Army Atrocities in Mexico

‘Theres no justice here, only violence’ explains Hilda Navarrete, a human rights defender in the Southern State of Guerrero, where the military is accused of raping, and murdering those who oppose the continuing local rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Despite bringing an end to 71 years of national PRI rule, when he was elected two years ago, President Fox is struggling to control the army that built the PRI. By releasing intelligence files, which document the brutal state repression carried out during Mexico’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s, Fox has gone some way towards acknowledging military abuses. But, his failure to reform the constitution and strip the army of their impunity leaves Mexico little changed.

Ever since Lucio Cabanas formed his Party of the Poor guerrilla movement, a 1960’s equivalent of Marcos’s Zapatistas, and took up arms against the Government for their murder of a group of teachers, the state has kept a firm grip on Guerrero. ‘It was not a war. It was state repression’, is how Navarrete recalls the forced disappearances of student activists, teachers, guerrillas, union organisers and peasant leaders who opposed the Government during the dirty war years.

Two decades later, the disappearances continue. Over the last seven years, 123 members of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Mexico’s centre-left political party have ‘disappeared’ in Guerrero. 60 political prisoners have been jailed on false charges. Though the military is blamed for most of the violence, 9 cases of ‘disappearances’ at the hands of the Guerrero State Judicial Police have been carefully documented. Today 40,000 soldiers remain in Guerrero under the pretext of fighting the 10 or so active guerrilla groups, and drug traffickers. Local experience also suggests they are present to destroy political opposition.

‘The army planted the drug crops first’ says Miriam Hernandez, a political activist, who worked in Guerrero but now lives in Canada. ‘It gave them the perfect excuse to keep fighting us’. Army support for cattle rancher, and drug trafficker Rogaciano Alba Alvarez, key figure in the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) political structure, is well known. Unlike the majority of Mexican states who voted to overthrow the PRI in the year 2000, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas remain controlled by PRI political bosses cooperating with paramilitary forces and the Mexican army.

Home to some of the world’s oldest growth fir and pine forests, illegal logging is big business, in Guerrero. One of the best known cases involved loggers working for the United States corporation, Boise Cascade, who were ripping out trees 24 hours a day in 1996. When local ecologists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera tried to stop them, they were arrested by the army, on trumped up charges of illegal weapon and drug possession. Freed earlier this year after four years in jail, but not acquitted of charges, Montiel challenged President Fox ” to stop saying the human rights situation has improved and that things have changed in Mexico, because his government continues covering up for the soldiers that tortured us.”

The army was also involved in the massacre at El Charco, Guerrero in 1998, where soldiers shot and killed 11 campesinos attending a grass roots meeting for the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI). The National Human Rights Commission has yet to issue a report on the killings and there have been no prosecutions of military personnel.

Accused of ‘failing to cooperate’ with the army’s search for wanted rebels, two indigenous women were raped by members of the same 41st Infantry Battalion of the Mexican Army earlier this year. One of the victims husbands traveled to the Public Ministry in the state capital of Chilpancingo- an eight hour walk and several hour bus ride, to report the crime. The Public minister agreed to send a representative to the community to investigate but the victims and their families are still waiting.

To date, no military personnel have been charged, tried or convicted for recent human rights abuses in Guerrero. And, probably, none ever will be because Article 13 of the Mexican Constitution states that crimes such as rape or murder committed against a civilian by a member of the military while conducting official duties cannot be prosecuted in a civilian court. The Federal Attorneys Office (PGR) therefore, refuses to investigate or prosecute soldiers accused of crimes.

Mexican citizens have effectively been stripped of legal recourse when crimes are committed against them by the military. Similarly, if citizens accuse the Judicial Police of committing a crime, they have little hope of seeing justice, because the police are part of the same legal entity to which a citizen must turn to for investigation, prosecution and justice.

Unlike Chiapas, where Subcomandante Marcos has captured international attention, crimes against the people of Guerrero go largely unnoticed. Beverly Collins of Medicans Sans Frontiers explains that international organisations tend to steer clear because ‘it is very difficult to know who you are dealing with in Guerrero, the layers of corruption are so deep.’ Mexicans brave enough to speak out at existing abuses, like human rights defender of the isolated La Montana region, Abel Barrera, live in constant threat of assassination, or they end up dead.

Killed by gunshot in her Mexico city office last October, prominent human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa had defended Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabreara and had been asked to help defend other Guerrero ecologists who had fought openly against local powers profiting from illegal logging.

A journalist working for the Guerrero daily, El Sur, supported the widespread assumption that army officials and aforementioned local power, Rogaciano Alba, wanted ‘her out of the way’ because she focused embarrassing attention on them. The investigating Attorney Generals Office has rejected the theory and is inclined to believe that the lawyer committed suicide.

The crimes committed by Mexico’s armed forces during the dirty war, could amount to ‘crimes against humanity’, according to General Jose Francisco Gallardo, who was freed this year after serving seven years in prison for criticizing the military. When Fox appointed a special prosecutor to examine the intelligence files, many Mexicans hoped their country would lead the way in bringing justice to former officials, but there has been little progress so far, with only two Generals facing charges.

If the past is posing problems the present poses even more. Given the continuing impunity of political and military power in Guerrero, President Fox cannot be certain when he says that, ‘the events documented in those files will never again occur in Mexico’. The crimes will continue until he reforms Article 13, stripping the army of their power. But to do this Fox needs support from the PRI controlled congress.

Alice Hutchinson is a freelance journalist living in Mexico.

Leave a comment