Mexican bombings recall 'dirty war' of decades ago

A student holds signs next to the prison of Ixcotel demanding the freedom of political prisoners. The EPR guerrilla is demanding the Calderon government to release two top leaders, disappeared since May 25, 2007 from a Oaxaca hotel.
A student holds signs next to the prison of Ixcotel demanding the freedom of political prisoners. The EPR guerrilla is demanding the Calderon government to release two top leaders, disappeared since May 25, 2007 from a Oaxaca hotel. Heriberto Rodriguez / MCT

OAXACA, Mexico — The first time Gabriel Cruz Sanchez vanished, Mexican police ransacked the suspected guerrilla leader’s house and threatened to kill his entire family unless they coughed up clues about his activities and whereabouts, a sister recalled.

That was more than 30 years ago.

When Cruz Sanchez disappeared a second time, in May of this year, all hell broke loose: Pipelines got bombed, Fortune 500 companies were shut down and the federal government was forced to acknowledge embarrassing intelligence failures.

Cruz Sanchez and another missing man, Edmundo Reyes, still are nowhere to be found, but their Marxist guerrilla group — known by its Spanish initials as the EPR — promises more attacks until they’re returned alive. In the meantime, their disappearance has revived talk of human rights abuses, government kidnappings and torture, all of which were prevalent in Mexico in the late 1960s and 1970s.

No two periods in history are identical, and Mexico has come a long way economically and politically since those days of unchallenged one-party rule and widespread police brutality. But 39 years after the Oct. 2 massacre at Tlatelolco Square, when government troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico is awash in the echoes of past conflict.

“People are still disappearing,’’ said Rosario Ibarra, a senator and liberal political activist whose son disappeared in 1974. “It is very similar, almost identical, to what we experienced under the worst regimes.”

The EPR — the People’s Revolutionary Army, in English — insists authorities secretly “disappeared” both men and are holding them in Mexico City’s notorious Campo Militar No. 1 (Military Camp No. 1). That’s where scores of student leaders and leftist insurgents were believed to have been interrogated and tortured, to death in some cases, during Mexico’s old “dirty war” against political dissidents.

A government report in 2006 on that “dirty war” found that during the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican authorities used "massacres, forced disappearance, systematic torture, and genocide" against dissidents. As many as 300 people were gunned down in the 1968 Tlaltelolco Square massacre alone, human rights organizations say, though the official toll remains 25.

The current government of President Felipe Calderon, who’s impressed the Bush administration with its muscular war on drug traffickers, denies any role in or knowledge of the disappearances. Calderon's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, also rejected any talk of a new dirty war, though he acknowledged that the EPR is “a severe worry” for the government.

“Obviously, the task of combating (the EPR) won’t be like that,’’ Medina Mora said. “It will have to be a task based in a legal framework, with complete respect for human and civil rights.’’

Relatives of the two missing men aren’t so sure.

Nadin Reyes, whose father disappeared along with Cruz Sanchez, is convinced that her father and Cruz Sanchez were seen and tortured at Campo Militar No. 1, even though human rights investigators couldn’t confirm that on a brief visit there.

“It’s a place that’s known for a series of atrocities,’’ Reyes said. “I have a hard time believing they’re not in that camp.’’

A kindergarten teacher, Reyes, 25, said she and her family had no knowledge of her father’s apparent rebel ties. She described her father as a respected, hard-working owner of a convenience store on the outskirts of Mexico City. She last saw him on May 22, when he said he was going to visit his parents in his native Oaxaca.

“This situation of supposed militancy, well, it’s taken us all by surprise,’’ she said. “This is something he’ll have to explain when he reappears.’’

Margarita Cruz Sanchez said she wasn’t aware at first that her brother Gabriel was missing. She hadn’t seen him since he left home in the mid-1970s.

But the news coverage of the recent bombings and demands for her brother’s release have brought back painful memories.

Years ago, after Gabriel left home without a trace, police came and took all of his belongings and threatened to kill his family if they didn’t provide information, Margarita Cruz Sanchez recalled.

“Imagine being a kid and they put a pistol against your head and say, ‘Where’s your brother?’ ’’ she said.

Three decades later, she said, the police used similar tactics, threatening to torture another brother — a veteran bank employee in Oaxaca — unless he gave them something useful.

Gabriel Cruz Sanchez isn't just any guerrilla. His brother is Tiburcio Cruz Sanchez, nicknamed “the professor” and widely known as the EPR’s “maximo leader.’’

The ferocity and effectiveness of the group’s bombings in July and September have caught authorities off guard. Mexico hasn’t had a serious gun-toting left since famed revolutionary Lucio Cabanas, a Che Guevara-esque figure, was killed in a shootout with police in 1974.

But the Cruz Sanchez brothers, on the lam for three decades, apparently picked up where Cabanas left off. Since 2001, EPR adherents claim to have bombed banks and other targets in the name of Marxist revolution and an end to Mexico’s “oligarchy.’’

The recent pipeline attacks, which were coordinated to explode simultaneously with timing devices, show an unexpected sophistication.

It’s all eerily familiar to Clemente Avila Godoy, an ex-guerrilla leader who spent four and half years in jail for conspiracy to incite rebellion and other charges. He can still describe his tortures in detail — electrical wires attached to his genitals and tongue, a simulated execution before a firing squad and head-below-water games, among others.

A founding member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, Avila said the same grinding poverty and corruption that nourished his anger decades ago are what’s fueling the current crop of guerrillas. But Avila, a doctor and now chief of police in the upscale Coyoacan district of Mexico City, renounced violence and kidnapping when he was freed from prison in 1976.

“We are proposing the same thing: social transformation,’’ he said. “But confronting the state with violent, armed struggle inflicts a high social cost. Our road may be longer, but the cost is lower. And after all of the death that we saw during the guerrilla movement, we believe violence is not the right path.’’

Then, like now, personal score-settling and family ties seem to have as much to do with the attacks as anything else. One of Avila’s first goals when he took up arms in 1971 was to free his brother, accused of inciting his own rebellions, from jail in Sonora.

The EPR has notoriously tight blood ties. Besides his missing brother, leader Tiburcio Cruz Sanchez is married to Emiliana Contreras, considered a guerrilla leader in her own right, and other EPR members are said to have family bonds.

News stories and EPR communiques suggest that state authorities, after receiving a tip about the presence of armed men at a Oaxaca hotel, fell upon the two EPR members by chance on May 25. They haven’t been seen since.

“Alive you took them,’’ the EPR wrote in a message investigators found after the Sept. 10 bombing in Veracruz. “Alive we want them back.’’

(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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