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One Family Paid Dearly in 'Dirty War'

Mexico: A rebel leader's clan was targeted in army's 1970s campaign to crush guerrillas.

December 11, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATOYAC DE ALVAREZ, Mexico — Back in the 1970s, just bearing the name Cabanas invited torture, disappearance and death in the villages of the blood-splashed Sierra Madre of Guerrero state.

Lucio Cabanas Barrientos, a Mexican version of Che Guevara, was a country teacher-turned-revolutionary leader who built up a small rebel army in the mountains that loom above his hometown here. He was killed Dec. 2, 1974, in an army ambush soon after kidnapping the governor-elect of the southern state.

Nearly 30 years later, the truth is emerging about that revolt and the army's fierce, sometimes illegal campaign to crush it. This truth contains potentially dramatic consequences for Mexico's modern-day transition to democracy.

The nation's "dirty war" of the '70s was divided between the countryside and the cities.

If the urban conflict was surgical, with few innocent victims on either side, the struggle in the mountains of Guerrero state came far closer to the Central American-style conflicts that exploded into full-scale wars and widespread abuses.

Within the extended Cabanas clan alone, about 100 people were taken away by security forces and never seen again, family members say.

So it is appropriate that a recent investigative session by four lawyers for the National Human Rights Commission took place on the patio of the simple home of Sofia Cabanas, a cousin of Lucio.

The forms the lawyers were filling in with the testimony of townsfolk are powerful weapons in a new Mexican war, this one against impunity, against forgetting the costs and lessons of past conflicts.

The evidence given here on a Saturday in early December is revealing fresh names--names not yet listed in the commission's recently released report about people who disappeared in the 1970s and the first half of the '80s. It is providing clues in the hunt for those responsible. And it is proving false many of the official accounts that the rights report also disavowed, claims that the disappeared had died in armed clashes or at the hands of their own comrades.

The emerging official reports and the personal testimonies from emboldened survivors are raising as many questions as they answer, specifically: What happened to the disappeared after they were taken? How did they die? Are they still alive?

The rights commission's landmark report, issued last month, provides case studies of 532 people believed to have been forcibly taken away in Mexico from 1970 to 1985. Of those, 332--or nearly two-thirds--came from Guerrero. And the vast majority of those cases occurred in the villages in and around the sprawling municipality of Atoyac de Alvarez, the focus of Cabanas' revolt.

In meetings here with family members of the missing, a Times reporter heard detailed accounts of several cases that have surfaced only in recent months and were hurriedly added to the commission's findings.

The stories support claims by many Cabanas family members and others in the community that the number of missing from this region is greater than officially acknowledged. Activists here have long claimed that more than 400 people are missing from Atoyac alone, and about 650 from Guerrero state.

The growing list of cases adds to the already daunting task ahead for the year-old government of Mexican President Vicente Fox as it looks into rights abuses of the past. Fox has pledged to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the disappearances.

Mexico's former government repeatedly dismissed accusations that its forces had systematically violated human rights in the process of stamping out the Guerrero rebellion. But the rights commission report has provided unprecedented details of the army's campaign in Guerrero--and of how many official lies were told in the past about the missing.

That the tiny villages and ranches scattered among the mountain ridges overlooking the coastal plain of Guerrero state became breeding grounds of rural revolt is not surprising. Apart from the Pacific resorts of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, Guerrero suffers some of the worst rural poverty and some of the most repressive local power bosses, known as caciques, in the country.

Erasmo Cabanas Tabares remembers vividly the day--May 18, 1967--that his distant cousin Lucio took up arms. That day, police had opened fire on teachers and parents demonstrating in the plaza of Atoyac, a city that now counts about 60,000 people. Erasmo, then 13, saw the bodies of about 18 people who died.

From his clandestine base in the mountains, Lucio Cabanas built a force of about 350 fighters. His movement was called the Party of the Poor.

Cabanas practiced his own kind of brutality, recalls retired army Maj. Elias Alcaraz, who once pursued him. In one ambush of an army patrol in June 1972, Cabanas' guerrillas killed 11 soldiers. In another, in August 1974, they killed 40, Alcaraz said. He said the rebels once killed a bridegroom at his wedding because the bride had refused to marry one of the rebels.

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