Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mexican Defense Secretary Opposes Civilian Trials for Military Human Rights Abusers

Military Leaders Are Against UN Recommendations and Plan Mexico Human Rights Conditions

by Kristin Bricker

Secretary of Defense Guillermo Galván Galván used his speech on Mexican "Military Day" to rally the nation against proposals that members of the military who are accused of human rights violations be investigated by civilian officials and tried in civilian courts. Currently, the military investigates its own members and tries them in military tribunals under what is known as "Military Jurisdiction."

Calls to Abolish Military Jurisdiction

As Mexico increasingly relies on the military to perform policing functions in the war on drugs, the Mexican government's human rights ombudsman, the National Human Rights Commission, is seeing an increasing number of human rights complaints being filed against the military.

National and international human rights organizations have long called for Mexican law to be changed so that soldiers and military officials be investigated and tried in civilian courts. According to International Service for Peace, a Chiapas, Mexico-based human rights organization,
In 1998 the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture issued a report on Mexico, in which he affirmed that “military personnel appear to be immune to civil and criminal justice and generally protected by military courts.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) has also criticized the systematic and absolute use of military tribunals to judge military personnel: “independence and impartiality are clearly compromised (…), producing de facto impunity.” The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH)...indicated [in 2007] that military jurisdiction has negative results especially in cases of violence against women: they [the women] fear going to the military tribunals, converting themselves into “perfect victims of a dysfunctional system.”
Calls to abolish Military Jurisdiction in cases that involve human rights abusesnhave long fallen on deaf ears. However, now that the military has occupied many towns in northern Mexico in the government's self-proclaimed war on organized crime, the problem of military impunity is taking stage--both nationally and internationally.

When former president George W. Bush signed the first year of funding for the Merida Initiative, also known as Plan Mexico, into law on July 1, 2008, the bill conditioned 15% of military and police funding on, amongst other conditions, military members being investigated and tried in civilian courts. The bill states that the US Secretary of State must inform Congress, in writing, that the government of Mexico is "ensuring that civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities are investigating and prosecuting, in accordance with Mexican and international law, members of the federal police and military forces who have been credibly alleged to have committed violations of human rights, and the federal police and military forces are fully cooperating with the investigations." The conditioned 15% has not been released because Mexico is not in compliance with the conditions. However, the other unconditional 85% has been released, and it includes military training and armament.

On February 19, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, strongly criticized both the use of the military in the war on drugs and military jurisdiction. Regarding the war on drugs, she stated that "the utilization of the military in civilian law enforcement functions continues to be problematic and is fundamentally inappropriate considering its training, philosophy, equipment, and its perspectives.... [The use of the armed forces against drug trafficking and organized crime] can generate more violence and cause innocent civilians to suffer or lose their lives, particularly when the military uses force to confront heavily armed groups, which leads to lethal confrontations. I consider the war on drugs, if it even exists, or the war on organized crime, these so-called wars have to be won not in the streets, but rather in the courts... It should be remembered that the Military is strictly prohibited from killing or murdering civilians. On principle, those responsible--the accused--should be arrested so that they are tried and their responsibility or guilt is determined. The Military has to understand that the use of force has to be designed so that it activates a judicial process, not so that extraordinary force is applied; it can't come to extra-judicial sacrifices or murders."

Specifically addressing Military Jurisdiction, Arbour stated, "Soldiers have committed human rights violations in the fight against organized crime--rape of women and adolescents, murders, arbitrary detentions, theft, and looting--which need to be investigated by the civil justice system. The abuses perpetrated by soldiers have to be attended to by civil tribunals and not only by the Military's discipline." (source: La Jornada)

Military Leaders Fight Back

It was this last statement that motivated Secretary Galván and his subordinates in the military to defend Military Jurisdiction. "Military Jurisdiction," stated Galván on Military Day, celebrated on February 19, "revolves around military justice. It's a guarantee of the rule of law, never a cover of impunity.... For those who demand that Military Jurisdiction be abolished, we tell them that this is the jurisdiction where violations of military discipline are prevented and those who transgress are made examples of."

Enrique Jorge Alonso Garrido Abreu, commander of the 9th Military Region located in the state of Guerrero, went on the offensive against human rights organizations following the UN High Commissioner's statements. "I think it's logical, in respect to human rights, to which the Military is completely committed to upholding, that in a given moment organized crime is able to use these human rights to do whatever they want and say that their human rights are being violated," he told journalist Juan José Belmonte Torres in an interview.

Belmonte Torres asked Garrido Abreu to clarify: "So what you just told us is that human rights organizations are used by criminal groups to cover their activities?"

"Yes, of course," the commander replied.

Brigadier General Jaime Antonio López Portillo, director general of the Mexican Defense Department's human rights office, minimizes the number of complaints against the military in the war on drugs. In a recent interview published in La Jornada, "We believe that the number of complaints isn't a lot in relation to the quantity of people we have working for us." He went on to discredit claims that Military Jurisdiction promotes impunity. "They haven't cited a single concrete case where it can be said 'here is the proof that it is convincing that the Military Jurisdiction has been a safe haven for impunity.'" Mexican Congress left López Portillo's human rights office with zero funds for 2009.

Human rights organizations have actually cited several cases to prove their point that Military Jurisdiction promotes impunity. In a press release issued in response to the military authorities' defense of Military Jurisdiction, the "All Rights for Everyone" National Civil Organization Network, the Mexican Commission for Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, the la Montaña, Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, the Center for Justice and International Law, the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Human Rights Center, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center, and the Fundar Center for Analysis and Investigation cite the following cases, none of which have been brought to justice:
  • Guerrero activist and community leader Rosendo Radilla Pacheco disappeared in 1974 at a military checkpoint during Mexico's Dirty War.
  • Ecologists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were arrested in an unauthorized military raid in Guerrero in 1999 and severely tortured. They remained imprisoned until November 2001.
  • In Guerrero in April 1999, Victoriana Vazquez Sanchez, 50, and Francisca Santos Pablo, 33, stumbled upon a military camp while they were searching for two male relatives, Antonio Mendoza Olivero, 10, and Evaristo Albino Tellez, 27. The soldiers spotted the women and chased them. They raped the women until Santos Pablo lost consciousness. A month later, the women learned the relatives they were searching for had been killed by soldiers. There has never been an investigation into the rapes nor the murders.
  • In March 2002, soldiers raped Inés Fernández Ortega in Guerrero when she did not answer their questions regarding meat they claimed had been stolen from them.
  • In February 2002, Valentina Rosendo Cantú, 17, was raped by soldiers in Guerrero after the soldiers stopped her near her home to ask her questions about insurgents.
  • In June 1994, a group of soldiers detained Ana, Beatriz, and Celia Gonzalez Perez and their mother Delia Perez de Gonzalez to interrogate them. The soldiers separated the girls from their mother, beat them, and raped them repeatedly.
  • In March 2008, soldiers opened fire on a car, killing Edgar Geovany Araujo Alarcón, 25, Héctor Zenón Medina López, 28, Manuel Medina Araujo, 25, and Irineo Medina Díaz, 50. The soldiers injured two other people in the car. The occupants were doing nothing illegal and were not armed.
  • In February 1995, during one of the most intense military offensives in Chiapas following the Zapatista uprising, soldiers tied up and shot Gilberto Jimenez as he fled from the military siege.
The human rights groups who issued the statement don't propose to completely abolish Military Jurisdiction--an act that pro-military op-ed columnists have argued would undermine military discipline. Rather, the organizations argue, "Military Jurisdiction must be exclusively for crimes and offenses committed by soldiers against military regulations, and can not be extended to the investigation and prosecution of incidents that constitute human rights violations.... Military Jurisdiction is not a guarantee of independence and impartiality, much less an efficient investigation to prosecute soldiers responsible for [human rights] violations."
From Narco News:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mariano Herran Salvatti, Former Mexican Drug Tsar and Chiapas Attorney General, Arrested

Herran Salvatti boasts a public service career allegedly filled with embezzlement, drug money, human rights violations, and impunity

On January 24, the Chiapas state government arrested former federal drug tsar Mariano Herran Salvatti for embezzlement. Additional charges and accusations--ranging from links to drug cartels to torture of political prisoners--continue to pile up.

Another Drug Tsar on the Sinaloa Cartel Payroll?

When the Mexican federal government arrested drug tsar Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo in 1997 for his ties to the Juarez cartel, it needed a trustworthy, incorruptible man to take his place. It chose Mariano Herran Salvatti. Then-Attorney General Jorge Madrazo told the press that Herran Salvatti had been rigorously vetted, passing drug, character, and lie detector tests, as well as a review of his finances. The US Embassy, the DEA, and then-drug tsar for the US, Barry McCaffrey, reportedly blessed the nomination.

Wishing to turn over a new leaf, the Mexican government closed the anti-drug agency Guiterrez Rebollo led, the National Institute for Combating Drugs (INCD), and opened a new agency under Herran Salvatti: the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Health (FEADS). During the three short years Herran Salvatti ran FEADS, it too became mired in corruption scandals.

Shortly after Herran Salvatti left his post at FEADS in 2000, Mexico’s daily El Universal reported[1] that officials from the German Embassy in Mexico accused Herran Salvatti, the late Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos[2], and Jorge Espejel Contreras, of embezzling USD$750,000. The German Embassy gave FEADS the money while Herran Salvatti was at its helm in order to purchase “interception equipment” to combat drug trafficking. Embassy officials Federic Koch and Stephan Koop told El Universal that the piece of equipment the FEADS officials claimed they purchased with the money was worn out and obviously used.

Herran Salvatti’s name has also come up in Operation Clean-Up, the Mexican government’s latest purge of officials allegedly on cartels’ payrolls. Mexico’s weekly national magazine Proceso reports that Roberto Garcia Garcia, a former soldier from the Mexican military's High Command Special Forces Airmobile Group who was also caught in Operation Clean-Up but turned state’s witness, has testified that Beltran Leyva operative Jose Antonio Cueto Lopez[3] told him that high-ranking Sinaloa cartel operative Rey Zambada Garcia[4] gave FEADS administrative coordinator Hiram Gonzalez money, part of which was to be used to pay Herran Salvatti.

Proceso also reports that Herran Salvatti and then-Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar were the first to incorporate the military into the war on drugs. In 1997, the two requested that soldiers from the military’s High Command Special Forces Airmobile Group be assigned to FEADS to help the agency in its fight against drug trafficking. Famously, a significant number of these elite US-trained soldiers deserted their FEADS assignments and formed Los Zetas to become the Gulf cartel’s private military. Seemingly concerned about possible connections between Los Zetas and Herran Salvatti, the Chiapas government installed police checkpoints around the state following the arrest “as a preventative action, because an attack by Los Zetas is feared,” reports Excelsior.

FEADS closed in January 2003 when the military raided its offices in response to widespread corruption; the Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO) took its place in August of that year and continues to be the nation’s main anti-drug agency.

While the accuracy of some of Operation Clean-Up’s depositions are in question, Chiapas District Attorney Luis Alberto Martínez Medina says he’s found hard evidence of Herran Salvatti’s relationship with organized crime. On January 31, the district attorney obtained and verified the authenticity of a 22-page document hand-written by Herran Salvatti from his Chiapas prison cell and sent to his brother, Oscar Herran Salvatti. The document reportedly solicits help from government officials, ex-officials, businessmen, journalists, ex-governors, religious leaders, and family members to negotiate his release and help him economically.

The document also has a message for people whom the Chiapas Attorney General’s Office refers to as “suspected members of organized crime.” In the document, Herran Salvatti sends a message to ex-commissioner of the Federal Judicial Police (the federal police department that was shut down in 2002 due to pervasive corruption related to organized crime) to “tell your friends that I am selling them my soul, knowledge, wisdom, and contacts in exchange for being out [of jail]; they are familiar with how.” The attorney general’s office says the document was found during a raid on one of Herran Salvatti’s properties. It says that it will open another investigation into “the suspected crime of attempted escape from prison, criminal association, and whatever else arises” from the information gleaned from the document.

Embezzlement in Chiapas

Despite Herran Salvatti’s appearance in Operation Clean-Up depositions, the federal government has thus far not made any moves to arrest him. It was the Chiapas state government who put Herran Salvatti behind bars last week and began raids on his estimated forty properties.

Herran Salvatti, a Chiapas native, stands accused of illegal exercise of public service, embezzlement, malfeasance, misuse of funds, and conspiracy against the state patrimony. The conspiracy charge makes Herran Salvatti ineligible for bail. The accusations stem from multiple incidents that occurred while Herran Salvatti served as Chiapas State Attorney General and later as the state’s Minister of Economy.

The Chiapas government originally arrested Herran Salvatti for embezzling six million pesos (approximately USD$408,000) from a local business development fund during his seven-month stint as Minister of Economy in late 2007 and 2008. Herran Salvatti allegedly wrote himself 2 million peso checks.

Herran Salvatti was fired from the Ministry of Economy on June 5, 2008, over another embezzlement scandal. $170 million pesos (about eleven million dollars) from Chiapas’ “Fund Against Organized Crime” went unaccounted for under his watch as State Attorney General during 2000-2007. The state reports that its investigation revealed a lack of documentation proving and justifying expenditures, inappropriate expenses, and failure to comply with acquisitions regulations. Herran Salvatti’s finance coordinator in the attorney general’s office, Gabriel Salcedo Torres, was detained after the state congress discovered the discrepancy during an audit. Herran Salvatti had managed to stay out of prison up until now thanks to a court injunction.

Luxury and Guns

The Chiapas government says that Herran Salvatti owns forty properties around the country—so many, in fact, that it still hasn’t raided all of them. The government has not explained how it can protect and guarantee the integrity of any evidence that might be found in the remaining properties.

The properties the government has raided thus far have painted a picture of extreme wealth. In just one of Herran Salvatti’s ranches, investigators found twenty thoroughbred horses valued between thirty and forty thousand dollars apiece. In his other properties they recovered receipts for 23 automobiles and diamond-encrusted jewelry. Herran Salvatti also owns a rodeo arena, a private zoo with endangered species, a shooting range with moving targets.

The police also found nineteen firearms in multiple Herran Salvatti properties, including unregistered weapons and weapons that are designated under Mexican law as exclusively for military use. The illegal weapons are: a 9mm Intratek submachine gun, a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol, and an FMJ .45 caliber pistol. Possession of these weapons is a federal crime. The Chiapas Attorney General’s Office says that a federal prosecutor will likely charge Herran Salvatti with the crimes of arms dealing and possession of weapons and explosives.

Political Prisoners

The long list of Herran Salvatti’s alleged misdeeds doesn’t end at embezzlement, supporting drug cartels, and unlawful firearms possession. In 2008, the Chiapas state government released over 140 political prisoners after reviewing their cases.[5] Many of them were imprisoned while Herran Salvatti was attorney general. Herran Salvatti is not currently facing charges related to the many human rights abuses that occurred in Chiapas under his watch, but the accusations and evidence against him are overwhelming.

While Herran Salvatti did not directly intervene in many of these cases, Frayba director Diego Cadenas Gordillo points out that the former attorney general can be held legally responsible for the injustices if they are due to his “action or omission [failure to act].” In some cases, Herran Salvatti is accused of actively participating in the violation of the suspects’ human rights. In other cases, Herran Salvatti did not directly oversee the miscarriages of justice, but he did nothing to intervene when his office violated citizens’ human rights. Either way, Cadenas Gordillo says, Herran Salvatti is responsible under criminal law.

Some of the many accusations against Herran Salvatti accuse him in directly and actively participating in human rights abuses. Former political prisoner Julio César Pérez Ruiz, who was accused of murdering former Chiapas governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia’s godmother, says Herran Salvatti was present while authorities tortured him. Pérez Ruiz was released for lack of evidence after serving six years of his sentence. Jose Pérez Pérez, another political prisoner who is serving a 32-year sentence for homicide, makes the same claim.

Herran Salvatti also allegedly fabricated evidence to repress social movements. In 2003, normalistas (students training to teach in rural schools) from the Normal Teneria in Mexico State traveled to Chiapas in solidarity with the Normal Mactumactza to protest the lack of available teaching positions for the Chiapan normalistas after graduation. The driver of the bus transporting the Teneria normalistas was shot and killed during the protest. The students say a Dodge Ram stopped alongside the bus and shot the driver. While ballistics tests determined the gunshot entered the bus from outside, Herran Salvatti held a press conference saying the driver had been shot from inside the bus, and that the students had shot him. “He did this with the goal of criminalizing protest,” Cadenas Gordillo says.

Herran Salvatti also implemented policies that led to human rights abuses. Frayba, for example, has long criticized the practice of arraigo, or a form of administrative detention that places a detainee who has not yet been convicted of a crime under travel restrictions or house arrest, or the detainee is held in what is known as a “security house” while the case is investigated.[6] Cadenas Gordillo points out that Herran Salvatti abused arraigo, preferring to keep detainees in security houses rather than under house arrest. There, detainees were “isolated from their families, isolated from their lawyers, surrounded by police. We have testimony from people who say they were physically and psychologically tortured during arraigo,” says Cadenas Gordillo. “They’re under constant pressure in order to break their spirit. Many confessions have came out after long periods of detention under arraigo. Cadenas Gordillo says the practice of abusing arraigo is something Herran Salvatti was known for during his term as federal drug tsar, and that he brought it with him to Chiapas when he became the state’s attorney general.

In other cases, Herran Salvatti did nothing to intervene when human rights organizations and the media brought travesties of justice to his attention. Under Herran Sarvatti, the district attorney’s office, which is part of the attorney general’s office and answers to the attorney general, often put indigenous defendants on trial without interpreters or lawyers. Frayba has documented numerous cases of indigenous detainees being tortured or mistreated while in the district attorney’s custody. “Detainees would state to judges that they were tortured by the district attorney, and neither the judge nor the district attorney would carry out an investigation,” Cadenas Gordillo says.

Herran Salvatti’s office’s eventually imprisoned so many political dissidents that it sparked a statewide movement for the freedom of political prisoners—a movement initiated and organized from within the prisons and led by prisoners themselves. On January 28, 2003, the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants falsely accusing Paraje Tres Cruces residents Candelario Heredia Hernández, Pascual Heredia y Enrique Hernández Hernández of murdering two people. Cadenas Gordillo says they were political dissidents from the community. The local government—run by the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), of which Herran Salvatti was also a member—accused the men of homicide, and Herran Salvatti’s office issued the warrants without further investigation.

In order to execute the arrest warrants, the Attorney General’s Office carried out a poorly planned operation that included agents from the State Investigation Agency (the AEI which is the Attorney General’s police force), local police, and civilians from the Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Indigenous Justice. The local PRI members told the Attorney General’s Office that Zapatistas were present in the community, leading the officials planning the operation to utilize a disproportionate number of agents who were heavily armed, and excessive force.

Witnesses say that the police surrounded a house in Tres Cruces. One nervous police officer’s gun went off, causing the other police to open fire. Because they had formed a circle around the house, their bullets struck other officers who were positioned on the other side of the house.

Five people died in the operation: Gregorio Heredia Hernández, a young town resident, and four police officers who were killed by their colleagues’ crossfire. Residents Candelario Heredia Hernández, Pascual Heredia Hernández, Mariano Heredia Gómez, Enrique Hernández Hernández, and Zacario Hernández were blamed for the deaths. During the subsequent investigation, officials excluded some evidence, including a re-enactment of the incident. Frayba requested permission to visit the scene of the crime to investigate, but local officials denied the request, and the state district attorney’s office upheld that decision. All of the defendants except Candelario were imprisoned.

In a statement released on the sixth anniversary of the massacre, Frayba states: “The Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Indigenous Justice, which at that time was headed by Isidro Gomez Entzin and answered to Herran Salvatti’s State Attorney General’s Office, was who ordered the operation and altered the evidence against the indigenous Tsotsiles in order to cover up these crimes with the cover of impunity.” Cadenas Gordillo elaborates: “From the decision to plan the operation to when the district attorney concluded the investigation, Mariano Herran Salvatti had to know about it. And he had to have said how things would be done.”

On February 12, 2008, Zacario Hernandez declared a hunger strike to demand his freedom. Almost forty other prisoners from jails around the state joined him, declaring, “Dead or alive, they will release us from prison because we don’t belong here.” Others fasted and set up protest encampments inside the prisons. As a result of the protests both within and outside of the prisons, over 140 prisoners were released, including Hernandez and his co-defendants. Herran Salvatti had imprisoned many of them.

Following the prisoners’ release, the Chiapas state congress called upon Herran Salvatti to testify during an investigation of systemic “irregularities” that resulted in their unjust imprisonment. At the time, Chiapas Minister of Justice Amador Rodríguez Lozano told the press that “sooner or later” the law would catch up with those who sent many innocent people to jail by fabricating evidence. Nothing came of the investigation.

Many of the political prisoners Herran Salvatti jailed are still being held in El Amate, the Chiapas prison where Herran Salvatti currently resides. El Amate is where the successful prisoner hunger strike began, and it is the home of the strongest political prisoner movement in the state. Prison officials are holding Herran Salvatti in a special area of the prison away from general population for fear that the people he falsely imprisoned (and who have endured severe beatings during their prison terms, both at the hands of prison guards as well as prisoners who work for prison authorities) might exact revenge.

The El Amate political prisoners, however, don’t appear to be interested in revenge. They want justice and freedom. In an open letter following Herran Salvatti’s arrest, the prisoners state: “We declare that not only should he [Herran Salvatti] be investigated and tried for the crimes he committed in the Ministry of Economy such as illicit enrichment and embezzlement; he should also be investigated and tried for all of the acts of humiliation and arbitrary detentions he committed when he was the state’s attorney general. The way we see it, the most important thing is that justice be done for all of us who were imprisoned and who have been charged with made-up crimes, and where his prosecutors and district attorneys who, under his orders, invented our crimes and put together the dossiers which are now the basis for keeping us here kidnapped, and many already sentenced.”

Not Just Another Bad Apple: It’s a “Vicious Cycle”

Despite the numerous accusations of human rights violations (Proceso writes “hundreds”) Cadenas Gordillo stresses that Herran Salvatti was not the worst attorney general Chiapas has ever seen; he unfortunately wasn’t even out of the ordinary by Chiapas standards. “There have always been human rights violations, the attorney generals have always used the law to punish dissidence.”

Current governor Juan Sabines, who imprisoned Herran Salvatti on January 24 and freed over 140 political prisoners in 2008, is not extraordinary either. “[Former governor] Pablo Salazar[7], for example, freed over one hundred political prisoners at the beginning of his term. Many of them were self-identified as members of the EZLN. Herran Salvatti was present when they were released and almost certainly helped find the legal instruments necessary to free them. It appeared to be an act of good will. [But] it’s part of a vicious cycle. There are laws…that exist in order to free the previous administration’s political prisoners. Freeing political prisoners gives the administration the opportunity to negotiate with the prisoners’ organizations, and in many cases to subjugate them. The government uses this to maintain its power.”

Cadenas Gordillo argues that under the human rights rubric, former governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia and Chiapas state legislators can be held “objectively responsible” for having nominated and ratified Herran Salvatti as attorney general. “If Pablo Salazar and the [state] congress were aware of criminal human rights violations committed by Herran Salvatti, and if they had done something to stop those violations or crimes when they were being committed or in a timely manner, they wouldn’t have been responsible for those crimes and all of the others that he committed afterwards.” Cadenas Gordillo says Salazar and the state legislators can’t claim they weren’t aware of Herran Salvatti’s alleged crimes: “Many of the human rights violations and crimes that Herran Salvatti committed were made public…in the media. The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center has always publicly decried the human rights violations and abuse of authority that have occurred over the course of various administrations—not just those committed under Pablo Salazar and Herran Salvatti.”

While Herran Salvatti’s crimes are not extraordinary by Chiapas standards, an investigation into the human rights abuses he committed are not likely to go beyond his former boss, Gov. Salazar—and it may not even reach that far. Cadenas Gordillo points to a legal loophole that may shield other politicians from going down with Herran Salvatti for “objective responsibility” for his actions.

In Mexico, re-elections and multiple terms are extremely rare and almost always prohibited by law. In Chiapas, Salazar attempted to maintain his power even after he was out of office. Before leaving office, Salazar changed the laws governing the Attorney General’s Office in order to allow multiple terms for Attorney Generals and to give the Attorney General’s Office autonomy from the governor—meaning that the governor was no longer legally responsible for Herran Salvatti’s policies and actions. Salazar’s successor, current governor Juan Sabines, inherited both Herran Salvatti and indemnity for his actions.


[1] Miguel Badillo, El Universal, November 25, 2000. Cited in Ricardo Revalo, Proceso #1683.

[2] Vasconcelos died along with Minister of the Interior Juan Camilo Mouriño in an airplane crash in Mexico City’s financial district on November 4, 2008. The government has ruled the crash an accident due to pilot error.

[3] Cueto is a former federal police officer who later allegedly became the Beltran Leyva organization’s recruiter of and link to officials in the Federal Attorney General’s Office

[4] Rey Zambada Garcia is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s brother. “El Mayo” is one of the leading drug barons in the Sinaloa cartel.

[5] While the government says the reviews found irregularities, injustices, and insufficient or fabricated evidence that were substantial enough to overrule the prisoners’ convictions, the government released the prisoners on parole rather than exonerating them outright. This obligated the indigenous prisoners to travel from their communities to the Chiapas capital every week to fulfill parole requirements.

[6] Arraigo has long been criticized by national and international human rights organizations as an instrument that violates due process. A Mexican court declared arraigo unconstitutional. However, while the recent judicial reform that intensified Mexico’s two-track legal system technically did away with arraigo for most crimes, it maintains the practice in cases that involve organized crime. Mexico’s broad definition of organized crime and its pervasive drug war have kept arraigo a fairly common practice despite the reform.

[7] Salazar appointed Herran Salvatti to the Attorney General’s Office.

From Narco News:

Interview with John Gibler about his new book, Mexico Unconquered

John Gibler's first book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt, recently hit book stores. Gibler's book is drawn from two years of on-the-ground reporting in Mexico. Narco News' Kristin Bricker interviewed Gibler about his new book as he prepared to embark on a West Coast book tour in the US.

Narco News: What was the inspiration for this book?

John Gibler: The idea was born of the experience of covering the [Zapatistas'] Other Campaign[1] during the first four months of 2006. When the Zapatistas issued the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and announced the sixth-month listening tour that would be the first phase of the Other Campaign, they made a special call out to the alternative media to accompany this tour and use that as a way into all the untold stories of Mexico's struggling peoples, of Mexico's underdogs--los de abajo in Spanish.

During the first four months of the Campaign, Delegate Zero--as Subcomandante Marcos was called--would often point to the motley crew of alternative journalists who hadn't shaved or showered or changed clothes for long stretches of time and he would say, "Don't get worried about those mugrosos [filthy people] out there on the fringes. They're actually the alternative press, and they're here to take your words out to other places." Day after day he would mention that as part of his call for people to participate in the Other Campaign. That was something I seriously felt as a commitment, as a responsibility, and during that time I tried to fulfill it by writing articles, getting stuff out online, launching with friends a small zine that we published on the caravan, and doing radio work with community radio stations in the United States. But I felt as if that was only a part of trying to fulfill that commitment.

And then 2006 exploded: the police repression in San Salvador Atenco, the electoral fraud, and then the sixth-month-long unarmed uprising in Oaxaca. These are all things I covered for the alternative press. It kept fanning the flames of this desire to go deeper into the stories of los de abajo. That was where the idea for writing this book came from.

Narco News: The original title for this book was Ungovernable. Why did you decide to change the name to Mexico Unconquered?

John Gibler: "Ungovernable" was a quotation from the 2006 Oaxaca conflict. That quotation is very specific to a certain time and place: Oaxaca in late summer and early fall of 2006.

One of the strategies of the Oaxaca's peoples movement was to force the Mexican Senate to declare Oaxaca "ungovernable." And by declaring the state "ungovernable" the Senate would have the ability to dissolve the powers of the state. That is the only legal constitutional way in Mexico for a federal authority to remove a state governor from office. This is part of the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly's strategy, to force the federal government into a checkmate, forcing this legal constitutional move to depose Ulises Ruiz and oust him from the Oaxaca governorship.

I wanted to take that word "ungovernable" and quote it as a way of tapping into that spirit of resistance in Oaxaca. But I thought upon reflection that as a title that word would be taken so far from the context of Oaxaca in 2006 and make it seem as though Mexico as a land is ungovernable or the Mexican people are ungovernable.

That gets away from the political point that I try to make in the book, and that people in Oaxaca were making in their demand, forcing the federal government to declare the state ungovernable. That political point is the spirit of rebellion, the spirit of protest in Mexico, which is an intensely anti-imperialist spirit and a spirit that compels people to risk everything, to put their lives on the line, to engage in action that defends their land, their autonomy, and their dignity. In thinking about how to best and try and touch at that spirit in one or two words, I decided upon "Mexico Unconquered," this idea that after centuries of invasion, foreign and later internal colonialism, and the constant threat of the boot of military and economic imperialism from the United States, that in spite of all of this repression and violence, so many sectors of Mexican society have never fully given in and have never allowed themselves to be fully conquered.

Narco News: Explain what you mean when you say that "hunger is biological class warfare" in the book.

John Gibler: Hunger is people simply not having enough food to eat, and it's the ache in their bodies from not having the nutrition they need. That hunger is unleashed upon the bodies of the people who have been consistently pushed out and pushed away from the development of wealth. It's biological because it's in your body and in your blood, and it's class warfare because it's a direct descendent of colonial invasions.

Poverty is not an act of nature or an accident of history. Poverty is destitution and a form of violence. It is the result of history and concrete human actions in the Americas, as well as many other parts of the earth. In the Americas that history is explicitly a colonial history.

The argument regarding hunger and poverty that I make in the book is drawn from a wealth of writers and thinkers from across previously colonial territories, such as Eduardo Galeano and Arturo Escobar. They are part of a school of thought that views the very concept of poverty critically. It says that poverty is not something that just happens to people or something that people are born into. That which we know as poverty--different levels of material and political destitution--is the result of concrete historical actions.

In Mexico, it's not an accident that the country's 12 million indigenous people are some of the poorest people in the land or that government statistics show that the poorest municipalities in the country are all heavily indigenous municipalities. The legacy of colonial invasion and conquest in the creation of poverty is apparent. Indigenous people were literally pushed out of the valleys they were farming and cultivating. They were enslaved and brought to Spanish haciendas [estates] and mines to work.

That legacy of colonial violence was transformed slowly through the independence and post-revolution eras but never ended. That legacy is actually the engine of the creation of poverty.

Now folks come along and point to different isolated villages and say "Well, of course they're poor. Look at how far away the are from the towns and cities and the coast and all of those fertile areas." Well, why do you think they're there? They got pushed there. And why do you think they don't have access to the towns and cities? Because the government never built roads to those communities.

If you analyze the transportation infrastructure in the country, you realize that the north is heavily industrialized because that's where all of the powerful landowners went and bought land using the wealth from the silver mines. They created industrial agriculture and heavily industrialized urban centers in the north.

The heavily indigenous south never received any of those infrastructure projects. And when they do receive infrastructure projects it's usually part of a colonial plan, like building highways in order to get access to resources that the state or private landowners want to exploit.

The idea here is that poverty is something that has been and continues to be crafted over the ages through class warfare. That class warfare has fractured over time. Now it's not simply Europeans versus indigenous, though the indigenous in Mexico continue to bear the heaviest blows of state violence and institutional forms of violence. Now it's drawn very much along class lines as well. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) wreaked havoc in rural areas of Mexico that are not necessarily indigenous. That campesino [rural peasant] population has also been pushed out or in some cases chose to stay out of industrial development. With NAFTA you get the final machete blow, cutting people off from their land and forcing them into the economically dispossessed current of migration to the United States.

Narco News: You spend a significant portion of your first chapter explaining how the Mexican center-left's beloved President Lazaro Cardenas cemented the PRI dictatorship. Cardenas is often regarded as Mexico's FDR because of his seemingly socialist policies such as the nationalization of Pemex and land redistribution. What was Cardenas' role in conquest?

In my historical chapter I rely on Mexican historians and their analysis of the importance of Cardenas [president of Mexico from December 1, 1934 – November 30, 1940]. Here I draw on the work of Arnaldo Cordova in particular, and Adolfo Gilly who is an Argentinean but who has lived in Mexico since the 1960's. Gilly is one of the foremost historians on the Mexican Revolution as well as the Cardenas presidency.

Cardenas was one of the geniuses in the creation of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI). That was the transition point for colonial power in Mexico when it was finally solidified in the new metropolis of Mexico City. Part of the argument I make is that the independence movement didn't sever Mexico from its colonial powers; it shifted the center of colonial power from Madrid to Mexico City. In the hundred years between the War of Independence and the Mexican revolution, the fight was between warring factions within this new internal colonial elite.

The idea of internal colonialism comes from Mexican sociologist Pablo Gonzalez Casanova and his 1965 work Democracy in Mexico where he discusses the way in which the PRI, the one-party state in Mexico, engages with its indigenous populations as an internal colonialism. It's still a war of colonial conquest, but taking place within one nation's borders.

Cardenas' role was to make that transition from foreign colonialism to an internal colonialism possible. He enacted several land and labor reforms that granted a certain level of autonomy and peace to people across the country, though it was an intensely controlled and structured environment. Cardenas separated the campesinos (the rural population) from the obreros or the industrial workers by forming two separate unions, both of which are controlled by the PRI. This was part of the birth of the one-party state where the PRI becames the single arbiter for any conflict within the nation's borders. And that completed the transition from a foreign European colonialism to an internal colonialism.

In the background during this period of transition is United States imperialism. At one point in the book I say that it's like battleships looming on the horizon, which of course, at several points in Mexico's history those battleships did loom on the horizon off the coast of Veracruz . United States imperialism has constantly threatened the integrity of Mexico from its earliest days of independence. So when I say "internal colonialism," that's not to ignore or deny the impact of US imperialism, but to say that the way in which the modern Mexican state evolved after the revolution was into a new power structure centered in Mexico City that was still carrying on policies of conquest. Again, these are ideas that I have drawn from Mexican theorists and historians, as well as people in the streets and in the fields, who use the language of colonialism and imperialism to talk about their own relationship to the state and their fight against repression and dispossession at the hands of the state.

Narco News: Mexico Unconquered's thesis is that Mexico's history is one of perpetual attempts to conquest and resistance to this conquest. How does the drug war fit into your conquest narrative? Some of the same actors you mention in your book are currently engaged in the drug war: government institutions, mafia-like power brokers, military and police forces, media, and private enterprises.

John Gibler: I take a look at the drug war as a way into contemplating the nature of the modern state in Mexico. I don't consider the drug war as something outside of the state, or even as something the state engages in in a 1:1 adversarial relationship with the drug gangs, that is, the idea that there are these criminal drug gangs and the state is fighting them. The drug cartels have penetrated every layer of the institution of the state in Mexico from the municipal through the state and into the federal levels. Thus, the drug war itself--the war between the various fighting cartels--is something that's replicated internally within the state. The warring cartels that are fighting out on the street are also fighting within the structure of the state. Hence you have the constant back-and-forth assassinations of police and military officers, civilians, and people involved in the various anti-drug agencies. One gang will find the "Deep Throat" of another gang inside a given institution and then have them killed.

I use the drug war as a way of analyzing and taking apart the ideological concept of the rule of law in Mexico, the very concept that is used to justify state violence and repression against social movements, peoples' movements, and just everyday people across the country. The drug war is a window into the nature of the very being of the modern state and a way of taking apart its cosmetic presentation of itself as an institution wedded to the concept of the rule of law.

Narco News: You interview Gloria Arenas Agis about her experience as a guerrilla in the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) and later the Insurgent People's Revolutionary Army (ERPI). When she discusses the split between the EPR and the ERPI, she talks about experiences the Guerrero-based ERPI has in common with the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN). What is the relationship, if any, between the ERPI and the EZLN? And why has no one outside of Mexico heard of the ERPI?

John Gibler: I know of absolutely no relationship between the EZLN and the ERPI. And I don't think that any relationship exists between those two organizations. Gloria Arenas, who is now a political prisoner, is one of the ERPI's founders. She's been in jail for almost ten years, and she is very openly an adherent to the Zapatistas' Other Campaign initiative.

The ERPI is not well-known outside of Mexico or even within Mexico. One of the reasons is because two of their founding members [Arenas and her husband Jacobo Silva Nogales] were abducted by the state, tortured, and then thrown in jail very soon after the organization's founding in 1998. Thus, some of the most potentially eloquent spokespeople for the organization have been locked down. Jacobo is in maximum security prison; Gloria was in maximum security prison for several years. About four years ago she moved to a medium security prison in Mexico state where I was able to interview her.

The organization is a grassroots campesino and indigenous organization mainly located in Guerrero state. The ERPI has not really sought media attention. They've only given a handful of interviews to local Mexican media, mainly Canal 6 de Julio, and there was one interview given to a US journalist published in Bill Weinberg's Homage to Chiapas. Otherwise, they haven't given many interviews.

In this case, the interview I did is with a member of the organization who can now speak publicly because she's no longer living in clandestinity. She's a political prisoner. We speak about her experience, her involvement in the organization, the history of the creation of the organization, and how and why they split from the EPR. We don't in any way address the current state of the organization.

The ERPI does continue to exist, and they put out communiques now and again. But it isn't an organization that has sought out much media attention. The media has also been, at least in the early years, very focused on Chiapas and in the later years pretty blase about armed or unarmed people's movements in Mexico.

Narco News: In your book, you briefly mention the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly (APPO) and the Other Campaign together in the same paragraph. Subcomandante Marcos passed through Oaxaca just months before Oaxaca's 2006 uprising. What role, if any--did the Other Campaign play in the APPO uprising?

John Gibler: The Other Campaign deeply inspired several sectors of the urban youth autonomy movement within the APPO. I think the thirteen years (at that time) of Zapatista struggle had a deep and lasting influence on political and social organizations across the country and the world. And thus the Zapatistas definitely had a profound impact on a lot of both the indigenous and non-indigenous organizations involved in the APPO.

But the Other Campaign as a movement and an initiative was really so young at that point that it's difficult to measure its influence. I know there were several other collectives who explicitly used the language and ideas of the Other Campaign in their involvement with the APPO.

However, the autochthonous experience of Section 22 of the state teachers union had a profound effect on the Oaxaca uprising, as did the distinct and unique indigenous struggles across the state. Oaxaca has 16 distinct indigenous ethnicities within its population, and all of those contributed to the way in which the APPO was formed in an assembly structure. It even contributed to the way the occupied media were used. People were talking to and amongst themselves on the air rather than reporting on something. It was like a continuously broadcasted conversation amongst the people themselves.

Narco News: During the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, over 20 people were killed. One of them was Brad Will. His murder made international headlines, his case is the only case the government has decided to "investigate," and the only one where the government has brought charges against "suspects"--APPO organizers, witnesses who were ready to testify against the government agents who killed him, and the people who tried to save his life. Both Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and the falsely accused say that there will never be justice for Brad as long as his case his considered out of the context of the state and paramilitary violence that wracked Oaxaca during that period. Several witnesses and defendants in the case have told me that international activists seeking justice for Brad must start talking about the other murders--which you do in your book. You name many of them by name. So let's talk about who else was murdered during the uprising, how they were killed, and what's going on with those cases.

John Gibler: During the Oaxaca uprising 23 people were assassinated. Several more have been assassinated since the November 25 federal police crackdown, which was the final act of state repression that broke the protesters' hold on areas of Oaxaca City.

Those assassinations came in the context of the slowly unfolding counterinsurgency strategy conducted primarily by the state police, though there was federal involvement in the very beginning and then very heavily toward the end of the conflict, and several people were killed by federal police in late October and early November. Those murders were the state's desperate attempt to inflict terror upon the population and to scare people away from taking the streets.

The amazing thing that happened in Oaxaca is that with every assassination more people took to the streets. Instead of being terrified and running away, the response was a surge in popular support for the teachers and the peoples' movement.

The people who were assassinated were everyday folks who were participating in the movement. Some of the first people to be killed during the conflict were Triqui indigenous people who were killed on their way to Oaxaca City from a village assembly reporting back to an APPO assembly. They were ambushed and killed on the road on the way back to Oaxaca. [2]

The first person to be shot down in the street in Oaxaca was Jose Jimenez Colmenares, the husband of a teacher who was actively participating in the teachers' strike and then in the uprising. He had come out to support his wife and was in a march in Oaxaca City in early August 2006 when gunmen opened fire from two rooftops along the narrow street where the teachers were marching.

That day they were marching to denounce the disappearance of several Oaxacan activists two days earlier. Those activists--German Mendoza Nube being one of them--were seen being abducted off the street, thrown into the back of a pickup truck, and driven away. They appeared about five days alter in federal prison in Mexico City, meaning there is the solid assumption that federal police were involved in those first abductions in early August.

Alejandro Garcia is another person who was assassinated. Alejandro and his wife and kids had made tamales, sandwiches coffee, and hot chocolate and were taking them around to people who were guarding the barricades in one of the central avenues in Oaxaca City. Alejandro was shot in the head while handing out coffee and hot chocolate.

The shootings seem to have targeted the support base--people who were just coming out to help, rather than the people who were grabbing headlines by giving interviews to the press or people who had already had a rather well-known trajectory in local or state politics or activism. These were people from the very, very grassroots coming out to participate and help.

The barricades themselves were a phenomenon of popular organizing to overcome the death squads. On August 20 and 21, the state sent out convoys of 40-something vehicles, some of which were unmarked with no license plates, while others were clearly marked state and local police vehicles. They opened fire on people across the city and killed one man, Lorenzo San Pablo Cervantes, who was an architect who lived in the Reforma neighborhood near one of the radio stations the protesters had occupied. He wandered out of his house, showed up at the barricade closest to his front door, introduced himself, and offered to volunteer and to help stand watch. Minutes later the death squad caravan of police vehicles drove by and opened fire.

Not a single one of these cases is being investigated. Not a single one.

Out of the entire 23 murder cases during the 2006 conflict, the only case that is currently open is Brad Will's case. The only one that is being investigated is the one that involves a foreign citizen. That said, so many people in Oaxaca have told me that they view Brad's case as a fulcrum. They feel that if people are able to fight for some kind of institutional justice in Brad's case--which would mean identifying, apprehending, charging, and sentencing the local parapolice forces who shot and killed him from down the street in Santa Lucia--if justice is achievable in Brad's case, they feel as though there's some sparkle of hope for justice in the Oaxacans' cases. And on the contrary, if the state insists on blaming the protesters themselves and blaming the people who tried to lift Brad up off the street and carry him to safety, if the state insists on accusing the people who tried to save his life of having killed him, then there is no hope whatsoever for any kind of justice in the case of the other Oaxacans. Brad's case is intimately linked to the broader fight for justice in Oaxaca. But Brad's case cannot be thought of or addressed in any way if one tries to extract it from the overarching context of paramilitary and parapolice violence which had preceded Brad's murder for months. At the time Brad was killed on October 27, fifteen people had already been assassinated.

Narco News: In Brad's case, the perpetrators are clearly identifiable. There's photos of them shooting at him and witnesses. Have perpetrators been identified in any of the other cases?

John Gibler: In the case of Jose Jimenez Colmenares who was shot and killed on August 10, 2006, he was shot in the middle of a huge march. There were hundreds of people right there and thousands of people in the march. Immediately after the gunshots rang out and Jimenez fell to the ground, people in the march stormed both of the houses on either side of the road where the shots had come from, and they apprehended several people. Those people were turned over to federal authorities later that night. What's happened to those people? I think all of them have been released for "lack of evidence."

Narco News: But it would've been incredibly easy to run a gunpowder residue test on the suspects' hands to verify if they'd recently fired a gun.

John Gibler: In the Colmenares case, I don't know, because once they were turned over to federal officials at that point in the conflict there was really no dialogue. My several attempts to get information from members of the Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) were all met with absolute silence.

I do know, however, that they were administering those types of tests. In late July, one of the first people to open fire during a protest was apprehended by members of the APPO and turned over to the AFI. In that case, the AFI came down into central Oaxaca. I was present at the university building where they were holding the suspect, the person whom they said had fired a weapon. The suspect told me in an interview that he had not fired a weapon that he didn't know how to fire a handgun. It turned out he was an ex-army soldier and at the time of his detention was a state police officer. He said he'd never been trained to fired a handgun. Sure enough ,when the federal agents arrived they came with two lab technicians who conducted a gunpowder residue test, which showed that he did indeed have traces of gunpowder residue on his hand and had fired a handgun within the previous two hours. [Narco News note: The Federal Attorney General's Office (PGR) released the suspect, Isaias Perez Hernandez, shortly thereafter without charge.]

Narco News: You discuss human rights organizations and how, despite their "truly exhaustive" research and evidence and their own statements of widespread abuse, they don't acknowledge the abuse as endemic and part-and-parcel of governing. You say, "They blindly consider the systematic human rights violations as aberrations rather than defining characteristics of the Mexican state." How does this affect their advocacy and policy recommendations regarding Mexico?

John Gibler: I know this will be a controversial thesis, but I do think that the human rights organizations--especially a lot of the large international human rights organizations that have been following human rights issues in Mexico over the past several decades--have consistently either failed to acknowledge or have failed to act upon the truly political nature of human rights violations. Failing to acknowledge the incredible consistency and pervasiveness of the same types of violations, such as, for example, the practice of torture, is failing to acknowledge the true nature of the state and what's really happening.

Take the case of torture. When a human rights organization publishes year after year after year in their annual human rights report that the majority of police in Mexico still use torture as their principal form of interrogation, and yet they conclude their human rights report with some nod to a recommendation that "police should be trained not to torture" or there should be some sort of reform in the structure of the police forces so that they're held accountable for their actions.

It seems to me that that loses any kind of real integrity because of the persistence of the use of torture over so many years. If you find that year after year after year someone keeps doing the same thing, it's probably because they want to be doing that, because doing that is extremely beneficial to them. And in the case of these human rights violations, the human rights organizations just keep saying year after year, "Don't do that," with no real analysis as to the "why." Why do police in Mexico use torture as their principal interrogation technique year after year?

A couple of these reports even mention in their list of concerns, "Well, it seems as though there might be a lack of political will." That two-word phrase "political will" seems to me to contain the first indication of the true nature of the problem. Not having the political will means you don't want to do something.

In the case of torture, the entire international community, with the exception of the United States and Israel, has come together to declaim this practice as something that is horrid and should be erased from use and implementation across the planet. Yet you have these human rights organizations documenting year after year that everybody still does it, and they never ask why.

Narco News: So what should human rights organizations do in order to be effective in Mexico, since what they're currently doing apparently isn't working?

John Gibler: I don't know if human rights organizations can be effective anymore.

There was a heyday of human rights activism in Mexico in the last years of the PRI in the late 1990s. Back then, throwing incredible amount of energy and resources just at the documentation of the scale and nature of human rights abuses was itself a very powerful thing. Here, the majority of that heavy lifting was conducted by Mexican human rights organizations, national and local.

When President Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000, and soon thereafter one of Mexico's most gutsy and hard-working human rights attorneys, Digna Ochoa[3], was assassinated, those two moments in Mexican history served to blast apart the human rights community in a way that I don't think it's ever recovered from.

In the case of Fox, all the international organizations starting patting each other on the back and saying "Great, now Mexico is a democracy," just by the simple fact that in one year during one election, the ruling party was voted out of office. That is definitely something historic and it inspired many people with the hope of real lasting change in Mexico--hope that was rather quickly squashed[4].

In Digna Ochoa's case, the state actually engaged in the same kind of tried-and-true blame-the-victim smear campaign to make the assassination look like a suicide. Surprisingly--and appallingly--they seemed to sway a significant portion of the human rights community with all of their mud-slinging. The internal divisions that occurred around the Digna Ochoa case tore apart the human rights community in a way that it hasn't recovered from and in a way that would become more devastating years later with the candidacy of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and several the divisions that occurred around that candidacy and around the PRD electoral efforts during the 2006 presidential elections.

The work of documenting human rights abuses can be extremely powerful, especially in the cases of Atenco and Oaxaca in 2006. Local Mexican human rights organizations on the ground risked their own safety to quickly document the nature and the scale of the abuses against people there. Most of the big name international human rights NGOs were nowhere to be seen. Several of them tried to jump into advocacy around these cases once most of the damage had been done and once the conflicts had been beaten down through police repression.

Local human rights organizations went jail to jail in Oaxaca to find out if someone who had just been disappeared was in fact disappeared of if they'd appeared in jail, and if they had appeared, in what condition. They evaluated to see if they had been tortured, applying the Istanbul Protocol[5]. It's really important for social movements to have that sort of documentation.

The human rights political project, on the other hand, utilizes a framework of shaming states into complying with the UN human rights declarations. I think that project has been completely exhausted. The fact that the United States of America could, in the name of human rights, invade and destroy a country, that Mexico, in the name of human rights, could send thousands of riot cops to beat and rape people, shows the true final co-optation or failing of that human rights political project. What that project might've hoped to accomplish now falls back fully into the hands of the grassroots movements themselves.

Narco News: A year ago you and I and other Narco News journalists were in Salon Corona in Mexico City. I remember you mentioned that you watched a documentary with some Mexicans about the 1999 protests that shut down the WTO meeting in Seattle, and when you reached the part where police are brutally beating kneeling protesters who were doing nothing to resist the blows, you and the Mexicans you were watching with exclaimed, "Why don't they fight back?!?" What is it about unconquered Mexicans and their collective history that makes them more likely to defend themselves from attacks perpetrated by authorities? Last year, for example, UNAM high school students occupied their principal's office and the major highway in front of their school for days because a school security guard had broken up an unpermitted chess tournament. That sort of resistance is not likely to happen in the US, but it's commonplace in Mexico.

John Gibler: I think it's because there's this deeply anti-imperialist root to protest in Mexico. Here you're not fighting to slightly reform or recast something; you're fighting to protect your home and your dignity from invasion. From the smallest of fights like university occupations or fights to protect a small community radio station, to very large fights like the Zapatista uprising and fifteen years of the construction of autonomy in Chiapas, and the teachers' rebellion that became a popular rebellion in Oaxaca in 2006, all of these fights share in common this spirit of defense of dignity, land, and autonomy. There's something fundamentally illegitimate about the power weighing down upon you, power that threatens to crush you and dispossess you. The questioning of the legitimacy of the state and authority and actions of repression lends to the intensity and the risky nature of Mexican protest. And when I say risky nature I mean really risking one's life.

Narco News: It seems as though indigenous autonomy movements--the "most radical sites of revolt" as you call them--are in some ways the ideological or spiritual leaders of anti-imperialist struggles in many parts of Mexico. What possibilities do you see for an anti-imperialist movement within the United States that would at the very least include, if not put at the forefront, indigenous autonomy?

John Gibler: There are many very deep pockets of resistance--especially indigenous resistance and autonomy--within the borders of the territory now called the United States that are simply not acknowledged, not noticed, and not considered, much less understood. Those movements have an incredible wealth of dignity and strength to offer an anti-imperialist struggle.

I also think and hope that many of those movements as well as non-indigenous movements stand a lot to learn, benefit, and take inspiration from the stories of indigenous autonomy struggles and resistance in Mexico. Some element of that cross-fertilization is one of the hopes of the book and its political project, which is following through with that commitment to take the stories and the words of the underdgos of Mexican resistance (los de abajo) and help spread them to other communities of resistance and rebellion.

Narco News: You say Mexico Unconquered is part call-to-action for readers. What are you calling upon us to do?

John Gibler: My biggest hope is that it inspires very genuine and deep reflection upon strategies of resistance here in the territory known as the United States and Canada. I personally think many protest tactics we've been using in the north, including marches, non-governmental and non-profit organizational structures, and human rights frameworks, have been proven ineffective and that others need to be explored. I don't think it's my place or really anyone's, to say from an abstract level to a concrete and practical level what should be done. That needs to spring forth from the community of people directly involved in a particular struggle. My hope is to inspire expanding the realm of political imagination, thinking about what could be done, thinking beyond the regions of possibility that we've been presented with and confronted with by the media and the state. I hope the book inspires taking those down and truly stepping out into much broader territories of political imagination.


[1] The Zapatistas launched the Other Campaign in 2005 as an alternative to the political parties' campaigns for the presidency. Gibler writes in his book: "The Zapatistas announced: 'A new step forward in the indigenous struggle is only possible if the indigenous join together with the workers, campesinos, students, teachers, employees: the workers of the city and the countryside'....The EZLN's Other Campaign calls for building an anticapitalist movement outside the traditional political party structures that are inseparably wed to the state precisely for this reason: the new politics must be built from outside--as they say, 'from below and from the left.'"

[2] The assassinated Triquis' names are: Andrés Santiago Cruz, 70-year-old Pedro Martínez Martínez, de 70 años, and 11- or 12-year-old, Pablo Octavio Martínez Martínez.

[3] Prior to her death, Digna Ochoa had been kidnapped and tortured on two separate ocassions as a result of her political activities and human rights work. She said the first kidnapping and torture was carried out by Veracruz state police officers. The second abduction resulted in a court protection order for her. The protection order was lifted in August 2001. She died on October 19, 2001 of a gunshot to the head. There were signs of struggle, and a note was found next to her body that warned the human rights organization where she worked that the same could happen to its other employees. The Mexican government attempted to defame her in order to promote its conclusion that she had committed suicide. During the investigation, government officials painted her as psychotic.

[4] Felipe Calderon, the candidate from Fox's conservative Catholic National Action Party, "won" the 2006 presidential elections thanks to wide-spread and thoroughly documented electoral fraud.

[5] Physicians for Human Rights defines the Istanbul Protocol: "The Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (known as the "Istanbul Protocol") is the first set of international guidelines for documentation of torture and its consequences. It became a United Nations official document in 1999 and is available in a number of languages on the United Nations web site. The Istanbul Protocol provides a set of guidelines for the assessment of persons who allege torture and ill treatment, for investigating cases of alleged torture, and for reporting such findings to the judiciary and any other investigative body."

For a review of Mexico Unconquered, click here.

From Narco News:

Conquering Inevitability: A Review of John Gibler's Mexico Unconquered

A little over a year ago in Mexico City, John Gibler and I were having drinks and talking about work with a handful of other journalists. John told us that he'd recently watched a documentary about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle with Mexican activists. He said that during the scenes where police beat protesters who offered no resistance, he and the Mexicans exclaimed, "Why don't they fight back?!"

In the United States, where grabbing the billy club that a police office is using to beat you is almost universally considered to be "assaulting an officer" (a felony crime) rather than "self-defense," it probably did not occur to most people who watched that documentary that fighting back was even a possibility.

In Mexico, fighting back is a daily reality.

Many US ex-pats living in Mexico have spent long hours pondering the same question both amongst ourselves and with Mexican friends and colleagues: Why aren't Mexican activists afraid to defend themselves?

Gibler has finally figured out the answer in his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt. Gibler weaves Mexican history, current events, theory, and analysis to support his thesis that Mexico was never fully conquered, and that Mexican people have been in a more or less constant state of rebellion against this conquest since the first foreigners washed up on their shores hundreds of years ago. The perpetual rebellion against the state (be it the Spanish colonial state, the Mexican state in the era of Independence, or the contemporary post-revolution state) has kept the Mexican government from achieving a measure of legitimacy amongst its citizens that the US government has enjoyed even in its most unpopular moments.

Gibler begins the book with a crash-course in the history of conquest and revolt in Mexico, starting with indigenous empires' conquest of each other and how their wars affected their ability to defend themselves against the Spanish conquistadores. He discusses the Catholic Church’s role in the conquest, which can be a somewhat touchy subject in a majority Catholic country where most of the respected local human rights organizations that fight against government abuses are named after priests and saints. Gibler traces the Mexican government's notorious impunity to relations with the Spanish government during the colonial era--that is, about 370 years before the current-day Mexican government and its political structure were even born, and 270 years before Mexico first declared its independence from Spain.

In his analysis of how the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) built its seventy-year stranglehold on the Mexican government, Gibler identifies the Mexican center-left's sacred cow, former president Lazaro Cardenas, as key in the consolidation of the PRI's power in its early years. Gibler explains how Cardenas, celebrated for his labor and land reforms, actually used these "progressive" policies to divide workers and peasants and bring them under government control.

GIbler also tackles the "rule of law" in Mexico, which, thanks to its never-ending drug war and its notorious human rights record, is often the subject of op-eds, human rights reports, and foreign aid packages. The "rule of law" in Mexico, he notes, is not legal guarantees and equality before the law; "rule of law" is authority. It's why drug traffickers seem to run certain parts of the government, while the government rapes and kills people in San Salvador Atenco for protesting the government's failure to honor an on-record agreement it made with local flower vendors: they have the authority to do so.

The rest of Mexico Unconquered is a testament to Gibler's intrepid reporting over the past two years. As Mexican author and journalist Gloria Muñoz Ramirez writes in the book's foreword, "John Gibler is omnipresent." From the poorest indigenous community in the country, to the most horrific police operation in recent history, to the uprising in Oaxaca, to armed guerrillas in Guerrero, Gibler's been there. He's interviewed activists in barricades, migrants on the border, political prisoners in prison, paramilitaries in activist custody, children in elementary schools, and government officials in the seat of power. Those who have followed his dispatches from all over Mexico will not be disappointed in Mexico Unconquered.

The book gives Gibler the space he needs to analyze and elaborate upon the context of the news we've followed in his reports from Mexico. Rather than just reporting that a Chiapas indigenous community is desperately poor, Gibler places it within the context of the "biological class war" that is waged upon indigenous communities all over the country, making them severely over-represented amongst the nation's poorest citizens.

Mexico Unconquered’s chapter on the 2006 conflict in Oaxaca thoroughly explains the violent campaign of government repression that left over twenty people dead. While the murder of US Indymedia journalist Brad Will captured international headlines, Gibler devotes just as much attention to other murders that occurred at that time. While the murderers in those cases are often as easily identifiable as in the Will case, the government is not investigating them (death squads led by uniformed police in marked cars killed at least one person, which might explain the lack of investigation), and there is no international outcry.

Gibler employs Slavoj Zizek’s concept of the “Included” and the “Excluded” to provide a refreshing and inspiring take on the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, a subject that has up until now lacked a rigorous analysis in English-speaking media.

Activist Reference Book

Mexico Unconquered
is painstakingly footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and an index--all crucial factors for an amazing book to be a constant reference in any activist's library. Gibler doesn't try to pass off others' ideas as his own. On the contrary, when relying on other theorists, historians, or analysts to make a point or pain a picture, Gibler is careful to cite them in the text, footnotes, and bibliography. This makes his book a jumping-off point for further exploration and more in-depth investigation and analysis.

Gibler’s intentional choice of vocabulary is present throughout the book and lends his analysis depth and credibility. He carefully defines terms such as "imperialism," "oppression," "colonialism," and "exploitation" and explains why he chose one word over another similar word that's often carelessly thrown around on the left. Gibler also calls into question the commonly held beliefs surrounding words like “poverty” and “corruption.” These words are frequently used to discuss the political situation in Mexico, but more often than not they serve to hide the reality of domination and other systemic ills.

Call to Action

While Gibler doesn’t present a plan for action (“I don't think it's anyone’s place to say from an abstract level to a concrete and practical level what should be done,” Gibler says), his book is a call to action. Mexican social movements amazed and inspired us through Gibler’s articles; now we can better understand their context and history and the spirit of rebellion that drives them. Gibler leads off Mexico Unconquered with the following quote from Barrington Moore Jr:

“People are evidently inclined to grant legitimacy to anything that is or seems inevitable no matter how painful it may be. Otherwise the pain might be intolerable. The conquest in this sense of inevitability is essential to the development of politically effective moral outrage. For this to happen, people must perceive and define their situation as the consequence of human injustice: a situation they need not, cannot, and ought not endure.”

Mexican activists have conquered this sense of inevitability; many of them, particularly indigenous communities in resistance, never accepted it in the first place. Hopefully Gibler’s stories of Mexico’s underdogs, los de abajo, will inspire activists in other parts of the world to conquer our feelings of inevitability about our own situations and finally stand up and defend what’s ours.

Narco News recently talked to John Gibler about his new book, Mexico Unconquered. Read the interview here. Gibler is currently on a West Coast book tour. Catch him at the following events:

Sunday, February 1st, 3:00 pm
Seaside, CA: Peace Center

The Seaside Peace Center presents speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
1364 Fremont Blvd.
Seaside, CA
For more info contact Global Exchange at 415.255.7296

Tuesday, February 3rd, 12:00 pm
Davis, CA: University of California at Davis

John Gibler, journalist, activist, and author of the recently published Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power & Revolt will speak for a discussion of the process of researching, writing, and publishing his book, considering issues of positionality and political engagement. A second event with Gibler will be held the same day. This event will feature a presentation by the author of photos and video clips related to the book.
5214 Social Science & Humanities Building
Hemispheric Institute on the Americas

Larger public event with photos and film clips: 7:30pm
226 Wellman Hall
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
For more info, contact Magalí Rabasa:

Wednesday, February 4th, 5:30 pm
Arcata, CA: Northtown Books

Northtown Books presents Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
Northtown Books
957 H Street
Arcata, California
For more info, contact 707.822.2834 or e-mail

Friday, February 6th, 7:30 pm
Portland, OR: Powell's

Powell's Books presents Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
1005 W. Burnside
(800) 878-7323
For more info, contact Michal Drannen
Regional Marketing & Publicity Manager

Saturday, February 7th, Noon-4:00 pm
Portland, OR: Liberty Hall

Liberty hall is please to welcome Speaker John Gibler, author of Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt, for a presentation and media strategy session.
Liberty Hall is at 311 N. Ivy St.
( 1 block south of Fremont, 2 blocks west of Vancouver Ave)
Portland, OR
503 249 8888
For more infor, contact Global Exchange 415.255.7296

Tuesday, February 10th, 6:00 pm
Eugene, OR: University of Oregon

University of Oregon presents Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt, with Prof Lynn Stephen (sponsored by MEChA).
175 Knight Law Library
For more info, contact Global Exchange 415.255.7296

Tuesday, February 10th, 12:00 pm
Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University

Oregon State University Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
For more info, contact Global Exchange 415.255.7296

Wednesday, February 11th, 7:00 pm
Olympia, WA: Traditions Café

Author John Gibler of Mexico Unconquered, Chronicles of Power and Revolt will appear. It is an evocative report on the epic powers of violence and corruption in Mexico and the underdogs and rebels who put their lives on the line to build justice from the ground up.
Traditions Café and World Folk Art
300 5th Avenue SW, Olympia, WA 98501
For more info, contact Dick Meyer

Wednesday, February 18th, 7:00 pm
Bellingham, WA: Village Books

Village Books presents Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
1200 Eleventh Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
Tel: (360) 671-2626
For more info, contact Nan Macy

Thursday, February 19th, 7:30 pm
Seattle, WA: Central Cinema

Join us for an evening of music, film, photos and discussion! Journalist and activist John Gibler will give a short talk about his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
1411 21st Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122
For more information, call 206.405.4600 or email

Saturday, February 28th, 7:00 pm
Los Angeles: Eastside Café

Eastside Cafe presents Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
5469 Huntington Drive
El Sereno, CA 90032
For more info, contact Global Exchange 415.255.7296

Wednesday, March 4th, 7:00 pm
Tempe, AZ: Changing Hands

Changing Hands Bookstore presents Speaker John Gibler to discuss his new book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
6428 S McClintock Dr
Tempe, AZ 85283
For more info, contact Pinna Joseph

Thursday, March 5th, 6:00 pm
Las Cruces, NM: Center for Latin American and Border Studies

John Gibler is an independent journalist who has been covering national and regional politics in Mexico since 2006. His writing and photographs have appeared in many publications, including New Politics, Yes! Magazine, Z Magazine, In These Times, Left Turn, Terrain Magazine, ColorLines, and Race, Poverty and the Environment. His reports have been broadcast on many Pacifica Radio programs, including Democracy Now!
Nason House
1200 University Ave, directly across from Kinko's
Las Cruces, NM
More information, contact Megan Shannon, 646-6814

Review from Narco News: