“Mexico presents special concerns. It is vital to Mexican & US security that existing & incipient insurgent movements be examined, understood & resolved. This is an undertaking as complex & challenging as any in Latin America, which forms a backdrop to what may be happening in Mexico.”
Dr. Graham H. Turbiville, “Mexico’s Other Insurgents,” Military Review, June-July 1997
Through a combination of electoral fraud, corruption, mass poverty & oppression, Mexico always appears on the verge of a political crisis. Following the July 2, 2006, elections, the Mexican government’s enduring ‘crisis of legitimacy’ only increased as uncertainty over who won, along with widespread accusations of fraud, further polarized the country. This drama dragged on through a long, hot summer, stoked by the open revolt in Oaxaca against government authority. In the end, Felipe Calderon of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) was declared el presidente by a very slim margin, neither resolving the conflict nor dampening charges of electoral fraud.
What makes this crisis so dangerous now (for the Mexican ruling class) is that it occurs at a time when many diverse social movements are unifying their resistance & becoming more combative. A primary factor in this has been the Zapatista Indigenous insurgency in the southern state of Chiapas, which began in 1994 and which has had profound effects on Mexican society. The most recent manifestations of this have occurred in large-scale revolts in Atenco & Oaxaca in 2006, involving tens of thousands in protests & street-fighting.
The total population of Mexico is approximately 100 million. Of this, 12 million are estimated to be Indigenous (or 12 percent of the population). Others estimate the Indigenous population to be as high as 30 percent, with many being assimilated into the broader Mexican culture. The majority of the Mexican population are referred to as Mestizo, or mixed ethnicity of Indigenous & Spanish, who culturally identify as Mexican (although by our understanding, Mexico appears to be 90 % Indigenous, even if many are assimilated into the nation-state of Mexico). A small percent of the entire population is considered white, primarily descendants of the Spanish.
There are some 62 different Indigenous nations in Mexico, although the most well known are the Mexica (or Aztec) & Maya. The diversity in the landscape of Mexico is said to contribute to the many different Indigenous nations in the region. This land is comprised of mountainous regions & plateaus that cover more than 2/3 of the country, with the rest comprised of fertile valleys, forests and deserts.
On January 1, 1994, the EZLN emerged to capture 7 towns & cities across Chiapas, fighting with police & soldiers before withdrawing. Following this, the rebels did not carry out any new offensives, but instead focused on the base of their insurgency: their people. The EZLN have assisted Indigenous communities in Chiapas to build autonomous governing councils, schools, clinics, communications, & economic self-reliance. As a result, and due to the frequent public gatherings, mobilizations & campaigns carried out by the EZLN over the past 13 years, the Zapatista movement appears to have grown & strengthened (a claim of the EZLN in its Sixth Declaration, made in 2005). In fact, the insurgent spirit of the Zapatistas itself appears to have spread across many regions in Mexico (as well as internationally), a process that continues to this day.
The impact of the Zapatista rebellion has been felt throughout Mexico & contributed to significant political change. In 1994-95, the ruling PRI party (Institutional Revolutionary Party) was hit with the assassination of its primary presidential candidate & the exposure of major corruption within the party. In 1997, the PRI lost its majority control of the Congress for the first time in its history. In July 2000, the PRI was defeated in presidential elections, ending 7 decades of ‘democratic’ dictatorship.
Along with inspiring & mobilizing Indigenous peoples across Mexico, the Zapatistas have also served as a guiding light against neo-liberal economic policies that have hit many different social sectors throughout the country, including Indigenous campesinos, students, workers, & women. Some of the most important social conflicts that have occurred include the 1999 UNAM student strike, the 2006 rebellions in Atenco & Oaxaca, as well as the development of numerous guerrilla groups in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero & Oaxaca.
Atenco is located near Mexico City and was the sight of conflict several years ago, in 1999-2002, when many residents fought to stop the construction of a new airport. The struggle at Atenco became a popular symbol of resistance throughout Mexico. In May 2006, Atenco once again became the scene of barricades & riots as heavy police repression was unleashed against the population. This recent conflict began on May 3, 2006, when police attempted to evict street vendors in the nearby town of Texcoco (20 miles east of Mexico City) from land where a proposed Wal-Mart is to be built.
In Atenco, the People’s Front in Defense of the Land, first formed to fight the airport project, blocked the highway in solidarity. Hundreds of riot police were sent in to remove the blockade, but despite 5 attempts to clear it they were repelled by the people fighting back with batons, rocks, & Molotovs. This violence resulted in many people injured, one youth shot & killed, & scores of arrests. The people also took 11 police hostage, although most were later released.
The next day, at 6:30 AM, over three thousand police (mostly the Federal Preventative Police, PFP) invaded Atenco, violently dispersing barricades & crowds with batons, tear gas, & plastic bullets. Hundreds of people were injured, and after a few hours police gained control of the streets. They then began house-to-house raids, breaking doors & windows, attacking people and carrying out arrests, especially of movement organizers.
In the aftermath of these attacks, over 100 had been arrested, with nearly 200 more missing. At least 3 persons were killed. In addition, many women who had been arrested were sexually assaulted by police. By early evening, most of the police had withdrawn from Atenco, leaving a trail of terror & destruction in their wake. Many observers see the police repression at Atenco as being closely related to the struggle over the airport, which is seen as a project still sought after by business & government.
Oaxaca is a state neighboring Chiapas. It is an estimated 60 percent Indigenous, with a population of some 3.2 million overall. Oaxaca city is the state capital and a main tourist destination. The conflict in Oaxaca city arose as a result of a teacher’s strike that began on May 22, and which was joined by Indigenous & other people’s organizations. They presented a number of demands, including better health, education, infrastructure, wages, etc., to the state government. The movement soon converged around efforts to have the governor—Ulises Ruiz Ortiz—removed from office. Ortiz was widely despised due to his coming to power in 2004 under a cloud of fraud & corruption, and because of his repressive polices once in office.
On June 2, during federal elections and then one week later, on June 7, mass demonstrations of from 100-200,000 occurred in Oaxaca. Then, on June 14, Ortiz ordered the violent dispersal of a protest camp in the Zocalo (city center). Many people were injured by batons & tear gas, and pregnant women had miscarriages as a result. Later that day, thousands of people descended on the Zocalo & re-established the picket. A week later, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) was established to coordinate the resistance movement.
The APPO, comprised of teachers, peasants, Indigenous, women’s, workers, and many other groups, then organized more mass rallies involving as many as 1 million people. Radio & TV stations were taken over & government offices occupied. Against this, the government repeatedly used its police & paramilitary forces to attack the movement.
On November 26, heavy fighting again broke out when a large force of police invaded the city to clear out the resistance. Many buildings & cars were set on fire, along with attacks on police who used water cannons, tear gas, baton charges, arrests, torture, rape, and assassination.
According to the National Human Rights Commission (the CNDH, & reported in La Jornada), since August 2006, some 20 people have been assassinated (many of whom were movement organizers), over 350 have been arrested, nearly 400 injured, with more disappeared. Along with raids on homes & offices has been the practise of street abductions carried out by armed & masked men (police), who then torture their prisoners for information before releasing them.
Guerrillas in their Midst
Mexico has a long history of guerrilla warfare, dating back to the time of the Spanish invasion (early 1500s), through to the 1800s independence struggle, to invasion & annexation by the US (1848), to the 1910-19 Revolution. During the 1960s & ‘70s, a number of armed groups appeared throughout Mexico, most notably in the states of Guerrerro & Oaxaca, including the Party of the Poor (led by Lucio Cabanas, a former teacher) & the Revolutionary Clandestine Workers’ Union Party (PROCUP). Although largely destroyed by Mexican military & police action by the late 1970s, this phase of guerrilla activity would contribute to the development of later struggles.
According to their history, the origins of the EZLN can be traced back to this period, when a few surviving guerrillas made their way to the mountains of Chiapas, where they began to meet Indigenous fighters & peasants. By the early 1980s, the basis of the Zapatista army had been formed, and thereafter began ten years of organizing, recruiting, training, and gathering of resources.
Following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, there has been a proliferation of new guerrilla groups in Mexico. In 1995, the Clandestine Armed Forces (FAC) announced its formation, along with the Liberation Army of the Southern Sierra (ELSS), both in Guerrero. In Oaxaca, the Clandestine Indigenous National Liberation Army emerged, claiming to operate in both the mountains & urban areas. While these & many other examples have remained apparently small, unknown, and not very active groups, a new guerrilla movement appeared in Guerrero in 1996 that was far more organized: the Popular Liberation Army (EPR).
The EPR emerged in June 1996, during commemorations for 17 campesino activists murdered one year earlier by state police at Aguas Blancas. Over the course of the next few months, the EPR engaged in several gun battles—including raids & ambushes– with police & soldiers. In August, the group carried out coordinated attacks in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Tabasco, Guanajuato, and Mexico City, against police & government targets. The EPR claimed to have killed 41 government officials & police during these attacks. Their units operated in groups numbering up to 130 (company strength). EPR activity continued into 1997, even as it faced growing repression from the Mexican army & police.
During this same time, other guerrilla groups appeared, including the Guanajuato Revolutionary Army, the Revolutionary Army for Popular Insurrection (ERPI, an offshoot of the ERP), and the Armed Front for the Liberation of Marginalized People of Guerrero (FALPMG). In 2000, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People (FARP) appeared. Today, there are an estimated two dozen or more guerrilla groups in Mexico, with as many as 20 additional groups in Mexico City.
The primary areas for the proliferation of guerrilla activities have been the southern states of Chiapas, Guerrero & Oaxaca. These three states also have some of the highest ratios of Indigenous peoples and suffer the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, poor health, lack of infrastructure, etc. They also contain mountainous regions that provide better conditions for the establishment of guerrillas & base camps.
Context of Oppression & Resistance
Despite 13 years of neo-liberal economic policies following the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, most Mexicans continue to live in poverty, with as many as 70 million living at or below the poverty line. Along with rising costs of living, the government has also privatized many government & social services (an example of neo-liberalism). The effect has been to increase levels of poverty, even while the rich & middle-class have prospered.
In the northern border regions, rampant crime & violence associated with the drug trade has, in turn, been linked to government, police & military officials. Throughout the country, political corruption, poverty, & oppression has led many to become disillusioned & cynical towards the government, its courts & police, and the entire political establishment. The failure of the government to honour the San Andres Accords of 1996, which would have included Indigenous rights in the Constitution, along with ongoing electoral fraud, has led many to the conclusion that the avenues of legal & political change are closed.
At the same time, the Mexican military & police have carried out a ‘dirty war’ using torture, false arrests, disappearances and assassinations against members of the resistance. There are an estimated 500 political prisoners in Mexico today. The military & police have also received vast amounts of economic, technical & material aid from the US (under the pretext of a ‘War on Drugs’). In addition, paramilitary groups comprised of ranchers, landowners, police & military personnel are active in many states & have been responsible for numerous massacres, assassinations, disappearances, & assaults. Despite its image of ‘democracy’, the Mexican government clearly uses terror & violence to counter political opposition & to repress social movements.
Mexico is today the United State’s second largest trading partner. It is a primary exporter of manufactured goods & energy to the US. The state-owned PEMEX oil company is the world’s fifth largest, and 80 % of Mexico’s oil production goes to the US. Along with being a source of cheap manufactured goods & energy, Mexico is also an important source of agricultural products & illegal drugs to the US. Due to its geographic location, it is a primary transit route for export from Central & S. America (an important part of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, FTAA, which includes new highways, airports & port facilities).
For these reasons, Mexico is of vital strategic interest to the US. In 1917,during the Mexican Revolution, the US stationed 35,000 troops along the border to prevent refugees—along with revolution—from spreading into the country. Today, mass illegal immigration by Mexicans has swelled their population inside the US by an estimated 12 million. Along with legalized Mexican immigrants & their descendants, this population is now a powerful political force within the US (‘Latinos’ & ‘Hispanics’, primarily from Mexico, Central & South America, now comprise an estimated 40 million people, or some 20 % of the entire US population). In May 2006, huge rallies against proposed changes to immigration laws drew millions of Mexican-Americans and included widespread high-school walkouts & strikes by Mexican immigrants, who are an important source of cheap, physical labour in farms & factories throughout the country. For these same reasons, Mexico is also of vital strategic interest to resistance movements in both the US & Canada, as well as internationally.
Originally published in Warrior, No. 3, Summer 2007