May 15, 2009
A new twist with unpredictable political consequences has emerged amid the shifting battle fronts of Mexico’s narco war. Sometime last weekend and somewhere in the mountains of southern Guerrero state, a group of at least 20 armed men presenting themselves as a column of the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) appeared before Mexican reporters.
Uniformed and armed with AK-47 rifles, the group was led by Comandante Ramiro, or Omar Guerrero Solis, one of the most wanted men in Mexico and an almost folkloric figure who escaped from a prison outside Acapulco more than six years ago and wasn’t publicly seen again until last weekend’s secret press conference.
In comments to reporters, Comandante Ramiro accused the Calderon administration of not only staging the fight against drug trafficking, but of also protecting the interests of alleged drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The masked guerrilla commander charged Guerrero Governor Zeferino Torreblanca, who was elected with the backing of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and social sectors sympathetic with the guerrilla movement, with also protecting Chapo Guzman and an alleged associate, Rogaciano Alba.
A former head of the Guerrero Regional Cattlemen’s Association, Alba also served as the mayor of the Guerrero town of Petatlan for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Gunmen associated with Alba are responsible for about 60 murders in the conflictive Tierra Caliente and Costa Grande regions of Guerrero, Comandante Ramiro said.
“The strategy of combating the narco is phony,” Comandante Ramiro charged. “Here in Guerrero, for example, the narcos participate in meetings that the army and state government hold to strike at one cartel and protect another, but essentially they are the same, because they murder, kidnap and torture,” he asserted. “Here the cartel of Chapo Guzman is serving the army, and vice-versa.”
The fugitive rebel leader likewise accused Erit Montufar, director of the Guerrero state ministerial police, of involvement in criminal activities in the Tierra Caliente region of the state.
Comandante Ramiro said narco-fueled violence was inspiring young people to join the ERPI’s ranks, which had successfully expelled Alba’s men from some mountain zones. The ERPI, he said, is engaged in active armed self-defense, “striking” and “dismantling” paramilitary groups connected to Alba and the state government. The guerrilla leader said his troops try to avoid confrontations with Mexican soldiers, whom he called “sons of the people” welcome to join the revolutionary movement.
The ERPI first emerged in 1998 as a splinter faction of the leftist Popular Democratic Revolutionary Party/Popular Revolutionary Army (PDPR-EPR). Two top ERPI leaders, Jacobo Silva and Gloria Arenas, were captured by the Mexican army in 1999, but the guerrilla group survived and reorganized.
The EPR, as well as other spin-offs, remains active. As the 15th anniversary of the founding of the organization’s armed wing neared this month, the PDPR-EPR issued a new communique. In its message, the underground organization addressed the recent flu epidemic, deficiencies in the Mexican healthcare system, human rights, political scandals, labor movements, the suffering of the mothers of Ciudad Juarez femicide victims, and more.
The group also said its members were reviewing the next step to take in its campaign to force a clarification of the fate of two high-ranking leaders, Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sanchez, who were allegedly disappeared by the Mexican government in May 2007.
Subsequently, the EPR waged a sabotage campaign against gas pipelines to force the appearance of its two leaders. The guerrillas later declared a truce, and a mediation commission was established between the EPR and Calderon administration. The commission, however, recently broke down, with no word on the fates of Cruz and Amaya.
Now 33 years old, the ERPI’s Comandante Ramiro told Mexican media he first joined the Poor People’s Party, a predecessor group of the PDPR-EPR which was founded by the late legendary rebel leader Lucio Cabañas in the late 1960s, when he was fourteen years of age.
According to Comandante Ramiro, the ERPI is organized like Cabanas’ old Campesino Justice Brigade, with units going up and down in size. Claiming his organization enjoys broad popular support in the Guerrero countryside, Comandante Ramiro said he spent the last four years year in the mountains, adding with a half-smile, “without a vacation.” Addressing reporters, he personally challenged President Calderon and Defense Secretary Galvan to come fight against him if they had a beef and stop sending “innocents” to die.
Replies to Comandante Ramiro
Reaction to the rebel leader’s bravado was slow in coming from Calderon administration officials and Governor Torreblanca, but other state officials and well-known political figures in Guerrero had quick words of response.
Dismissing Comandante Ramiro’s allegations, State Ministerial Police Director Montufar contended the fugitive was using the name of the ERPI to cover for crimes including cattle rustling, robbery and rape. “How is it possible that someone who escaped from the Acapulco penitentiary, a delinquent of that level, assumes the mantle of defender of social causes?” Montufar responded.
Armando Chavarria, coordinator of the PRD group in the Guerrero State Congress and a former state interior minister under Torreblanca, urged the governor to initiate a dialogue with the ERPI. “Personally, I don’t justify the armed struggle,” Chavarria said, “but I understand it.” The veteran politician said the ERPI’s public reemergence, arising from a grinding poverty trapping hundreds of thousands of people in the state, “makes the situation graver in Guerrero.”
After news of the EPRI’s reappearance hit the press, residents reported stepped-up Mexican military movements, especially in the Tierra Caliente. While Mexican guerrillas engaged the media this past week, presumed narcos mounted their own publicity campaign by hanging more so-called “narco-banners” in Guerrero, Morelos, Tabasco, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua.
Directed at President Felipe Calderon, Federal Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna and other top law enforcement officials, the latest messages were strikingly frank, with the banner signers acknowledging they were not members of a Boy Scout troop but nevertheless protesting alleged Calderon administration retaliations against family members of accused narcos. According the anonymous authors, the global code of conduct mandates that the family “should be respected.”
A New Game for Washington?
Locally, the EPRI column led by Comandante Ramiro adds another explosive element to a multi-faceted conflict underway in Guerrero involving several rival drug cartels, the Mexican armed forces and different police agencies, which often back different crime groups and battle one another. Last month, a fierce battle in the mountains between the army and suspected gunmen from the Beltran-Leyva cartel left at least 15 gunmen and one soldier dead. Along with large-caliber weapons and grenades, 13 suspects were seized by the army.
Politically, the persistence and even growth of the ERPI further signals the collapse of the broad-based political movement spearheaded by Zeferino Torreblanca that swept into power in early 2005 based on promises of change and end to decades of corruption and misrule by the PRI party.
The ERPI’s ability to attract young recruits shows how the guerrilla in Guerrero, like the narco, has become part of the trans-generational landscape. Comandante Ramiro’s column represents at least the third generation of Mexicans to take up arms since the late 1960s.
The existence of a guerrilla group in the heart of the narco conflict zone has national and international ramifications, especially at a time when the Democratic Party-controlled US Congress is considering a $470 million security funding request for the Mexican government, including money for more helicopters, advanced technology and training for the Mexican armed forces. The modern military equipment could used to fight guerrillas as well as narcos.
On May 7, the House Appropriations Committee approved the military assistance package and sent it on for further action. In an action bearing perhaps more than just passing political symbolism, the Mexico aid was approved as part of a larger security outlay for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, even as the new Obama administration retunes its military strategy in Central Asia, Washington could be poised to become more deeply involved in a Mexican civil conflict that has centuries of deep political, social and historical roots.
On the eve of the House committee vote, scores of prominent Mexican human rights organizations wrote the US Congress opposing new military aid. The signatories of a May 6 letter noted that allegations of human rights abuses against Mexican soldiers mainly deployed in anti-drug operations soared 600 percent from 2006 to 2008, reaching 1,230 cases filed with the official National Human Rights Commission last year. In both Guerrero and neighboring Michoacan, complaints against soldiers are on the upswing in 2009.
Juan Alarcon, longtime president of the official Guerrero State Human Rights Commission, said his agency saw an unprecedented 85 complaints against soldiers from last December to the first three weeks of April. The majority of accusations, encompassing alleged violations of search and seizure, arrest and other laws, “have nothing to do with drug trafficking or organized crime,” Alarcon insisted.
Ghosts of 1910
In some respects, the situation in Guerrero and other parts of the Mexican countryside, both south and north, resembles the era before the 1910 Mexican Revolution when armed bands, heavy-handed government forces and insurgent political forces all rose to the occasion. Then, as now, foreign companies commanded key sectors of the economy.
Ironically, the huge copper mine in Cananea, Sonora, which witnessed one of the historic, runner-up battles to the 1910 revolt, has been the scene of a mounting conflict during the last two years between the mineworkers union led by exiled leader Napoleon Gomez on one side and the Calderon administration and owners Grupo Mexico on the other. Internationally, Gomez’s group has received important backing from the United Steel Workers and other labor organizations.
The Cananea strike almost erupted into a bloody showdown just as US President Barack Obama was preparing to visit Mexico last month. Attempting to break the strike, Grupo Mexico announced the firing of more than 1,000 workers. Hundreds of federal police then began saturating the area around the mine defended by miners and a women’s defense force.
In solidarity with the Sonora strikers, mine and metal industry workers blockaded shipments of containers scheduled for export from the Pacific Coast port of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan, near the border with Guerrero.
Back in Sonora, miners took over a highway toll booth. At one demonstration, the Cananea strikers cried out: “If there is no solution, there will be revolution!”
As the Cananea strike approached its second anniversary, Sonora Governor Eduardo Bours appealed on the federal government to find a solution amicable to all parties.