ANOTHER MEXICAN REBELLION
September 13, 1996
Aug. 21, '95: One year ago Mexican police in Guerrero gunned down seventeen peasants. Charles Krause reports on the event that foreshadowed this year's uprising.
Read a Washington Post report on the guerilla attacks.
Read a Washington Post article about the Mexican Army's pursuit of the EPR.
In the picturesque coastal state of Guerrero, best known for the resort town of Acapulco, a mysterious group of revolutionaries has emerged. The Popular Revolutionary Army, known by their Spanish initials as the EPR, is trying to topple the Mexican government by calling for a socialist revolution. Fourteen deaths have resulted during a recent flurry of attacks on police stations, Mexican military troops, coastal resorts in Guerrero, and across the states of Oaxaca, Tabasco, Chiapas and Mexico.
The EPR is extremely well equipped, with an arsenal of Uzis and AK-47s, and uniforms that are said to put those of the Mexican Army to shame. Their style is decisive and professional; they guard their identites closely, bringing recruits blindfolded to safehouses for training in remote areas of the countryside.
The Mexican Government downplays the possibility that the EPR feeds off popular support, preferring to characterize it as a small terrorist group that gives the illusion of size through its variety of targets. The EPR has been similarly denounced by the leaders of the Zapatista movement - guerillas who led a popular uprising in Chiapas just under three years ago, and who have since engaged in peace talks with the government.
But Jaime Laguna Berber, a former guerilla who now studies armed movements in Mexico, doubts that such a range of attacks would be possible "without a broad network of supporters."
There are myriad theories on the source of the EPR's strength. Some analysts claim that it is funded by hardliners in the Mexican government to force President Ernesto Zedillo away from planned reforms. Some point instead to anti-U.S. leftist nationalists, who are angered by the recent trend toward American support and investment. And still others fear that the EPR is equipped by drug cartels, who would benefit from the group's attacks diverting Mexican troops from drug interdiction along the Mexico-U.S. border.
Our Forum asked: Who is the EPR? Is it a serious threat to the stability of the Mexican government? Does the U.S., since NAFTA and the bailout of the Mexican peso, have recourse to protect its investment in its neighbor's stability? Does the EPR pose a threat to budding Mexican prosperity?
Our Forum guest is the NewsHour's foreign correspondent, Charles Krause. He has just returned from Mexico, where he has been covering the rebellion.
Scroll down to see Charles Krause's answers to you questions.
Kevin Clanton of Henderson, NV asks:
What are the rebels fighting for? Democracy? Anarchy? Putting their own men in power, in and of its own sake? I can't pass judgment on their cause as yet; I know too little about it. But they might indeed have a valid reason for taking armed action. Lincoln himself said that the people have the constitutional right to amend our government, or the revolutionary right to overthrow it.
Charles Krause replies:
I have just returned from Mexico where I was asking many of the same questions for a report that will air next week on the NewsHour. I spoke with a journalist who walked for two days through tough mountain terrain to meet with the EPR leadership, and also interviewed the chief spokesman for Mexico's Interior Ministry, among others.
It seems that the EPR is fighting for an end to the semi-authoritarian political system that's ruled Mexico for nearly 70 years. Although the EPR uses the word "democracy," its principal manifesto contains a lot of language suggesting that its goal is a Cuban-style Marxist revolutionary state. That appears to be one reason the Zapatistas have publicly said they have no connection with the EPR---and do not welcome its arrival on the scene.
In an off-the-record breakfast with foreign journalists that I attended (and that later became public), President Zedillo's chief of staff, Luis Tellez, compared the EPR to the Badder-Meinhof Gang active in Germany during the 70s. Others have compared the EPR to the IRA in Northern Ireland and ETA in Spain---in other words, a small, disciplined force capable of carrying out bombings and raids but not capable of carrying out a full-scale attack on the government.
Whether violence is legitimate to affect political change is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. President Zedillo has made it clear that he believes, in this case, it is not. Others who know Mexico well, however, point out that the PRI has stifled real political change in Mexico for nearly 70 years and that, if it's impossible to makes changes through peaceful democratic means, then violence may become a legitimate alternative.
Don McIlwraith asks:
As a frequent visitor to Mexico, I have great interest in what is happening in Guerrero. I recently heard a report on how pleased the United States Government is with the progress of Mexico at paying back the United States Government loan of several billion dollars. Having been in Mexico in February I could not see that the people of Mexico are any better off that they were in past visits, in fact I saw many things that indicated to me that the Mexican government was not very concerned about the plight of the common man. How strong is the possibility that this action in Guerrero will spread to adjoining states?
Charles Krause replies:
It already has. The EPR made its first appearance in June, on the first anniversary of a peasant massacre that occured a year ago near a town in Guerrero called Aguas Blancas. Since then, during the last week of August, the EPR carried out a series of apparently coordinated raids in at least six states: Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacan, the state of Mexico, Tabasco and Chiapas.
In addition, EPR commandantes have held clandestine press briefings in Mexico City---suggesting that it has an infrastructure in the capital that may be capable of carrying out bombings, kidnappings or raids in Mexico City itself.
Greg Labows of San Jose, CA asks:
Reports suggest that the rebels are very well equipped. This seems at odds with reports that it is a peasant rebellion. Without a Soviet Union backing socialist rebellions, where are they getting their funding from?
Charles Krause replies:
Dario Lopez, an AP photographer who met with the EPR last month in a mountainous area in eastern Mexico, told me that from what he could see, the EPR militia forces are armed principally with AK-47s easily obtained on the international black market---or in Central America. Lopez confirmed other reports that the EPR admits (or claims) to have obtained some (or all) of its money from kidnapping businessmen in Mexico City (a fairly common occurance in recent years).
The government claims that EPR militiamen captured last month say they were essentially recruited by EPR operatives and paid a salary for agreeing to join the fight. Not very well indoctrinated, it apparently didn't take too much for government agents to persuade these militiamen to talk. If what the government says is true, the EPR consists of between 100 and 200 well-trained, highly disciplined operatives---and a bunch of peasants who have no particular ideological commitment to the fight but simply need the money.
The money may come from kidnappings; some may come from drug dealers; some may come from other sources. so far, not even the government is claiming the EPR is getting help from outside Mexico.
Raoul Modano of Arlington, TX asks:
What sort of political tightrope does Zedillo have to walk to quell the rebellion without distancing himself further from Mexico's poor? How seriously does this threaten his presidency?
Charles Krause replies:
You obviously know something---maybe a lot--- about Mexico.
The government claims the EPR has no social base, by which they mean it does not have control over areas of the country where sympathetic peasants support the insurgents (as in Chiapas). Adolfo Aguilar, an opposition congressman and extremely well-informed political observer with whom I talked, agrees that the EPR does not seem to have a large social base; on the other hand, Aguilarsays the EPR does represent the growing frustrations that exist among poor and middle class Mexicans after two years of severe recession, and a general lack of political will on the part of Zedillo's government to deal seriously with the masssive corruption and violence that became so evident during the Salinas years.
Anyway, Zedillo must make sure that the army and security forces do not further alienate the poor by abusing civil and human rights as they attempt to find and capture the guerrillas in rural areas throughout Mexico. Zedillo seems to understand this; indeed, he specifically said in his Sept. 1 State of the Nation Address that the government would fight the guerrillas "with the force of law."
To defeat the EPR, the government must try to do is maintain control of the rural areas where the EPR has been active without violating the rights of the peasants; the government must also marshal resources to improve the lives of those who live there.
At the moment, no one in Mexico believes the EPR threatens to overthrow the government. But there are those who believe it could cause the government some real problems---especially if it begins to operate in Mexico City.
Julia Berkowitz of New York, NY asks:
While it seems unlikely that the EPR will actually topple the Mexican government, this will surely hurt the country's already shaky economy. Is this part of the rebels' goal? Is it happening?
Charles Krause replies:
By striking near two of Mexico's leading resorts, Acapulco and Hualtulco, it seems the EPR is deliberately trying to destroy one of Mexico's most important foreign-exchange earners: tourism. So, yes, it appears to be part of the EPR's goal.
So far, the impact seems to be minor.
When I asked Jonathan Heath, one of Mexico's leading economic analysts, whether the EPR attacks would damage the economy, he responded as follows:
"Well, it's certainly not going to help. It's going to be negative. How negative? Well, I think that up until now if these movements can be contained, then I think that the impact will be relatively modest.
"However, if it steps up and becomes much more recurrent and it starts happening in places like within Mexico City or Monterrey, well, then I think that this whole movement can take on a whole different level, having a much more stronger negative impact than it has had up until now."
Dan Kelly of Boston, MA asks:
What does the rebellion mean for the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas? I've read that they've walked out of the peace talks. What do they have to gain from the EPR uprising?
Charles Krause replies:
Yes, the Zapatistas have walked out of the peace talks but it appears that that was more of a tactical move than it was related to the EPR. Based on their public statements, the Zapatistas think they have nothing to gain from the EPR, which seems to be a more traditionally Marxist movement than the Zapatistas. In general, it appears that Mexicans want economic and political change but they do not want violence. The Zapatistas may fear that continued EPR violence will erode support all insurgent movements, including theirs. Or the Zapatistas may be issuing public statements saying one thing while they secretly wishing another. Or they may even fear that if the EPR continues to fight successfully, the Zapatistas may be eclipsed by the new boys on the block.