by Kristin Bricker
On October 24, Chiapan state police arrested Rocelio de la Cruz Gonzalez and Jose Manuel de la Torre Hernandez, both leaders of the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization (OCEZ). Narco News' Fernando Leon reports that the men say police tortured them during interrogation. De la Torre Hernandez said in a statement: "Multiple times they put a nylon bag over my head, suffocating me, so that I would answer affirmatively to a list of questions. [The questions included] if our organization OCEZ has weapons and a relationship with the church and with former and current Carranza mayors. They also shot mineral water up my nose until I passed out." De la Torre told his lawyer that police made him sign papers without reading them during the torture session. Police tortured him until he passed out, then they woke him up to sign papers while he was still groggy.
On October 25, a contact sent this reporter an email with the subject "Official Communique." The email was written in the style of a government press release, but it contained no media contact information nor was it signed by a government agency. The contact believed the email was the government's official press release regarding the de la Torre Hernandez and de la Cruz Gonzalez arrests. The contact had received the email from a local reporter who also seemed to believe the email was the government's official press release. However, this "Official Communique" did not appear on the Chiapas state government's "Public Relations Institute" website, where all official state government press releases are posted, nor did it appear on the Chiapas State Attorney General's Office website, where press releases regarding arrests are posted.
The "Official Communique's" absence from the websites where all official government communiques are posted is particularly noteworthy due to the wild claims made in the "communique."
First, the "communique" claims that de la Cruz Gonzalez and de la Torre Hernandez belong to "Los Pelones," which the communique reports is a gang that is "known for its strong activity in trafficking weapons and drugs and is responsible for multiple homicides, including the 2007 murder of state police...in Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan."
The "communique" also claims that de la Cruz Gonzalez and de la Torre Hernandez paid the Carranza mayor MX$300,000 in order to purchase weapons. The Carranza mayor, Amín Coutiño Villanueva, is from the President's National Action Party (PAN). The Chiapas governor is from the opposition Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).
The "communique" claims that de la Cruz Gonzalez and de la Torre Hernandez, acting as members of Los Pelones, "also bought and distributed 9mm pistols, for which they paid MX$8,000 per gun, and the social organization [OCEZ] supported them in this." The "communique" also claims that the detained men engaged in "human trafficking as well as migrant extortion. Their lands have served as a collection site for hiding weapons and drugs. The social organization mask has impeded civilian and military authorities' access to the area surrounding the 28 de Junio community [where OCEZ operates]. That is why they had so-called 'international observers': to cover up their criminal activity."
Normally, Narco News wouldn't classify an email of this sort as "news" without verifying the source: it makes wild claims, and no government agency has verified its authenticity. This reporter thought the email was a hoax.
However, local and national corporate media seem to have also received the "Official Communique" email, and they don't seem to think it is a hoax. Articles have appeared in papers across Mexico that quote lines that appear word-for-word in the "Official Communique" email this reporter received. Mexico's national daily El Universal, for example, ran a wire article by the Spanish news agency EFE that credited the quotes from the "Official Communique" to a statement by the Chiapas State Attorney General's Office (the State Attorney General's Office is prominently mentioned in the "communique"). The EFE article's quotes only come from the "Official Communique," the defendants' lawyer, and the OCEZ. No government official confirms or denies the statements. As previously mentioned, the State Attorney General's Office has not posted any information on its website about the arrests of de la Cruz Gonzalez and de la Torre Hernandez.
The "Official Communique's" unorthodox distribution method (unsigned and not posted to a government website) aside, the email contains other inconsistencies and red flags. Narco News spoke with Marcos López Pérez, the lawyer who represents de la Cruz Gonzalez, de la Torre Hernandez, and Jose Manuel Hernandez Martinez, a third OCEZ leader who was arrested one month before the other two men.
Lopez Perez informed Narco News that the arrest warrants for the three OCEZ leaders are all part of the same case: a 2003 land occupation in Chiapas that successfully pressured the Chiapas government to legally turn the land over to peasants who are OCEZ members. That case dossier only covers the 2003 land occupation and alleged crimes related to that takeover; arms trafficking, migrant extortion, human trafficking, and other crimes are mentioned nowhere in the dossier.
Lopez Perez says that he is not aware of any other official investigation against the men that involves those crimes. He assured Narco News that the government has not charged the men with any sort of trafficking; they have only been charged with crimes related to the 2003 land occupation, which are all state-level crimes.
The crimes the "Official Communique" and the corporate media accuse the men of committing are federal crimes. The federal government has made no comment on the arrests, nor do the men have any federal investigations or charges pending, says their lawyer.
However, Lopez Perez does not rule out the possibility that the federal government could initiate an investigation. He says that he has reviewed every paper in the dossier against his clients, and he can't find the papers de la Torre claims he signed under torture. Neither de la Torre nor his lawyer know what the papers say because de la Torre wasn't able to read them before signing. Lopez Perez says it's possible that the papers could appear in a future investigation as part of a case file.
The "Official Communique" smelled like a whisper campaign even before this reporter spoke to the men's lawyer. The "communique" accuses de la Cruz Gonzalez and de la Torre Hernandez of belonging to "Los Pelones," which is a criminal group associated with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera's Sinaloa-based drug trafficking organization. However, when the government reportedly seized a massive weapons stockpile in October, the Chiapas government claimed the weapons belonged to the OCEZ, and the federal government claimed the weapons belong to Loz Zetas. Los Zetas are the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, and are also reported to work for the Beltran Leyva criminal organization. Both the Gulf cartel and the Beltran Leyvas are reportedly enemies of El Chapo. It is highly unlikely that a small peasant organization would be working for or with the armed factions of opposing drug trafficking organizations.
When the Chiapas government arrested de la Cruz and de la Torre, between 20 and 40 trucks full of state police carried out house-to-house searches of two Carranza County communities that belong to the OCEZ: 28 de Junio and Laguna Verde. Two helicopters participated in the operation. The police ransacked dozens of homes in those communities, terrorizing residents and reportedly beating some. The police were looking for suspects, and they reportedly threatened bodily harm to residents if they didn't tell them "where they were hiding the guns." The police did not find a single piece of contraband in either community. For all of the claims the government makes about the OCEZ's alleged use of the communities to hide drugs and weapons, the government didn't find a single weapon. Its Merida Initiative-style ion scanners and drug dogs didn't find a trace of illegal substances.
Casting further doubt on the "Official Communique's" claims, the Carranza mayor that allegedly received MX$300,000 from the detainees in order to illegally purchase weapons has not been arrested, nor has the government brought any formal charges against him. Of course, the mayor adamantly denies the accusations and reportedly told press that "it's about time the authorities did something about Roselio de la Cruz and Jose Manuel de la Torre."
Reforma Steps In
On November 9, Reforma, a Mexico City-based daily and one of Mexico's largest newspapers, ran an article by Martin Morita that claimed the reporter obtained an "intelligence report" about arms trafficking in Chiapas. The article does not disclose if the report is from the state or federal government. The only person the article quotes is a "high-ranking state government official" who is "participating in the team that's carrying out the investigation" that is outlined in the report.
In the article, the high-ranking state government official mentions a case in which two fragmentation grenades were found wrapped in cloth in a plastic bag in the government agency parking lot in Tuxtla, the Chiapas state capital. The grenades did not explode. In an interview, the state official accuses leaders of the OCEZ and the National Front for Socialist Struggle (FNLS, an unarmed civil society organization with a strong presence in Chiapas) of having "orchestrated that terrorist act." No charges have been filed; currently this baseless anonymous statement is the only accusation linking the two organizations with the grenades.
The Reforma article doesn't limit its accusations to the OCEZ. It says that the intelligence report claims that the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), the People's Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARP), and the Insurgent People's Revolutionary Army (ERPI) are "connected" to "subversive armed cells" that are "receiving support from organized crime groups such as Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel's armed wing, and the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, in order to obtain firearms." The report claims, "It is confirmed that organizations that call themselves civilian have strong ties to these subversive groups [who are gathering arms] and are trying to carry out violent acts, particularly during the 2010 Bicentennial celebrations."
The Reforma article reprints the following quote from the report:
"It is noted that, based on the detention of people involved in said groups and through testimonies obtained by intelligence networks, there is evidence that establishes a relationship between those groups and people and criminal organizations that are dedicated to drug trafficking, such as the so-called Zetas and the organization led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka El Chapo. This complicity stems from the distribution of weapons to subversive groups."
The Reforma article mentions de la Cruz, de la Torre, and Hernandez Martinez: "The three are accused of using the [OCEZ] organization to distribute weapons and drugs." Reforma fails to mention that it is only the press, not the government, that is officially accusing the OCEZ of trafficking arms and drugs.
Reporter Martin Morita filed a similar article on TabascoHOY.com. In that article, he says that Hernandez Martinez "is linked to the seizure of an arms arsenal on October 11." It also claims that "the official investigation points to Hernandez Martinez as the leader of the EPR in Chiapas and of having links to Los Zetas." Again, no charges have been filed against Hernandez Martinez that link him to arms trafficking, Los Zetas, or the EPR. Morita does not specify which "official investigation" he is referring to in the article. However, Hernandez Martinez's lawyer only knows of one official investigation--the one related to the 2003 land takeover--and it does not mention any trafficking allegations.
War on Social Movements
In a letter to Tabasco HOY's editor, the OCEZ writes, "This type of stigmatization in the corporate media doesn't only have negative political consequences for those who suffer [the stigmatization]. Rather, frequently they are orchestrated by government agencies in order to sway public opinion to help justify arbitrary judicial actions."
As the government intelligence report mentions, authorities are growing increasingly concerned about the possibility that armed groups will take action in 2010 to commemorate the bicentennial and centennial of two Mexican revolutions. According the Reforma, the report states that "the groups are trying to carry out actions aimed at destabilizing, through armed struggle, the PRD member Juan Sabines' administration in 2010, in particular during the Bicentennial celebrations."
The government may be trying to preemptively smear social organizations in the media by alleging links to drug trafficking organizations. This may prevent insurgent organizations from enjoying the sort of national and international support that protected the Zapatistas when they staged an uprising in Chiapas in 1994. It may also serve to justify judicial or military actions against civil society, which always seems to get caught in any war's crossfire. The smear campaign even includes a preemptive strike against international human rights observers, who have played a key role in human rights defense in Chiapas since 1994. In accusing human rights observers of preventing the military and police from carrying out their anti-trafficking work, the corporate media places them directly in the drug war's line of fire.
Thanks to the war on drugs, in 2010 Mexico will be more militarized than it was in 1994. The military will be better prepared and better armed than it was in 1994 during the Zapatista uprising. And now, thanks to the media smear campaign against social organizations, it may have more public approval to use its drug war military might against non-drug war targets.
Narco News has warned that the increasing militarization under the guise of the drug war could have negative consequences for insurgent and social organizations. The Merida Initiative's counterpart in Colombia, Plan Colombia, targeted insurgent organizations as a matter of official policy. In Mexico, both the US and the Mexican governments have predicted "links" between insurgent and drug trafficking organizations. In December 2008, Narco News reported:
In an official DEA PowerPoint presentation recently leaked to Narco News correspondent Bill Conroy, the DEA argued that the possibility exists that drug cartels will seek allies in insurgent organizations: “DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] will further reach out to the Mexican military and foreign paramilitary and possible insurgent organizations in order to acquire much needed human and material support to fend off advances by competing Cartels.” Similarly, in a report obtained by the Mexican daily Milenio entitled “The National Defense Department in Combat Against Drug Trafficking,” Mexico's National Defense Department says "a symbiosis between [drug cartels and] armed groups who are hostile to the government is forseeable."
The OCEZ may be a test case, to see how far civil society will allow the government to go in its war on social movements. As Jaime Ramírez Yáñez writes in an editorial in Milenio,"The detention of these two indigenous men [de la Cruz and de la Torre], who are visibly opposed to the government, was carried out with only the alleged testimony of a 'protected witness,' and without the bother of a formal criminal investigation." A protected witness is often a suspect himself, and the government offers leniency or immunity in exchange for testimony against other people.
Using that one protected witness and the media, the government has linked the OCEZ, an unarmed organization, to the armed EPR and nearly every major drug trafficking organization in the country. The media has accused the OCEZ of human trafficking, arms trafficking, migrant extortion, and drug trafficking. It also stigmatized human rights observers who are in OCEZ communities to assure that human rights are respected. In turn, the government has been able to stage one of the largest raids in recent memory on two peasant communities, and no one seemed concerned that the raids produced no contraband. State police continue to occupy the area around Laguna Verde. The state government has been able to hunt down and allegedly torture the OCEZ's leadership. The government has executed three of fourteen warrants stemming from the 2003 OCEZ land takeover, leaving the communities terrified that police will carry out another violent raid at any moment.