The Hidden Side of Mexico's Drug War
An interview with ERPI guerrilla leader Comandante Ramiro
They came shooting. Three military Humvees raced up the sole dirt road that leads to Puerto Las Ollas with soldiers firing mounted machine guns into the dirt paths and lean-to houses. Helicopters crested the mountain ridge that borders the tiny village. Soldiers leaned out of the side, firing. It was mid-morning June 9 and no one expected it. "I was fixing a tin roof when they arrived shooting," says a 19-year-old who was there that day. The young man watched from a rooftop as soldiers ran through the village, apprehending women and children. He managed to escape into the steep mountainside. "You see soldiers beating 13-year-olds and it makes you rage," he said.
One of the boys, Omar, tells how he was beaten, tortured, and interrogated for hours that day, with the soldiers asking about the guerrillas. "They asked for Ramiro, but I didn't say anything. It went on for about five hours. They stepped on my bare feet with their boots and boxed my ears with their open palms. They said that if I told anyone about it they would kill me," says Omar. He was able to escape later that night.
Most of the men in the village had been working in the cornfields when they heard the gunfire. They ran for cover in the forest. One man, César Acosta Ávila, who suffers from the aftereffects of a severe head injury, could not run. When the soldiers grabbed him, they beat him, threatened to rape and kill him before jabbing sewing needles under his fingernails and demanding information about the guerrillas.
Alejandro, in his late 20s, also ran into the mountains that first day where he hid with other villagers for four days without eating. "How can one trust such a government," he asks. "Here you live in fear. You see a soldier and run to the hills." He tells how he returned to his house to find his few possessions and clothes all on the floor, dirty and broken. "Imagine if the government arrived to support agricultural production instead of repressing," he says. "But...the criminals are part of the government itself. What is happening is that the government is forcing the poor to take other measures, even though they don't want to."
The soldiers camped out in the village and the following day between 500 and 600 more arrived, setting up camps in Puerto Las Ollas and two nearby villages, Las Palancas and El Jilguero. There they continued to harass, beat, and interrogate those who had been unable to escape, mainly women and children. The soldiers entered their homes—made of wood walls, dirt floors, and tin roofs—breaking and stealing their possessions. They set fire to the only modes of transportation: two dirt bikes and an all-terrain four-wheeler.
The army remained in the villages until June 13, when a "civilian observation mission" composed of various human rights organizations arrived to document abuses. Amnesty International released an "urgent action" on June 25 based on the mission's findings documenting cases of torture.
Puerto Las Ollas is a tiny village of some 50 subsistence farmers poised on the dense green mountain ridges of the Sierra Madre in Guerrero State. Much of the region, known as the Tierra Caliente, provides cover for marijuana and poppy fields for Mexico's powerful drug trafficking cartels. The region is also home to some of Mexico's most marginalized rural communities, among whom rag-and-bone guerrilla fighters have lived and organized uninterrupted for over 40 years. Guerrilla groups were a part of the Mexican political scene throughout the 20th century. More than 20 distinct groups rose up in cities and rural areas during the 1960s and 1970s, targeting the military and police, kidnapping wealthy Mexicans to fund their cause, and in some cases setting bombs off in empty buildings. The government responded with "white brigades" (paramilitary death squads) tasked with executing guerrillas outside the law. During this time more than 400 people were "disappeared," most of them in the state of Guerrero.
The most well-known guerrilla army, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN-Zapatista Army of National Liberation), grabbed world attention when they rose up in arms on January 1, 1994. The Zapatistas have since launched several national political initiatives while continuing to build autonomy in their recuperated territory in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas.
Most of the recent headlines have focused on the intense bloodshed between warring drug cartels, the army, and various state and federal police forces, in which over 13,000 people have been slain since President Felipe Calderón ordered the army into the streets in December 2006. The Washington Post's July 9, 2009 headline "Mexico Accused of Torture in Drug War" prompted an immediate call for inquiries from the U.S. government. Rights groups also called on the United States to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Mexico, funds that form part of the $1.4 billion aid package known as the Merida Initiative.
The Post story only mentions in passing, however, the existence of an armed guerrilla group in the region, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo Insurgente (ERPI-Insurgent People's Revolutionary Army). The ERPI traces its roots back to the teacher-turned-guerrilla-leader Lucio Cabañas and is perhaps the armed movement that publicly elaborates a political position most closely resembling that of the Zapatistas. The ERPI's core concept, poder popular (popular power or peoples' power), is very similar to the Zapatistas' struggle to build autonomy and their core concepts like mandar obedeciendo (lead by obeying).
After some 18 hours of driving from Mexico City and another few hours walking through the forest in the Guerrero mountains, I came to the hillside where the ERPI column was fanned out with machetes cutting weeds and brush away from knee-high corn stalks.
Dressed in camouflage fatigues, jeans, and T-shirts, they wear military caps and ski masks or bandannas to cover their faces. They use sticks and machetes to clear away the brush, their shiny made-in-China AK-47s slung over their backs, handheld radios, canteens, and hunting knives affixed to their belts or backpack straps. There are no women present in the column, though one of the ERPI's co-founders is a woman, Gloria Arenas Agis.
Comandante Ramiro, a 34-year-old, steps away from the column to give an interview on the open hillside. When addressed as "comandante" he says quietly, "Just Ramiro is fine." He begins by telling his version of what happened when the soldiers stormed the village of Puerto Las Ollas on June 9.
"Once again we have seen the attitude of this bad government. Instead of bringing public works, they come shooting, they come with bullets," Ramiro says. "Only this time the people didn't just take it. Many ran to the mountainside and were pursued. The villagers did not shoot; their children were all there. But the mountainside is different. The soldiers pursued people out into the mountainside and this time we had it out. It was no big deal," he says of the ERPI's shootout with soldiers.
The Mexican Army acknowledged that one soldier was wounded during the operations, but Ramiro thinks that several were killed."We responded in a firm, appropriate manner," he says, "just enough so that they would stop pursuing people out into the mountainside. It was self-defense. It was the first day. They were trying to surround the mountainside. There was another clash and we contained them. Another column of soldiers tried to come up from the other side and we also stopped them. They didn't follow those fleeing anymore or anyone else."
Ramiro joined the guerrillas 20 years ago when the survivors of Lucio Cabañas's Partido de los Pobres (PDLP-Party of the Poor) still clung to the edges of remote villages. In 1974, the Mexican Army dispatched over 70,000 soldiers who killed Cabañas and many of his fighters—but many more escaped and fled to Mexico City to hide. In the 1980s, these survivors returned to Guerrero to rebuild their troops.
At the age of 14, Ramiro began participating in protests and marches and formed a part of the PDLP's social support network, often carrying tortillas into the mountains to the guerrilla column. A military spy observed Ramiro's movements and tipped off the army, leading soldiers to his village where they detained and tortured him. "I was going on 15 when the soldiers grabbed me and tortured me," he says. "They interrogated me about the armed groups, about who were the local leaders. They accused me of being a member of the command structure—despite my young age—saying that I was training the compañeros."
After being tortured by the army, Ramiro decided to join the PDLP guerrilla column full time. It was around 1989. The PDLP subsequently joined forces with the urban guerrilla Unión del Pueblo (Peoples Union) and later became the Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR-Popular Revolutionary Army), which appeared during the first anniversary of the massacre at Aguas Blancas on June 28, 1996. The EPR would later split, with the Guerrero columns forming the ERPI. The pattern is well established in deep, rural Mexico. For decades, state repression of social activism has led Mexicans to take up arms and go underground. Lucio Cabañas, an elementary school teacher, took to the mountains and formed the PDLP after state police attempted to shoot him while he spoke at a teachers rally in Atoyac de Alvarez in 1967. Cabañas escaped, whisked away by fellow teachers and his student's parents, but the police killed five teachers and bystanders that day.
Gloria Arenas went underground and began the clandestine organizing that would lead her to co-found the ERPI (along with her husband Jacobo Silva Nogales) after the Veracruz state police kidnapped her, held her incommunicado, and threatened to kill her for her nonviolent activism with the indigenous land rights organization TINAM.
"I was not born a guerrilla fighter," Ramiro says. "I was not born with a gun in my hand. It was repression, injustice, and poverty that forced us to this. It is not just to have a good time that I am going to grab a gun and head into the bush. Here one sleeps on the ground in the rain, without eating, weary, but always with the idea that one day things will be better for everyone."He was present when the army surrounded the tiny schoolhouse in El Charco, near Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero in the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1998.Ramiro and other guerrillas were able to shoot their way through the army siege, but soldiers killed 11 combatants and local villagers, executing several after they had surrendered and lay face down on the basketball court, giving each a shot in the back of the head. Ramiro was one of the organizers and leaders of the ERPI's September 22, 1999 ambush of an army convoy in response to the massacre. Mexico's Department of Defense said that two soldiers were injured, though witnesses said several were killed.
In October 1999, Mexican authorities captured and tortured Silva and Arenas. They were then charged with both fabricated crimes and with rebellion. Over the past ten years Silva and Arenas have taken their case to the courts and won several appeals, getting most of the charges dropped—except rebellion, to which they pled guilty. When, on the first day of their trial, the presiding judge asked Jacobo Silva his profession, he responded: "Guerrillero."
In 2001, Ramiro was captured at a military roadblock in Riva Palacios, Michoacán. He says that both soldiers and civilians linked to drug trafficking participated in his capture and the subsequent torture sessions, during which he repeatedly lost consciousness. "When I was caught, I was cruelly tortured. But once I was taken to jail in Coyuca de Catalán, besides the bad aspects, there was a nice upside," he says. "Nice because we started organizing among the prisoners." Prison life in Guerrero, he says, is one of constant torture, beatings, and drugs sold by prison guards. "With all that I saw there in prison, I asked myself: This is the reformation of which the government speaks? Drugs in the jails. Beatings. Humiliations. That is not how to reform someone, that is how to make him or her more rebellious.... We told the prisoners that they need work, they need recreation as well, without that you'll go crazy, which is what the government wants. The government brings drugs into the prisons because that is what they want. Leave all that, we have to demand work, demand nutritious food. And that is how we began to organize."
Despite his experiences organizing, however, early on he decided to break out of prison or die trying. When he was transferred to a state prison in Acapulco, he was beaten and tortured while in transit. In Acapulco, he continued organizing not only for work and better conditions, but also to dig a tunnel under the prison walls into a nearby neighborhood. He and 14 other prisoners escaped on November 28, 2002 in broad daylight. The Guerrero state government accused them of being drug traffickers and said that among the 14 other escapees were several Colombian capos. Ramiro, however, says that the Colombians were not capos, but borregos ("goats")—slang for those charged with traveling with the drugs on boats. "They were poor people," he says. "I saw how they lived, what they ate, how they dressed. We were together after all, and not because we wanted to be."
Ramiro accuses the government of protecting and even collaborating with paramilitary drug gangs and traffickers in the region. "When I was captured, several civilians were there: Abel Montúfar, a well-known hired killer in the Tierra Caliente and the brother of Erik Montúfar [a Guerrero state police official] was there and apparently in charge. That family [the Montúfars] has been both feared and hated in Tierra Caliente because they have the support of the state," Ramiro says. "Erik Montúfar is deeply embedded in state power and thus they let them go."
Ramiro says that "Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the government work together to both eliminate the competition (such as the dreaded Zetas of the Gulf Cartel) and carry out counterinsurgency operations against the guerrillas. "Here El Chapo Guzman's cartel is working for the state and vice versa."
The ERPI, according to Ramiro, is trying to fight drugs at the grassroots. "We have been helping to combat alcoholism and drug addiction," he says. "Before we came to this region, there was a lot of alcoholism and drug use. We have been talking with people, holding assemblies and explaining the damaging effects. Often internal conflicts in communities are due to alcohol and drugs. So we have been helping to reduce drug and alcohol use. But we do not impose this. It is something agreed upon and arrived at via consensus in assemblies. People vote in favor of this. We let the dealers know, first in a very calm way, that from then on they cannot sell drugs in those communities because that was the people's decision. If they continue, they will be sanctioned by the column."
In this sense, the ERPI has taken a similar path as the EZLN. The Zapatistas successfully banned all forms of alcohol and drugs from their communities. Indeed, during the recent years of spectacular drug violence plaguing the country perhaps the only corner of Mexican territory to be completely immune—the only place where not a single drug execution has occurred—is Zapatista rebel territory in Chiapas.
What does Ramiro say to the critics of armed movements today, those who accuse them of glorifying violence or even of being murderers? "How are we going to confront the army, with flowers? No," he says. "In clashes some soldiers fell. If they accuse me of that, I accept. But if an armed movement exists, it is because the conditions for it also exist: poverty, injustice, and repression. That is why guerrillas arise. It is not something we do for fun."