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Reverberations in Guerrero

The Song of the Guerrilla

by JOHN ROSS

One day long ago in August 1974, the 25th to be precise, in the heat of the Mexican military’s "dirty war" to root out subversion in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, security forces under the command of General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparo dragged the popular musician and former mayor of Atoyac Rosendo Radilla off a bus along the Costa Grande highway just north of Acapulco. His son, also named Rosendo and then 11, remembers that when the musician asked the "guachos" (local vernacular for federal troops) why he was being detained he was told that it was for "writing corridos (ballads) about Lucio Cabanas", a rebel Atoyac schoolteacher whose Party of the Poor was then roaming the sierras that soar above the Costa Grande. Rosendo Radilla never saw his father again.

This past July 7th, 35 years after the elder Radilla vanished off the face of the earth, Rosendo and his sister Tita sat in a San Jose Costa Rica courtroom as the Inter-American Human Rights Court (CIDH) opened hearings into their father’s long-ago forced disappearance. The hearing was the first time an international court has agreed to put Mexico’s "dirty war" (1974-78) on trial.

To be sure, the corridista was not the only local to have been disappeared during the military’s long reign of terror. Families in Atoyac count more than 600 campesinos taken by security forces and never seen again. Acosta Chaparo was later convicted of dumping the bodies of 143 prisoners from Mexican air force Israeli Arava 201s into the Pacific Ocean near Acapulco. The names of 121 other victims were attached to the Radilla case before the CIDH. Even Mexico’s Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont, who oversees internal security, concedes that the military was probably complicit in Rosendo’s disappearance but argues that the CIDH has no jurisdiction in the case – the court did not exist in 1974 and Mexico only recognized its competence in human rights matters in 1998.

At any rate, Gomez Mont insisted before the court, Mexico has made great advances in human rights since 1974. "That was another Mexico. Mexico is different now."

Or is it?

Not a month before the CIDH convened to review Rosendo Radilla’s shrouded fate, Mexican army troops occupied three towns in the very same sierra where Cabanas was eventually run to ground and executed in December 1974. 500 soldiers in three troop carriers, a dozen hummers, and accompanied by a brace of U.S.-manufactured helicopters invaded the high sierra municipality of Coyuca de Catalan under the aegius of President Felipe Calderon’s White House-financed War on the Drug Cartels. In one village of 50 families, the guachos threatened to burn down all the houses.

A group of advocates from the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center which reached Puerto de Las Ollas just as the troops were pulling out, recorded eyewitness accounts of torture. Among the abuses: a crippled man was pulled off his burro and when he refused to answer the guachos’ questions, needles were inserted under his fingernails. The soldiers poured motor oil on maiz reserves the villagers had been storing to feed their families through the rainy season.

Although the incursion was reportedly ordered in pursuit of local marijuana and poppy growers, the solders repeatedly questioned villagers as to the whereabouts of one "Comandante Ramiro", leader of the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) that is said to be encamped in these mountain forests.

In a communiqué issued in early July, Comandante Ramiro took issue with the military’s cover story that the guachos were hunting dope growers. Three times between June 9th and the 11th, the ERPI had confronted the Mexican army in the Sierra of Coyuca de Catalan, killing three troops and wounding one, the guerrilla leader claimed. To counter the ERPI’s disclosure, Secretary of Defense officials displayed ten uniforms and a dozen long guns at a press conference in nearly Ciudad Altamirano, claiming that 16 members of a "gavilla" (dope gang) had been killed in the skirmishes.

If Comandante Ramiro’s story can be corroborated, the face-off in the Sierra marks the first between the rebels and the Mexican military since 11 Indian farmers attending an ERPI meeting across the state at El Charco were gunned down June 10th, 1998.

Other casualties during the six days (June 7th-13th) that the military was storming communities in the Coyuca Sierra include liberation priest Habacuc Hernandez and two young seminarians cut down on the streets of Altamirano by unknowns under the nose of the local army command.

Other casualties during the six days (June 7th-13th) that the military was storming communities in the Coyuca Sierra include liberation priest Habacuc Hernandez and two young seminarians cut down on the streets of Altamirano by unknowns under the nose of the local army command.

The military offensive was conducted under a press blackout. No reporter was invited to accompany the convoy and when, on July 14th, La Jornada de Guerrero published a front-page story under the headline "The Army Lays Siege To A Sierra Town", a thousand copies of the paper were seized by unidentified armed men on a mountain road north of Acapulco and the truck hijacked.

Who is this Comandante Ramiro and what does he want? According to press reports, the rebel leader, who has become the most visible spokesperson for the guerrilla option in Mexico, is an ex-prisoner named Omar Guerrero Solis. In recent months, Ramiro has become emboldened enough to call a press conference at an undisclosed Sierra location that was attended by the national media – one photo shows a group of 15 women holding aloft their AK-47s.

The ERPI is preparing to resume its offensive against the "mal gobierno" ("bad government") in coming months, Comandante Ramiro disclosed to reporters but conceded that his fighters were short on arms. The Comandante also told the journalists that he thought he would be killed in the coming fighting. The only way he would come down from the Sierra was "slung over the back of a mule, dead."

The ERPI is one of several split-offs from the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) that rose on June 28th 1996 on the first year anniversary of the massacre of 17 farmers at a lonely river crossing Aguas Blancas closer to the coast. The EPR was itself an alliance of 14 guerilla "focos" with many cadre drawn from the descendants of those who had once fought alongside Cabanas. Throughout 1996, the EPR battled the Mexican army at many points in Guerrero and several other states before their guns fell mysteriously silent.

In Guerrero, it is often difficult to sort out who is doing the shooting. The sparsely peopled outback up in the high country of the western Sierra Madre is the traditional stomping ground of both guerrillas and gavillas, bands of pistoleros who grow "mota" (marijuana) and "amapola" (opium poppies) destined for the U.S. market. The gavillas serve as mercenaries for powerful "caciques" or rural bosses usually associated with the long-ruling PRI party who scalp the forests, sell of the timber, and grow dope and run their cattle on the cleared land.

In the mid 1990s, farmers in the sierras of Coyuca and Petatlan mobilized against the PRI caciques, some of whom had struck a deal with the U.S.-based Boise Cascade timber giant, then operating on the Costa Grande. Two leaders of the "Campesinos Ecologistas" ("Ecological Farmers") Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were run to ground by the Mexican military, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions admitting that they were dope growers. Montiel and Cabrera were imprisoned in Iguala State Penitentiary where they were designated prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and were awarded the much-coveted Goldman Prize, an environmental Nobel, for their defense of Guerrero’s forests.

Nonetheless, despite the international renown of the Ecological Farmers, the caciques continue to call the shots up in the Sierra – the all-powerful rancher and timber poacher Rogociano de la Alba has been accused of ordering the "suicide" of the Campesinos Ecologistas’ lawyer Digna Ochoa in 2000. Villagers rousted up in Puerto de Las Ollas in June report that the guachos repeatedly chanted "Viva Rogociano!"

The state of Guerro has been the hot pot for the war of the guerrilla (literally "little war" or sometimes "the War of the Flea") since pre-conquest times when the undermanned Chontales bravely resisted the domination of the Aztec Empire. Jose Maria Morelos and Vicente Guerrero, the sons of Afro-Mexican muleteers, led guerrilla armies in the hot lands of Guerrero during the war of liberation from the Spanish Crown. Some of the most illustrious battles of that incorruptible revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and his Liberating Army of the South were fought in Guerrero during the 1910-1919 Mexican revolution. Indeed, Lucio Cabanas, who, in concert with another rural maestro Genaro Vazquez, kept the guachos busy back in the 1960s and ’70s, was the grandson of one of Zapata’s generals. The EPR was larded with the grandsons and nephews of Cabanas’s fighters until it split into an alphabet soup of groups like the ERPI, the EPRI, the FARP, PROCUP, and the Comando Justiciero of the Clandestine Committee of the Poor-June 28th (CCRO-CJ28.)

The recent fireworks in the Sierra suggest that the story isn’t done yet. 2010, the 100th anniversary of the start of the Mexican revolution and the bicentennial of liberation from Spain is seen by some as an historical platform for the resurgence of the armed option which, in light of the stolen presidential elections in 2006 and the return of the PRI to power in the recent July 5th mid-terms, seems more inviting in some quarters than the electoral one.

Until the firefight between the Mexican army and the ERPI in June, the guerrillas of Mexico had lapsed into a profound silence – often a sign that something is cooking down below. The fighters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in the highlands and jungle of Chiapas have long since abandoned their guns as they peacefully till their cornfields in self-declared autonomous territories and the EZLN’s charismatic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos has not been seen or heard from all year.

The EPR, which long ago moved its base of operations to Oaxaca, was jolted back to life in May 2007 when two of its historical leaders, Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Cruz Sanchez were kidnapped by security forces from a hotel in the Oaxaca city market. To draw attention to the forced disappearances, the Popular Revolutionary Army bombed PEMEX oil pipelines in Guanajuato and adjoining Queretero state, suggesting that they have cadre in that central Mexican region. Negotiations with the Calderon government for the return of the EPR militants via a blue-ribbon commission of leftist notables headed by San Cristobal de las Casas Bishop Emeritus Don Samuel Ruiz have floundered.

Up until the June skirmishes in the Coyuca sierra, the ERPI, which was decapitated by the arrests of its maximum leaders, "Comandanta Aurora" (AKA Gloria Arenas) and Jacobo Silva, has limited itself to issuing firebrand manifestoes on the Internet.

Some years ago, Mexico’s lead intelligence agency, the CISEN, estimated that 10 to 15 armed guerrillas operated in country. Today, the agency which certainly has its ear pressed firmly to ground in light of possible insurrection in 2010, does not quantify the number of rebel groups with an armed capacity in the field.

Rooted on the remote edges of the country like the sierras of Guerrero, guerrilla bands cannot inflict much damage on the highly centralized Mexican state but coordinated, simultaneous risings in various regions of the republic would certainly be a crucible for destabilization in 2010.

Such unified initiatives have had success in the past – the Mexican revolution, in fact, was the handiwork of three separate peasant armies that sometimes moved together to unseat dictators and despots. The 1994 Zapatista uprising in January 1994 was originally conceived of as a coordinated insurrection to be carried out by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in the south and the Francisco Villa Army in Chihuahua – but the northern force was never consolidated. On August 28th, 1996, the EPR staged coordinated attacks in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Mexico state, Guanajuato, and Chiapas targeting federal troops and police. Just this past week (July 11th-12th), in west central Michoacan state, the narco-guerrilla known as La Familia gunned down 16 federal police officers in 17 coordinated attacks. An alliance between guerilla groups and narco cartels like La Familia cannot be discounted as Mexico moves into 2010 mode.

In "La Violin", a 2007 movie that recreates the dirty war in Guerrero (in its opening scene, unseen guachos brutally beat a suspected guerrillero), the late one-handed fiddle players Angel Tavira, one of an elite family of hot land Paganinis, plays an itinerant musician who spies on the soldiers and buries guns for the guerrilla until he is finked out and tortured to death ("La Violin" is also the name of a torture technique.) Political columnists Julio Hernandez (La Jornada) recently imagined Don Angel up in heaven wrapping his stump as he prepares to strike bow to fiddle. But the old man is confused about what to play, Hernandez wrote. He doesn’t know if what is happening in the sierras of Guerrero is the end of a long story or the beginning of a new chapter.

JOHN ROSS will present "Iraqigirl", the diary of a teenager coming of age under U.S. occupation Thursday July 30th at Modern Times, 888 Valencia Street, in San Francisco’s Mission (7 PM.) Ross developed and edited the new Haymarket volume from IraqiGirl’s blogs. He can be reached at: johnross@igc.org