The Shadow War

Searching for an elusive enemy, the Mexican army only fans the flames of fear

By Joel Simon
Published September 10, 1996 7:45PM (EDT)


Hundreds of Mexican soldiers waged a pitched battle
last week on a hillside outside the
Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo. As darkness fell and soldiers set
up camp for the night, those who had fought acknowledged there had been
no visual sighting of the enemy and no returned fire. The army,
supported by helicopters, seems to have been shooting at shadows.

This is the face of Mexico's new counterinsurgency campaign in the
countryside as an army -- and a society -- nervously confronts the
elusive and violent Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP). The guerrillas
first appeared June 28 during a ceremony commemorating the one-year
anniversary of the massacre of 17 peasants by state police. A week ago,
30 masked guerrillas killed two policemen just up the road from
Chilpancingo during a coordinated strike that left 14 dead and 23 wounded
in three states.

Pledging to use the full force of the state to track the insurgents down,
President Ernesto Zedillo vowed in his Sept. 1 State of the Union address
never to negotiate -- a radical departure from the government's approach
to Mexico's more moderate insurgents, the Zapatista Army of National
Liberation in Chiapas.

Even before the EPR's latest spate of violent attacks on police and
military outposts, the Mexican army had deployed throughout a wide area
of central and southern Mexico where the rebels were thought to be
active. Today, a large portion of Mexico's 150,000-strong armed forces
are involved in counterinsurgency operations in Oaxaca, Guerrero,
Tabasco and even on the streets of Mexico City.

The EPR appears to have little popular support, but this growing militarization makes many in Mexico uncomfortable. Opposition party members have complained that the military presence will intimidate potential voters in upcoming state elections. There are even periodic coup rumors. On the other hand, if the recent incident here is any example, the Mexican army has a lot to learn about waging counter-insurgency efficiently.

The events that led to the battle on Tuesday, Sept. 3 began at 3:30 that
afternoon when a taxi driver, Alfredo Bravo Cruz, reported seeing ten men
in camouflage uniforms jump from the brush and run across a stretch of
road about ten miles east of Chilpancingo. "It was them, the masked
ones," said the 46-year-old army veteran.

Twenty minutes later, 15 State Judicial Police, some in snakeskin boots
and carrying everything from Uzis to ivory-handled pistols, had deployed
across a nearby dam towards which the rebels were seen running. Soon a
military helicopter began circling over the pine-covered valley,
unleashing a single round which sent the judicial police scrambling for

By 4:30 three army trucks had arrived at the dam and 100 soldiers fanned
out, slowly climbing the ridges in an effort to trap the small guerrilla
force in the valley.

Five miles northwest, at the end of a canyon that opens into a series of
undulating hills, a truckload of 40 soldiers showed up at the tiny town
of Huiteco, hoping to cut the rebels off.

The leader of the army force, a general who arrived in an armored
vehicle, asked to borrow a reporter's cell phone to call the capital. As
he placed the call, a soldier came running toward him. "There they are,
there they are!" he yelled.

"Who?" asked the general.

"The masked ones," said the soldier.

Without a moment's hesitation, the general gave the order: "Fire!"

Instantly machine gun bursts rang through the hills as soldiers took up
positions in cornfields and behind trees. A frightened radio operator,
his hands shaking and his gun left carelessly in the grass, began yelling
into the telephone receiver. "I have a number one priority -- combat,
combat!" he said. "Send me an eagle, send me an eagle."

Minutes later, three helicopters began circling the battlefield,
periodically firing into the brush. Soldiers and judicial police officers
took cover in the yard of Jose and Cleotilda Molina, a peasant couple
whose house lay in the middle of the combat zone. Turkeys squawked while
a pig tethered to a tree let out a periodic whine.

In the midst of the shooting, a half dozen judicial police began tearing
apart the Molinas' house, looking for signs that the couple had been
harboring the guerrillas. "We don't know any masked people," insisted
Cleotilda, 70. "It's just the two of us here; we're old, we're peasants,
we're with the government."

But the police soon found what they were looking for: a pair of muddy
military boots and two ski masks. "Now I'm afraid," admitted Cleotilda as a police officer hustled her husband outside for further questioning. "They
sell the masks in the market. It gets cold here."

After two hours of intermittent firing, the sunlight began to fade and a
chill descended on the mountain hamlet. The soldiers -- now numbering about 300, backed by 100 judicial police -- began to pull back and set up camp on
the basketball court in the center of town.

By next morning, Jose Molina had been released but rumors were rampant in
the state capital of Chilpancingo. One newspaper reported that 14 people
had been injured and six judicial police killed in the fighting. Another
reported that eight guerrillas had been killed.

None of it was true, as the Interior Ministry acknowledged in a statement.
But whoever -- and wherever -- the EPR turn out to be, they have already
succeeded in creating an atmosphere of tension in which rumor feeds a spreading hysteria.

After the firefight in Huiteco, police and military commanders speculated
that perhaps the EPR had been massing for an attack on a nearby radio
tower. But the general in charge acknowledged he had found no concrete
evidence that the rebels had even been in Huiteco -- only the two ski
masks and the pair of boots.

) Pacific News Service

Quotes of the day

Making America safe

"If all goes according to plan, Congress will leave Washington knowing that marriage is safe. Listening to debate about the bill, one began to wonder how America's foundation had survived so long without legal protection from gay couples indulging in adjustable-rate mortgages and life insurance."

--Time Magazine columnist Margaret Carlson on the Defense of Marriage bill, scheduled for a Senate vote Tuesday. (From "The Marrying Kind," in the Sept. 16 issue of

Time Magazine

Joel Simon

Joel Simon is a reporter based in Mexico City. His book on the Mexican environmental crisis, "Endangered Mexico," will be published next spring by Sierra Club Books.

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