Mexico's Poor Trading Machetes for AK-47s
Sixteen-year-old Martina Marquez Benitez, left, who is six months pregnant, believes her boyfriend, Isidoro Bahena Maldonado, was executed by the Mexican army. She says he was merely on his way to tend goats, but army officials contend he was a guerrilla killed during a firefight. Beside Marquez is her cousin, Maria Cruz Garcia Marquez.
Growing guerrilla movement in Guerrero state ensnares peasants in drug trade and violence
Man's Killing Sparks Human Rights Charge
By Richard Parker
Journal Washington Bureau
TEPETIXTLA, Mexico -- Mexico's newest insurgency is no ordinary guerrilla movement.
According to secret Mexican government documents, guerrillas of the Popular Revolutionary Army are helping protect poppy production in one southern state in exchange for weapons from two Mexican drug cartels.
While past guerrilla movements have been involved with traffickers in Colombia and Peru, this marks the first time an anti-government insurgency has been drawn this closely into the drug trade in Mexico.
It presents two problems for the Mexican government: Drug operations are being protected by increasingly well-armed guerrillas and peasants; and the drug cartels are helping strengthen the fledgling anti-government insurgency.
As automatic weapons pour into the southern state of Guerrero in increasing numbers, the production of poppies used in heroin production has soared. Instead of being just one source of poppy along the Mexican Pacific, Guerrero has tripled its output and is now Mexico's top producer.
The coastal area below Tepetixtla is known as the Costa Grande. For the past three years, it's where weapons have entered the mountain region of Guerrero.
And it's where heroin made from mountain poppies moves out of Guerrero -- bound for the 600,000 heroin addicts in the United States and an increasing number in Mexico.
Human rights monitors say automatic weapons brought in by the guerrillas are winding up among the poor, often illiterate farmers who have turned to poppy production in the last few years.
The combination of guerrillas, guns and drugs has had a wrenching effect on rural life. To an outsider, it appears simple and pastoral.
After nightfall, it is filled with violence and terror.
Weapons from cartels
Guerrillas of the Popular Revolutionary Army, known in Spanish as EPR, appeared in Guerrero for the first time last June.
Mexico's top intelligence agency, the Center for National Security Investigation, concluded last fall that the movement was getting weapons from drug cartels.
The agency reached its conclusion, according to Mexican and U.S. officials familiar with the report, after the Mexican army captured weapons from the EPR during skirmishes. The intelligence agency also began documenting an informal trade of goods and services.
The guerrillas, who roam both the coastal areas and the isolated mountain regions of Guerrero, were providing protection for rapidly growing poppy farms. At the same time, low-ranking members of the Juarez and Guadalajara cartels were supplying the rebels with weapons.
It is not so much formal cooperation, said a Mexican official, as "co-habitation," two groups inhabiting the same space and relying on each other when they can -- fighting when they must.
The official said, for example, that the rebels will attack drug traffickers and seize their weapons if the cartels fail to adequately supply them.
A study by a U.S. agency suggests the guns being supplied by the cartels might come from leftover arsenals built during Cold War conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has tried to trace weapons captured by Mexican forces, according to an ATF spokesman, and has concluded they are not coming from the United States.
"We are aware of these particular guns and they probably didn't come from this country," said ATF spokesman John Limbach in Washington. "They are an older, bastardized type of military-type weapon."
Requests made by the Journal over the last two months for an interview with the intelligence agency were not answered.
Some U.S. officials caution that the intelligence agency's findings about links between the guerrillas and the drug cartels are preliminary.
But independent human rights monitors in Guerrero have documented increasing violence associated with the presence of automatic weapons among poor poppy farmers.
This leads some of the monitors to suspect that guerrillas take weapons supplied by the cartels and give them not only to their own fighters but to poppy farmers for safeguarding their patches.
Hilda Navarrete, director of a local human rights group called Voice of the Voiceless, said the gun smuggling was so brazen she could see light airplanes parachuting crates believed to contain weapons onto the palm-lined beaches.
"They didn't care who knew," she said. "People walked out on the beach in the morning and found these empty wooden crates."
The Mexico intelligence agency also has concluded that the Juarez cartel has used its fleet of aircraft to drop weapons to the guerrillas by parachute.
The guerrilla movement generally has avoided clashes with the Mexican army and police since last year, spending much of its time trying to shore up political support among peasants and townspeople.
In just the last few months, the guerrillas have entered the outskirts of the coastal city of Atoyac de Alvarez. They have called political meetings in villages and towns along the main road connecting the state capital of Chilpancingo and the mountain town of Tlapa, according to residents and human rights observers.
But they also have remained active militarily.
In early March, suspected guerrillas and Mexican troops clashed above Tepetixtla, a small town that has become the epicenter of guerrilla activity.
"We saw armed men just two weeks ago," Juana Bahena said in an interview in mid-April.
In a recent videotape delivered to news organizations in Acapulco, masked leaders of the Popular Revolutionary Army said they are fighting against government repression.
"There are wounds that today still bleed, and whatever intent there is to construct something new must heal them. Because without justice these aberrations are repeated," one hooded guerrilla leader said in the 18-minute video, as recounted by the daily newspaper El Sol de Acapulco.
The guerrillas also demanded the creation of a national truth commission to investigate torture and disappearances the Popular Revolutionary Army claims have been carried out by the government.
But even here, in a region with a history of rebellion and guerrilla movements, residents question how much support there is for the insurgency.
"Guerrillas are more than just people with weapons," Navarrete said.
"They are people with a program for the people. The EPR came and brought paralysis and fear. I doubt they have a social base. Although there are people who say yes, I don't believe it."
When Mexican troops were heard singing during a run through town recently, residents feared that guerrillas -- known as los encapuchados, or the masked ones -- were descending on them.
"We thought, 'Oh my God, close the doors!' " said Nelly Valverde, a resident and leader of a local campesino -- or peasant -- group. "The encapuchados are coming."
Twelve of 18 suspected guerrillas in prison in Acapulco are part of the same campesino group from the region, the Organization of Campesinos of the Southern Sierra.
In the nearby town of Atoyaquillo, 29-year-old Emiliano Estevez has found himself at the crossroads of drugs, guns and guerrillas.
A leader of the same campesino organization, Estevez has been questioned by the army for suspected ties to the insurgents. He briefly fled the area last year and denies any ties to the guerrillas.
But he acknowledges that poppy production and the guerrillas exist side by side.
"For some compañeros," he said, "there is only the armed struggle."
He said people fear the government and the guerrillas.
"The EPR is not supported here," he said. "The people fear them, and they fear the narcos more than anybody."
Volatile and violent
The influx of weapons has made long-simmering disputes more volatile.
"Guerrero has always been an aggressive state," said federal police subcommander Tomas Perez Montiel, who runs a roadblock searching for weapons. "There are lots of armed people, including these armed groups."
There is a history of family grudges and political extremism in Guerrero.
Guerrero is one of the poorer states in Mexico. Nearly 60 percent of the people rely on their own ragged corn patches as their main supply of food. The mountain region around the town of Tlapa is one of the last strongholds of the Mexican communist party.
The turn toward raising the red-flowered poppy in the mountains was partly economic, according to Abel Barrera, director of La Chinoya Association, a human rights group affiliated with the Catholic Church in Tlapa.
Barrera estimated that 30,000 mountain people migrate to the big farms in the northern state of Sinaloa to find work and return home for the spring rainy season to plant legal crops.
But many of those choosing to stay home have turned to poppy. And to protect their crops they have suddenly come up with automatic weapons. The combination of drug money and guns -- set against a backdrop of illiteracy and isolation -- has proven volatile.
"People always had their .22s or their shotguns," Barrera said. "But (now) these people have modern weapons. And for them, drug trafficking came to stay. These people traded in their machetes for AK-47s."
The last rumored arms shipments, according to Barrera, arrived in September and January, despite a heavy presence of Mexican army troops based in the town.
And like the inner cities of the United States, the mountain region around Tlapa is riding an unprecedented wave of violence.
In just the last few weeks, two people have been shot to death in the tiny village of Olinala. Bandits armed with automatic weapons have become common on the highway connecting Tlapa to the state capital of Chilpancingo.
Two people have been assassinated on the same highway.
Even children are being dragged into the violence. One 11-year-old Mixtec girl was recruited along with an aunt to smuggle five kilos of heroin down the mountain, according to the girl's testimony to the National Human Rights Commission.
The girl, carrying the heroin in a money belt, was caught by police in Chilpancingo. She said she was raped and threatened with death.
Most of the people in this region are Indians -- Zapotec, Nahuatl or Mixtec -- and many do not speak Spanish. The automatic weapons and the lure of drug money are heaping fuel on years-old rivalries.
Two Nahautl communities, Pletelacala and Xuachimalco, are perpetually at war over a poppy plot on a contested piece of land. When the Mexican Army shows up during the day, each village claims the plot belongs to the other. When the army leaves and night falls, they clash with automatic weapons to control it, according to Barrera.
"It's no man's land," he said. "Even among themselves, the people are killing each other over it."