Sunday, April 26, 2009

Drug War Repression Hits Zapatistas and the Other Campaign

Military Intelligence Leads to Eight Men Detained, Tortured, Charged with Organized Crime in Disputed Agua Azul Region

In an operation that bears all the marks of drug war-style repression, state and federal police detained six adherents to the Other Campaign, one Zapatista, and one unaffiliated man in Agua Azul, Chiapas. The military was also involved; it shot six warning shots into the air with live ammunition at a protest blockade, and it provided military intelligence that Chiapas state officials say was used to detain the men.

The Agua Azul region is an area that in recent years has been the site of violent attacks against Zapatistas perpetrated by members of the paramilitary Organization For Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC). OPDDIC members allegedly participated in the operation.

The state government reports that it intends to charge the detained men with aggravated robbery, assault, and organized crime. Additionally, the government intends to charge the man without organizational affiliation, Juan Alfredo Gomez Moreno, with the kidnapping of a Guerrero senator. The senator, David Jimenez Rumbo, wrote a letter to the national daily La Jornada explaining that he was never kidnapped and that he never filed any charges to that effect.

Troubles began on April 13 when an Other Campaign adherent from San Sebastian Bachajon in the Agua Azul region, Jerónimo Gómez Saragos, went to the city of Ocosingo with five other residents from his ejido (communally owned land) to run errands. The group agreed to meet up at the Caballo Negro store in Ocosingo to leave for their community together. Jerónimo never arrived. At 4pm fellow edijadatario Carlos Hernández Bilchis informed the group that he saw state police grab Jerónimo.

That night, a commission made up of Antonio Gómez Saragos, Miguel Demeza Jiménez, Sebastián Demeza Deara, Pedro Demeza Deara, and Gerónimo Moreno Deara (also referred to as Jeronimo Deara Junto) set out from the Bachajon ejido to investigate Jerónimo's arrest. According to ejido authorities, state police pulled them over in Temó (Chilón municipality), severely beat the five men, and took them to the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez where some of them were tortured.

Once the men were in Tuxtla, the state government announced that it had detained a gang of robbers that operated along the highway between the Palenque and Agua Azul tourist destinations. The men, the government claims, stopped busses and robbed passengers at gunpoint.

In paid inserts designed to look like newspaper articles, the government printed large pictures of the detained men and the "weapons" it claims it confiscated from them: pliers, balaclavas, machetes, a walkie-talkie (there is no phone service available in many indigenous communities), and car keys. The paid inserts, which appeared in the national daily La Jornada and the Chiapas newspaper Cuarto Poder, were designed to look like newspaper articles announcing the detention of drug barons.

It is worth noting that the government has not announced the decommission of the guns it claims the men used in the robberies: .9mm and .38 caliber pistols.


In President Felipe Calderon's fight against organized crime, "organized crime" is commonly assumed to refer to Mexico's notorious drug trafficking organizations. However, as documented in the Narco News article "Regime of Exception: Mexico's Two-Track Justice System," Mexico's legal system distinguishes between organized crime and other crimes, ceding significantly fewer rights to the former. Human rights organizations have criticized the system, saying that a two-track justice system that separates suspects into citizens with rights and supercriminals without rights leaves everyone at risk for violations of internationally consensed-upon due process and human rights.

Because the six men have been accused (though not formally charged) with organized crime, the government has put them under arraigo, or pre-charge detention, for a period of 30 days. The Chiapas-based Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) says that it has "repeatedly denounced that the State Attorney General's Office systematically uses arraigo as an instrument of subjugation and torture in order to extract confessions, not only against members of organized crime, but also against social organizations and movements." Under Mexico's recent judicial reform, which has yet to be fully implemented, arraigo is reserved for people accused of organized crime, rape, homicide, kidnapping, violent crimes, and crimes against national security.

Jerónimo Gómez Saragos told Frayba that his torture begin the moment he was detained. He said that when the state police grabbed him, they punched him in the throat and back. They also planted a cell phone and a camera in his pants pocket (presumably to accuse him of having robbed them from a bus). After the police took him to Tuxtla Gutierrez, they blindfolded him. Utilizing a torture method that sounds strikingly similar to waterboarding, they put a wet towel over his nose and put a bag filled with water over his head. When the government finally permitted human rights observers to see Jerónimo, he had difficulty moving his left arm and he walked with a limp. He says government agents forced him to sign a confession that they didn't read to him. Jerónimo's first language is Tseltal, and he doesn't speak Spanish well. The government says that the confession Jerónimo signed says he participated in at least 20 highway robberies.

Antonio Gómez Saragos, Jerónimo's brother who participated in the five-person commission to investigate Jerónimo's detention, told Frayba human rights observers that the State Preventive Police (PEP) beat him while he was detained. Frayba documented obvious signs of a beating on his cheeks, which were bruised and swollen. Antonio complains of pain in his abdomen and ribs, and humming and loss of hearing in his left ear. He also has scrapes on his chest, reportedly from when a cop threw him to the ground and put his foot on Antonio's chest. As a result of the severe beatings he received, Antonio said that he also confessed to participating in the gang of robbers and that he was carrying machetes and knives, charges he denies. Like his brother, it is difficult for him to understand Spanish.

Miguel Demeza Jiménez, another member of the commission, does not speak Spanish and barely understands it when it is spoken to him, reports Frayba. He says he was slapped, beaten in the chest and lower back and kicked in the side. The government offered him an interpreter, but the interpreter spoke Tsotsil, another Mayan language--not Demeza Jiménez's native Tseltal. He says he signed papers he didn't understand with his fingerprint, which is a standard way for illiterate people to sign documents in Mexico. He also says he didn't understand the charges against him.

Frayba reports that Gerónimo Moreno Deara has a bruised forehead and a broken tooth, which Gerónimo says is from when a state police officer pistol-whipped him while placing him under arrest. During the hours-long trip to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Gerónimo says that multiple police officers sat on top of him (it is common for police to transport detainees lying down in the bed of a pick-up truck, making it easy to abuse them en route to jail without being seen). Government authorities also offered Gerónimo a Tsotsil interpreter instead one that spole Tseltal; he also signed a confession without understanding what it said.

Pedro Demeza Deara says state police beat him and stood on his back. Frayba says its observers could tell that he has difficulty speaking Spanish. He signed a confession without having it read to him in his native language, and without a lawyer present.

Sebastián Demeza Deara reports pain all over his body, but Frayba was unable to get specifics because he does not speak or understand Spanish.

Frayba reports that because the men are being held under pre-charge detention, its access to the detainees has been limited. It was not able to see the men in its capacity as human rights observers who wished to investigate allegations of torture. Frayba director Diego Cadenas Gordillo told a press conference that Frayba observers were only able to see the men after filing injunctions with the court.

More Arrests at Protest Blockade

On April 15, approximately 100 members of the San Sebastian Bachajon ejido who are adherents to the Other Campaign decided to blockade the Ocosingo-Palenque highway at the intersection with the Agua Azul tourist attraction. They demanded the release of the six political prisoners. According to ejido authorities, a convoy of three vehicles filled with soldiers arrived at the blockade at approximately 5:00 pm and fired six shots with live ammunition into the air, then left the area. The authorities also report that the soldiers mocked the demonstrators before they left.

The blockade continued until April 17, when participants received word that a convoy of approximately 300 Federal Preventive Police (PFP) and State Preventive Police (PEP) was headed towards the blockade. The government reports that in addition to these police forces, agents from the Federal Attorney General's Office, its Federal Investigation Agency (AFI), the State Attorney General's Office, and the Chiapas Security and Citizen Protection Ministry participated in the operation. Faced with the threat of an overwhelming display of force, demonstrators decided to lift the blockade in order to avoid what was bound to be a nasty confrontation.

Despite the fact that the blockade had been lifted by the time the police convoy arrived on the scene, the headlines of paid government inserts declared, "In a Peaceful Operation, Federal Authorities Free Ocosingo-Agua Azul Highway." Another paid "article" says that the alleged robbers "said they were Zapatistas."

When police arrived on the scene and found the blockade lifted, they entered the San Sebastian Bachajon ejido near the entrance to the Agua Azul park and demolished the booth where local Other Campaign adherents charged an entrance fee to tourists. Ejido authorities claim the police who entered the ejido to destroy the booth were accompanied by OPDDIC members. In addition to the car seized on April 13 during the detention of the five men in Temó, the adherents say police took documents, $115,000 pesos (over eight thousand dollars), a radio, and other personal belongings from the booth before destroying it.

Both Frayba and Narco News have verified that state police have constructed a camp with temporary structures on the ruins of the booth, meaning they intend to occupy the ejido property for the short- to medium-term. The police are using their conveniently located camp to harass Other Campaign adherents and Zapatistas in the ejido.

On April 17, the day of the police operation, OPDDIC member Juan Carlos Jimenez Hernandez allegedly pointed out Juan Alfredo Gomez Moreno from the Xanil community (located in the San Sabastian Bachajon ejido) to state PEP officers, who then detained Gomez Moreno. A local Zapatista said that Jimenez Hernandez told the police that Gomez Moreno was a Zapatista himself, which the Zapatista says "is a lie."

The government has publicly accused (though not charged) Gomez Moreno with the kidnapping of Sen. David Jimenez Rumbo. Sen. Jimenez Rumbo denies that he was kidnapped. He says he merely stopped to talk to local residents for a few hours, and that after the discussion he left on good terms--the residents even told him he was always welcome to come back. Mexico's new legal reform, which has not yet taken effect, requires the prosecution to establish that a crime has actually been committed in order to detain someone. This requirement was somehow omitted from the Mexican Constitution up until the reform, meaning that Gomez Moreno may remain imprisoned for kidnapping even though the reported victim has publicly and legally declared that he wasn't kidnapped. It is important to note that the government has only publicly accused Gomez Moreno of kidnapping and blocking traffic. The blocking traffic charge is not serious enough to allow the government to place him under pre-charge detention. However, kidnapping falls under the organized crime rubric, meaning that the accusation and subsequent "investigation" allows the government to keep Gomez Moreno in pre-charge detention for up to 60 days. Because pre-charge detention means that, by definition, Gomez Moreno has not been charged with a crime, prosecution has not had to prove to a judge that the crime actually occurred and that Gomez Moreno is the likely culprit.

A local Zapatista reports that since Gomez Moreno's detention, another Xanil resident who is a Zapatista has been repeatedly harassed by state police, who have showed up at his home and threatened to arrest him twice. The police were reportedly accompanied by an OPDDIC member.

According to local members of the Other Campaign, on April 17 police stationed at the encampment on the ruins of the Other Campaign's booth tried to rape two local women. They also claim that police entered Juana Silvano García's store, threatened to rape her, and stole merchandise and $20,000 pesos ($1,500 dollars) in cash.

On April 18, judicial police from the same encampment detained Zapatista Miguel Vazquez Moreno while he was driving in his car with his brothers-in-law from the Agua Azul park where he works to his house. Vazquez Moreno has been accused of belonging to the alleged gang of robbers.

The government disappeared the last two detainees, Vazquez Moreno and Gomez Moreno, for two days prior to admitting that they were being held in the same arraigo center as the rest of the detained men. During the two days they were disappeared, Frayba's attempts to locate the men in the justice system were futile, leading to their disappeared status. The Zapatista's Good Government Council in Morelia reported that after locating Vazquez Moreno, it determined that he's "doing okay." Further details on his physical condition were not available at the time of publication.

Government Smear Campaign, Paid in Full

Immediately following the first six detentions, the government put its propaganda machine into action.

To reinforce its claims that the men are involved in organized crime, the government placed paid articles in newspapers. One article placed in La Jornada shows the "evidence" allegedly seized from the men--three balaclavas, license plates, a walkie-talkie, pliers, car keys, a pen knife, and three machetes. The "article" also features large mug shots of each detainee. La Jornada journalist Hermann Bellinghausen told the Center for Political and Economic Investigations and Community Action (CIEPAC), "What we're seeing here with this group of peasants who have opposed to the [construction of a] highway [through their territory], at least on the government's terms, and who have demanded their right to, at the very least, free transit within their own territory, they're being treated in all the newspapers as if they were drug traffickers. [From the government-paid newspaper articles] it looks as if they've captured El Chapo Guzman [the country's most notorious drug baron]. Even if it were true that they were petty bus robbers, there's no reason to put them on display like that." Frayba stated that "publicly pre-judging [the detainees in paid newspaper inserts] as 'criminals' constitutes a violation of the principle of presumption of innocence and the detainees' rights to honor and dignity. Moreover, it confirms the the tendency to treat those who exercise or protest in defense of their rights as 'criminals.'"

The government also used the paid newspaper "articles" to conflate the protest blockade with alleged blockades used to rob busses. In an article placed in the Chiapas paper Cuarto Poder entitled "Miguel Vazquez Moreno, Highway Robber, Detained," the government's public relations team writes:

Juan Gomez Moreno is being held under arraigo for blocking transit routes, which was the result of an inter-institutuional operation, which managed to peacefully free a highway that was blocked by about 100 people who were charging 100 pesos per vehicle to pass.

This criminal gang's modus operandi is that one of the robbers places himself in a strategic place to detect vehicles that are susceptible to robbery. He alerts his accomplices via walkie-talkie. His accomplices block the highway with stones and tree trunks...

The article, if not ready closely, can be misinterpreted to mean that the protest blockade mentioned in the first quoted paragraph was part of the alleged "criminal gang's" highway robbery scheme.

If It Looks and Smells Like the Drug War...

Felipe Calderon's war on drugs is largely fought through statewide "joint operations." In joint operations, the federal government deploys soldiers and federal police from various federal police forces to a particular state. The federal troops often work together with state and sometimes local police in anti-drug trafficking operations (although in other instances the federal troops relieve local police from their duties due to suspected corruption). Mexico's National Defense Ministry announced last October that it would expand its anti-drug operations to Chiapas, but it did not provide a specific timeline. It is unknown if said anti-drug operations have officially begun in Chiapas already.

The government has confirmed that seven government agencies participated in the Bachajon operation that resulted in the eight detentions, including the military, federal police, and state police. Some of the operations, particularly the detention of the five-person commission, were obviously targeted, pre-meditated, and well-planned. Between two and six state police cars surrounded the men's vehicle on a mountain highway, stopped the car, broke the windows, and tortured the occupants. Furthermore, when Frayba asked to see the evidence against the detainees, a Chiapas Security and Citizen Protection Ministry official told them that he didn't have access to the case dossier, but that he knew that military intelligence had passed his agency information that identified the Other Campaign members as part of the group of highway robbers that operated in the area.

After arresting the men, the government charged them with organized crime. Organized crime is commonly considered to mean drug trafficking organizations. And this is the justification for a two-track justice system that grants less rights to organized crime suspects and leaves them more vulnerable to torture and other human rights abuses: drug traffickers commit inhuman acts such as torture and unimaginably violent public executions, so they don't deserve to be treated as humans in the justice system. Allowing them the same rights as everyone else may give them the tools they need to avoid punishment, according to this logic. But the detained Zapatista and Zapatista supporters are not drug traffickers. So why is the government charging them with organized crime?

Frayba director Cadenas Gordillo told press, "We wonder if the military intelligence [used to detain the men] was really based in fact, or if in reality it was designed to deal a severe blow to a dissident social movement."

Originally printed in Narco News:

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