Monday, August 3, 2015
and other Battlefields of Mexican Guerrilla Conflicts
By Kent Paterson
23, 1965. In the early morning hours, a small group of men prepared to attack a Mexican army base in the Chihuahua mountain
town of Madera.
Led by rural school teacher Arturo Gamiz and Dr. Pablo Gomez, the guerrilleros
of the Popular Guerrilla Group (GPC) were escalating a more than year-long campaign of sabotage and clashes with police into
a frontal assault for land, liberty and the revolutionary overthrow of the government. Tipped off about the pending attack,
government troops were ready and when the shooting began the tide quickly turned against the insurgent group. Eight attackers,
students and small farmers perished in the suicidal assault, as did several soldiers, while a half-dozen other guerrillas
somehow managed to escape to fight another day.
The slain rebels were infamously tossed into a common
grave by soldiers and buried to the sarcastic words of Chihuahua Governor Praxedes Giner: “They wanted land so give
them land until they are sick of it…!”
Giner, ironically, was a veteran of Pancho Villa’s
revolutionary army, according to biographical accounts.
Partly inspired by the success
of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the GPC was among numerous guerrilla groups that spread throughout Latin America in the 1960s.
In Mexico, Madera was at the core of a dialectic of repression, resistance, reform, retrogression and resistance that continues
to this day.
As students, small farmers and workers mobilized to challenge the one-party PRI rule
of the 1960s, the government cracked down on movements in Chihuahua and carried out bloody massacres in the southern state
of Guerrero, and in Mexico City. In response, and taking a cue from Madera, left-wing guerrilla organizations and cells with
a polyglot of names and acronyms proliferated across the country — MAR, Los Lancandones, the National Liberation Forces,
PROCUP, the Party of the Poor, the September 23 Communist League, etc.
Decades later, the survivors
of the armed movement regrouped, recruited a new generation of revolutionaries and publicly burst onto the scene with their
guns blazing as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas in 1994, and the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR)
in Guerrero, Oaxaca and other states in 1996.
Madera was a critical link in a chain of events that
looped into the 1970s Dirty War, the political reforms that legalized the Mexican Communist Party, and it laid the basis for
the current multi-party system, the dismantlement of the once-powerful Federal Security Directorate, and the growth of organized
crime syndicates popularly referred to as drug cartels. Through this process the carrot and the stick were interchangeable.
A part of this complex and ongoing saga is explored in a new book authored by several Mexican academics, translated
into English as, From the Assault on the Madera Fort to the Reparation of Damages to Victims of the Past: A Comparative
Experience of Chihuahua and Guerrero.
“This is the reconstruction of a piece of social
history of Chihuahua and Guerrero,” co-author Gil Arturo Ferrer Vicario told FNS. “This is to show evidence that
the people of Mexico have historically struggled for better conditions of life.”
The book is
dedicated to the late, acclaimed Mexican writer Carlos Montemayor, whose meticulous research produced the historical novels,
Guerra en el paraiso (War in Paradise, 1997) and Las armas del alba (The Arms of Dawn, 2003 ). The first
book tells a tale of the guerrilla uprising and Dirty War in Guerrero, while the second work is a suspenseful story of the
1965 Madera attack.
“Originally from Chihuahua, but with his heart in Guerrero,”
Ferrer quipped about Montemayor, whom this writer had the privilege of meeting and interviewing about 12 years ago.
history specialist and researcher at the Autonomous University of Guerrero in Chilpancingo, Professor Ferrer was recently
in Las Cruces to discuss academic exchanges with New Mexico State University.
In an interview,
Ferrer delved into the history of guerrilla organizations in the mountains of Chihuahua and Guerrero, government polices of
repression and reform, and the contemporary socio-economic conditions in two states that have played transformational roles
in Mexican history.
Enriching his academic research, Ferrer possesses first-hand knowledge
of his subject from having once worked as a rural school teacher in the Chihuahua mountains.
to Ferrer, northwestern Chihuahua of the early 1960s was dominated by big landlords, or latifundistas, who controlled huge
swaths of territory. The unfulfilled promise of land to the peasants stemming from the 1910 Revolution was further stymied
in the 1930s when the agrarian reforms of President Lazaro Cardenas, who was successfully promoting the establishment of collectively-owned
land units known as ejidos elsewhere in the country, were blocked by the local elite in Chihuahua.
popular demands frustrated by an authoritarian political system, Chihuahua activists like Arturo Gamiz and Pablo Gomez turned
Although the Madera rebellion was squashed by the state, Ferrer added that the government
headed by President Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) finally undertook land reforms in northwestern Chihuahua, creating among other
institutions one of the biggest communal landholdings in Latin America, the timber-rich Ejido Largo Maderal, near Madera.
“The guerrilla movement was defeated militarily on September 23, 1965, but the Mexican government was
obligated and understood that the causes of the guerrilla movement were just and it was necessary to address them,”
In Ferrer’s home state of Guerrero, discontent with rural bosses and authoritarian
politicians also boiled over in the 1960s, and was met by bloody government massacres in Chilpancingo, Iguala, Atoyac and
Consequently, Guerrero political leaders Genaro Vazquez and Lucio Cabañas formed
their own guerrilla bands and were answered with the Dirty War, a counterinsurgency campaign of scorched earth tactics, torture
and enforced disappearance. As was later documented by a special prosecutor active during the presidency of Vicente Fox (2000-2006),
and separately by the official Guerrero Truth Commission in 2014, hundreds of people were snatched by government security
forces never to be seen again.
In Guerrero, post-Dirty War governments alternated between the carrot
and the stick.
Today, the mountainous areas of Chihuahua and Guerrero where armed revolutionary
movements operated in the 1960s and 1970s are again the scene of armed battles, but this time the main protagonists are rival
underworld groups competing for control of the lucrative opium poppy crop that is processed into heroin and exported to an
eager U.S. market.
Despite reforms, Ferrer said poverty saps the land and a new type of
big landlords — foreign mining companies — have entered the scene and necessitated a “new struggle.”
Ferrer is from Iguala, Guerrero, a city which has figured prominently in Mexican political history during pivotal
junctures in each of the last three centuries. The historian happened to be visiting his home town the fateful night of September
26, 2014, when police and presumed cartel gunmen killed six people and forcibly disappeared 43 male students from the Raul
Isidro Burgos Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, the alma matter of Genaro Vazquez and Lucio Cabañas.
recalled hearing gunshots outside at about ten o’clock in the evening, but did not really find out what had happened
until the next day when he saw a bus riddled with bullets holes and blood in the streets.
26 raised the specter of a new Dirty War, and Mexico was plunged into its worst political crisis in years; semi-dormant guerrilla
organizations have stirred.
Joining Ferrer in the interview was Rosa Maria Velazquez, a native of
Madera who now lives in New Mexico. Velazquez said she was a young girl at the time of the 1965 uprising so she has sketchy
memories of the event, but she recalled her mother talking about bodies in the town.
didn’t know the history of that time. I was very small at the time and saw parachute troops, but we didn’t know
the dimension of the problem,” she said.
Velazquez seconded Ferrer’s assessment of current
economic conditions in Madera, adding that “no sources of work” exist and many people migrate to El Norte in order
to survive. In fact, one could even speak of a route of Madera that passes through southern New Mexico over to Albuquerque
and up to Denver.
Although commemorative events for the 1965 uprising have been held in
Madera over the years, the history of the time is mostly unknown by the newer generations, Velazquez said. This year, however,
the Golden Anniversary of the Madera uprising might be different. The interest of both Ferrer and Velazquez is growing about
a major event planned for September 23 this year that will examine the history and legacies of the 1965 movement.
important that the Mexican population knows that they enjoy certain freedoms not only as a result of the state, but because
of the struggle of the Mexican people,” Ferrer said. "In reflecting, the crisis isn’t going to be resolved
by the rulers or political class. We have to reconquer (social gains)….”
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Cruces, New Mexico
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted
with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.