Mexico's warrior peasants arm for revolt

A stone's throw from the beaches of Acapulco, the stage is set for violence. Phil Davison reports from Atoyaquillo
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The Independent Online
In the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, in the lush, barely accessible hills above the glitzy resort of Acapulco, history is repeating itself. As in the late Sixties, peasants are arming themselves against a widely hated state governor by the name of Ruben Figueroa.

That was the name of the governor who launched a "dirty war" against Guerrero peasants who revolted a generation ago. Now his son, of the same name, faces a new peasant rebellion which mirrors last year's Zapatista uprising in the state of Chiapas, farther south, but threatens to be even more explosive. More explosive because Guerrero's peasants have traditionally lived up to the name they gave the state: Guerrero means "warrior".

Their battling reputation began with the tough resistance of local Nahua Indians to the Spanish conquest, followed by the state's key role in the independence struggle against Spain, its strong support for the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, and the 1967-74 peasant uprising led by Lucio Cabanas and his Party of the Poor.

Local peasant and human- rights leaders say repression by Governor Figueroa's state police since he took over two-and-a-half years ago is far worse than that which led Cabanas to take to the hills against the late Ruben Figueroa senior in 1967. The climax came on 28 June this year, when 300 paramilitary policemen ambushed two lorryloads of peasants in a remote gulch near this village, opening fire from palm groves, killing 17 and wounding 14.

"Since then, the situation has been really tense," said Victor Cardona, an official in the town of Atoyac, 50 miles west of Acapulco, where Cabanas's seven-year rebellion began.

We sat in the main square outside the town hall, in the shade of tamarind and mango trees, where Figueroa's police killed eight people in May 1967 during an anti-government rally. Cabanas, who had just made an anti-government speech, escaped and took to the hills, initiating a seven-year guerrilla uprising of several hundred armed peasants.

After Cabanas kidnapped Figueroa for four months in 1974, the governor's men stepped up their ''dirty war'', killing, torturing or ''disappearing'' hundreds of guerrilla sympathisers and family members. A secret force known as the White Brigade, including federal Mexican troops and Guerrero state police, tracked Cabanas down and killed him in December 1974. He remains a folk hero in these hills, on a par with Zapata. ''Lucio lives,'' says red-painted graffiti outside the town hall.

"That the people have weapons, there is no doubt," said Mr Cardona, who supports the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), the main centre-left opposition to the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). ''They've been preparing. They always carried guns, mostly hunting rifles, for self-defence. But now they're getting other weapons. If people keep attacking them, they'll use them.''

Javier Mojica, an Acapulco general practitioner who runs the independent Centre for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, said: ''Armed struggle may be inevitable. Conditions are certainly right. Repression is far worse than in the Seventies under Figueroa senior. As people here say: 'Hijo de tigre, pintito','' the Spanish equivalent of ''like father, like son.''

Florencio Salazar, a former federal MP for the ruling PRI, said recently: ''A new guerrilla war is possible. The conditions exist, and there are radical elements seeking violence to change the order of things.''

The vanguard of the new peasant revolt is the Peasant Organisation of the Southern Sierra (OCSS) , remarkably similar to the semi-clandestine peasant groups that operated in Chiapas before crystallising into the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which hit world headlines on New Year's Day 1994. According to Lucio Cabanas's brother David, in prison in Mexico City for his own anti-government guerrilla activities, the old Party of the Poor still exists and is supporting both the Guerrero rebellion and the Zapatista cause.

The Mexican authorities believe the Party of the Poor was behind a wave of "sympathy" bomb attacks around the nation in the days following the Chiapas rebellion.

''This is a dispersed army, fed by new generations,'' Mr Cabanas said. ''With more groups, the task will be easier. Victory is closer at hand.''

The word in these hills is that the Party of the Poor or a related political guerrilla group was behind last year's kidnapping of Mexico's best-known banker, Alfredo Harp Helu. Carlos Salinas, then the President, called the kidnappers common criminals. But it later emerged that Father Maximo Gomez, a Catholic priest from Atoyac widely said to have contact with anti-government guerrillas, had mediated Mr Harp's release in exchange for $17m (pounds 11.3).

The tortuous trip to the mountain hamlet of Atoyaquillo, barely 10 miles from the Pacific coast but requiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle to negotiate a deep-rutted mud path and several fast-flowing rivers, reveals the sub- human poverty in which the majority of Guerrero peasants live. It was from this village of 500 souls that the victims of the 28 June massacre came, some to shop, others to demand a decent road, farm credits and fertiliser for their corn plots.

Even in less tense times, it is not a place for outsiders to venture. There are common bandits, heavily-armed police who act with impunity and pistoleros working for the drug lords who pay peasants to grow marijuana and opium poppies instead of corn, beans or coffee.

Hilda Navarrete Gorjon, an extraordinary peasant woman who sells tacos in the market in Coyuca while running a peasant human-rights group called La Voz de los Sin Voz (the Voice of the Voiceless), said I would be safe with her, at least from the peasant guerrillas.

As we negotiated a 100-yard-wide cascading river on what she assured me was a stone dam only a couple of feet beneath the surface but invisible to a stranger's eye, she said she had often seen armed men by the roadside. ''They know me. They know my blue bandanna,'' she said, adjusting it to a more visible position across her head. Passing the scene of the June massacre, at Hammocks Creek, she launched into a touching local corrido about the killings.

''I'm going to sing you a ballad, without aggravation and without disgust, about what happened in the district of Coyuca, not far from Acapulco,'' she sang.

Blood-soaked coconuts and the beginnings of what the peasants call a Monument of Ignominy marked the site. When we reached Atoyaquillo, where dogs, cows, huge black pigs and chickens mingled with men, women and children inside mud huts, survivors described how the police had blocked the path and opened fire for 10 minutes from coconut groves and thick bush on all sides.

The peasants had been travelling in the only form of transport here - cattle trucks with rubber awnings against the sun. ''I'd been lying on the awning, others were clinging to the back and sides,'' said Miguel Martinez, 37. ''When they opened fire, I noticed the hills were black,'' the colour of the police uniforms.

''Those below were trapped,'' he continued, ''but I managed to get beneath the lorry. Then I found myself bathed in blood which was gushing from the dying above. After 10 minutes of solid gunfire, the police walked up, fired bullets at survivors and kicked and walked on the bodies. I was covered in blood. They must have thought I was dead.''

As we spoke, two dozen state policemen in pick-up trucks passed through the hamlet and glared. The villagers gazed back at them impassively. ''Every time I see them I'm scared,'' said Mr Martinez. ''We support the OCSS, we're with Lucio Cabanas, we're with Zapata. The courage is there but we're only one or two. They are so many.''