Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 181 | Agosto 1996



It's a Frontal War

What’s behind the increasing violations of Mexicans’ rights? A dogmatic counter-insurgency plan? A power structure (that of old-time leaders) out of control and beyond sanctions? The inertia of institutions molded by authoritarianism? The fatalism of the neoliberal model, devoid of social solutions?

Human Rights Center Miguel Agustín Pro

A new guerrilla group calling itself the Revolutionary Popular Army (EPR) appeared in Guerrero at the beginning of July. Its stereotypical populist discourse and its shiny new equipment has triggered suspicions about the group's true origins and objectives. While there are more than enough reasons to spark an insurgency in Guerrero, there are also reasonss to think that they could be "guerrillas" fabricated by the party state's hardliners, who want to resolve the crisis in Mexican society today through ever more authoritarian and violent forms.

Three Crises Coincide

Despite its failure, the Mexican government remains faithful to an economic model that offers Mexicans only "more of the same. The group in power runs the economy subordinated to neoliberal precepts, blind to the reality and demands of thousands of citizens who are living--or just surviving--one of the worst crises they have ever known. The country is at the limit, with no room for a middle path. Either we take off or we drown in economic and financial collapse, social explosion and ungovernability. It is said that 1994 was the year of political crisis, 1995 of economic crisis and 1996 will be the year of social crisis. According to analyst Rosalbina Garabito, not since 1929 had economic, political and social crises coincided.

President Zedillo's gamble is clear: the economy must grow at a rhythm of 3% with 20.5% inflation in 1996, although without improving income distribution. Given the electoral danger of 1997, the social and political costs of this gamble within a model officially defended with unbridled optimism could become unpayable.

The year is already becoming violent. The number of incidents registered by the "Miguel Agustín Juárez" Pro Human Rights Center (PRODH) during only the first quarter--61 in January, 34 in February and 42 in March-- indicates that, even though society denounces the human rights violations ever more energetically and resourcefully, repression is sustained at a high frequency level, in a situation where impunity acts as a fundamental mechanism.

The Guerrero case is a paradigm. In this state, despite the national and international scandal provoked by the police massacre of 17 peasants in Aguas Blancas, the political violence that caused it has not been detained. Political homicides and aggression against political and social organizations and individuals have continued as if nothing had occurred.

What does this reality reveal? A dogmatic counterinsurgency plan that will move forward no matter what happens? A repressive cacique power structure that is out of control and beyond social sanction? Institutional inertia, formed by spotless authoritarianism that does not accept a new, ever more demanding and critical society? A neoliberal fatalism that calls out the tanks to respond to the failure and extinction of all social policy?

Detain to Intimidate

The Federal District, Guerrero, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz head the list of the most repressive areas. Because of the growing economic inequality and the high level of social polarization and conflict that it brings, because of the relevant social and political participation of thousands of citizens, and because of the possibility of organized or spontaneous expression of social discontentment, these states are becoming geopolitical enclaves in which the government is implementing a national security and counterinsurgency scheme.

According to reports from the National Human Rights Commission, with the exception of the Federal District, the governors of these states "have shown negligent or partial non fulfillment" of the recommendations issued by this institution.

Thirty seven political homicides in three months--19 of them in Guerrero-->are horrendous data in a country whose government claims to be democratic and a promoter of peace. To exercise direct repression, to allow actions by security forces or paid gunmen to go unpunished, to favor a climate of violence in a state like Guerrero or low intensity war strategies in a place like Chiapas, makes the Mexican state responsible for the human lives that it is cruelly cutting down.

In addition to the successful homicides, there have been five frustrated ones in these same months against people who, because of their social or political activity, challenge or confront status quo interests. This is the case of the harassment of the indigenous of Mazatlán Villa de las Flores, Oaxaca, or the aggression suffered on March 26 by Gina Batista, journalist and news reporter for Channel 40, whose car was shot at in the Federal District.

We documented 125 detentions in February, including the mass detentions of Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) militants who blocked PEMEX oil wells as part of the political ecological conflict in Tabasco. But March saw an almost equal number of individual detentions for political motives. This indicates that the country is experiencing an important increase in the number of incidents resulting in detention as a way to inhibit and affect social mobilization. The regime tries to penalize dissidence, fabricating crimes and forcing substitution of the original social, political or economic demands by penal demands in favor of the detained: freedom for prisoners, proper administration of justice, etc. There is also a high number of incidents of direct aggression against victims, causing physical harm.

Threatening to Paralyze

The death threat is another form of pressure being used. The cases of threats against human rights defenders or leaders of social organizations like the Coordinator of Solidarity with Alternative Struggles are important to note.

Those who use personal death threats know of the fateful psychological effects produced in the victim. In addition to feeling uneasy about being persecuted or watched and increasingly fearing the loss of life, the threatened individuals also feel vulnerable. Living in an exacerbated state of alert with no possibility of rest, they develop feelings of impotence and guilt, losing control over their own lives, altering their sense of reality into something confusing and threatening. Lifestyles and the dynamic of interpersonal and family relations also suffer alterations. As a consequence, the victims begin to question their permanence in the social struggle.

That is precisely the objective of a death threat: intimidate, wear down and paralyze the individual. In all cases of threats, the aggressor hides in anonymity and sometimes enjoys the support of authorities, which makes investigation and sanction of this type of aggression almost impossible.

Harassment is another resource with similar effects. The repressive apparatus operating in Mexico with diverse facets--local caciques, official intelligence, shock or paramilitary groups, national security, etc.--makes abundant use of harassment against dissident individuals or groups. Some recent cases include the Jesuit priests Javier Avila and Ricardo Robles, who participated as advisers in the Chiapas peace talks; the widows and witnesses in the Aguas Blancas case in Guerrero; some indigenous communities, civil camps and foreign observers in Chiapas intimidated by the military; and the indigenous from Mazatlán Villa de las Flores who were defending the right to freely choose their authorities.

A Tragic Bottom Line

The sum up of repression in only the first quarter of 1996 is quite significant:

227 detentions for political motives or police abuse
137 individual aggressions
37 political homicides
42 evictions from lands or homes
30 acts of harassment against people or groups
15 cases of torture
15 direct death threats against social activists and
human rights defenders
13 kidnappings for apparently political motives
10 rapes for apparently political motives
5 attempted murders

Rape is being used as an instrument of political repression and social intimidation, especially in Chiapas, and could also be true in the case of six mistreated tourists in Acapulco on May 1. Eviction is also an instrument of repression ever more frequently employed in Mexico. In these cases, preventive and judicial police corporations--sometimes supported by "white guards--are used as shock troops against takeovers and sit ins, measures which in the majority of cases are taken by social organizations only after having used up all civic resources and processes.

The economic crisis has led to continuous demonstrations and demands for a change in the economic model applied by the current government, economic demands that include "better salaries," "lower prices," "no usury" and the like. The authorities are responding to these demands with ever more repression. The best example is the harassment, going as far as a penal suit, against leaders of the El Barzón debtors' movement.

The field of political confrontation in Mexico includes various expressions beyond the conflicts related to power struggles through elections. In Chiapas, one can read of incidents day after day as part of the low intensity war that has not only a military objective--winning a war--but also important political ones. In Tabasco, the blockade of oil wells carried out by PRD peasants brought to light the ecological drama provoked by para state PEMEX activity. It was also clear that this struggle lies within the limits of the political conflict in the state, where the PRD has been a fundamental protagonist. Thus, repression in Chiapas or Tabasco reaches much higher levels.

Human Rights V. Impunity

The state preventive police and judicial police appear as the most repressive agents. The ones who most frequently go outside the law and violate human rights are precisely those in charge of monitoring their fulfillment. "Operatives" of anticonstitutional police groups acting with impunity have been confirmed in the Federal District, with names like "Foxes" or "Jaguars." They have made the detention of "suspects" common practice.

In terms of those affected, rural violence and political intolerance are primordial causes of a great number of the human rights violations taking place in the country. Violence against indigenous and peasants stands out. Community organization "threatens" the control of local PRI strongmen (caciques), who do not hesitate to use repression and arms to defend their traditional power. Violent actions by these caciques--who use paramilitary groups of "white guards are frequently supported by members of public security.

Human rights are not respected, defended or promoted in Mexico, despite the constitutional guarantees that consecrate them and the international obligations assumed by the Mexican state. Even though our legislation is rich in norms that protect the human rights of Mexicans, these rights receive minimum attention by authorities. These authorities pay real attention only when the disinformation barricade is brought down and national--and above all international--public opinion is alerted by some incident in which these rights have been starkly violated.

Impunity is the norm. In the majority of cases, human rights violations go unpunished. Even the few well documented cases, those that present clear evidence of responsibility, are only resolved--if they are resolved-- after enormous social pressure.

Toward a Police State

The group in government is implementing its political and economic model over and above human rights, while claiming, in its own words, to defend those rights. One part of this model is the legalized reduction of individual guarantees through new political control and repression measures. Stability is sought through repression and social control without modifying the model, as society demands. Such is neoliberalism: it does not know how to create wealth or how to distribute it to promote stability. It is enough to look at the proposed public security laws being designed by the executive office to be convinced of this.

The series of restrictions on individual guarantees proposed in the "Federal Bill Against Organized Delinquency seek to legally approve repression. The containment strategy for social discontent and repression of the regime's opponents stands out; it appears to be coordinated by well defined groups that do not, or did not, possess any legal base. The theoretical and operative proposals of this national intelligence and coordination apparatus have certain similarities to the National Security Doctrine proposed and adopted 20 years ago by military dictatorships in the Southern Cone and Central America. It defines security as security for the government rather than for the whole nation and all of its citizens.

The low profile war strategy in Chiapas has different angles: military containment and advance in the conflict zone, harassment and terrorism against indigenous communities, promotion of "white guards" and military groups like the infamous "Chinchulines," persecution of Zapatista sympathizers or advisers, harassment of foreigners, Bishop Samuel Ruiz and NGOs, etc.

It has subtly woven together the violent police operations common in Mexico City, political espionage, the assassination of dissidents in Guerrero and militarization of both indigenous zones and the civilian organizations responsible for the country's public security.

It is no longer possible to think that all these incidents are unrelated. In August 1995, PRODH Center director David Fernández received death threats precisely for denouncing these links. Some truth was spoken then, and the spotlights lit up the stage "too early"--that is to say, before the regime had designed a credible justification to defend organized crime of gigantic dimensions. The first quarter of 1996 has been the regime's period of public self justification, while trying to strengthen its structures to establish the basis for a police state.

Well Calculated Steps

The steps have been coherent. Already in April 1994, faced with the failure of the first peace negotiations in Chiapas, the government decreed the creation of a national Public Security Coordination, dependent on the Presidency of the Republic. Its members would be the Secretaries of Governance, National and Marine Defense and the Federal District Department. These institutions were charged with establishing the necessary coordination with the Federal District General Prosecutor and other Federal entities to develop "public security activities determined by the Federal government."

In November 1995, the Chamber of Deputies pushed through the "General Law of Coordination of the National System of Public Security" despite the PRD's opposition votes. The Secretary of Governance installed the National Public Security Council in March 1996, claiming that it is a way to coordinate between the federal, state and municipal levels to prevent crimes and pursue organized crime. The setting up of this council culminates the process initiated in April 1994 and fulfills one of the initial intentions of the Ernesto Zedillo government, criticized so often by public opinion. This new organization will combine police actions with political and military intelligence.

The Mexican Army today has great political weight, as evidenced by its role in the Chiapas conflict, the drug trafficking battles, its acquisition of equipment and arms, the rethinking of National Security and approval by the Supreme Court in March 1996 that it participate in public security. It wants to become the factor that guarantees stability in the face of the economic, political and social crisis we are living.

Some Clear Elements

Some things are becoming clear:

* The theory of a "harassed" President has only served to over emphasize the local caciques (in Tabasco, Guerrero, Puebla, Sonora, Morelos, etc.) and to create a power vacuum and the sensation of a nation that has lost its way.

* The army's shadow is ever more present in all aspects of national life.

* Impunity not only exists, but has carefully tuned mechanisms. In the well known case of the Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, crime, the Supreme Court had to investigate the violation of constitutional guarantees and human rights for the first time in 50 years.

* The General Prosecutor pressures the judicial branch with a zeal that severely breaks down the rule of law, as was seen in the processes against two alleged Zapatista prisoners freed in May.

* Given the unconstitutionality of its actionsselling petrochemicals, reducing individual guaranteesthe government is promoting modifications of the Constitution so it can do what the law now prohibits.


On une 18 22, 23 lay and religious people visited different Chiapas municipalities to confirm events there. They found a significantly violent situation in northern Chiapas. These are fragments of the report by esuit Omar David Gutiérrez, one of the participants in the mission:

"Tuesday, une 18, 10 pm. There is a knock on the door of the San Agustín Parish in Tila. One of the young indigenous who lives there cautiously approaches the door and asks who is there. He opens the door to ulián, a Ch'ol in charge of the medical dispensary, who wants to explain to Heriberto Cruz, the parish priest, that he was late because he had to make a wide circle around the community he came from to get there. There is an area, especially around El Limar, where he cannot pass.

"Heriberto has been unable to talk to us since we arrived. He had a meeting in which he was analyzing the situation, together with other priests and a Benedictine brother. For a long time, he told us later, there have been kidnappings, assassinations, house burnings... And now the violence has intensified.

"Now late into the night, Heriberto explains to
us that he must leave for a few days, but we should stay in the parish; the town needs to know that there are people from outside, and there will be less possibility that the church is attacked. The priest was shot at last year and molotov cocktails were thrown into the atrium. On another occasion, PRI supporters organized a march with children and adults to demand "peace" and went to the church to protest against "the agitator" Father Heriberto; some of them attacked the church. Since then they have managed to keep the atrium closed. A congressman who lives in front of the church has given arms to the PRI members from the "Peace and ustice" group. Heriberto tells us that he can't even visit all his communities. Sometimes the community residents themselves tell him not to come for his own and their security.

Professor Ramón Sánchez Pérez, a primary school director, is 'minister' of the parish, pre deacon ordained by the Tatic, Samuel Ruiz, and member of the ecclesiastical base communities. These used to be well organized and had many members, but since things began to get difficult, they have been shrinking; some because they have disagreed, others for fear of calumny and criticisms received by anyone close to Heriberto and Bishop Samuel. 'Yes, we're afraid,' says Ramón with a smile. 'I am threatened, misunderstood by my teaching colleagues. The wall of my house is painted with accusations. But the Bible strengthens us, especially the Apocalypse and the Psalms that tell us, 'Do not be afraid.'

"The Church is experiencing an undeclared war--ministers, catechists, religious sisters, priests--in the San Cristóbal de las Casas diocese. Dominican Raúl Vera is the new 'acting' bishop in the San Cristóbal de las Casas diocese. Tatic Samuel Ruiz is also there as bishop 'in name,' although stripped of all government.

"Father Gustavo Andrade, pastoral vicar of the diocese, tells us that he does not understand how Bishop Vera has changed so much in the short time he has been there: 'An open, honest man, the bishop is pressured by both the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the government, who expect much of him. He began by questioning the work of the diocese, attacked by the diocese's enemies. But he is an intelligent man.

"On occasions he came and asked how much he was accepted among the people of the diocese, and he became convinced that, in order not to remain alone, he had to enter the world he had come to. He has been learning about the dirty war in the state. Once, some indigenous presented a sociodrama about the low intensity war they are suffering. The bishop was moved by this and repeated these words of his religious brother, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas: 'God will ask me to account for what I keep quiet.'"

'He is very caring with the indigenous,' concludes Andrade. 'During one visit he began to hug them all and kiss the children and women. We told some indigenous to tell him that he didn't need to greet each one individually because of time pressures. But they told us, 'It is his way, so let him do it.'

"If the other bishops and ecclesiastical authorities came and saw these people's lives the way don Raúl has, they would have a different opinion about the diocese and don Samuel,' considers one religious sister.

"For Felipe Toussaint, general vicar of the diocese,
it was very significant that on une 21 Vera consecrated indigenous deacons in Bachajón, at the side of don Samuel Ruiz, in an action typical of the aboriginal Church of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

"Six people died in a confrontation in Bachajón on May 5, and the esuits, who have worked there since 1958 and have a community of 11 missionaries, received death threats from the"Los Chinchulines" paramilitary group, identified with the PRI.

"On May 24, some three weeks after the bloody incidents,
the assistant provincial of the Mexican esuits, Pedro Arriaga, charged in a press conference that there is a "climate of persecution against the religious workers in Chiapas' and warned that 'what happened in El Salvador will not happen here.' He added that 'there is indignation and concern for what happened in Bachajón. The esuit community has not been threatened since the times of President Plutarco Elías Calles (1920 24), when the religious war took place.' He also said that he has informed the Vatican and the US Congress of the activities
of the paramilitary groups that act in the shadow the Chiapas PRI government.

"One of the esuits threatened with death, José Avila, commented that in Bachajón 'desolation prevails; it is a dead community with no inhabitants.' Avila commented that 800 people have left the town since the May 5 confrontation and 24 inhabitants have been detained, although none from the "Los Chinchulines" group. 'This group commits barbarities and the authorities do not intervene. The Chiapas government acts with negligence, irresponsibility or connivance, and if the government does not take action, the people will take justice into their own hands,' he stated.

Dominican friar Gonzalo Ituarte, Vicar of Peace and ustice in San Cristóbal, states that 'the low intensity war doctrine is being applied: destroy the base--both ecclesiastical and party--and any type of civil opposition. The government does not really understand what is happening; its information is unreal, distant, but its war is frontal, destroying faith, culture, community. Local interests end up having parallel strategies to Federal strategies and this complicates things even more. Much of what happens is because of having lost control, losing control of situations like the white guard, something they induced but have lost control of.'

"The diocese makes a great effort, but reality goes beyond them. It requires that people from outside know what is happening in Chiapas, who can inform from where they are and promote the participation of national and international agencies to defend the life of these threatened people.

"The northern region, more insecure than the zones where the army and the EZLN camps now are, has been the scene of systematic violence. The vicars' team comments: 'The situation is deteriorating, especially in Tila, Yajalón, Sabanilla, Tumbalá, Salto de Agua, Chilón, Simojovel and Huitupán. Now we see not only attacks on parishes, but also on the faithful and especially the ministers.'

"It goes on to say: 'There is a long list of attacks against catechists and church ministers, church closings, destruction of hermitages, accusations on state radio and in other communications media, as well as offenses in the street and within temples. All of this always making the false identification of Catholic equal to being an enemy of the government.'

"The team ends by saying that 'the journalistic notes are only an example of what is happening, a small reflection of the critical situation. The words of our brothers, who come to the Curia or the Human Rights Center, are a great sign of the anxiety, fear, threats, and privations experienced by hundreds of people...'

"In the eight days we were in the region, 14 people were assassinated, leaving various injured and families displaced from their homes. The Church resists this undeclared war just as in the times of early Christians. But hope shines through, hidden but bright, in these catacombs. This hope is a call to the Church of Mexico and the Universal Church and also a call to civil society to take the actions that correspond to them in this moment of Mexican history".

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It's a Frontal War


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