Mexicans Use Video Cameras for More Than Weddings: To Keep Cops Honest

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As in the United States, where the videotaped beating of Rodney King created a public outcry about police abuse and racism, videotaped testimony in Mexico is putting authorities on the defensive.

In the past few years, Mexican television viewers have witnessed the brutal assassination of a presidential candidate, a guerrilla war in Chiapas, the massacre of 17 peasants, and Mexico City police beating striking teachers.

"Videotape says to the government 'you can't deny it' or 'you can't lie,' " says social critic and author Carlos Monsivais. "That's a powerful message."

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Much of this political violence has come to their TV screens via privately owned, hand-held video cameras. The cameras have created a new culture of accountability that has driven one governor from power, forced the arrest of dozens of police, and exposed government coverups.

Mexico's video revolution was brought about both by the proliferation of video cameras and the increasingly willingness of TV stations to put controversial footage on the air.

For decades, Mexicans have had one source of television news - a monopoly called Televisa that was often little more than a mouthpiece for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But in the past few years, a rival network, TV Azteca, has gained a wide audience, and cable networks like CNN and NBC's 24-hour Spanish-language broadcast are reaching more and more cable subscribers.

"Censorship used to be much cruder," says Sergio Sarmiento, the vice president for news at TV Azteca. "We air things without government approval, although sometimes we get flak for it."

Low-cost video equipment has made censorship that much harder even when the footage doesn't make it on air. For example, after part of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City was captured on film, the government immediately confiscated the footage. "But video is multiple," says critic Monsivais. "It's impossible for the government to round up all the copies."

Mexico's video revolution began in January 1994, when the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched attacks in the southern state of Chiapas. It seemed like a war made for television, fought more with images than with guns.

Television showed images of Indians sometimes armed with sticks fighting against government tanks. A tourist also caught the first image of a light-skinned, masked leader later identified as Subcommander Marcos.

That February, Marcos gave his first videotaped interview. The footage was not broadcast on the Mexican networks, but was widely seen on cable. It was copied and distributed by hand throughout Mexico, where VCRs are common even in the most remote hamlet.

A month after the Marcos interview, another amateur with a hand-held camera captured the most dramatic footage in Mexican history: the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio at a campaign rally in Tijuana. The video, with its graphic details of the murder, was shown repeatedly on television.

Because it showed the ease with which the gunman approached the candidate, it convinced many Mexicans that there was a conspiracy to murder Colosio, even as the government claimed it was the work of a lone, deranged gunman.

The videotaped murder of 17 peasants in June 1995 by state police in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero - near the resort town of Acapulco - represented the first time that state repression was caught on videotape. Soon after the massacre, state Gov. Ruben Figueroa released a video showing machete-wielding peasants being fired on by state police. Governor Figueroa claimed the peasants, who were on their way to an antigovernment protest meeting, had attacked the police.

But the 16-minute unedited version, obtained by journalist Ricardo Rocha and aired on his news show on Televisa earlier this year, showed the peasants fleeing for their lives from state police, who were lying in ambush with machine guns.

Soon after the video was aired, Figueroa was forced to step down, although the Guerrero Congress voted last Thursday to exonerate him.

In April, peasants from the village of Tepoztlan outside of Mexico City, protesting the construction of a golf course on their farmland, videotaped Morelos state police hurling rocks and firing weapons at the demonstrators, one of whom was killed.

State authorities, who initially denied the police were armed, arrested six police officers after the footage was aired on TV. The golf course plan was shelved.

THE videotaped beating of Mexican migrants by police in Riverside, Calif., also caused widespread indignation in Mexico. The outcry allowed the Mexican government to pressure visiting American authorities to agree to greater safeguards for Mexican migrants in the US.

Protesters now bring video cameras to every march to document possible police brutality. The Mexico City Human Rights Commission, a government agency, has received more than 20 tapes that document alleged abuses.

"You see a lot more video cameras in the street," says Ipigmenio Ibarra, one of Mexico's leading independent documentary makers, who recorded the first interview with Marcos. "People see that events are being recorded, and if they don't see the footage that night on the news, then television loses credibility."

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