Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Michoacan Joint Operation: Human Rights Disaster

Activist organizations accuse the government of using the anti-drug operation to repress indigenous communities, poor neighborhoods, and social justice organizations

On November 27, 2008, rural education students in Michoacan put down their books and headed to the state’s capital, Morelia, to commemorate repression they suffered in 2002 with a protest demanding more resources for their schools and the firing of Elba Esther Gordillo, political hack and despised president of the national teachers union, the SNTE. The students from the Normal Rural Vasco de Quiroga in Tiripetío, Michoacán, were accompanied by their counterparts from fourteen other states, all members of the Mexican Federation of Socialist Peasant Students (FECSM in its Spanish initials).

The rural education students, known in Mexico as normalistas, have held this protest every year since 2002. All of the normalistas come from poor rural villages. They attend increasingly under-funded schools called normales where they train to become teachers in under-funded rural schools. Every year, normalistas find that the federal budget allots their schools less and less money, meaning that some schools close and others reduce the number of students they accept. The normales have adjusted to the ongoing budget crisis by turning their schools into self-sufficient, self-managed cooperatives with livestock, farming, and carpentry workshops. Normalistas say that even though there is a need for teachers in rural schools, the normales are not training enough teachers.

The under-funding of the normales could be because the schools are hotbeds of resistance. The students often come from activist families and are activists themselves. Several Mexican revolutionary heroes such as Lucio Cabañas were normalistas. While the students train to become teachers, they study Marxist-Leninist theory. The normalistas say that this is so the future teachers and their future pupils will have the tools they need to analyze the poverty in which they live. The slogan painted on the wall of the Normal Rural Vasco de Quiroga sums up the normalista goal: “Educating and learning to defend the people.”

The Michoacan normalista protest began on November 27 as they always do. Since the students didn’t have the financial resources to rent buses to transport the hundreds of normalistas who planned to take part in the protest, they did what they do every year: they commandeered (the government says “kidnapped”) public transportation buses along the way. Every year, the students return the busses at the end of the protest.

As they do almost every year, the police stopped the caravan of busses. Going through the motions, the students organized a committee to negotiate with the police so that they would let a certain number of busses pass. Some witnesses say the negotiating committee was ready to turn over the busses in order to avoid arrests.

But this year was different: Michoacan’s State Preventative Police (PEP) director Mario Bautista told the students that they wouldn’t be allowed to pass. So, when the negotiating committee went to talk to the police, the signal was given for the police to attack. In a joint operation, the state’s Special Operations Group, the PEP, and the Ministerial Police, accompanied by federal police from the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Investigation Agency, broke bus windows to launch teargas inside, forcing the students out. Videos from the attack show riot police forming a line next to a gas-filled bus. As students, all young women, fled the bus, the police hit them with their billy clubs. Multiple police hit each woman as she ran down the line even though none of the students resisted arrest. Police also threw rocks at the students and the busses, breaking several bus windows. Police beat several students with rocks, billy clubs, and thick wooden clubs and kicked them until they lost consciousness.

Police then opened fire on the protesters and the locals who came out of their houses to defend the students. While the police claim they only used rubber bullets, two students were injured by firearms. One normalista may lose his hand. A bullet fired from a police helicopter tore through it. Even though the young man was obviously injured and bleeding profusely, the helicopter that shot him gave pursuit and continued to fire on him.

By the end of the day, 139 people were arrested (130 of them women) and over 200 were injured. Many female detainees say police beat them and threatened to rape them. The nine male detainees say they were tortured. Their claims are substantiated by the wounds they had when the police released them pending trial. Contralinea reports that 19-year-old Rodrigo Talado Rodríguez, one of the arrested normalistas, left police custody with a bandaged head, a broken nose, two black eyes, and swollen lips.

The brutally excessive use of force against the normalista protest was the culmination of almost two years of increasing repression in Michoacan. Activists there blame the Michoacan Joint Operation for much of the repression they’ve experienced since the Operation began. However, activists aren’t the only ones feeling the heat: the Michoacan Joint Operation has created a climate where human rights and the rule of law don’t exist. In Michoacan, no one is safe.

Human Rights: The First Casualty of War

Michoacan is where Mexico’s drug war officially began. On September 6, 2006, a group of five armed men threw five decapitated heads on a dance floor in Uruapan, Michoacan. The incident made international headlines back then, but it wouldn’t today. Decapitated bodies or heads left in public areas are now commonplace and don’t always make the national news these days.

On December 11, 2006, Calderon fulfilled his campaign promise to crack down on organized crime by announcing that he would send 6,500 soldiers, marines, and federal police to his home state of Michoacan under the “Michoacan Joint Operation.” His choice of Michoacan to begin his military-led war on drugs was made all the more symbolic by the fact that the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) had recently taken control of the state. When Calderon made his announcement that he would deploy soldiers who take their orders from the President, the PRD was still actively opposing Calderon’s legitimacy as President due to the widespread electoral fraud that brought him to office.

Calderon has since deployed approximately 45,000 soldiers and at least 5,000 federal police to approximately eleven states. In 2009, it plans to expand military operations to an additional six states.

Human rights have suffered under the Michoacan Joint Operation. For the past two years, Michoacan has led the country in the number of human rights complaints filed against the military. During the first six months of 2007 about half of the complaints filed with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) against the military were filed in Michoacan. By May 2008, Michoacan’s lead closed as Calderon deployed troops to other states, but it still led second-place Tamaulipas by 71 complaints. While the overall number of complaints filed with Michoacan’s official State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) has stayed constant throughout the Operation at about 2,500 per year, complaints involving torture are on the rise. In 2007 the CEDH received 10 complaints of torture; in 2008, it received 54.

The CNDH, which only receives complaints against the military and federal police, reported receiving 52 complaints in the first six months of the Michoacan Joint Operation. The complaints included five cases of rape; four of the victims were juveniles. The complaints also included two cases of torture and another ten cases that involved physical injuries. In one of the torture cases, soldiers mistook a Michoacan man for a drug kingpin, covered his head with a plastic bag, beat him with the butts of their rifles, and applied electric shocks to his testicles. They later released the man without charges. The last time the CNDH published state-by-state human rights complaints statistics was May 2008. By that time—almost a year and a half into the Michoacan Joint Operation—the military alone had accumulated 139 complaints.

While the military has opened a human rights department to address complaints and CNDH recommendations, the 2009 federal budget does not allocate any money to this department. With no operating funds, it’s not likely the department will stay open. The budget cut for the military’s human rights department comes within the context of significantly increased overall funding for the military in the 2009 budget, so this human rights oversight is not due to a lack of funds—just a lack of will.

Operation Repression

In the months leading up to the normalista protest, relations between activist groups and the military and police had already reached a boiling point. The Army’s arrival and assumption of policing responsibilities seems to have set off a blanket disregard for human rights in the state at all levels of law enforcement, from municipal police up to the military.

On August 29, 2008, the National Front for Socialist Struggle (FNLS) released a communiqué denouncing the repression and violence that comes with militarization. It called for actions on August 29-31, including a march, a conference, and a rally “as a way of demanding that the State and Federal governments end the militarization of the state and the country, because far from ending organized crime, it only provokes fear and insecurity amongst Michoacan families.” The days of action were called in protest of warrant-less house searches and detentions and disappearances carried out by police and federal agents. Normalistas from the Normal Rural Vasco de Quiroga in Tiripetío—the same ones whom police brutally attacked three months later—participated in the protest in which over one thousand people marched to the governor's office.

At a press conference during an earlier FNLS protest, Jorge Ceja Ramos of the Santa Fe de la Laguna Health Commission said that Calderon’s security policy has left communities “practically under siege.”

“Militarizing the country doesn’t guarantee security for Mexicans,” Ceja Ramos said. La Jornada reports that press conference participants said Michoacan has bigger problems, such as a lack of funding for education. Ceja Ramos told press conference attendees that poor education is a “fundamental problem” that causes poverty and migration.

But activists see other aims behind the fight against organized crime: Ceja Ramos told La Jornada, “they are determined to annihilate all social and popular movements and struggles.”

The “Ricardo Flores Magon” Popular and Indigenous Peasant Organization (OCIP-RFM) participated in the days of action to demand the Mexican Army’s immediate withdraw from their communities. They say the Army’s presence has come with systematic human rights violations, illegal searches, and other aggressions. The OCIP-RFM is a member of the FNLS and has certainly experienced its share of violence at the hands of authorities in Michoacan, particularly in the Tabiquera la Loma community in Uruapilla, Michoacan.

In December 2007, police destroyed OCIP-RFM member Moisés Molina Rodríguez’s house in the Tabiquera la Loma community. Then, on June 12, 2008, they disappeared him and tortured him for 15 days.

On July 4, 2008, Avenicio Reyna Cruz, another OCIP-RFM member from the same community, was kidnapped and tortured for over 17 hours. He was kidnapped over a land dispute with another organization. Reyna Cruz was kidnapped by two of the opposing organization’s lawyers, who were accompanied by armed State Judicial Police. Reyna Cruz claims that the plan was to murder him and his neighbor Molina Rodriguez. But other neighbors recognized and could have identified the lawyers, so the attackers chose to kidnap Reyna Cruz instead. The lawyers, one of whom was identified as Guadalupe Guia Carrion, beat him in the car, telling him they were going to kill him, and that if he and his organization didn’t leave the lands where they currently resided, they would evict them, killing men, women, and children in the process. The neighbors tried to stop the car when they saw the kidnapping play out, but the police pointed their weapons at the neighbors and told them: “Step aside, jerks. We didn’t kill the other jerk because we didn’t want to, that’s why we kicked his ass, but we’ll do the worst to you motherfuckers.” Upon release, Reyna Cruz was hospitalized for six broken ribs and internal bleeding.

The latest police aggression against the Tabiquera la Loma community in Uruapilla occurred during the repression of the normalista protest. In what appears to be direct reprisal for the normalista and OCIP-RFM participation in the August FNLS protest against militarization, the state and federal police stopped the normalista protest on the highway directly in front of Tabiquera la Loma. This “coincidence” seems even less coincidental when the police’s timing is taken into account: rather than stopping the protest as soon as the normalistas took over their first bus, the police waited eight hours until the normalista caravan was in front of Tabiquera la Loma to carry out their operation. By that time the normalistas had already taken between 21 busses, many of which were damaged in the police attack. When the police began their operation against the normalistas, Tabiquera residents came out of their homes in an attempt to defend their compañeros. An FNLS source tells Narco News that Tabiquera community members also felt the police’s wrath during the joint operation.

Plan Mexico Armament: Tools of Repression

On September 1, 2008, the Michoacan government received threats of attacks against the military parades that were planned for Independence Day. The threats did not specify which city or cities would be attacked. The Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which has a presence in Michoacan, and sources within the FNLS say that as a result of the threats, the military carried out operations all over Morelia, with a strong emphasis on activists’ homes and colonias populares, which are poor, organized neighborhoods.

The military operation failed to prevent the threatened attack. Suspected drug cartel members threw two fragmentation grenades at the Independence Day celebration in Morelia on September 15, killing eight people and injuring dozens more.

In a communiqué released shortly after the attacks, the EPR says that the military operations carried out in the colonias populares involved house-to-house searches. Instead of a warrant issued by a judge, the military came with an order signed by the military commander in charge of the zone. The EPR says the military justified its warrant-less raids with ion scanners, which are used to detect the presense of drugs or arms. The ion scanners tested positive in the colonias populares, giving the military the legitimacy it needed to raid whole neighborhoods.

The military’s use of ion scanners in warrant-less raids is particularly important. Michoacan has used ion scanners since at least 2006 to detect drugs in vehicles passing through the state. Using ion scanners to quickly scan vehicles in order to let vehicles that test negative pass without further inspection and to flag vehicles that require closer revision is a valid use of ion scanners. However, ion scanners are easily abused by authorities as a means of harassing citizens, as in the case of the Morelia raids.

Approximately 91% of ion scanners’ positives are false positives. Ion scanners measure the size of molecules to detect contraband such as drugs or firearms. The problem with ion scanners is that many molecules found in over-the-counter medications, hand sanitizer, melanin (found in abundance in people with dark skin, such as indigenous Mexicans), lotions, poppy seeds, and perfumes test positive for drugs in ion scans. In Mexico, ion scanners have also mistaken cheese for cocaine.

The US government acknowledges ion scanners’ inaccuracy, but that doesn’t prevent US prison officials from using ion scanners to harass prison visitors. Some prisons in the US use positive ion scanner results to turn away prison visitors without any further inspection to confirm the presence of contraband.

Ion scanners’ notorious inaccuracy has also not kept the US government from donating the devices to the Mexican military under Plan Mexico, also known as the Merida Initiative. Part of the USD$116.5 million in equipment, armament, and training that the US has donated to the Mexican military under Plan Mexico will come in the form of ion scanners.

Even though the government seems to place an emphasis on activists during its anti-drug operations in Michoacan, it’s important to point out that no links between insurgent organizations and drug traffickers have been found to date in Mexico. But that doesn’t mean that the Mexican government and the US Drug Enforcement Agency won’t attempt to insinuate or fabricate those links in its rhetoric in order to justify its repression. 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."

While there is no proof that insurgent organizations are in any way allied with drug traffickers, these organizations are opposing the militarization that comes with the drug war and are therefore drug war targets themselves. As the EPR stated in a recent communiqué, “their ‘war’ has bloodied the country and its costs are plainly seen in the thousands of deaths, the de facto annulment of constitutional rights, and the permanent violation of human rights. This is what they call democracy?”

In the following video from the normalista protest, police are seen carrying heavy boards which they later used to beat students. Police are also seen beating and kicking unarmed female students who are not resisting arrest, which set off active resistance amongst the normalistas:

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