Mexico”s Dirty War Gets Dirtier

The images conjured up sordid memories of decades ago. Two young people laying dead on the ground, shot to death while heavily-armed state policemen were breaking up a public protest. The Dec. 11 slayings of education students Jorge Alexis Herrera and Gabriel Echeverria de Jesus outside the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo not only revived scenes from the First Dirty War of the 1960s and 1970s, but also added more names to a growing, modern-day list of dead, disappeared, tortured and wounded activists across Mexico.

“They used to repress with audits and the tax department,” Raymundo Ramos, president of Nuevo Laredo’s Human Rights Committee, told the daily La Jornada. “Now they do it directly with bullets, disappearances or jail.”

Occurring only months before what is expected to be a highly charged presidential contest, the killings allegedly committed by state or federal police agents splashed more cold water on a democratic transition many analysts consider is sinking into an abyss of political opportunism and corruption.

The Guerrero daily El Sur, whose Acapulco office was machine-gunned and nearly set ablaze late last year, compared the killings to the First Dirty War. In an editorial, El Sur pointed out that the state violence happened under the second of two “alternative” state governments led by the once-opposition Party of the Democratic of the
Revolution (PRD), which has governed Guerrero since 2005.

Although competitive elections displaced the long-dominant and authoritarian PRI party
from the governor’s office, the same policing structures set up by General Mario Arturo
Acosta Chaparro during the First Dirty War stayed intact, El Sur noted.

Prior to the Chilpancingo episode, other recent incidents also recalled repression that was supposed to be a relic of history. In October, police violently broke up a demonstration of teachers in Acapulco. On December 2, Joel Santana, a 26-year-old held on weapons and drugs charges in the Acapulco prison, was found dead. Santana belonged to a family that’s been embroiled in land conflicts and has suffered other murders.

To the disbelief of relatives, state legal authorities first said Santana’s death was from a sudden heart attack and then attributed it to pesticide poisoning. Only days after the mysterious death, two leaders of the Campesino Environmental Organization of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan (OCESP) were snatched from a bus traveling along the Acapulco-Zihuatanejo highway and disappeared by a group of hooded, armed men.

According to a statement from the OCESP, the bus was stopped only minutes before at a military check point and boarded by soldiers who walked up to Marcial Bautista, the group’s president, and asked for him by name. Bautista did not give his real name, the OCESP said, and the bus proceeded only to be stopped a short distance down the road. Along with Bautista, Eva Alarcon, OCESP advisor and longtime PRD leader from Petatlan, was taken away to unknown whereabouts.

Quoted in El Sur, unnamed witnesses contended it would have been virtually impossible for soldiers not to notice the waiting men who later boarded the bus and kidnapped Bautista and Alarcon. General Benito Medina Herrera, commander of the 27th Military Zone in El Ticui, a military post near where Bautista and Alarcon disappeared, denied to an El Sur reporter that the army had anything to do with the disappearances.

The Dec. 7 abductions garnered widespread national and international attention, drawing condemnations and demands for the safe return of the activists from Mexican legislators, the Guerrero State Congress, the United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.

Yet the disappearances of Bautista and Alarcon were announced well in advance. The OCESP leaders had been trading accusations with a family from another community, La Morena, over alleged responsibilities for murders and intimidation; both sides had demanded state intervention and protection. Earlier this year, hundreds of people were reported forcibly displaced from the region because of violence or threats.

The tensions flared in a region that has long been marked by vicious battles between competing drug cartels, guerrilla uprisings, anti-logging protests and military forays that have resulted in accusations of human rights violations.

The Mexican government is under an order from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to investigate and punish the 1999 torture of OCESP founder Rodolfo Montiel and his friend, Teodoro Cabrera.

Mexican soldiers who arrested the pair are clearly implicated in the tortures, but have not been punished. Whether the disappearances of Bautista and Alarcon have to do with historic antagonisms against the OCESP or are related to other reasons remains to be seen. In recent years, the OCESP has been prominent for promoting a protective corridor for the endangered jaguar in their troubled mountain homeland.

A Pattern of Attacks

A relative places a photo of missing activist Eva Alarcón in her nephew’s hand

What stands out, however, is how the disappearances of Bautista and Alarcon conform to a pattern in which Mexican activists denounce threats, demand protection and then are openly attacked under the noses of police officers or soldiers.

Nepomuceno Moreno, the Sonora activist with the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MPJD) who was brazenly murdered in broad daylight only blocks from police headquarters in Hermosillo last month, previously asked fellow MPJD activist Julian LeBaron for help in moving to another city because of threats, LeBaron said on Mexican television. After personally investigating the 2010 disappearance of his son, Moreno concluded that state policemen were involved.

In another case, Trinidad de la Cruz , a 73-year-old leader of the Nahua indigenous community in Michoacan and a MPJD activist, was murdered on December 6. De la Cruz was reportedly abducted in front of witnesses, tortured and then murdered immediately after a Federal Police patrol that had been providing protection to a MPJD caravan inexplicably vanished from sight.

Located in a violence-torn coastal region, Ostula’s land base was recovered by its inhabitants in 2009. Since then, 27 people have been reported murdered and 5 others disappeared from the community. Similar to neighboring Guerrero, the area around Ostula is coveted by organized criminal bands, land and tourism developers and miners.

Indigenous and rural communities have felt much of the brunt of the Second Dirty War.
Last October, Antonio Jacinto Lopez, leader of the Triqui indigenous community in
Oaxaca, was assassinated. According to the Apro news service, Lopez had earlier been granted a protective order from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, In 2006, he filed a human rights complaint with the Washington-based commission.

“In this context, the current offensive follows the neo-liberal manual on indigenous territories,” columnist and indigenous rights activist Gloria Munoz Ramirez recently wrote. “It is about sowing terror with a baseline of murders and disappearances until families abandon their lands…”

Yet another crime predicted by activists occurred on Dec. 2, against Norma Andrade. Andrade co-founded the anti-femicide non-governmental organization Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home) in Ciudad Juarez after her daughter was abducted and murdered.

While Andrade had largely dropped from the public limelight in recent years, her daughter Malu Garcia remained active and publicly denounced threats and requested state protection only weeks before Andrade was shot and wounded.

Insulting, anonymous messages against Garcia appeared, on Ciudad Juarez’s Lapolaka news site. Earlier this year, Garcia’s home was the target of an arson attack.

Initially, authorities blamed the shooting on a bungled carjacking attempt. The attack on Norma Andrade happened just days from the one-year anniversary of the murder of another Ciudad Juarez mother, Marisela Escobedo, who was slain near the Chihuahua governor’s office while demanding justice for her own murdered daughter.

Other manifestations of the Dirty War are readily evident in today’s Mexico, with police brutality and torture at the top of the list. Police interventions in recent public demonstrations have been reminiscent of the deployments of the old, military-trained paramilitary squads known as Halcones.

On Nov. 2, Ciudad Juarez activists began plastering black crosses on buildings during a march sponsored by the Citizens Plural Front and other groups. The crosses were meant to commemorate the approximately 10,000 people murdered in the border city since the so-called war on drugs was launched in 2008.

A video of the event shows municipal police suddenly appearing and grabbing marchers without first attempting dialogue. An elderly man who suffers health problems was unceremoniously tossed into a police truck, according to Elizabeth Flores, director of the Roman Catholic Church’s Pastoral Obrera social action agency in Ciudad Juarez.

One protester among the 29 arrested that day later wrote: “…you can’t believe the treatment they accorded us in the police station and the torture that our companions were submitted to… They put all of us on our knees for approximately one hour, without being able to rest on our rear ends, with our hands against our backs and with our faces to the wall, treating us like we were criminals.”

Flores and others prepared a complaint against the Ciudad Juarez municipal police with the National Human Rights Commission for torture, excessive force and abuse of authority. The demonstrators face six months to 5 years in jail on charges of civil disobedience and damaging private property, even though property owners have declined to press charges, Flores said in an interview.

The attacks against activists are prompting a new round of protests in Mexico, the United States and Europe. In Guerrero, the killings triggered a major political crisis only eight months into Governor Angel Aguirre’s term. Under fire for the Chilpancingo killings, Aguirre quickly asked for the resignations of State Attorney General Alberto Lopez Rosas and three other top law enforcement officials. He also announced the detention of ten officers allegedly involved in the shootings.

But Guerrero students and their supporters demand that Aguirre turn in his resignation too.

The two students killed studied at the teacher’s college in Atoyzinapa, an institution specializing in training educators for assignment in low-income rural communities. Long known for its political activism, Atoyzinapa is the alma matter of two prominent guerrilla leaders from the 1960s and 1970s, Genaro Vazquez and Lucio Cabanas, both of whom led mass struggles but took up arms after the government answered their social petitions with bullets and beatings.

A former guerrilla and Lucio Cabanas’ widow, Isabel Ayala, was murdered last summer as talk mounted of forming a state truth commission to probe the First Dirty War. A government prisoner during that time, Ayala reportedly had potentially incriminating information.

“Regrettably, Isabel Ayala will not be able to render testimony on the flagrant violations of human rights that she was subjected to during that evil period,” Wilibaldo Rojas, former PRD leader in Guerrero, told the press.

Like the overwhelming majority of killings in the first and second dirty wars, Ayala’s murder remains unpunished.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is a regular contributor to the CIP Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org