DEATH SQUADS ARE TARGETING HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS IN MEXICO

Last year, the respected weekly news magazine “Processo” reported that a “dirty war” of terror, disappearances and murder was being planned “at the highest levels of government”. The evidence pointing to the directors of that war continues to grow. So do the reported incidents of violence against human rights workers, opposition politicians and journalists.

The pattern is an old one, oft repeated in our client states: trying its’ best to put a benevolent face on political dictatorship, the “old guard” becomes more and more restive at what it sees as unnecessary (and $ costly) concessions to “the rabble”. Finally, appalled at the mounting criticism and alarmed both at the breakdown of social order and the demands for democratic change which are the natural consequences of the inequitable economy over which they preside, the privileged few blame the “agitators” and the “leftists” for causing the problem. At this point, the instruments of State terror — the police, the army, the internal security directorate — are given the task of ridding the State of this danger to the national tranquility.

Armies – military or paramilitary – are expected to obey orders. Continued obstructionism and agitation by the opposition would be clear evidence that the orders had not been obeyed.

Because their leaders still pander to easily panicked and relatively weak-stomached foreign governments (and investors) who are forced by their electorates and stockholders to pay lip service to human rights, the forces of Law and Order cannot, as some among them would prefer, simply round up dissenters, put them up against the wall, and shoot them. At least, not officially.

The solution to this contradiction between the necessity to maintain a democratic face for export, and to terrorize the opposition into silence, is the paramilitary death squad. Special units of police and military personnel are formed. They strip themselves of all insignia but retain their uniforms. Once they have started operating, the mere sight of the anonymous uniforms terrifies the citizenry, and also identifies them to regular police units as people with connections at the highest levels of government, to be left alone.

Because gangs that kidnap, rape, rob, and kill random civilians are more and more often similarly dressed, there is confusion. Some say it is the same people, operating with impunity because of who they are, and what they know. Some say it is merely clever opportunism on the part of organized criminal gangs.

In some areas, gangs of young macho inheritors of the oppressive finca system also form. These irregulars are often as much trouble for their elders as they are a help. Usually, the bloodiest and most macabre of the killings are their work. The most infamous of these are the “White Guards” in Chiapas.

In early 1994, San Cristobal de Las Casas was aswarm with journalists. A reporter from “La Jornada” was accidentally invited to attend a closed meeting of the landed gentry, and in the brief period before she was found out and ejected, she heard one of the leaders give a speech in which she said in effect, that all out of town reporters and human rights workers should be given a choice: leave or die.

Since then, there have been several incidents where reporters for Mexican newspapers have been badly beaten, and a few have disappeared. Ones who have been beaten, have accused the White Guards.

In January, a human rights activist and U.S. co-ordinator of the Zapatista support network in the United States was raped repeatedly at gunpoint while hiking in the Montebello Lakes region of Chiapas. The individuals that did it were wearing anonymous army uniforms. When she complained to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City about the lack of response she got when she went to the authorities, they told her that it was in internal matter and there was nothing they could do. Last week, Pastors For Peace (p4p@igc.apc.org) put out a call for women to go to Chiapas as witnesses in hopes that a larger foreign presence would reduce the frequency of attacks on women working to improve the lives of local people there.

In a continuing cycle that has lasted for decades, peasants who believe that they have been cheated out of land that belonged to them, or was promised to them under land reforms, have occupied that land in defiance of the “legal” owners. Usually, they are removed by the local authorities, who more often than not are the land owners’ realatives. Sometimes the local authorities agree with the peasants and refuse to clear them out. The owners then either turn to the uniformed federal or state police or the army, or they send in the White Guards. When the Guards go in, the odds of a fatal shooting go up. But this is not just a Chiapas phenomenon.

In Tabasco earlier this year, Pemex workers and concerned citizens, alarmed at the level of pollution that exists around installations there, and understanding that plans to privatize Pemex must include forgiveness of costly cleanups as part of the selling price, occupied dozens of wells and storage facilities. They were violently cleared off by an agglomeration of uniformed and ununiformed units.

In Guerrero, the massacre at Aguas Blancas which recently resulted in the resignation of strong-man governor Ruben Figueroa Alcocer, was carried out by uniformed state highway patrol officers over a 16-minute period, and recorded on videotape by a police photographer, no doubt as a training film. For decades, the leadership of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Campesino Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS), and other opposition groups, have suffered abductions, torture, killing and disappearances at the hands of anonymously uniformed personnel.

Outside Acapulco earlier this month, armed bandits stopped a bus going from Mexico City to Puerto Escondido. They robbed the passengers, beat a foreign male, and raped several women, including two from the U.S. and one from Norway. The foreigners, the only ones who signed official statements at first, described their attackers as wearing anonymous uniforms. The police promptly arrested two civilians, and staged a lineup. The women failed to identify these men as their attackers. The men were nonetheless charged, and a local judge bound them over for trial. Later, a fourteen year old Mexican girl who had also been raped, was brought forward and identified these men as having raped her. The men were wearing shorts, and the official police documents describe them as having worn shorts during the bus robbery. Family and neighbors all came forward to insist that they had been home during the time in question. The judge came under tremendous pressure to let them go. She has resigned from the case, and a new judge has been appointed. The brothers are still imprisoned.

In Mexico City, according to the Mexico City Daily Times (see below) of March 28, the amount of death threats issued to journalists and human rights workers began to increase dramatically in the fall of 1994, coinciding with the run-up to the presidential election. While he admits that their exact identities are not clear, reporter Thomas Catan does report that human rights leaders are convinced that a former Interior Minister, a former head of the Security Directorate, and an Army general who directed a bloody repression of dissent in Guerrero in the 1970’s are at least a part of the present terrorist leadership.

WORLD TOURISM TARGETS THE RUTA MAYA

If you have any desire to visit the ancient ruins which have been uncovered in the area of southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador, known previously as the Ruta Maya (the Mayan Route) better get your bags packed and boogie. If you wait too much longer, you will miss it.

Two weeks ago, the Mundo Maya (Mayan World: get it? Sounds a lot like Marine World, or Disney World, doesn’t it?) Commission hosted an exposition and invited over 600 international travel companies to attend. While promoting other attractions, such as beaches, coral reefs, jungle, and mega-resorts, the main focus of this gathering was “las ruinas” (the ruins). According to press releases, special attention will be paid to increasing bed space, roads, airports and the like, while preserving “fragile natural environment”. First to be targeted will be the already high-traffic sites at Cichen Itza, Uxmal, Tulum, Palenque, Tikal and Copan. The goal is to make this area one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.

MEXICO CITY TIMES MOVES IN ON “THE NEWS”

There is a new daily paper available for the English language audience in Mexico. Nationally distributed from Mexico City, the Times is a welcome alternative to the News, which for years has been the only national newspaper in English.

The political orientation of the Times is unclear (the News’ biases are not: it operates both as a conduit for government handouts, and an unabashed “booster” for the U.S. business interests in Mexico). However, it has printed several articles critical of government policies, and has been very active in exposing human rights violations.

While most of the domestic news appears to be one-day-later rehashes of articles in the previous day’s Spanish newspapers, coverage of foreign news is both up-to-date and extensive. Translations of Spanish language wire services are of better quality. The Times tends to be Eurocentric, and much of its’ reprints come from the English dailies.

While some reporters have already left the News for the Times, David Shields and a couple of other feature writers have remained. The crossword puzzles are not as good, but the cartoons are arguably better. The Times does not publish on Sunday.

STAN’S FEARLESS PREDICTIONS (a regular feature of the Oaxaca Newsletter).

Roberto Madrazo, the embattled governor of Tabasco, will step down in April. The Supreme Court has decided that he must answer questions by federal prosecutors regarding what most view as the worst case of election buying in recent history. A court of inquiry will be formed, and will order him to do so. The PRD, from whom he stole the election, will demand the governorship, but they will not get it. Instead, he will appoint a fellow PRIista.

Inflation, now predicted to reach only into the low teens, will break 20% in 1996. The shortfalls in corn and beans, the staples of the Mexican diet, and the resulting importation of same, will be the major factor. The recent increases in milk prices will also be felt.