U.S. military moves into Mexico
by S. Brian Willson
Earth Island Journal, Spring 1998
CHIAPAS, MEXICO-On February 9, 1995, while traveling south
on mountainous Highway 173, we encountered a heavily supplied
Mexican military convoy, carrying hundreds of armed soldiers.
The convoy was moving towards Simojovel, the highland village
we had just left. I learned later that we had seen the beginning
of a major military offensive that ravaged many communities.
Returning to Mexico in December 1995,1 traveled through 18
of Mexico's 31 states, visiting more than 30 indigenous communities
in the "conflict zone" where the Zapatistas and the
Mexican army maintained a tense truce.
The stories that people told me were crushing. My heart ached
as it had in war-ravaged Vietnam. Mexico's US-supplied troops
were operating as a terrorist force. Police and paramilitary units
were involved as well.
The army's strategy was simple and cruel. Soldiers would enter
a Zapatista community and drive the people into the mountains
with just the clothes on their backs. Soldiers would burn buildings,
destroy crops, damage water supplies, then leave.
This style of warfare is sickeningly familiar to this Vietnam
veteran. It is a US export called "low intensity" warfare.
It has been taught at the US Army's School of the Americas in
Ft. Benning, Georgia for many years.
The Mexican army occupation of eastern Chiapas in February
1995 sent more than 25,000 indigenous people fleeing to the mountains
for safety. The people who still remain in the villages are subjected
to an oppressive military presence. The army is everywhere: Convoys
rumble through villages, soldiers point machine guns at children
and their mothers; military helicopters fly low over villages-
sometimes with machine guns visible through the open doors.
These villages have no cars, little food, minimal health resources,
inadequate educational services and few material possessions.
It is tragic that this costly military presence is being used
to preserve such deep poverty.
There are approximately 40 military camps in Chiapas housing
25,000 soldiers, with another 40,000 troops also in the area.
About 80 percent of the Zapatista communities in the conflict
zone are monitored by military camps The army has also nearly
completed construction of paved highways that encircle and bisect
Reign of Terror
The military occupies most of the Lacandon jungle in eastern
Chiapas Human rights and religious workers report that the army
and police units seemingly encourage arbitrary detentions, intimidation,
harassment, theft, violence and even murder of villagers by right-wing
In July 1996, an Organization of American States human rights
delegation visited the states of Guerrero and Chiapas and found
an extensive pattern of abuses that included torture, murders
and systematic harassment of human rights monitors by both police
and the Mexican military. The opposition PRD party claims that
more than 400 of its activists have been murdered since 1988.
Military and police have coordinated attacks against campesinos
protesting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)-induced
low price of corn in the municipality of Venustiano Carranzas.
Three campesinos were killed. It is believed that US-built helicopters
were used in the suppression of this nonviolent demonstration.
Paramilitary squads also routinely attack any indigenous people
who attempt to establish alternative economic weaving or growing
cooperatives in Chiapas.
A number of Mayan women's weaving cooperatives have been destroyed
by state police and goon squads. Sewing machines, looms, woven
articles, yarn, typewriters and cash have
been stolen or destroyed. Kidnappings, tortures and murders
have also occurred, terrorizing anyone who dares to promote any
kind of local economic self-sufficiency.
The US Militarization of Mexico
Mexico has a history of resisting US military aid. But from
1982-1990, Mexico received more military aid from the US than
in the previous 30 years. Why is the US now involved in helping
the Mexican government chase its own citizens around the jungles
An infamous Chase Bank memo, dated January 13, 1995, warned
Mexican officials that "the government will need to eliminate
the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national
territory and security policy." The memo made it clear that
the real object of US military and economic aid to Mexico was
to maintain political stability (no matter the severity of the
methods or the threat to Mexico's sovereignty) so that investor
confidence could be guaranteed.
On February 9, 1995 - within weeks of the Chase Bank memo-
Mexico's military launched a surprise offensive into the Zapatista
region, breaking a year-long truce. The army has occupied the
territory since then.
A June 1996 US Government Accounting Office report disclosed
that US helicopters were used to transport Mexican troops to the
site of a peasant uprising in violation of the transfer agreement.
Many campesinos were killed during those operations.
In 1996, the Mexican government acknowledged for the first
time that it was allowing US security agencies to fly over Mexican
territory. Zapatista commanders say they have seen men wearing
US military insignia working with the Mexican military and paramilitary
Unmasking the Drug War
An October 1989 US State Department Bulletin identified Mexico
as the primary entry point for drugs coming into the US and the
second most important source of petroleum, strontium and fluorspar
(from which fluorine compounds are produced).
The war on drugs is simply a convenient cover, a time-worn
excuse to mount counterinsurgency operations. As Col. Warren D.
Hall, Staff Judge Advocate to Gen. Barry McCaffrey when McCaffrey
was SOUTHCOM Commander, admitted in an internal memo: "It
is unrealistic to expect the military to limit use of the equipment
to operations against narcotraffickers.... The light infantry
skills US Special Operations forces teach during counter-drug
deployments... can be used [in]... counter-insurgency as well."
The arrest of Mexico's drug czar, General Jesus Gutierrez
Rebollo, exposes how Mexico's drug cartels have penetrated the
highest ranks of Mexico's anti-narcotics and political institutions.
The extent of corruption is understandable: Drugs funnel as much
as $30 billion/year into Mexico's economy.
The drug trade is facilitated by wealthy Mexican families
located in central (Morelos, Jalisco) and northern (Sonora, Sinaloa,
Durango, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas) states and the northern border
cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.
These states lie far north of the areas of active indigenous
insurgencies. Nonetheless, Harold Wankel, then-operations chief
of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, revealed in 1996 that
the US had installed anti-drug teams in Chiapas, 2,000 miles south
of the US border.
While indigenous farming communities are active in insurgencies,
they are not suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Central
and northern Mexico might be appropriate arenas for anti-drug
efforts: Chiapas is not.
"Free Market" Poverty
In 1982, Mexico began the process of privatization, deregulation
and spending cuts. The result has been a massive transfer of resources
from the salaried workforce to the owners and controllers of capital
- and from public control and accountability to a small number
of private elite. Over the past decade, the gap between Mexico's
rich and poor has increased.
Under President Salinas (1988-1994) the number of Mexican
billionaires rose from 2 to 24, while nearly a fifth of the population
(more than 17 million) made less than $350 per person per year.
Half of Mexico's 93 million people live in poverty. Malnutrition
now afflicts 40 to 65 percent of the population. In impoverished
indigenous communities, malnutrition approaches 85 percent. During
the 1980-1992 economic restructuring, infant deaths due to malnutrition
The diet of half of Mexico's inhabitants falls below the minimum
daily nutritional standard (2340 calories) established by the
World Health Organization. Each day 433 Mexican children under
5 years of age die from diseases related to malnutrition-158,000
children each year.
Chiapas has a population of about 3.5 million. Half lack potable
water and two-thirds have no sewer system. A mere 20 of Chiapas'
families own 18.4 million acres. The majority of indigenous campesinos
own less than two acres each.
Chiapas is the poorest of Mexico's 31 states. In terms of
resources, however, Chiapas is considered Mexico's richest state.
Mexico's national oil company, Pemex, has nearly 100 wells in
Chiapas. More than half of all hydroelectric power comes from
Chiapas (while only a third of the local houses have electricity).
Thirty five percent of Mexico's coffee and significant amounts
of beef, wood and corn also come from Chiapas.
Repression In Mexico
In 1992, President Salinas pushed through Article 27, which
amended the Mexican Constitution and repudiated land reform-one
of the founding ideals of the Mexican Republic.
Salinas' amendment legalized the private sale of ejido land-the
communal farms established after the Mexican Revolution. Prior
to Salinas' amendment, 70 percent of all Mexican farmers worked
on ejido land, much of it supporting subsistence rather than commercial
farming. Following the passage of North American Free Trade Agreement,
the vast majority of Mexico's small farmers can no Ionger compete
with cheap imported US food.
The NAFTA-driven economy is delivering a final knockout blow
to the ancient self-sufficient, small corn-farming economy of
Mexico's indigenous communities. Indigenous land is vulnerable
to corporate and elite buy-outs. Economists predict that as many
as 10 million Mexican farmers could be displaced by the year 2004.
According to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America
and the Caribbean, there is an inverse relationship between investment
and employment in Mexico. The more investment, the fewer jobs.
The Zapatistas understand this. That is why they resist free trade
and seek to engage Mexico, and the world, in a dialogue about
A US Plan to Invade Mexico?
Since the January 1, 1994 Zapatista uprising, Mexico's military
budget has increased forty-fold. Meanwhile, evidence is mounting
that the US is considering scenarios for direct military intervention
A 1994 Pentagon briefing paper, declassified under the Freedom
Of Information Act, predicted that it was "deployment of
US troops to Mexico would be received favorably if the Mexican
government were to confront the threat of being overthrown as
a result of widespread economic and social chaos."
According to Donald E. Schultz, professor of National Security
at the US Army's War College, "A hostile government could
put the US investments in Mexico in danger, jeopardize access
to oil, produce a flood of political refugees and economic migrants
to the north."
In the book, The Next War, former US Defense Secretary Caspar
Weinberger envisions a war with Mexico in the year 2003, resulting
from massive, out-of control migrations prompted by social unrest
in Mexico. Weinberger's scenario outlines a rapid three-pronged
military invasion, nicknamed "Operation Aztec," designed
to control domestic unrest and stem the influx of millions of
S. Brian Willson was an officer in the Vietnam War. In 1987,
he lost his legs when he was run over by a military train while
attempting to nonviolently block a shipment of weapons to Central
America. Willson can be reached c/o 33 Portola Ave., Monterey,
CA 93940, (408) 644-0111.