Political Prisoners in Calderon’s Mexico

Mexico City.

This past Christmas, family members of 26 political prisoners taken during brutal repression of militant farmers in San Salvador Atenco just outside Mexico City last spring, came up with an ingenious strategy to visit their loved ones in the Santiaguito prison where they have been held practically incommunicado for months. Taken advantage of a Mexico state prison custom that allows outsiders in to entertain the inmates during the holiday season by performing “pastorelas” or Christmas passion plays, the relatives of the prisoners presented themselves at the prison gates dressed as shepherds and wise men, the Virgin Mary, and the Devil himself–a typical pastorela story line involves the Devil trying to divert the Three Wise Men from bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus.

But the authorities at Santiaguito were ready for the relatives of the prisoners. The shepherds and the wise men and the devils were strip-searched. Wooden machetes, a symbol of the farmers’ struggle, which were to be used as props in an updated version of the pastorela, were confiscated. The Virgin Mary was forced to do “sentadillas”, squats so that jailhouse matrons could examine her body cavities for smuggled subversive materials.

At length the troupe was passed in and allowed to perform their pastorela for the inmates of Santiaguito, ending the show with a rousing chant of “Presos Politicos Libertad!” (Liberty for Political Prisoners!), a cry that is being heard all over Mexico these days.

The criminalization of social protest is filling the nation’s jails and prisons with political prisoners. 214 protestors were arrested in the crackdown at Atenco last May 3rd and 4th–all but 26 have been allowed to bail out but still face charges that could lock them up for years. Two young men were killed during the police actions, which involved thousands of state and federal police and appeared to be in retaliation for the farmers’ successful battle to fend off expropriation of their lands for the construction of a new multi-billion dollar international airport in 2002.

Another 140 citizens were beaten, gassed, and arrested in Oaxaca on November 25th by the Federal Preventative Police to break up the seven month-long occupation of the city’s old colonial center by the Oaxaca Popular Peoples’ Assembly (APPO) and striking teachers who have been demanding the removal of a tyrannical governor. 19 activists have been executed by Governor Ulises Ruiz’s death squads and 60 remain disappeared–human rights workers suspect that some are being held in secret state, federal, and military lock-ups.

Many of the prisoners taken November 25th just five days before the chaotic inauguration of Felipe Calderon whose election last July 2nd is questioned by many Mexicans, were hardly political. One mother was trapped outside a downtown pharmacy after she had bought medicine for a sick child, beaten, cuffed, and flown a thousand miles north to a Nayarit state prison–then Secretary of Public Security and now Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora decreed that prisoners deemed to have “a dangerous profile” should be held out of state. A similar fate awaited a Oaxaca architect who had gone downtown to Xerox blueprints. A dozen juveniles were seized and jailed in adult prisons.

As at Atenco where police are accused of sexually abusing 23 women who were being transported to Santiaguito (seven claim they were raped), federal police sexually abused and taunted men and women captured November 25th–in testimony to the International Civil Observation Commission on Human Rights, a European NGO that spent a month investigating abuses in Oaxaca and interviewed over 400 witnesses to the repression, the mother of one young protestor testified that her son was sodomized by the cops. The Calderon government has refused to accept the findings of the Commission, which it insists has no bonafides.

Of the more than 200 prisoners taken in Oaxaca since May, 62 remain imprisoned. Dozens of activists and teachers were already locked up in Oaxaca jails prior to the mass arrests.

Among the most prominent political prisoners seized in the right-wing Calderon government’s rush to make social protest into a crime, is Ignacio Del Valle, the leader of the Popular Front to Defend the Land (FPDT) which spearheaded the “macheteros” movement of Atenco. Although he was arrested on the first day of the May confrontations, “Nacho” Del Valle is charged with an April “kidnapping”–during a meeting with state school officials who had threatened to walk out, Del Valle locked the door. The charge mandates imprisonment at a maximum-security prison and the Machetero leader is now housed at El Altiplano (formerly La Palma and Almaloya) where many of the nation’s toughest narco lords and organized crime figures are locked down.

Also jailed at El Altiplano is Flavio Sosa whom Calderon fingered for being the ringleader of the APPO protests, and who is charged with sedition, riot, and a variety of crimes allegedly committed during demonstrations at which Sosa was not even present. Sosa, who is being held with two brothers whose only apparent crime is to be named Sosa, is a former Oaxaca leader of the right-wing president’s leftist nemesis, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) whose candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador probably beat Calderon in last July 2nd’s fraud-smeared elections. Sosa who was captured leaving a negotiating session with the new government in early December is considered Calderon’s first political prisoner.

The number of political prisoners being held in federal penitentiaries, CERESOS (social rehabilitation centers), state prisons, municipal jails, and secret lock-ups is unknown but clearly numbers in the hundreds. At least 90 of those taken at San Salvador Atenco and in Oaxaca remain behind bars. Another 100 have either disappeared in Oaxaca or were already imprisoned prior to the November 25th crackdown.

Dozens of other political prisoners have languished in jail for years. At least 35 accused members of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which rose in Guerrero and Oaxaca in 1996 including 16 Zapotec Indians who have been penned up at Oaxaca’s Santa Maria Ixcotel prison for ten years, remain incarcerated. Gloria Arenas (“Colonel Aurora”) and Jacobo Silva, accused of being leaders of an EPR split-off, the ERPI, are in the early years of 40-year sentences.

The Cerezo brothers, National University students accused of bombing banks in 2001 and the first political prisoners to be sentenced for terrorism following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington remain lodged in maximum security prisons–the brothers who are sons of two fugitive EPR leaders were accused of organizing a hunger strike during prolonged protests by narcos at El Altiplano two years ago.

Since 2000, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation has won the release of almost a hundred of their prisoners from Chiapas prisons although two remain locked down in neighboring Tabasco. Nonetheless, Zapatista bases inside the Chiapas prison system continue to grow. “The Voice of Amate” groups together dozens of indigenous prisoners at the state’s largest prison who “adhere” to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and who the EZLN designates as political prisoners. During his journeys around Mexico in 2006 under the rubric of “The Other Campaign”, Subcomandante Marcos visited with political prisoners at a number of Mexican lock-ups.

Despite the incarceration of hundreds of political prisoners, Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna denies that this distant neighbor nation holds any political prisoners at all. During his stint as governor of Jalisco state, the Interior Secretary, who has responsibility over both the nation’s internal politics and its prison system, jailed 42 protestors taken at an anti-globalization demonstration in Guadalajara in May 2004, some for as long as two years. Many were tortured so severely by Ramirez Acuna’s police that international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, sought to intervene. As Jalisco governor, the Interior Secretary rejected hundreds of recommendations by the National Human Rights Commission (over 700 complaints of human rights violations were filed with the CNDH during Ramirez Acuna’s reign as governor (2000-2006.)

If his Interior Secretary’s disingenuous claims that the regime holds no political prisoners were to be believed, Felipe Calderon would be the first Mexican president not to have locked up the opposition. Mexico has a long and torturous history of jailing political dissidents. Back in 1910, the dictator Porfirio Diaz clapped the liberal candidate for his job in jail to keep him off the ballot (Calderon’s PAN sought to revive this ploy against the leftist Lopez Obrador in 2006.) But in classic political prisoner style, Francisco Madero declared the Mexican Revolution from behind bars in a San Luis Potosi prison.

Railroad union leaders Demetrio Vallejo and Valentin Campa served ten years for calling a wildcat strike which tied up Mexican railroad lines for several weeks in 1959–their imprisonment became a cause celebre throughout Latin America. The revolutionary painter David Alfaro Siquieros was jailed for “social dissolution”–i.e. supporting the railroad workers.

Hundreds of rebellious students were thrown into rat-infested cells at the Lecumberri “Black Palace” during the 1968 strike at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) and the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN)–hundreds more were gunned down by the police and the military under orders from a paranoiac, anti-communist president.

In Lecumberri, the students organized hunger strikes and work stoppages and some even sewed up their lips to protest how the government had silenced their movement. Among the jailed leaders of ’68 was the late Heberto Castillo who later became the moral leader of the Mexican Left. Being a prisoner of ’68 continues to be a much-coveted status symbol on the left here.

During the “dirty war” of the 1970s, 600 farmers along the Costa Grande of Guerrero state suspected of supporting the guerrillero Lucio Cabanas’s Party of the Poor were disappeared by federal and state security agencies. Many were held in clandestine prisons and on military bases, tortured, and executed. Air force planes dumped their bodies into the Pacific Ocean in plain sight of the luxury port of Acapulco.

Today’s political prisoners enter a seething social milieu. The Mexican prison system is running at 30% over capacity, according to a 2006 CNDH census and space is at such a premium that it is “rented” out to new inmates. State and federal prisons are jammed with the young and the poor, often indigenous and many convicted of low-level “crimes against health” (drug dealing.) Poor prisoners are forced to serve the “capos” that run drug, prostitution, and alcohol rackets with the collusion of corrupt custodial staffs. Brutal turf fights between gangs result in a death a day.

Mexican prisons, like prisons everywhere, are filled to bursting with prisoners of color and class. They are instruments of class oppression–a designation which greatly expands the definition of who exactly is a political prisoner.

Latin American prisons have turned into horrific killing floors in recent years and 2007 got off on a bad foot. During the first week in January, 21 lives were lost in a Salvadoran prison riot and 22 more prisoners were killed in Venezuela. Venezuela counted 314 prison murders last year through July 2006. Triggered by the transfer of prison gang leaders from a corruption-ridden Sao Paolo penitentiary last May, riots inside and out of the jail resulted in 133 deaths, including 41 police officers. Another 130 were killed in a Dominican Republic prison uprising in January 2006. Central America–particularly Honduras and El Salvador where many members of “maras” or youth gangs are locked down, have been the stage for riots that have cost hundreds of lives.

In 2006, Mexico resolved prison uprisings in Chetamal and Sinaloa with minimal bloodshed but the bad gas of class oppression is redolent inside the nation’s lock-ups. Indeed, piling up political prisoners in such a volatile dynamic is kind of like lighting a match in a fume-filled room. “Mexico’s prisons are overdue to explode” the 2006 CNDH report predicted.

JOHN ROSS is on the road at Cape Fear North Carolina with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. and will be touring the south (North Carolina, Berea Kentucky, Atlanta Georgia, New Orleans) and the Midwest (Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago, Cincinnati) in March before hitting the east coast in April. He can be reached at: johnross@igc.org


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org