Rebels gain ground in Guerrero

Military abuses in the Mexican state are driving more disaffected poor toward rebels for protection.

Valentina Rosendo Cantu was laundering clothes in the creek when soldiers patrolling the remote highlands of southern Guerrero state emerged from the forest and showed her a list of wanted "rebels."

The soldiers wanted "to kill these men," one told her. And though nine of the names were men from her tiny village of Barranca Bejuco, Ms. Rosendo lied and said she knew none of them.

The soldiers were angry with Rosendo because she wasn't cooperating, they thought she was lying, and two of them raped and beat her.

She and her husband reported the Feb. 16 attack to authorities. Soon after, military trucks began ominous midnight visits, beaming lights down from the hills above. Rosendo now says she's too frightened to continue with the case.

Her story is familiar in the mostly indigenous highlands of inner Guerrero state, a world rarely glimpsed by outsiders – or even by most Mexicans – where extreme poverty and isolation play a direct role in a distressing cycle of abuse.

Better known for jet-set beach resorts like Acapulco and Ixtapa, Guerrero is also home to a network of 10 or so rebel groups active in the remote mountains. It's also a major transit point for smuggled narcotics and Mexico's No. 1 state for marijuana and opium poppy cultivation.

Heavy military and police forces have long been deployed across the West Virginia-size territory to battle both problems, in part with US funding.

Experts blame the military's presence for Guerrero's poor record on human rights, and say the situation could explode if continued unchecked, driving more discontented villagers into the arms of the rebels.

Growing discontent in Guerrero has parallels in the southern state of Chiapas, where the Zapatista rebels took brief control of state buildings in 1994 in a crusade for Indian rights. Their push via negotiations for local autonomy within the government won them international support for their cause.

Most rebel groups in Guerrero, however, have the stated intent of overthrowing the government, and are more often compared with Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army IRA and Peru's Maoist Shin- ing Path than to their southern counterparts in Chiapas. "These are groups involved in kidnappings, robberies, even assassinations," said Armando Bartra, who has written two books on Guerrero. "This is terrorism of the left."

Although there is new attention being paid to the problem, human rights issues in Guerrero are nothing new. In 1995, for example, state police ambushed a truckload of unarmed dissident farmers, killing 17 and injuring 20 in Aguas Blancas.

The governor at the time, Ruben Figueroa, a member of the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was forced to resign amid evidence he ordered the attack. He was later exonerated by a federal prosecutor.

When President Vicente Fox came into office in 2000, ousting the PRI for the first time in 71 years, he promised to close the door on the culture of corruption.

Yet human-rights lawyers defending poor villagers across this state say that, if anything, the number of abuses has increased.

"It's always been bad here," says Abel Barrera Hernández, director of the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center. "But it's really tough right now."

Among the litany of human-rights cases since Fox took office:

• Six reported rapes of indigenous women, including Rosendo, by soldiers. There have been no arrests in any of the cases.

• Twelve reported "desaparecidos," civilians who vanished without a trace. Nine of the men were taken away by the Judicial Police. Signed testimonies from officials indicate some were tortured and then jailed. No arrests have been made in any of the cases. In one, authorities claim they can no longer locate the policemen allegedly involved.

• Dozens more reported cases of bribery, kidnapping, torture, illegal detention, and robbery by police and military.

• The murder earlier this year of a prominent local businessman, who had launched a crusade against corrupt officials he had linked to kidnapping rings. Though he was gunned down on a busy street corner, authorities say they have no leads.

• Three local human rights lawyers, including Mr. Barrera, have received death threats.

Speaking last month in Acapulco at a ceremony to incinerate almost 11,000 pounds of narcotics, Fox said his government was "betting its political capital" on winning the war on drugs, while also improving life for Guerrero's poor. "We are well aware how far we have to go," he said, adding later that, "this fight is moving forward with full respect to human rights."

State officials, blaming a lack funds and facilities for the failure to bring about change, say Fox needs to put his money where his mouth is.

"Human development is human-rights development," says Juan Alarcon Hernández, director of the State Human Rights Commission.

To lure poor communities into the fold and away from the rebels, he adds: "We need stronger financial support from the federal government."

Journalist Marivel Gutierrez, founder of the Mexican newspaper El Sur, notes that there have been few reports of rebel activity since the largest group, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), splintered last year. But she says there are indications that at least some villages have grown silent – even protective – about guerrilla whereabouts.

"It appears there is some clandestine work in the communities – villagers inviting them to eat, or attend local fiestas," she said. "They may not all embrace [the rebels], but neither are they reporting them."

Villagers in Barranca Bejuco, a humble collection of mud and straw huts – which lack electricity, running water, and phones – insist they have no ties to guerrilla groups.

Hilda Navarette, a local human rights lawyer representing families of three former EPR members who were abducted by the rebels, says the case has changed her views on the rebels.

"I had always rejected the idea that we had guerrilla activity here, arguing it was just discontented peasants," she says. "Now, I find it harder to deny."

Even if the rebels don't gain in prominence, activists say Guerrero is likely to become an ugly scar on Fox's campaign to bring cleaner government to Mexico.

"The narco-economy and the culture of crime have permeated this entire state," said Barrera. "And the worst part is, there's almost no way to attract any interest."

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