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Mexico's Dirty War Never Ended

Inside Puente Grande Prison

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City

First the prisoners were stripped naked at gunpoint and forced to lie down face first on the freezing concrete floor with their hands locked behind their heads for hours on end while guards took turns walking over them. The women too were ordered to disrobe under the leering gazes of male guards and locked into a basement room where they were threatened with rape and sodomy.

One by one, the prisoners were taken out for interrogation and when they refused to sign blank confessions, were beaten into unconsciousness. Sleep deprivation was introduced to break the prisoners down – whenever one would close his or her eyes, the guards brutally kicked them awake. One naked prisoner was "hooded" in a black garbage bag just as U.S. interrogators tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Prisoners were forced to wash their hands and faces in their own urine.

"When I wouldn’t sign, they pulled down my pants and punched me so hard in the testicles that I blacked out. When I came back, they tied a plastic bag around my head and beat me with bats that were wrapped in sponges so they didn’t leave any marks. When I tried to breath, the plastic stuck to my nose and mouth and I felt like I was suffocating.

"After I passed out for the third time, they put the wires on my balls and up my ass and gave me a ‘calienton’ (electric shock) – but I never signed the confession" the young protestor who goes by the name of "El Mapache" ("Raccoon") told human rights investigators proudly.

While the torture sessions continued hour after hour in the basement of the Palace of Justice, the parents searched frantically for their disappeared children, chasing from one police precinct to another with their long lists of names.

Scenes from the "dirty war" that swept through the southern cone of the Americas in the 1970s and ’80s, Videla in Argentina, Pinochet’s Chile? Film from Mexico’s own dirty war which preceded those further south in which hundreds were similarly tortured and disappeared?

The answer is none of the above. These descriptions were assembled from the testimonies of 43 young men and women, 21 of them – including a deaf mute and a 66 year-old man – still being held incommunicado in one of Mexico’s three super maximum security prisons despite an outcry from Mexican human rights advocates and a flurry of urgent action bulletins issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

"The inhuman behavior of the prison personnel can only have been ordered from the highest level of command," wrote HRW’s Jose Miguel Vivanco to the governor of Jalisco state where the mistreatment of the so-called "globalfobicos" at Puente Grande prison is ongoing.

The crime for which the young protestors are being held in maximum lock-up? Having been in and around downtown Guadalajara. Mexico’s second city, on the afternoon of May 28th 2004 while 52 heads of state from Latin America and the European Union gathered nearby in a largely ceremonial summit focused on combating terrorism and expanding free trade between the two blocs.

After clashes between police and "altermundistas" ("other worlders") exploded in a 65 minute "zipizapi", the cops went after protestors like Milosevic’s Cossacks carrying out an ethnic cleansing, sweeping the downtown area and beating and arresting suspect young people, including eight non-Mexicans who were summarily deported under Constitutional Article 33 which gives authorities fiat to throw anyone out of the country who is deemed "inconvenient" to the president. 111 were taken to the Justice Palace and charged with riot, treason, and sedition – 67 were released after a sleepless 24 hours in the basement interrogation rooms. The 44 comrades they left behind suffered the full brunt of the tortures. One 23 year-old IndyMedia activist was "disappeared" and, in classic dirty war style, was found chained to a bed in the civil hospital with a fractured skull four days later.

The governor of Jalisco, Jose Ramirez Acuna, a member of the right-wing PAN party whose most notable member is President Vicente Fox, justified the pogram as being directed at "anarchists and criminals." "Guadalajara is not Mexico City" he warned the hated "chilamgos" (Mexico City residents), "you cannot come here and sleep in our parks. We will not allow these savages to parade around with their faces covered like highwaymen!"

Anti-globalization foes had gathered in Guadalajara to make their opposition heard against free trade, ALCA (Bush’s "Free Trade Area of the Americas"), and the occupation of Iraq, a sub-text of social movements everywhere these days, to more than half a hundred heads of Latin American and European states. Among the luminaries: Jacques Chirac, Brazil’s Lula, Hugo Chavez, and Spain’s newly-elected Jose Rodriguez Zapatero (the star of the show) but not Fidel Castro or Tony Blair or George Bush, the latter being excluded for geographical reasons. Despite Bush’s absence Washington’s shadow hovered over the conclave like an ominous pterodactyl.

Perhaps because Bush’s exclusion did not give the summit a clear target, the globalphobes’ numbers were reduced to a handful of activists from the venerable Mexican Network Against Free Trade (RMALC), the Authentic Workers Front (FAT), a few electricity workers representing the powerful SME union, laid-off Euskadi tire workers, a posse of gays and lesbians from the city’s combative community, the usual spike-haired anarco-punks, and the highly inflammable (and infiltrateable) General Strike Council, the final remnants of a long-ago student strike at the national university.
The clash between 300 demonstrators maximum and 1500 heavily armed state and local police was like the chronicle of a massacre foretold. "A clear (police) provocation" avowed Jaime Aviles, special correspondent for the national daily La Jornada. Aviles wrote of encountering a pair of burly police types (in shorts) handing out leaflets addressed to "the students of the national university who have been shot, killed or expelled" to resist police aggression. Later, at the zenith of the clash, he would see the same men direct uniformed police to an alcove where their billyclubs were stockpiled.

Mortally offended by the left daily’s charges of provocateurs, the Bloque Negro ("Black Bloc") issued an e-mail communiqué taking full responsibility for confronting the police with marbles and slingshots to demonstrate to the rest of the lily-livered (editors note) movement that some militants still took the struggle seriously.

Mexico has a checkered history in handling the globalphobes. In Cancun in February 2001, 60 demonstrators trying to reach the hotel zone where a road show of the Davos World Economic Forum was being addressed by President Fox were clobbered so badly by police that their blood dappled the white sands of that luxury Caribbean resort. In Monterrey in March 2002 at a United Nations development summit, protests were muted when dissident non-governmental organizations were invited in from the cold to speak their mind. The heavy presence of U.S. military that locked down the city in anticipation of Bush’s arrival also deterred the globalphobes. When the World Trade Organization played Cancun in September 2003, thousands of enraged anti-globalization farmers rushed police barricades and one Korean activist committed suicide in desperation, a gesture that subsequently sobered up both the security forces and the black bloc.

But Guadalajara was enemy territory for the altermundistas, a bastion of orthodox Catholicism guided by the most intolerant Cardinal in Mexico and a PAN government drawn from the right wing of that right-wing party. The city has often been a stage for "wars" between good and evil and served as the capital for "Cristero" guerrilla groups that fought the federal government from 1926 to 1929 after all churches were closed down by strongman Plutarco Elias Calles. During the 1960s and ’70s, leftist urban guerilleros fought gun battles with Falange-like right-wing youth on Guadalajara’s streets.

To add to their troubles, the altermundistas walked into a crossfire between would-be PAN presidential candidates to succeed Vicente Fox, each trying to show they were more macho than the other. When the hardliner Jalisco governor Ramirez Acuna stole the summit spotlight to unveil then-energy secretary Felipe Calderon as his choice, Fox, who had been boosting the fortunes of his wife Marta to succeed him, took umbrage. So did Interior secretary Santiago Creel who is in charge of the nation’s internal security.
While the three hassle over taking credit for the crackdown on the protestors, 21 altermundistas are subject to daily torture in Puente Grande, an annex of Abu Ghraib prison.

The treatment meted out to the Guadalajara prisoners is hard evidence that Mexico’s dirty war, the systematic persecution of dissidents by security forces, has never abated.

Although social historians peg the "Guerra sucia" to the suppression of multiple guerrilla fronts throughout the country under beleaguered former president Luis Echeverria (1970-76 – see the Dirty War Today I), his predecessor Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (1964-70) and his late successor Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-82), the persecution of dissidents continued long after.

More than 500 supporters of the upstart Party of the Democratic Revolution were slain in political warfare following the stolen 1988 presidential election. Hundreds more died in Chiapas in the aftermath of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. Approximately 80 political prisoners are still being held in Mexican penitentiaries, most of them accused members of armed groups like the Popular Revolutionary Army and its offshoots and the Chiapas-based Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN.) Torture, which is outlawed as a tool of extracting confessions, is still a high police art as the continuing ordeal of the altermundistas abundantly illustrates, further proof – as if it was needed – that the dirty war in Mexico has never ended.

John Ross will be on the spot in Mexico City for much of July and August before sallying forth to do maximum mischief at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan from where he will launch the intergalactic tour of his latest instant cult classic "Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left".