Che’s Mexican Legacy

The 40th anniversary of the assassination of Ernesto “Che” Guevara by CIA surrogates in the Bolivian outback on October 8th, 1967, had deep resonance from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego and beyond. Thunderous tributes were offered in Caracas and Quito and a statue to El Che unveiled in his native Buenos Aires. Bolivian president Evo Morales officiated at a ceremony near the site of Guevara’s murder to the consternation of his own armed forces, which carried out the killing at the behest of Washington. Hundreds of thousands of Che’s devotees poured into Santa Clara Cuba to mark the anniversary at the mausoleum, which contains his recently recovered remains.

Mexico was no exception to Che mania. Fiestas and forums were celebrated by the old and new left, poetry readings and rock concerts organized. The iconic portrait of El Che taken by Alberto Korda fluttered in the wind on 30-foot banners in the great Zocalo plaza, the political heart of Mexico, and the Comandante’s visage was de rigueur on the chests of the celebrants. The inevitable Che t-shirt has been in the vanguard of the commodification of this mythic revolutionary since his death. Guevara’s image now sells everything from vodka to bikinis and baby clothes.

Mexico plays a particularly hallowed role in the liturgy of Saint Che. Guevara arrived in Mexico penniless from Guatemala in 1955 after losing his government job in the wake of the CIA overthrow of leftist general Jacobo Arbenz. According to the prolific Mexico City author Paco Ignacio Taibo II, one of Che’s many biographers whose work sheds light on the Comandante’s shadowy Mexican stay, Guevara was so broke that he was reduced to selling images of the saints outside public markets.

Mexico City in the mid-1950s was host to a lively Cuban colony. Political refugees from the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista settled in the capital’s old quarter where Perez Prado, the king of the Mambo, held forth nightly at the Blanquita Theater. Cuban cafes such as the Havana still survive in the neighborhood.

Guevara, an Argentinean by birth but an internationalist by conviction, soon connected with Fidel Castro, the rebel son of an Oriente province sugar grower. Fidel had been exiled from Cuba after leading a failed assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago on July 26th 1953, a date that became synonymous with the Cuban revolutionary movement.

Castro was gathering recruits for a fresh effort to overthrow Batista and invited Che to join his revolution. The two trained by climbing the old volcanoes that line the Valley of Mexico in preparation for setting up guerrilla camps in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Che’s frequent asthma attacks were said to have concerned Castro.

At a critical juncture in the plot, Che and Fidel were rounded up and tortured by Mexican secret police but were unaccountably rescued by the then-head of the brutal, corrupt Federal Security Direction Fernando Gutierrez Barrios who subsequently helped the rebels to buy an ancient, leaky yacht, the “Granma”, in his native Veracruz.

On November 25th 1956, Che and Fidel and 80 recruits put out of the tiny Veracruz port of Tuxpan aboard the Granma to launch the Cuban revolution. Only a dozen of those who sailed out that night would survive to make it into the Sierra Maestra where Guevara would mastermind a successful three-year “Guerra de Guerrilla” (guerilla war) to overthrow the dictator. “La Guerra de Guerrilla” later became the title of El Che’s how-to-do-it manual (1960) that has been required reading for at least two generations of Latin American revolutionaries.

Che’s “Guerra de Guerrilla” had instant impact in Mexico. On September 23rd, 1963, a fiery rural school teacher named Arturo Gamiz led a band of would-be guerrillas in an attack on a Madera Chihuahua army barracks – the bold assault was explicitly modeled on Fidel’s attack at Moncada. Although eight of the rebels, including Gamiz, were martyred, their successors enshrined the date in the name of the September 23rd Communist League, the most volatile urban guerrilla active in Mexico in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a period of intense government repression known here as “the dirty war” in which Che and Fidel’s benefactor, Gutierrez Barrios, played a notorious role.

The 23rd of September Communist League operated out of the northern industrial city of Monterrey, kidnapping tycoons, heisting bankrolls, and engaging in deadly gun battles with the police. They were joined in this “guerra de guerrilla” by a less Cuban-oriented formation, the Forces of National Liberation (FLN) of which the contemporary Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is a lineal descendent.

15 “focos” or local guerrilla bands were active in Mexico in the years following Guevara’s assassination – the word “foco” was popularized by Guevara’s sometimes comrade in arms Regis Debrey who joined El Che briefly during his fatal Bolivian adventure. The guerrilla focos functioned in both urban and rural settings.

The most prominent of the rural practitioners of Guevara’s guerra de guerrilla was another rural school teacher turned revolutionary Lucio Cabanas whose Party of the Poor went nose to nose with the Mexican military and its U.S. advisors in the mountains of Guerrero state’s Costa Grande just north of Acapulco until he was cornered and killed by the army in December 1974. Many years later, Cabanas’s struggle gave birth to Mexico’s other contemporary guerrilla, the Popular Revolutionary Army or EPR.

But long before Che Guevara penned his celebrated manual, “la guerra de guerrilla” was a staple of Mexican history. Indigenous guerrillas fought the European Conquistadores from the day Hernan Cortez dropped anchor off Veracruz in 1519. Vicente Guerrero, a black muleteer, led a guerrilla army against the Spanish Crown to win liberation in 1821. 40 years later, Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian, resorted to the guerra of the guerrilla to drive French monarchists from the land.

During the 1910-1919 revolution, the first great uprising of landless peasants in the Americas, both Francisco Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south of Mexico, fielded standing armies but their most potent weapons were small guerrilla bands that carried out acts of sabotage, blew up troop trains, and attacked military barracks.

The Guerra de Guerrilla is a continuum in the nation’s history. One generation has passed the armed struggle down to the next. Lucio Cabanas’s grandfather was one of Zapata’s generals. Another contemporary guerrilla “foco” honors the name of Zapata’s lieutenant Ruben Jaramillo, who was gunned down by government agents in the 1960s.

Both Zapata and El Che are demi-gods in the Zapatista firmament. In the autonomous villages in the highlands and jungle of Chiapas, Che’s death day October 8th is celebrated as the Day of the Heroic Guerrilla. Zapata, who was ambushed by the revolutionary government he helped install April 10th 1919, is similarly regarded as a reincarnation of Votan, the guardian of the heart of the Mayan people.

But, although the EZLN is indelibly associated with General Zapata and his Liberating Army of the South, the FLN’s original blueprint for a new Mexican revolution contemplated the Zapatistas rising in the south and a Villista Army of National Liberation fighting a guerra de guerrilla in the north, a scenario that never came to fruition.

Although the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the Popular Revolutionary Army represent Che’s vision in contemporary Mexico, their own vision of what kind of revolution they are fighting to achieve is strikingly diverse.

* * *

Both of Mexico’s principle guerrilla formations place El Che at the very pinnacle of their revolutionary pantheons but veneration of the sainted Guevara is one of the few subjects the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the Popular Revolutionary Arm have ever agreed upon. At least until now.

The debut of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) on the first anniversary of the massacre of 17 farmers at Aguas Blancas Guerrero June 28th 1996 did not please the Zapatistas. During a summer-long rampage that took dozens of lives in assaults on police barracks and military convoys, the EPR stole the spotlight from their Chiapas counterparts who were then peacefully engaged in negotiating an Indian rights treaty with the government of then-president Ernesto Zedillo. Zedillo, startled by the violent EPR campaign, anointed the Zapatistas as the “good” guerrilla, which infuriated the EZLN’s charismatic mouthpiece Subcomandante Marcos.

During a six-state shooting spree August 28th 1996, the Popular Revolutionary Army boldly risked a turf war with the EZLN when its guerrilleros penetrated the Zapatista zone of influence in the highlands of Chiapas, hanging banners proclaiming their presence and felling trees to block roads.

When the EPR added insult to injury by offering its solidarity in the Zapatistas’ ultimately doomed negotiations with the “mal gobierno” (bad government), Marcos went ballistic. “We don’t need or want your help,” the Subcomandante snapped, accusing the EPR of only wanting state power – the EZLN was then in the process of declaring itself autonomous of the state.

In an exclusive Proceso magazine interview with EPR commander “Jose Arturo”, the Guerrero-based guerillero dissed Marcos’s guerrilla credentials, mocking the Sup because he was “trying to make a revolution by poetry.” His ever-present Sherlock Holmes pipe would surely tip off the enemy during hot pursuit.

Although the Zapatista Army of National Revolution is generically grouped as a guerrilla army, the truth is more diffuse. The EZLN’s origin was as a self-defense militia confronting the “white guards” (private armies) of the ranchers in the jungle and highlands of southeastern Chiapas. By 1994, the militias had involved into a paramilitary force.

The Zapatistas’ most celebrated act – the taking of San Cristobal de las Casas and a nearby military base – in the first hours of 1994 just as the North American Free Trade Agreement was kicking in, was as much political theater as it was the “guerra de guerrilla” – although the rebels’ retreat back into the jungle, the terrain they knew best, was a text book lesson lifted from Che’s widely-read how-to-do-it manual “La Guerra de Guerrilla.”

Nonetheless, a guerrilla army is expected to engage in a shooting war and the Zapatistas long ago eschewed the “all power comes from the barrel of a gun” way of doing business. The EZLN says it has two weapons – “El Fuego” (the gun) and “La Palabra” (the word) and the words, mostly Marcos’s, have dominated their arsenal for nearly a decade. The last time the Zapatistas deployed their weapons was to repel a government attack on the autonomous municipality of San Juan de la Libertad June 10th, 1999.

By the fall of 1996, the Popular Revolutionary Army’s guns had gone silent. Purportedly cobbled together from 14 previously unheard-of “focos” (a term coined by Guevara confederate Regis Debrey), the EPR was subject to schism. The split seemed to drive a wedge between the inheritors of Lucio Cabanas’s Party of the Poor in Guerrero and a Maoist faction long based in neighboring Oaxaca, the Clandestine Party of Revolutionary Workers-Union of the People or PROCUP. Other schisms have followed contributing to an alphabet soup of grouplets – the FARP, the ERPI, the EPRI etc – mostly operating in the altiplano of Guerrero and Puebla states with leadership cadre said to be based in the slum cities surrounding Mexico City.

Oaxaca, where the PROCUP was founded by an ex-rector of the state university, continues to be a stage for EPR activities – a shopping center bombing on the eve of local elections in August was claimed by the Popular Revolutionary Army. During 18 months of sometimes violent uprising led by the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly or APPO to unseat the tyrannical governor Ulises Ruiz, Ruiz repeatedly accused the APPO of being a front for the EPR and the Popular Revolutionary Army’s initials were painted on a local hillside above the city at a particularly conflictive moment in the struggle. Dozens of EPR political prisoners have languished in Oaxaca jails for years.

This past May 23rd, two of the EPR’s historic leaders, Eduardo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Cruz Sanchez, were “disappeared” from a hotel in the Oaxaca city market. Witnesses saw them taken from the hotel by unidentified police or military operatives. They appeared to have been badly beaten. The two have not been heard from since and fingers point towards Ulises Ruiz and/or the militarized federal police.

In response to the taking of the militants, the Popular Revolutionary Army has launched what it terms “a national campaign of harassment” to force the “presentation with life” of Reyes and Cruz Sanchez by whoever is holding the men. In June and again in September, the EPR bombed PEMEX oil and natural gas pipelines in Guanajuato, Queretero, and Veracruz states, cutting off the energy flow to hundreds of factories owned by transnational corporations and displaying an uncanny ability to strike very near the heart of the Mexican economy. In addition, the EPR claims responsibility for an armed attack on an unfinished prison in Chapa de Corzo Chiapas – the Popular Revolutionary Army is thought to have cadre in the Sierra Madre and the northern valleys of Mexico’s southern-most state.

The government of freshman president Felipe Calderon, whose 2006 election was severely questioned, has been reluctant to label the EPR attacks as “terrorist” acts, a curious omission – these days, Che’s “guerra de guerrilla” is almost automatically synonymous with “terrorism.” Rather, Calderon has held back the army – 30,000 troops are currently in the field fighting Washington’s War on Drugs rather than the EPR – and forcefully denies that his government is holding the two old militants. The President even opened up the notorious Military Camp #1 to inspection by the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) to substantiate the claim. Similarly in Oaxaca, Ruiz has repeatedly denied that he has Reyes and Cruz Sanchez.

During the “dirty war” against Lucio Cabanas’s Party of the Poor in the 1970s, the military tortured hundreds of farmers suspected of being supporters of the rebel leader and held them in a series of secret prisons, eventually tossing their bodies from airplanes into the Pacific Ocean near Acapulco. Are Reyes and Cruz Sanchez being held in a secret prison?

Another theory making the rounds of Mexican political columns has Ruiz or the military capturing the two men and then turning them over to Oaxaca narco gangs in retaliation for the rumored kidnapping of an important drug lord – the EPR has traditionally financed its operations through high profile kidnappings.

While the Popular Revolutionary Army tries to find its disappeared leaders, their cross-country rivals, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, is not enjoying the best of times. Tensions have been ratcheted up in the rebels’ autonomous zones where Indian farmers affiliated with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have laid claim to 10,000 hectares of Zapatista land, mostly in the fertile lowlands of the “Canadas” or canyons.

Soon after their historic January 1st 1994 uprising, the EZLN recouped the “fincas”(ranches) where they had once toiled as sharecroppers and slaves and declared them in collective possession but did not register them with the “mal gobierno.” Now the Agrarian Reform Secretariat is awarding those lands to rival farmers in the form of “ejidos” or rural communal production units.
Skirmishes between the oddly named OPDDIC (“Organization for the Protection and Defense of Indian Farmers”) and Zapatista autonomous communities have been frequent since the spring.

Meanwhile in the highlands, the key Zapatista autonomous municipality of San Andres Sakamch’en de los Pobres is under threat from a previously unknown paramilitary formation, “Red OPDDIC”, and PRD thugs have attacked Zapatista farmers in neighboring Zinacantan.

The anti-Zapatista surge has forced the Comandantes of the EZLN under Marcos’s pen to suspend the second stage of the Other Campaign, the Zapatista-inspired grassroots mobilization to build a new Mexican Left from the bottom up. In 2006, the “Otra” focused its energies in the center and north of the country and Year II is rooted in the south, particularly the conflictive state of Oaxaca. But travel has grown risky for the EZLN leadership. When a delegation sought to attend an all-Indian anti-capitalist encounter in Yaqui territory in Chihuahua this October, the comandantes were repeatedly harassed at military and police checkpoints and returned to Chiapas because of threats to their personal safety.

Perhaps because of the threats against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s hard won autonomy, Subcomandante Marcos startled longtime Zapaphiles in September when he suddenly extended an olive branch to his once bitter rivals in the Popular Revolutionary Army, backing up the EPR’s demands for the return of their historic leaders and the guerrilleros’ harassment campaign which has been largely directed at PEMEX infrastructure. The gesture seems to establish a tacit understanding for the first time and maybe even an eventual alliance between the most prominent Mexican heirs to Che Guevara’s “guerra de guerrilla.

Fans and enemies of JOHN ROSS are invited to attend “Eye On Mexico”, a celebration of the Mexican revolution and a benefit to buy the author a fake eye. Friday November 16th at New College, 777 Valencia Street, in San Francisco. 7:30 PM. Write if you have further information.




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