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 Zapatista territory.

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 paramilitary groups.

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 of Chiapas?

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 groups.

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 tripled.

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 "neo-liberalism."

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 in Mexico.

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 immigrants.


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.

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