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"You Could See the Fear in Their Eyes"

Mexico: the Pentagon’s Proxy Army in Iraq

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico, which unlike its Central American neighbors was never a member of George Bush’s "Coalition of the Willing", now has the largest contingent of any Latin nation fighting on the ground in Iraq–8000 Mexican and Mexican-descent troops who voluntarily joined the U.S. armed forces.

All Central American contingents save for Salvador, which also has a considerable number of security and construction personnel on the ground, have been withdrawn from Iraq by their governments.

Mexico’s bellicose national anthem speaks glowingly of "a soldier in each son of God" and Mexico’s sons have been marching off to wars–albeit U.S. wars–since Pearl Harbor. Bush’s doomed aggression in Iraq is no exception.

50 miles north of Zacatecas city, in a region that has been the traditional headwaters of the great flood of "indocumentados" who have made it to El Norte, the shrine to the Santo Nino de Atocha ("Holy Child of Atocha") is crowded with migrant families asking protection for their loved ones in this dangerous journey to "the other side", with "plegarias" (prayers) stamped on ornamental tin sheets or simply written out in long hand on a sheet of school notebook paper.

In every U.S. war that the sons and now the daughters of Mexico have gone off to fight, families have come here to the shrine to hang portraits of handsome young men in U.S. dress military uniforms and ask the Santo Nino for his protection. Now, Iraq is much in evidence on the walls here. Like many, the Medina Maldonado family has come to ask the Holy Child to keep their Jaime out of harm’s way "especially now that he is being sent to Iraq." The family of Jesus Gutierrez Mercado asks "the favor" that he be brought home "sano y salvo" (‘safe and sound’) from the American war.

Just about half of the 110,000 Latinos (Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans) in the U.S. military are of Mexican descent, and 22,000 out of the 37,000 non-citizens serving in anticipation of obtaining U.S. citizenship, are similarly of the Mexican persuasion–most of them smuggled into the U.S. as kids without legal documents.

Because Latino troop numbers (two thirds of all Latinos are Mexican) still do not match general population proportions, Mexican descent youth are pursued assiduously by high school recruiters–the U.S. Marine Corps is particularly aggressive and Mexicans now form 13% of that branch of service.

Because Marine units from Camp Pendleton in San Diego, which have high numbers of Mexican recruits, led the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and later were brought back to level Fallujah in November, the casualty rates have come home painfully to Mexican communities on both sides of the border.

Of the first 1000 U.S. deaths recorded in Iraq, almost all of them the lowest-ranked, poorest-paid, and worst trained troops, 122 were Latinos, about 70 of them of Mexican descent. Their deaths in a war that most Mexicans strongly oppose have triggered complicated reactions north and south. Three recent deaths in particular are informed by such contradiction.

* This past January 12th, infantryman Sergio Diaz Varela who fell in Ramadi in the deadly Sunni triangle December 24th, was buried with full military honors in Guadalajara. Nine armed troops from Fort Hood, Texas led by General Ken Keene accompanied the young soldier to his final resting place, and U.S. ambassador Tony Garza commended the boy’s soul to God. The funeral, the second of a Mexican-born soldier on Mexican soil, came off without a hitch.

* Last July, a U.S. honor guard accompanying the body of another young soldier, Juan Lopez Rangel, to a country graveyard in San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato was disarmed and detained by elements of the Mexican army for violating national firearms laws. With many more such funerals in the pipeline–a third Mexican youth, Jesus Fonseca, was buried in the altos of Jalisco state at the beginning of February – the Fox government is moving to ease the diplomatic pain.

* Lance Corporeal Andres Raya did not fall fighting the enemy in Iraq. A humvee driver pushing unprotected vehicles in and out of Fallujah for seven months, Raya was exposed to attacks by the resistance and roadside bombs every day he served on Iraqi soil. Home on holiday in the California central valley farming town of Ceres and haunted by rumors that his unit would soon be sent back to Iraq, Raya, 19, snapped, provoking a three hour running gun battle with back-ups from four different California police departments.

Leaping over backyard fences and dashing down dirt alleys in the town where he grew up as an undocumented field worker’s son, Raya assured neighbors they were not in harm’s way if they were "innocent civilians." Reportedly shaken by Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11", Raya stopped to ask one witness if he had voted for Bush,

Finally cornered after killing one officer and gravely wounding another with an outlaw assault rifle, the young Marine was cut down by 18 rounds when he charged a police barricade. "Andres Raya died like a true Mexican standing on his feet" a neighbor, Hilda Mercado, shouted out at a tension-packed reconciliation meeting a few days later. "Andy was a casualty of war," Lalo Mercado who grew up with the dead Marine told the New York Times.

Raya’s rampage tripwired brown-white rage in Ceres. Andres had grown up in a migrant labor camp here and as a teenager, was often rousted by the local police–as recently as a week before his rampage, he was stopped despite being in uniform. When friends sought to build an altar to Raya in the alleyway where he died, police repeatedly tore it down and indignant graffiti was quickly painted out near the crime scene.

Ratcheting up tensions to lynch-mob levels, police cited Raya’s tattoos as proof that he was a gang banger–the tattoos were symbols of Mexican pride, his farm worker father affirmed. Police later displayed a video of Raya purportedly smoking marijuana and throwing down supposed gang signs while surrounded by ripped-up swatches of a U.S. flag arranged to spell out "Fuck Bush!"

Despite the three medals Raya won while in Iraq (among them "The Global War On Terrorism Expeditionary Service Award"), the U.S. Marine Corps refused the family all military honors. In the days before his death, friends say Raya vehemently counseled his "homies" not to follow his example and join up. Marine recruiting is in crisis with the service failing to fill its monthly quota in January for the first time since 1995.

Although he is alive to tell about it, death in Iraq has also claimed a piece of the life of Army Sergeant Jonatan Cardenas Alban of Carson, California, an overwhelmingly black and Mexican suburb of Los Angeles. Last August 18th while on patrol in an inflamed Sadr City, Sergeant Cardenas, a nine year vet (the military refers to him merely as "Cardenas Alban"), saw a box drop off a truck he was following and "lit up" the vehicle, killing seven civilians who had been out scavenging garbage. When 16 year-old Qasam Hasan ran from the exploding truck, Alban gunned him down. What happened next remains clouded but when Alban and other soldiers gathered around the boy who was barely clinging to life, an argument broke out and the Sergeant turned his assault rifle on Hasan, finishing him off in what Cardenas would tell authorities was "a mercy killing."

The third member of a unit out of Fort Reilly, Kansas to be charged with murdering Iraqi civilians (one allegedly killed a member of the Iraqi National Guard after forcing him to have sex), Jonatan Cardenas Alban was sentenced in November to a minimum year in prison and stripped of all rank, and thus earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the first U.S. soldier of Mexican descent to be convicted of a war crime in Iraq.

For more than 70 families of Mexicans who served in Iraq, prayers to the Santo Nino de Atocha or any other protective deity or talisman, have not been answered. When the military came to inform the family of Isela Rubacalva in a downtrodden colony of Ciudad Juarez that she had been killed in action in the same tank that made Jesica Lynch famous, all her father could think to ask was "what for?" And when Marine guards drove up to the Los Angeles home of Carlos Arredondo, a Costa Rican immigrant, to tell him that his son had been taken in the holy city of Najef, the distraught father grabbed a can of gasoline, doused it on the Marines’ van, climbed inside, and set the vehicle on fire, suffering critical burns on over 70% of his body.

Fernando Suarez del Solar has pursued a distinct path, turning his grief into social action ever since the Marines knocked on his San Diego door to inform him that his son Jesus had fallen during the first weeks of the invasion. Posthumously eligible to receive U.S. citizenship, Fernando turned down the Marines’ offer–Jesus, raised in Tijuana, had been a "conchero" dancer and liked to think of himself as an Aztec warrior.

Now Fernando Suarez has created the Guerrero Azteca Project to campaign against the Bush war in Iraq. Suarez has taken on the San Diego school board over the issue of Marine recruiters in the high schools and led a march on the local Titan Corporation, which provided "interrogators" to Abu Ghraib prison. Last summer, Fernando was a prominent participant in anti-war demonstrations at both major political conventions and his wife Rosa was recently part of a delegation that brought material aid to Iraqis driven out of their homes in Fallujah by the U.S. military.

Suarez himself journeyed to Iraq soon after Jesus was killed to see where he had fallen and to talk to Latino troops serving over there. "You could see the fear in their eyes" he wrote in a recent e-mail. Today, the Guerrero Azteca Project dedicates itself to supporting young Latino soldiers who reject the war, such as Sergeant Camilo Mejia, convicted of desertion after he refused a second term in Iraq.

Sergeant Mejia is a Nicaraguan and the son of Carlos Mejia Godoy, author of the Sandanista anthem ("we fight against the Yanquis, the enemies of mankind") who joined the Yanqui army soon after arriving in Miami following the U.S.-sponsored Sandanista defeat in 1991.

JOHN ROSS has just been awarded the 2005 Upton Sinclair Award (an "Uppie") by the San Pedro California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for his latest cult classic "Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left".