Letter 14 From Mexico


Autonomous Communities, The Army's Reaction, The Authoritarian Reflex, The First Person Pronoun, Careful Dissent, No One In Control, The Coming Explosion

In the previous letter, I was talking about the "autonomous municipalities" of Chiapas, as the people of these areas refer to themselves --- communities that perceive themselves as having suffered generations of racial prejudice, humiliation, debt servitude, and land fraud (tricked out/robbed of their land by the powerful).

One could also add that they have suffered from land scarcity, overpopulation, and more recently from complex religious and political tensions that seem to be consciously nurtured by caciques and hacendados (Mafia-type bosses and hacienda owners) and by the Mexican government. Now, one at a time, these communities are being subjected to grinding mistreatment (rape, beatings, torture, murder, and massacre, as in Acteal). To varying degrees the perpetrators appear to be the Army, Judiciales, and para-military agents (recruited from PRI indian groups) -- but most of all by the Army, the ultimate authoritarian dueno (with a tilde over the "n").

The autonomous communities appear to be indistinguishable from supporters of the EZLN -- the very small Chiapas guerrilla army that hasn't fired a shot since January, 1994 when they declared war simultaneously against the Mexican government and against NAFTA: the North American Free Trade Agreement -- what is known here among left, center-left and center intellectuals as the apparatus of "neo-liberalismo" or -- more friendly -- the global free market economy.

These communities could have gone in several ways: 1) armed resistance or 2) deciding to rule themselves through grass roots democracy or 3) submission to the will of the old authorities.

Up to this point they appear to have chosen to build their own civic institutions. The response from the army has been paradigmatic authoritarianism. In Guerrero, two states away from Chiapas, the comandante of the 35 Zona Militar (based in the city of Chilpancingo) launched a suit for "defamation of the honor of the Army" against indian political leaders, human rights groups and the local media, who had formally accused six army soldiers of the assassination of PRD leader Oscar Rivera Leyva on April 19, 1998 in Atoyac de Alvarez.

The comandante also threatened the indigenes (Mixteco indians) in Metlatonoc (with accent over the first "o"), saying that at the first reoccurring incident of any kind the military would be back "to look for guerrillas of the EPR (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario, the Popular Revolutionary Army) and to combat narco-trafficking" -- all of which could be considered code for applying a heavy authoritarian hand, as it did during the 70's against the ragtag guerrilla army led by Lucio Cabanas (tilde over the "n"), a school teacher who was fed up with the marginalization and mistreatment of campesinos around and north of Acapulco and was declared an "outlaw" by the authorities.

Since the "outlaws" are seldom available, the heavy hand (then and now) more usually falls on the campesinos who support them and often even on those who are not supporting them but are caught in the middle. The method consists of destroying crops, burning houses, raping, taking prisoners, holding them in covered earth pits full of human excrement, maybe with hands, sometimes feet tied (cutting circulation), partial and complete hangings, partial and complete beatings (to death), repeated partial drowning, mock and real extra judicial executions etc. All of these are army methods for getting information in the state of Guerrero on who leads and supports the autonomous communities and the EPR. One can fairly safely assume the same methods are at work in Chiapas.

This may be the part that is left out when the US press reports the Mexican army occupations of Mexican villages. The Mexican press also prefers to remain vague, and even the press on the left-center refers only generally to "physical and psychological torture."

The general based in Chilpancingo, Guerrero was particularly outraged that civic groups have also accused the Army of setting forest fires to drive the guerrilla out of the mountains. (On this one, campesino wood cutters may face a difficult moral choice. Burnt forests allow them to cut and take trees. But cut forests expose the guerrilla -- possibly friends and relatives -- to army patrols.)

The army generals and civil authorities at the very highest level are acting out an authoritarianism that seems out of date and unnecessary. It would seem the Authoritarian Mind insists on the absence of dissent -- the same thinking shown by President Diaz Ordaz (accent over the "i") on October 2, 1968 when he ordered army and various police-army agents to open fire on a pro-democracy student meeting in Mexico City.

In this disciplinary action 5,000 soldiers trapped five to ten thousand people in a plaza and fired at them from six-twenty in the afternoon until eleven at night with tanks, bazookas, machine guns, and high-powered US Army issue MI rifles, and pistols. Students were chased down and bayoneted. Ambulances were kept out, as well as the press. A reporter who refused to give up his film "was stabbed a few times with a bayonet to make him understand the need for order." (Enrique Krauze, Mexico: Biography of Power, 1997, p.720, HarperCollins). In his memoirs Ordaz wrote: "They wanted to change this Mexico of ours. They want to change it for another (one) which we do not like. If we want to preserve it and we remain united, they will not change what is ours."

Emilio Rabasa is the official government negotiator for peace in Chiapas. He is also one of the current mouthpieces on the government's legal justification for dismantling the so-called "autonomous communities." PRI agents presumably overdid the dismantling when they shot down indian women and children in Acteal on December 22, 1997. These people had belonged to the "Las Abejas" -- The Bees -- and were part of an "autonomous community," i.e. a group that had refused to comply with and become the constituents of the local PRI authorities. While the dismantling went on for (what?) an hour, nearby police and army groups stood by and did nothing to save them.

There is a cartoon in La Jornada May 8, 1998 showing Rabasa dressed in the 16th or 17th century costume of a Spanish viceroy, with a big PRI button on his lapel. He's holding a staff, with the sad look of a man compelled to follow moral conscience. His left buckled slipper and foot is resting on the head of an Aztec indian lying face down on the ground -- subjugated. Viceroy Rabasa is holding a scrolled parchment. It reads: "...y decreto que los municipios autonomos son la peor amenaza para la democracia" -- "And I decree that the autonomous municipalities are (our) greatest threat to democracy."

Rabasa has announced that force against the autonomous communities (i.e. zapatista supporters) is justifiable in order "to guarantee the security of the interior" and "to secure justice" (La Jornada, May 11, 1998). These groups, he says, exist in a state of "unconstitutionality." For that reason, the army and police (this includes, we know, the Judiciales and para-military agents) will act with force to maintain Mexico's "sovereignty" and "public internal order."

All this might be convincing argument if the concept of (legitimate) law and public order and constitutionality had been applied all along. If they had always been applied to include the Army, the police (in all their forms), the para-military groups, and to the state and federal government as they have been shaped over time by the PRI. If they had made possible free open (without threat) legitimate elections, a strong judiciary, a non-corrupt police, and a military under strong democratic civilian control.

The PRI has begun spending from its bottomless coffers again for the upcoming state elections. There are huge painted slogan in the national colors of Mexico on walls on the sides of highways. One of the most common ones is: "Ernesto Zedillo: Nosotros por Mexico" -- "Ernesto Zedillo (the president of the country): "We are for Mexico" -- suggesting, of course, that "they" are not for Mexico.

It is the same use of the pronoun "we" and the possessive adjective "our(s)" that President Diaz Ordaz' includes in his memoirs when he explains the use of bullets and bayonets to control student "anarchy" on October 2, 1968. "They wanted to change this Mexico of ours. They want to change it for another which we do not like. If we want to preserve it and we remain united, they will not change what is ours."

Those not fooled by the first person pronoun -- and because it is still dangerous to do so openly -- show dissent in other ways. Not too far from the center of Guanajuato, not far from the building where the symphony's musicians practice, there is a wonderful graffiti on the wall of one of the city's infinite passageways (callejones): "Y los mismos PRItextos, y mas PTextos, PRDque te admiras? No te hagas PANdejo!"

In less clever Spanish it would read like this: "Y los mismos PRI pretextos, y mas PT pretextos, porque te admiras? No te hagas PAN pendejo!" -- "Always the same PRI pretexts (cover up, lies), and more PT lies (the Workers Party: a PRI-financed front-group), why do you admire them? Don't be a PAN fool (the conservative party that is gaining on the PRI all the time; but much stronger than "fool," more like the obscenity with the word "hole" in it)!

In Chiapas, indian leaders of "autonomous communities" are showing more open defiance. They did this recently in front of a large delegation of Italian human rights observers, who had come warning they would carry their observations to Strasbourg and the European Union, and to Rome where Italy is about to pass a free trade agreement with Mexico -- an agreement which is to include human rights guarantees in both countries.

These 135 brave souls would not be put off by Mexican government sanctimony about respecting Mexican law (i.e. that they should not go look at autonomous communities the government didn't want them to see). The Italians claimed a distinction between what is "law" and what is "legitimate." According to them, checking on a foreign government's human rights record is "legitimate."

On this occasion, one indian leader made a brave if somewhat unclear statement, as carried by La Jornada: "(We) The autonomous municipalities will not disappear with the destruction of (our) houses by the Army and police, or through proclamation...(the communities) belong to all the people who have named us and...(the concept of autonomy) live(s) in the heart of the townships and in their thoughts."

He said the legality of the autonomous municipalities -- which he said the government wants to destroy -- derives from the Mexican Constitution and from the San Andres (accent over the "e") Accords signed by the government and the EZLN (Zapatistas) in February, 1996. He also accused the state (Chiapas) and federal government of being illegitimate.

Other indian statements have bordered on a new and dangerous irrationality that has historical antecedents. Indian leaders have claimed recently, for example, that the UN had asked the Army to attack them in the village of Tierra y Libertad, deep within Zapatista territory, i.e the gachupines (the Spanish elite) of the Mexican government and UN (perhaps imagined as some gringo-gachupine authority) have become indistinguishable in some indians' minds.

It may be an irrationality with racial overtones, like in 1712, when indians rose up in Chiapas and went after non-indians, tired of being tamemes (human beasts of burden), especially when the mule had already been introduced into the rest of Mexico. They were urged on by a virgin and her talking prophetess. In 1848 in the Yucatan, Mayans were wakened to rebellion by a talking cross. In the 1860s in Chiapas it was stones falling from heaven, a prophet preaching violent liberation, a priestess, and finally an engineer from Mexico City who led something like 6,000 indians against federal forces (Mexico: Biography of Power, Enrique Krauze, 1997 p.200).

It is possible that the indian leaders and their communities will explode, as has happened before in Mexican history. The "autonomous municipalities" and the Mexican army may be heading for a confrontation. The Army out of authoritarian reflex to accusations of abuse and genocide (because they injure their "honor" but really just challenge their own near autonomy). And the indians because of a growing reticence to continue being Mexico's tamemes -- beasts of burden, objects of marginalization, racism, political manipulation by the PRI and now by the EZLN leadership (?) as well.

And there is no control. Certainly not from the US government which has gone on happily supplying the Zedillo government with the instruments of war (always subsidized by the US tax payer and a profit to the US arms industry, the largest in the world, which gets various tax write-offs and credits), supposedly to be used only for "the war against drugs."

Some of the 103 helicopters given or sold Mexico by the US are now being seen in Chiapas and Guerrero, menacing the autonomous communities (La Jornada, reported by Jim Carson and David Brooks, probably from the Washington Post, May 9, 1998). In all, there has been a 600% increase in military spending in Mexico within the last year, much of it coming from the US and, according to La Crisis, Nr. 123, 2-8 Mayo, 1998, also from Israel -- which also relies on its arms sales for its balance of payments.

The US has also happily gone on training Mexican army officers in counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare at the School of Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. According to La Jornada (May 11, 1998) some 13 high ranking officers from the Mexican army (trained at the School of Americas) have played an important role in the "low-intensity" campaigns (high intensity for the recipients of this training) in Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca.

Even the Mexican congress can exert no control, although it is taking some steps in that direction. A majority of both PRI and PRD members of the Comision (accent over the second "o") de Defensa de la Camara (accent over the first "a") de Diputados (Congressional Defense Committee) are in rebellion against the chair and secretary of that committee, both of whom are generals in the Mexican Army and both appointed by the Secretary of Defense in the Zedillo government. The secretary (Miguel Angel Godinez, with accent over the "i" in Godinez), by the way -- a fact worth noting -- is the former comandante of the Seventh Military Region, who was based in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, during the EZLN uprising in January, 1994.

The congressional rebels are complaining that the generals are not elected by the people and therefore should not sit on a congressional committee; that they have not pushed ahead on an analysis of the role of the military in Mexico with its ever increasing power; that they (as a committee) have not convened since March 23, 1998 during a time of extreme crisis in Chiapas and elsewhere; that they therefore have not been able to form a quorum; that the congress therefore has not been able to discuss, review, and comment on Zedillo's initiative on firearms and explosives, passed in the Senate (PRI-dominated): the legal -- if maybe not legitimate --justification the Zedillo government is citing for the occupation and suppression of autonomous municipalities.

Further, the congressional Justice Committee has begun to study a reform of the Code of Military Law, presumably to do something about generals being on congressional committees. Defense Committee members have already accused the generals of being employees of the Secretary of Defense. "We are not your troops," one was quoted as saying. "We were elected by the people; your being named to the Committee was a gift to you from the Defense Secretary (who is, of course, PRI)." In an act that should be supported by the US government, they are insisting that the chair of the committee be a civilian. (The US trains its army officers and supplies them with weapons. Why not a little support for this reformist effort?)

The PRD members are boycotting the Defense Committee as long as the generals are there in their positions. Even some PRI deputies are for a civilian chair and for the independence of the committee. Both PRD and PRI (a rare alliance!) object to the "tourist information" the army supplies them by taking them on programmed Potemkin Village visits to army bases -- tours, they say, that are arranged to keep them from checking on the army's possible human rights violations or from looking for evidence of the Army's gradual drift toward the assumption of absolute power in Mexico.

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