Indians pay penalty as police hunt guerrillas

Victor Feliciano, a 12-year-old Mixtec Indian who helped his father grow corn, was dragged from his home by police and troops in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero on 15 February. He has not been seen since.

Relatives and neighbours in his village of Tlacoachistlahuaca fear that Victor has been "disappeared" - murdered - along with three other peasants detained in a police raid the same day. Locals say their crime was to have had rifles in their homes - standard practice in an area where law officers rarely venture and feuds are traditionally resolved by bullets.

A police convoy had been shot at near the village the previous day, with one policeman killed.

The authorities deny holding the peasants, saying that all four fled arrest and are "fugitives from justice". The implication is that they belonged to or at least sympathised with a leftwing guerrilla group. And that they are unlikely to be seen again.

The four were detained in just one of many recent raids on Indian villages in Guerrero as police and troops tried to flush out guerrillas of the so-called Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR). The EPR surfaced in Guerrero last year, two years after a similar uprising by Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas.

Villagers in Tlacoachistlahuaca say that 100 heavily armed members of the feared state judicial police, backed by troops in three armoured cars, spread terror during the raid, bursting into homes, beating women and a two-year-old child and stealing goats, pigs and hens - the only means of livelihood for many villagers.

Human rights groups and opposition politicians, who blame the Guerrero state governor, Angel Aguirre, for such raids, are demanding that the police or army explain the fate of the four missing peasants.

The EPR is the reincarnation of a peasant guerrilla group called the Party of the Poor, which fought the Guerrero government and wealthy elite in the Sixties and Seventies. It announced itself last year on the anniversary of a massacre by police of 17 peasants in the hills above the tourist resort of Acapulco.

The group's most dramatic action was against another tourist resort, Huatulco, last August when it attacked several police and military installations and briefly took over the town. Since then, it has waged mainly a propaganda war, peacefully taking over villages to win recruits. It has also spirited journalists to safe houses in Mexico City and elsewhere to explain its aims. These are essentially to overthrow the Mexican government. But its ideology, although apparently Marxist, is not entirely clear.

Intelligence sources in Peru say the EPR has received training from that country's Shining Path guerrillas, and that members of the latter have fought in the Mexican group, but the EPR denies this.

In a statement yesterday, the EPR accused the Guerrero government of waging a "dirty war" against Indian peasants. The "war" was aimed at discouraging peasants from joining or sympathising with the guerrillas, the statement said. Signed by "Major Emiliano and Captain Lazaro," it denied that the EPR was extorting money from people in Guerrero for its cause. "Common criminals and paramilitary groups" linked with the government were doing so to disparage the guerrillas, it said.

The EPR, which claims to have units in Mexico City and several states, called on the government for news of one of its members, codenamed "Rafael", who it said had been detained three months ago and tortured.

The group has accused the Mexican military of taking peasants up in helicopters and dangling them from open doorways to extract "confessions" or information about the EPR. Such methods were used against leftists in Mexico in the Sixties and Seventies, when suspects were even dropped to their deaths, according to witnesses.