Mexico Barbaro

By John Ross

The noisy appearance of hundreds of soldiers at 8 a.m. on the quiet streets of Santa Fe, in the west of the capital, startled the neighbors–but the troops had come in peace. The soldiers formed long lines outside voter registration modules and waited patiently; Jan. 15 was the last day to receive a photo-credential that would allow citizens to cast a ballot in critical July mid-term elections, which will select a new Congress and, for the first time ever, a mayor of Mexico City chosen by the people.

Approached by reporters who could not recall such a military display at the modules before, the soldiers refused to identify themselves and turned away from the cameras, tersely explaining that they were merely “following orders from our superiors” to pick up their voting credential. By regulation, military personnel are forbidden to talk to the press without the permission of the Secretary of Defense.

The soldiers’ silence was a typically close-mouthed performance by a military that is considered one of the most insular and Sphinx-like in Latin America. Nonetheless, the appearance of the troops outside the walls of Military Camp No. 1, the sprawling base on the city’s western borders, was a rare peek at how electoral politics function inside the Mexican Army, reflecting the surprising political visibility the Mexican military establishment has drawn to itself lately.

Just two days before, 11 high-ranking retired military officers (including three brigadier generals, an admiral, and three vice-admirals) had announced their affiliation with the left-center opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)– a deviation of allegiances that caused the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled for 68 years, to fulminate ominously. The Mexican military has generally “shown unconditional support for the State and the authoritarian structure of which the PRI is at the center,” writes historian Lorenzo Meyer.

Sympathy for the PRD within the military has been incubating since the 1988 presidential election, when party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas won precincts around Military Camp No. 1 and the Naval Secretariat from the PRI’s candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Unlike most modern Mexican politicians, Cardenas, who is a possible PRD nominee for Mexico City mayor, has strong family ties to the military–his father, Lazaro, president of Mexico in the 1930s, was the youngest of the generals who won the revolution from which the Army was born.

The defection of the retired high brass drew a feisty response from General Ramon Mota Sanchez, a former PRI federal deputy (there are three generals serving as PRI deputies) and director of the party’s old guard “Revolutionary Unity” section, who questioned the officers’ motives and accused them of being “delinquents” and “dentists” [sic].

“I am not a traitor to the military,” responded retired Brigadier General Gustavo Antonio Landeros, “I’m a traitor to intimidation and abuse. The military is tired of being used to cover up the inadequacies of the government” to resolve social problems. Brigadier General Samuel Lara decried the “entreguismo” of the government–the privatization and sale of once-nationalized enterprises to transnational corporations–and the constant loss of sovereignty inflicted upon the nation in the name of neoliberal economic policies.

As a “popular” Army and a “revolutionary” institution, the Armed Forces are sworn to uphold a constitution the last three neoliberal presidents have altered constantly to suit their ideological commitments. Clearly, some officers continue to support the PRI-run state no matter how contrary its policies are to the spirit of the Mexican Revolution. Others have been forced by personal conviction to draw a line and openly declare their opposition to the technocrats in power.

What is most surprising about this debate is that it has unfolded in public.

After dominating Mexican politics for more than a decade following the Revolution, the military was prodded back to its barracks by Lazaro Cardenas and eased out of the corporate directorship of the state party by his successor, Manuel Avila Camacho, the last general to rule Mexico. Avila’s successor, Miguel Aleman, sealed the deal, offering the military complete autonomy over its own affairs in return for unswerving loyalty. After a failed attempted to win the presidency back in 1952 and “restore the Revolution,” the generals retreated behind the walls of Military Camp No. 1 and similar installations.

Now in 1997, the Army is once again asserting its presence in public life in a manner that observers like Reforma editor Raymundo Riva Palacios think reflects “the failure of civilian authority” to resolve the nation’s most pressing social and economic quandaries.

Under President Ernesto Zedillo, military leaders have taken command of Mexico’s drug war and civilian law enforcement. General Jesus Gutierrez Robello sits opposite his US counterpart, General Barry McCaffrey, as director of antidrug forces–rampant police corruption forced Mexico to go to its military to tackle the narcotraffickers. The military’s antidrug mission has beefed up its equipment inventories by about a half billion dollars of US drug-war-generated weaponry.

In the past year, generals have come to occupy command positions in 19 state civilian police agencies and the federal district. In Mexico City, General Tomas Salgado, a hard-nosed military man whose last command was in guerrilla-ridden Guerrero state, has replaced 35 civilian police commanders with Army officers. Supersecret police units, under military direction, are reportedly being assembled and the newly militarized police now squares off against dissidents: A general commanded the riot squad that recently evicted two garbage workers from a traffic island, on the 97th day of a prolonged hunger strike, stimulating protest by many independent human rights groups.

David Fernandez, who directs the Jesuit-run Padre Miguel A. Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, is fearful of the militarization of public security: “The military is an authoritarian institution used to responding with violence. It has shown little regard for individual guarantees.” Fernandez also bemoans the civilian space lost to the takeover of the Mexico City police by the military. “It makes the transition to a democratic system that much harder,” he says. But Lorenzo Meyer finds a silver lining in this grim prospect–involvement in public security exposes the military to public pressures as their positions become more conspicuous and controversial.

The military’s surge into public life here was charged by the reappearance of the Mexican guerrilla after 20 years in hibernation. The 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the 1996 emergence of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) has mobilized half the Mexican Army and militarized a broad swath of the central and southern areas of the nation. Exerting considerable influence on Zedillo, a president with no deep political support within his own party, the military’s flattery and continual professions of loyalty have borne fruit in a budget that was upped by 44 percent in 1997. Off-budget bonuses controlled by the President may add as much as a billion US dollars to the military’s coffers.

Fueled by drug war hardware (20 U.S. Huey helicopters have just arrived), the military is expanding its ranks from 170,000 to 210,000 early in the next century–3,000 troops were added in 1996. But the military’s new visibility has its downside for the generals–allegations of human rights abuses have escalated, particularly since troops launched a no-holds-barred counteroffensive in Guerrero and Oaxaca states following the synchronized attacks by the EPR last Aug. 28.

Typical of the charges is a report filed by the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, from the Mixtec Indian municipality of Alcozauca, on the Guerrero border with Oaxaca. On Jan. 13, Army troops reportedly rounded up all the men in an outlying village, forced them to lie down on the hamlet’s basketball court, and took 20 men captive–they have yet to be located.

The allegations are reminiscent of abuses charged to the Mexican Army during the first weeks of the 1994 campaign against the Zapatistas, when the military used the same technique on the Morelia ejido. Three men were singled out and executed several miles away, in a case that has been long ventilated by human rights groups with little success–the military has refused to recognize its responsibility in the killings and take action against the soldiers involved.

Similarly, the military has failed to prosecute troops involved in mass executions of civilians in the southeastern Chiapas county seat of Ocosingo. In one case, the Army announced that a lieutenant deemed responsible for killing five young men in the town marketplace in January 1994 had himself committed suicide. Case closed.

A web exclusive to the February 13-19, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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