abandonment of rural communities. These peasant and indigenous communities have been forced to migrate to the United States or other areas of Mexico temporarily or permanently. According to INEGI data, the states with the greatest level of marginalization, determined by the percentage of population with incomes below the minimum wage, are: Chiapas (58.9%), Guerrero (37.9%), Hidalgo (39.3%), Oaxaca (53%), Puebla (38.5%) and Veracruz (36.4%). In presenting its State Development Plan, Guerrero's governor acknowledged his state's serious situation: one in ten primary school aged children does not go to school; more than a quarter of the population over 15 years of age is illiterate; half of the population lacks potable water service; two thirds lack sewage drains; 3,684 communities have no electricity; 28.6% of the state's inhabitants have no roads nearby; over a third suffer nutritional problems; and agriculture is seasonal despite the abundance of water available.

2. Absence of the rule of law, and the predominance of the law of the jungle in which might makes right and institutions do not respect the citizenry's right to security.

3. Agrarian conflicts which are inefficiently dealt with by the institutions or are indefinitely set aside.

4. Inoperativeness of the justice system, in which the institutions charged with procuring and imparting justice have, as a result of fear, connivance or negligence, favored the impunity of government authorities from the highest levels down to the municipal police. To this must be added the chronic lack of imparting justice as a way of peacefully siphoning off conflicts between individuals in strict adherence to the law.

5. Corruption, which has penetrated the highest levels of government and seriously eaten away at the state's social and political institutions. The administration of justice is bought and sold with alarming impunity.

6. Intense clandestine trafficking in arms, drugs and merchandise, which has been repeatedly denounced by the media and is an open secret in states such as Guerrero. Drug trafficking, influence peddling and money laundering, practices often linked to the tourist and construction industries, have grown and become stronger due to the federal and state governments' irresponsible passivity and systematic refusal to recognize that this serious problem is undermining the nation's security and stability.

7. Erratic governmental responses to social and political conflicts, after going around the law to commit violent evictions, military and police offensives, arbitrary detentions, searches and sacking of homes and communities, highway checkpoints, homicides and the like.

8. Rise of "white guards" in mountain communities, made up of local strongmen and municipal and police functionaries who have abused their authority to take violent revenge against economic or political rivals.

9. Existence of groups inclined toward armed struggle, traditional in Guerrero. These groups have found their current justification for the need to resolve conflicts through violence in the population's discontent and the deterioration of its conditions for survival.

10. The government's ongoing attack on organizations, such as the PRD, that represent peaceful and political alternatives to organize the population's discontent through institutional means.

President Zedillo's Disappointing Report

The closure of peaceful opportunities for the population to express its demands, the reiterated fraud and repression, the corruption and irresponsibility of the political class in power, the systematic violation of human rights and rampant impunity, together with the enrichment of a few and staggering exclusion of millions of poor from any plan or policy for economically improving the country, created the breeding ground for what has been happening in Chiapas since 1994 and is now spreading to the mountains of Guerrero and Hidalgo, and to Oaxaca. All of Mexican society is now harvesting the fruit of years of denied rights and dashed hopes for the majority of Mexicans submerged in poverty.

How can the violence that seems to be invading everything be deactivated and social peace restored? This is the question that President Zedillo should have responded to in his government report in early September. Instead he dedicated his time to reaffirming that his is the only road. He ratified the justice of his economic policy, justified the authoritarian legislative changes to the penal laws, turned a blind eye--as he has been doing for some time now--to the wave of political assassinations in Mexico in recent years, again called on Mexicans to wait for the recovery that is just around the corner, and referred to all those who have taken up arms as terrorists. It was an exceedingly disappointing report to those who hoped he would set the country on a new path.

At bottom, his greatest failure was his assessment of the national crisis. The main culprit behind the violence in Mexico today is not the EPR, but his own economic Cabinet. It is not the ill will of a few hundred people that is putting the country's governability in doubt, but the government's own unrelenting stubbornness in applying economic formulas that have dispossessed the majority of Mexicans, subjecting them to ever greater unemployment, poverty and desperation while benefiting a handful of powerful denationalized millionaires. It is not the armed manifestation of a few groups that threatens democracy, but the absence of transparent and effective communication channels for the political expression of a population whose legal organizations have always been beaten down and whose disposition toward civic struggle has been twisted by both repression and fraudulent elections. It is not only the attacks on police and military barracks that have made the Mexican people indignant. They are even more indignant at the absolute impunity enjoyed by the assassins and corrupt individuals who hide behind government power.

For all these reasons, employing all the state's power against the EPR will not do the job. The causes that have triggered the EPR's creation and given it ideological foundations must be deactivated. The state's violent response to guerrilla violence can only provide foolish encouragement to a spiral of violence from which Mexico may never extract itself. The EPR's violence has no future and is thus unjust and cruel, but the system's violence, that of the wealthy and satisfied, also merits condemnation.

A Constituent Assembly

The militarization reigning in Mexico today denaturalizes the Mexican Army's role, violates article 29 of the Constitution and imperils Mexicans' democratic liberties. The suspicion that the EPR may be the pretext that the regime's authoritarian currents have found, or even created, to block the road to the much desired democracy is extremely worrisome.

An attractive political solution for all the groups and interests that coexist in Mexico must be found. A process of broad national dialogue that could culminate in a new Constituent Assembly must take place, and it must make room for all of those who are excluded today. A generous project for the country that makes room for all Mexican men and women must be designed.

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