Rural Rebellion in Southern Mexico: The Guerrillas of Guerrero

September 25, 2007

In the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1998, Mexican Army troops surrounded a small schoolhouse in El Charco, a Mixtec community in the municipality of Ayutla de los Libres, in the southern state of Guerrero. An informant had revealed that a guerrilla unit—presumably from the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), a clandestine movement that had been active in southern Mexico since 1996—was holding a two-day meeting in the village with civilian sympathizers. When the army arrived, the guerrillas were still inside the school, having spent the night accompanied by a group of about 30 indigenous civilians. The soldiers opened fire on the schoolhouse with machine guns and tear gas. Return fire was only sporadic. The civilians inside soon announced that they were unarmed and wished to surrender. Several had been wounded, and five were dead. Upon leaving the school they were herded by soldiers onto the village basketball court and forced to lay face down. Two were then executed.

Inside the schoolhouse, the members of the guerrilla unit were not equipped to hold off the attack. At 9:00 a.m. they too surrendered. The rebels were led out of the school, unarmed, with their hands on their heads. A few were taken to a nearby field and shot. In all, seven civilians and four guerrillas were killed in El Charco. Five others were wounded. More than two dozen people, mostly indigenous Mixtecos, were taken prisoner.

In the aftermath of the event it was learned that the guerrillas were not actually from the EPR, but rather from a previously unknown group—the Insurgent People's Revolutionary Army (ERPI)—which had recently separated from the EPR. Two years later, notwithstanding the detention of two of its top leaders in October 1999, the ERPI has become the largest guerrilla organization outside Chiapas. Battles between the ERPI, the army and the police have left 24 people dead and 25 wounded during its short existence. With its strength and bases of support concentrated along Guerrero's coastal and eastern mountains, the ERPI has established itself as the latest link in an unbroken chain of insurgents in rural Guerrero dating back more than 30 years.

Historian Armando Bartra describes the history of Guerrero as one that "bites its own tail," fixed in a seemingly endless state of repetition. Aside from having a circular history of repression, massacres and institutionalized violence, it also has a long tradition of campesino and indigenous rebellion dating back nearly 200 years. Many of these rebellions were extinguished. Others were transformed into electoral or labor struggles following amnesty laws or concessions by the state or federal governments. But in the 1960s, a wave of popular discontent in the countryside was channeled into two small but significant armed movements, each led by a rural schoolteacher. Genaro Vásquez's National Revolutionary Civic Association (ACNR) and the Party of the Poor (PDLP), led by Lucio Cabañas, were subdued by the mid-1970s, but after lying dormant for two decades, their legacy has re-emerged as Mexico enters the twenty-first century.

Close to half of Guerrero's population resides in rural areas, more than one-third of the male workforce participates directly in agricultural production and the state has long been characterized by rural poverty. In the 1990 Mexican census, Guerrero ranked among the top three states in the relative size of its monolingual indigenous population (29%), illiteracy (29%), and population without formal education (19%).[1] Its development has been uneven for the past half century, favoring urban areas over the rural sector, and tourism over agriculture. The tourist port of Acapulco is now one of the most modern cities in Mexico and its economic activities account for 70% of the state's gross domestic product (GDP).[2] Guerrero's rural sector, by contrast, bears the distinction of being one of the most marginalized regions in the country, as well as one of the most feudal, with political and economic life historically dominated by a handful of powerful families.

The primary government response to the ACNR and the PDLP in the 1970s was massive repression. More than 300 campesinos were "disappeared" by security forces during the military campaign against the PDLP.[3] But government counterinsurgency measures included carrots as well as sticks. State institutions were set up to give scholarships to the sons of ejidatarios—Mexico's collective farmers—and farming implements and animals were distributed freely. Electricity arrived in many villages for the first time, as did roads, schools and running water. And the Mexican Coffee Institute (Inmecafé) distributed millions of pesos worth of credits to campesinos in the town of Atoyac de Alvarez in an effort to buy their allegiance during the last stages of Lucio Cabañas' guerrilla war. After Cabañas' death in 1974, such "giveaways" were few and far between, but for the rest of the decade state intervention in the rural economy was sufficient to maintain campesino dependency on government agencies.

The 1980s heralded the growth of autonomous campesino organizations seeking to take direct control over the production and commercialization of their nonsubsistence crops. Along the coast, the most important of these crops was coffee, and the most important organization representing small coffee growers was the Alfredo V. Bonfil Union of Ejidos. The Union was formed in 1979 in Atoyac, declared its independence from the government-controlled National Campesino Confederation (CNC) a short time later, and eventually came to represent 90% of Guerrero's campesino coffee producers. The Union not only served as an intermediary between campesinos and state institutions such as Inmecafé, but it also appropriated some of the roles previously played by such agencies. While in 1975 Inmecafé purchased and resold nearly all the coffee harvested in Guerrero, ten years later the Union of Ejidos commercialized a significant amount of coffee on its own and also entered the coconut-oil and honey markets.

Under the Union's leadership, campesinos exercised substantial control over the process of coffee production and commercialization for the first time. Just as importantly, by the late 1980s the group's economic successes had created the confidence to push for political changes as well. But as has so often occurred in the history of Guerrero, campesino hopes were dashed by electoral fraud, repression and bloodshed.

In 1988, many campesino coffee growers along the coast joined with the Guerrero Popular Unity coalition to support Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in his populist bid for the presidency. In perhaps the most undisguised fraud in three decades, most of their ballots were either counted for the ruling party or were not counted at all. The Cardenistas returned to the polling stations in late 1989 to vote for the new Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in local and state elections, only to see electoral fraud deny them victory in as many as two dozen municipalities.

Postelectoral conflicts turned violent. In early 1990, security forces fired on peaceful rallies in Acapulco and La Unión, and in June the town of Atoyac de Alvarez—the coastal municipality which gave birth to Lucio Cabañas' Party of the Poor in 1967—was invaded by police forces in what amounted to a local coup d'état. The 1989-1990 postelectoral conflicts alone cost more than 20 lives and 137 injured, while 92 landed in jail.[4]

In the succeeding years, the gains of the autonomous campesino movement of the 1980s faded rapidly in Guerrero, and the ejido unions lost much of their power and influence. Neoliberal economic policies implemented by both the state and federal governments led to the withdrawal of state support from the agricultural sphere, without leaving anything in its place to fill the void. Corn and coffee prices fell sharply at the same time that interest rates were raised and subsidies were slashed. The rural poor quickly became poorer.

In the midst of this rural crisis, Rubén Figueroa Alcocer became governor of Guerrero in 1993. Repression under Figueroa reached levels unprecedented since the days when his father, Rubén Figueroa Figueroa, who served as governor from 1975 to 1981, directed the final counterinsurgency efforts against suspected sympathizers of the Party of the Poor. After the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in January 1994, rumors abounded of armed groups in Guerrero and the state government accused virtually all independent organizations of subversion.

The group which suffered most under the Figueroa Administration was the Campesino Organization of the South Sierra (OCSS). Formed in 1994 in the coastal municipalities of Atoyac and Coyuca de Benítez, the OCSS was a grassroots organization that used direct action—protests, marches and occupations of town halls—in its struggle for basic economic and social campesino demands. To a large extent, it incorporated the most politicized sectors previously active in the Union of Ejidos. The OCSS always rejected armed struggle, yet from its inception, the group was tagged by Figueroa's government as "radical" and "destabilizing." Its peaceful efforts were consistently met with bullets, clubs and arrest warrants.

In perhaps the worst incidence of violence, on June 28, 1995, a truckload of campesinos on its way to a rally sponsored by the OCSS in Atoyac de Alvarez was stopped by a unit of several hundred judicial police and public security officers in a dry riverbed between the communities of Aguas Blancas and Paso Real. When the truck stopped, the police opened fire, killing 17 people—some at point-blank range—and wounding 24 others.

Exactly one year later in Guerrero, the EPR announced its existence for the first time, making a dramatic appearance at a meeting commemorating the victims of Aguas Blancas. An alliance of 14 small groups with a presence in a dozen southern and central states, the new guerrilla group concentrated its efforts along three fronts: the coastal regions of Guerrero; the Loxichas region of Oaxaca; and the Eastern Sierra Madre in the states of Veracruz, Hidalgo and Puebla. The EPR was well-armed and had access to significant sums of money through several kidnapping-for-ransom schemes involving wealthy businessmen in the early 1990s.

After three dozen military actions and hundreds of local political meetings between July 1996 and May 1997, the group suddenly assumed a lower profile. In part this was due to the rapid militarization of rural Mexico after the EPR's initial appearance. To a large extent, however, the lower profile was brought about by the group's internal divisions—divisions that led to the creation of the ERPI in January 1998.

From statements to the press made by leaders of the ERPI in June and August 1998, as well as documents confiscated after the massacre in El Charco and published in the weekly news magazine Proceso, it became clear that the ERPI was not just a "splinter group" of the EPR, but rather the result of a secession from the national organization of the entire EPR apparatus in the state of Guerrero. This was devastating to the EPR. More than half of the EPR's presence in Mexico prior to the division was concentrated in Guerrero, and it was only in Guerrero that the EPR had continued to show important growth after 1996.

According to the ERPI's national directorate, the differences in vision which led to the break from the EPR spanned nearly all aspects of the organization. One of the strongest criticisms of the EPR was that the lack of consultation with its bases had led to a "growing distance" between the organization and the people it was supposed to represent.[5] In order to "reconnect" the guerrillas with the population, the ERPI has claimed to be putting the Zapatista notion of mandar obedeciendo—leading by obeying—into practice in Guerrero, allowing important political and tactical decisions to be determined by its bases rather than by the top leaders.

Thus far, the ERPI's public pronouncements of its political goals have been even more vague than those expressed by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas: establishment of a government that listens to the people, respects the will of civil society, attends to social demands, combats corruption, respects human rights and effects justice. In strategic terms, a key element found throughout ERPI discourse is its belief that a popular insurrection—either a generalized uprising across the whole country or a series of smaller, regional upheavals—will occur this year, probably in the context of the upcoming presidential elections. The ERPI says it does not plan on instigating such an uprising, but insists it must be prepared to take part if and when an insurrection occurs.

To this end, the ERPI claims to be quietly forming "insurgent communities," perhaps in an attempt to replicate the organizational strategies of the EZLN in Chiapas. The ERPI initially hoped to engage in this process in an entirely clandestine manner, waiting until the moment of the insurrection to announce its existence to the world. Only after the massacre at El Charco and the subsequent publication of internal documents in the national press did the group decide to publicly acknowledge its presence in Guerrero.

It is difficult to state with any degree of precision the number of active combatants in the ERPI, although it seems likely the figure is in the low hundreds.[6] Most of these are campesinos from Guerrero's coastal communities, and many are indigenous Mixtecos and Nahuas. The group also includes urban intellectuals and students who are drawn to the movement primarily out of political and ideological conviction, rather than for strictly agrarian concerns. Two of the ERPI militants present at the El Charco massacre—one of whom was killed—were in fact students from Mexico City.[7] Non-indigenous intellectuals make up at least half of the ERPI's six-member national directorate.

The EPR's base of civilian supporters in Guerrero probably numbered in the thousands before the split, and it is likely that most of those supporters have stayed with the ERPI. But unlike the broad bases of support for the EZLN in Chiapas that openly express their Zapatista identity and sympathies, the civilian sympathizers and bases of support of the ERPI remain completely clandestine.

There are, of course, independent political organizations like the OCSS and the Broad Front for the Construction of the National Liberation Movement (FAC-MLN) that fight against the same injustices. But while the federal and state governments have stepped up their campaign against these groups in Guerrero, accusing them of direct collaboration with the guerrillas, it is not likely that such organizational links exist. Most independent organizations in Guerrero still insist on following legal and constitutional paths toward change, and while many choose not to criticize or condemn the guerrillas, neither do they actively support them. While it may not be out of the ordinary for a campesino to vote for the PRD on election day, attend a post-electoral rally of the FAC-MLN, and then walk several kilometers to deliver tortillas to the guerrilla encampment in the hills, such mutual sympathies at the base level do not mean that the organizations themselves are linked.

Late last October, the Mexican government announced that it had "beheaded" the ERPI and was close to eliminating the armed struggle in Guerrero. An important founder of the ERPI, Jacobo Silva Nogales (Comandante Antonio), and another key political figure in the organization, Gloria Arenas Ajís (Coronel Aurora), had been arrested. Internal security chief Jorge Tello compared the detentions of Antonio and Aurora to the deaths of guerrilla leaders Vásquez and Cabañas nearly three decades ago. "The importance in logistical terms is of exactly the same magnitude," said Tello. "We are talking about the operational leaders of the guerrillas in Guerrero."

But in referring to Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vásquez, Tello unwittingly highlighted a fundamental failure of government policy toward rural rebellion in southern Mexico. It is not, nor has it ever been, the "operational leaders of the guerrillas" that account for the existence and survival of rebel movements. Although rebel leaders have been imprisoned, assassinated and killed in combat, armed struggle in rural Guerrero—though fluctuating in intensity—has remained a constant for more than three decades. And it is likely to remain a constant until the government makes a conscious effort to reduce rural poverty and marginalization and attend to the social, political and economic grievances which give rise to the existence of rebels in the first place.

The arrests of two key members of the ERPI leadership may well deter the organization from launching its expected uprising this year. If any significant logistical or operational information about the group was extracted during the October raids, it will likely prove to be a setback from which the ERPI, as it exists today, will not fully recover. But the Mexican government shows no indication of working to abate the conditions which gave birth to contemporary guerrilla warfare in southern Mexico. Unless it does so, history suggests that Antonio and Aurora will not be the last of Guerrero's rebels.

Joshua Paulson is a freelance writer. He is currently working on a manuscript dealing with the history of armed struggle in rural Mexico over the past 50 years.

1. XI General Census on Housing and Population (Aguascalientes: INEGI, 1992); see also Alba Teresa Estrada Castañón, Guerrero: Sociedad, economía, política, cultura (Mexico City: UNAM, 1994), Table 1, p. 27.
2. Armando Bartra, Guerrero bronco: Campesinos, ciudadanos y guerrilleros en la Costa Grande (Mexico City: Ediciones Sinfiltro, 1996), p. 169.
3. See Bartra, Guerrero bronco, pp. 141-142; and Simón Hipólito, Guerrero, amnistía y represión (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1982), pp. 115-168.
4. Estrada Castañón, Guerrero, Table 15, p. 155.
5. See the ERPI document, "La profecía autocumplida," in Carlos Marín, "Paso a paso, en documentos, la fundación del Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo Indígena (sic)," Proceso (Mexico City), June 28, 1998.
6. My estimate is 300 to 400 armed combatants, since when it split from the ERP, the ERPI took 60% of its members with it.
7. Ricardo Zavala, a social science student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), was killed. Erika Zamora Pardo, a student activist in the UNAM system, remains imprisoned.

Tags: Mexico, social movements, rural, peasantry, guerrillas, Guerrero, ERPI

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