Friday, November 6, 2009

Chiapas Government Tries to Pin Narco Arsenal on Peasant Leader

Conflicting Press Releases Cast Doubt on Government Claims

This past October 16, the Mexican Federal Police transferred Chiapan peasant leader Jose Manuel “Don Chema” Hernandez Martinez to a maximum-security federal prison located in Nayarit, 26 hours from his home. Don Chema is a leader of the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization (OCEZ). The government claims that it transferred him “for his own safety.”

On October 9, the government claims to have uncovered a massive weapons stockpile—reportedly the largest weapons seizure in the history of Chiapas, and the biggest weapons seizure in the entire country so far this year. The Chiapas state government says in a press release that “according to statements made by the men detained in this operation, the arsenal would be linked to José Manuel Hernández Martínez.”

The press release, dated October 18, is meant to justify Don Chema’s transfer to a maximum-security federal prison “for his own protection.” The press release continues: “It was detected that people, members of the organization in which Jose Manuel Martinez participates, wanted to cause him physical harm so that he wouldn’t testify to the authorities about this arsenal.” Don Chema’s family was unaware of these threats; they protested his transfer as a government move to isolate him from his family, lawyer, and political support base.

On October 12, the Chiapas government issued a press release regarding the arms seizure. The press release explains how the government arrested three men who then led them to the weapons. The three men are: Juan Rocha Flores from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and Joel Díaz González and Silverio Osorio López from Huimanguillo, Tabasco. According to the press release, all of the men say they belong to a “criminal organization in the region;” one of the men “said he belongs to an organization called OCEZ or OPEZ that uses ‘social struggle’ as a front.” The press release does not specifically mention Don Chema; the press release mentioned above that justified Don Chema’s transfer to Nayarit makes the explicit link between the weapons stockpile and Don Chema.

On October 13, the Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) issued a press release stating that the Chiapan government had transferred the three men to the federal government’s custody for detention, processing, and prosecution. The PGR press release states that the three men admitted to being hitmen and “halcones” (elite fighters) for Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel’s private army that occasionally also works with the Beltran Leyva drug trafficking organization. The PGR press release does not mention the OCEZ nor the OPEZ nor Don Chema. Likewise, the previously issued Chiapas state government press releases to not mention Los Zetas.

Contradictions Outweigh Consistencies

The three press releases (two from the Chiapan government and one from the PGR) include a number of inconsistencies that cast a shadow of doubt over their claims, particularly the so-called evidence that incriminates Don Chema and the OCEZ.

The press releases’ inconsistencies begin with the moment the men are detained. The PGR press release reports that Chiapan State Preventive Police (PEP) stopped the men at a checkpoint. According to the PGR, the men tried to evade the checkpoint. The Chiapan press release states that the men were stopped for a routine inspection (which could be the checkpoint the PGR mentions, but the wording is too vague to be sure) on the highway that connects the cities of Frontera Comalapa and Comitan. Here’s the problem: the Frontera Comalapa-Comitan highway is a federal highway. State police don’t have jurisdiction on federal highways; only federal police and soldiers do. State police can’t make arrests on federal highways unless they’re taking part in a joint federal-state operation (none of the three press releases alludes to a joint operation on that highway at the time). And State police certainly can’t set up checkpoints on federal highways. So why do the government press releases say that state police stopped the men at a checkpoint on a federal highway?

The press releases also give conflicting reasons for why the men were arrested. The Chiapas press release states: “During a routine inspection carried out while they traveled along the highway that runs from Frontera Compalapa to Comitan de Dominguez in a gray Chrysler Ram double-cab pick-up truck, the men responded in a nervous manner and tried to bribe the police officers.” The PGR press release states that the men tried to avoid the highway checkpoint all together.

Even more interestingly, none of the press releases claim that the men had any contraband on them at all at the time of their detention. So aside from the attempted bribe that may or may not have actually occurred, it seems as though the arresting police officers had no evidence against the men. This begs the question: why would the men have tried to bribe the police officers if they had no contraband in their vehicle?

The Organizations

One of the most striking contradictions in the three press releases is the very information that directly incriminates Don Chema and the OCEZ: the three detained men’s testimony regarding who they work for. The Chiapas press release states that the three suspects told police that they are members of the “OCEZ or OPEZ.” It’s odd that the detained men aren’t exactly sure which organization they belong to. What’s even more odd are the two organizations they say they might belong to: the Emiliano Zapata Proletarian Organization (OPEZ) split off from the OCEZ years ago, and the two organizations and their members don’t get along at all. Overlapping membership in the two organizations is highly unlikely.

The men’s OCEZ membership is even more questionable when one considers where the men are from. According to the Chiapas government, the men hail from Tabasco and Tamaulipas, not Chiapas. The complete name of Don Chema’s OCEZ is the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization - Carranza Region (OCEZ-RC). “Carranza Region” was added to the name in order to distinguish it from other Chiapan organizations that also call themselves OCEZ. “Carranza Region” refers to the Chiapan county in which the organization is located. In other words, not only does the name “OCEZ” refer to Chiapan organizations, Don Chema’s OCEZ-RC is an organization that exists in a particular Chiapan county. It is unlikely that the OCEZ-RC has Tabascan members, and it is even more unlikely that the OCEZ-RC has members from Tamaulipas, which is located at the other end of the country. Members of Don Chema’s OCEZ are from communities in Carranza county, Chiapas.

Two of the three men also reportedly told police that they spent one month in Guatemala receiving kaibil training. Kaibiles are elite Guatemalan soldiers, holdovers from the dirty war there. They have a reputation for being inhuman monsters; their training reportedly includes biting off the heads of live chickens. Kaibiles have a history of repressing insurgent peasant organizations, not training them. The Mexican government claims that many kaibiles have now allied themselves with Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and train DTO hitmen and private armies.

According to the government, the two men testified that the San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, diocese put them in contact with the kaibiles. Since Don Samuel Ruiz, an indigenous rights supporter and president of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), was bishop of the San Cristobal diocese during the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the diocese has been very oriented towards liberation theology. As such, both Frayba and the San Cristobal diocese have been frequent targets of government harassment and smear campaigns. Furthermore, during the Guatemalan dirty wars, the kaibiles and other Guatemalan security forces were known for repressing and killing liberation theologists and catechists, not training them.

But why would the three men incriminate local peasant and religious organizations, some of which they don’t seem to even be vaguely familiar with? The answer could lie in Mexico’s protected witness program: Mexican officials offer detained suspects “protected witness status” which would result in their charges being reduced or dropped if they agree to testify against more important targets, in this case, that could be Don Chema, the OCEZ, and the San Cristobal diocese. This could have been the case with these three men: in a highly unusual move, the Chiapan government press release regarding the men’s arrest and their alleged arsenal only includes pictures of the weapons; the three detainees’ pictures are not included in the press release. The government generally prefers to parade detainees around in front of their alleged arsenals for the press. With this arms seizure being the largest in Chiapan history and the largest in the country this year to date, one would think the government would want to give the press a picture of the men who allegedly lead them to the historic stockpile.

In contrast to the Chiapan government press release, the PGR press release regarding the same men and the same arsenal says that the three men admitted to being Zetas. Oddly, the PGR press release does not mention anything about any “criminal organization that uses ‘social struggle’ as a front,” nor the OCEZ, nor the OPEZ. However, the PGR press release does state that the men testified to the Chiapas State Special Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime that they worked as hitmen and halcones for Los Zetas. If the PGR is to be believed, this seems like important information that the Chiapan government should have taken credit for in its own press release. So why did the Chiapan government neglect this important piece of information, and choose to instead focus on linking the OCEZ and Don Chema to the historic arsenal seizure?

The Arsenal

According to the Chiapas government, during questioning the detained men tipped off authorities to the location of a safe house where arms were stored. There, the Chiapas government found the largest weapons stockpile in Chiapan history. However, the arsenal itself raises questions about the veracity of the government’s claims.

The Chiapas government reports no arrests in the ranch where the arms stockpile was discovered—it found weapons and animals there, but no people. In other words, the Chiapas government wants us to believe that the largest arms cache in Chiapan history was left unguarded.

The arsenal was discovered in Frontera Comalapa, which is located about five hours from Carranza county, where the OCEZ-RC is based. It is imaginable that major drug trafficking organizations, which due to their immense financial resources are arguably better armed than the Mexican government itself, would have an excess weapons stockpile of this size stashed away in a house. However, a poor peasant organization whose members live in tiny cinderblock houses is not likely to hide a weapons arsenal of this size so far from its base of operations—after all, the weapons are useless if they are located a five-hour drive away from home. Furthermore, guns require routine cleaning and maintenance: this is something an insurgent peasant organization could do if their weapons were dispersed and hidden amongst their members, but regular weapon maintenance would be much more difficult if all or most of their weapons were stored in an abandoned ranch five hours from their community.

Peasant organizations are, by definition, too poor to have an excess of armament that they would store hours away from their home base. Case in point: during the Zapatista uprising in 1994, many indigenous members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were armed with sticks instead of guns. This is because many indigenous peasants, the poorest of Mexico’s poor, couldn’t afford to buy a gun, even if it meant the difference between life and death. For example, in the below video of the 1994 uprising, at 1:28, 2:09, and 2:32 minutes one can see EZLN soldiers who are armed with sticks or who are completely unarmed. Those who are armed carry obsolete weapons. On EZLN soldier can be seen holding a tear gas launcher as his only weapon.

The typical peasant army arsenal is a far cry from the stockpile allegedly found at the Frontera Comalapa ranch. In addition to 306 mortar rounds, 22 rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and eight landmines, Chiapan police allegedly found nine vehicles and two racing horses. Peasants whose leaders live in two-bedroom cinderblock houses (as is Don Chema’s case) would keep their vehicles close to home for daily use rather than leaving a fleet of them parked at an abandoned ranch. Likewise, most peasants don’t own expensive racing horses; they own beasts of burden.

The Chiapas government also reports that it recovered a jewel-encrusted pistol from the ranch. While it doesn’t show said pistol in the photos it released to the press, a different pistol with what appears to be a gold-and-ivory handle is visible. Jewel- and gold-encrusted pistols are not available off-the-shelf. They must be special ordered and are very expensive. The style is popular amongst rich, high-ranking drug traffickers, which led to jewel- and gold-encrusted pistols being nicknamed “narco-bling.” This historic Chiapas arms seizure is the first time the government has attempted to convince the public that poor peasant guerrilla organizations also possess “narco-bling.” The presence of narco-bling calls the veracity of the government’s claims into question because, again, unlike drug trafficking organizations, insurgent peasant organizations struggle just to arm all of their members with any weapon at all. If by some stroke of luck a peasant guerrilla organization were to obtain a jewel- or gold-encrusted pistol (for example, in a confrontation with drug traffickers), they’d be more likely to strip the weapon of its jewels and gold and sell them in order to purchase more weapons.

Likewise, police report that one of the vehicles recovered at the ranch was armored. Drug traffickers are frequently seen traveling in armored vehicles; peasants rarely have enough money for cheap cars, let alone an armored vehicle.

Police also report that they recovered a trailer at the ranch in Frontera Comalapa. The OCEZ community of 28 de Junio, where Don Chema lives, is located 3 km from the nearest paved road. What would they do with a trailer? It would tip over if they tried to bring it to their community.

Even though police say they recovered mortars and RPGs from the ranch, no grenade launchers appear in the government photos nor in the government’s list of recovered arms. Who owns RPGs and mortars but no weapons with which to shoot them?

Furthermore, the Chiapas government’s photos of the arsenal include eight CB radios. Three of the radios appear to be brand-new; they still have plastic film over their screens. All of the cables that appear with the radios are brand-new: some appear in their original factory zip-ties, while others lack the dirt and grime that would appear on a radio that was installed in a vehicle. Much of Carranza county doesn’t have cell phone reception. Rather than leaving brand-new CB radios stored in an abandoned ranch five hours from home, wouldn’t OCEZ members use them for day-to-day communications?

The Location

The arsenal’s location also raises questions about the Chiapan government’s claim that the weapons belong to the OCEZ. Frontera Comalapa, as previously mentioned, lies about five hours from Carranza county, where Don Chema’s OCEZ faction is based.

Frontera Comalapa is not known for insurgent activity. This arms bust, if it is to be believed, would be the first time the Mexican government has publicly stated that it has detected insurgent activity in the area. However, this is not the first arms bust in Frontera Comalapa.

Frontera Comalapa, as its name suggests, is located along the Chiapas-Guatemala border. This border region is the primary land route for drug traffickers wishing to bring drugs into Mexico. This area is reportedly dominated by Los Zetas.

The Mexican government and press have repeatedly reported Zetas and drug trafficking activity in Frontera Comalapa and the surrounding area.

On October 15, just three days after the Chiapan government issued its press release attributing the arsenal to the OCEZ, the Mexican military seized 40.66 kilos of cocaine in Fronteral Comalapa.

This past July, the Chiapas government reported that alleged Zetas attacked state police with firearms and grenades in Frontera Comalapa in retaliation for the apprehension of a Zetas leader in Chiapas.

And just last year, the Chiapas government reported that it seized another historic arsenal in Frontera Comalapa. This arsenal contained the most grenades seized at one time. The Chiapas state government attributed that arsenal to organized crime, not local insurgents.

Weak Accusations Lead to Useful Results

Frontera Comalapa is drug trafficking territory, not insurgent territory. The arsenal contains items that a peasant guerrilla army would most likely not own or would not stockpile. The massive arsenal and two racing horses (which require food and water) were left unguarded. The federal and state governments cannot agree on the circumstances of the men’s arrest, nor their alleged organizational affiliations. The PGR, which is responsible for prosecuting the men, claims the detainees are Zetas, not insurgents. Something stinks.

But why would the Chiapas state government go to such lengths to link Don Chema and the OCEZ to this arsenal if its story contains so many holes and inconsistencies?

The Chiapan government has unleashed an unprecedented campaign of legal repression against the OCEZ, and as flimsy as the accusations might be, they serve their purpose. The arsenal provided the government with justification to transfer Don Chema, a state prisoner and the OCEZ’s principal leader, to a federal maximum-security prison located at the other end of the country. And just this morning, unidentified police officers broke into the homes of Rocelio de la Cruz Gonzáles and José Manuel de la Torre Hernández, two other OCEZ leaders, and kidnapped those two men. Because the police officers did not present an arrest warrant when they carried off the men, it is unknown what how the government will charge them.

One thing is certain: with the year 2010—the centennial and bicentennial of two Mexican revolutions—just around the corner, the Mexican government is just getting started with its pre-emptive strikes against the opposition.


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