Warnings of Mexico Violence
Ignored by Ted Lewis
THE BRUTAL TUESDAY massacre of 45 Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas, including 14 children, reminds us that Mexico is not immune to the kind of government sanctioned death squad violence that tore apart neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1930s.
An emerging pattern of violence by paramilitary groups linked to the long ruling PRI party should also alert Americans to the need to immediately suspend the delivery of U.S. weapons and training to Mexico's armed forces.
This was a massacre foretold. When I joined a peace mission by 44 non-governmental and church organizations that visited the troubled region in early this month, we found thousands of refugees who had fled their villages to escape the murderous violence of paramilitary groups linked to the ruling party. We called on President Ernesto Zedillo to denounce the links between local members of his party and the paramilitaries, and to take immediate action to disarm the paramilitary groups. The government brushed aside our recommendations. While we welcome President Zedillo's condemnation of this week's mass slaying, it is too little and too late.
Warnings of escalating violence were ignored because the Mexican government is actively pursuing a policy of low intensity war in Chiapas and elsewhere to intimidate and wear down its determined political opponents. There are clear economic and political links between the Chiapas state government and federal military commanders and groups like the one that carried out the massacre in the town of Acteal. During the past 18 months in northern Chiapas, this policy had resulted in the deaths of more than 120 indigenous and 6,000 internal refugees.
Americans who have been led to believe peaceful democratic change was inevitable in Mexico must remember that while the opposition broke through in last July's midterm election -- ending the PRI's 6-year-old stranglehold on the House of Representatives -- the Senate, executive branch, judiciary and military all remain firmly under the control of the PRL. So does economic and security policy.
To maintain its lifeline to international capital and political support, the PRI has developed an ingenious two-face strategy. The north-looking, smiling face of commercial Mexico offers low wages and a stage-managed democratic partnership with the United States. The inward-looking face of Mexico is harsher: an austere and repressive state and security apparatus that, with a nudge from the United States, has drastically cut back on social services, while continuing to use bribes, torture, murder and, in some cases, the latest forensic techniques provided by U.S. police agencies to control, hunt down and imprison its political opponents.
Advocates of sustaining U.S. military aid to Mexico have maintained that the influence of American training and support reduces human rights abuses at the hands of Mexican armed forces. Them same argument was used to justify U.S. support of South American military dictatorships in the 1970s and death squad democracies in Central America in the 1980s.
But isn't Mexico a special case? While most South and Central America suffered under dozens of U.S. allied military dictatorships throughout the century, Mexico proudly maintained sovereignty. and civilian control over its armed forces. What bitter irony, then, that Mexico is closing out the century with thousands of troops patrolling its rebellious indigenous southern states and largest cities to defend an economic model that produces a handful of billionaires and millions of dispossessed.
The recent massacre of indigenous people in Chiapas is a wake-up call to Congress and the Clinton administration. The U.S. government must halt training of Mexican military officers at the School of the Americas and shipment of weapons and riot control gear to Mexico. The U.S. should use its influence to urge Zedillo's government to support non-governmental human rights, civic and independent labor organizations that are working to end the militarization of Mexico's indigenous heartlands and national institutions.
Ted Lewis is the Mexico program director for the human rights group Global Exchange based in San Francisco.
Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.
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