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By Militarizing, Zedillo Only Increases Instability

January 04, 1998|Andrew Reding | Andrew Reding, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, directs the North America Project of World Policy Institute

MORELIA, MEXICO — The slaughter of 46 unarmed Tzotzil Indians--most of them women and children--in the remote hamlet of Acteal was not, as the Mexican government has insisted, an aberration. Since Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro became governor of Chiapas in February 1995, more than 1,500 Indians have been killed in political violence, many by paramilitary groups linked to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Nor are the killings confined to Chiapas. Political murders are not unusual in the neighboring states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, which also have large, impoverished indigenous populations. The opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) lists more than 250 members killed since January 1995, most of them in these three southern states. In less acute form, the problem extends nationwide. The Mexican army recently has been implicated in two high-profile cases involving the torture and execution of civilians in central Mexico.

Although President Ernesto Zedillo expressed indignation at the Acteal massacre, and moved quickly to arrest local leaders of his party, the wider pattern of violence is a logical outgrowth of his own policies. As a technocrat with no previous political experience, Zedillo has held doggedly to economic policies that have cut wages to one-third what they were in 1980 and ended land reform. The resulting desperation has led to crime waves in the cities, and fostered insurgencies and land seizures in the countryside.

Rather than try to address the underlying issues of poverty and racial discrimination, Zedillo's answer has been to turn to the military. He has placed generals in charge of the war on drugs, put military officers in command of urban police and deployed troops throughout the countryside to confront the threat of insurgency.

For the first time since the Revolution, civil society is being militarized. That change was palpable even at an academic conference in this Spanish colonial state capital, 130 miles west of Mexico City. To the astonishment of Mexican and foreign guests, a column of Mexican infantry in helmets and full battle gear entered the auditorium brandishing automatic weapons. They lined the sides of the large hall as a military band struck up a martial air, and a soldier unfurled the Mexican flag.

Until fairly recently, such scenes were unheard of outside the barracks or Mexico City's central square. Mexico stood out among Latin American countries because its military kept out of civil affairs. Article 129 of the constitution stipulates, "in times of peace, no military authority may exercise more powers than those directly related to military discipline." As long as this was observed, it helped make Mexico one of the hemisphere's most stable and insurrection-proof countries.

All that now has changed. Troops and paramilitary groups patrol the countryside, backed by helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers. In major cities, soldiers patrol the streets in police uniforms. Technically "on leave" from the military, they continue to be commanded by military officers.

Though intended to boost security, the outcome has been the opposite. The drug cartels are more powerful than ever. Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, whom Zedillo chose to lead the war on drugs, turned out to be on the payroll of Juarez cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Crime rates continue to soar in the cities, as dramatized by the kidnapping last month of former Interior Minister Fernando Gutierrez Barrios. And insurgencies are multiplying in rural areas, with army intelligence now identifying more than a half-dozen groups operating in 17 of Mexico's 31 states.

Worse yet, the soldiers seem to have become part of the problem. Trained to kill enemies rather than respect the rights of fellow citizens, they repeatedly have treated suspects as enemies. In September, elite police units commanded by military officers carried out an "operation" in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Mexico City. They detained six young men, three of whom were taken to a police station, then driven to a sand pit and executed. In December, an elite army unit broke into homes in the indigenous community of San Juan de Ocotan, Jalisco, seizing and torturing 18 young men, one of whom they killed.

By far the dirtiest work, though, is that of paramilitary groups in Mexico's mostly rural southern states. Shortly after taking office, Zedillo ordered the army to seize Zapatista rebel leaders and charge them as common criminals. The effort failed, as have efforts to apprehend the leaders of another insurrectionary group, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR). Instead, federal and state governments have quietly fostered the formation of local paramilitary organizations intended to spread fear among civilian sympathizers of the insurgents.

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