“The Bad Gas of Class Oppression”: Political Prisoners in Calderon’s Mexico
By JOHN ROSS, Mexico City
This past Christmas, family members of 26 political prisoners taken during brutal repression of militant farmers in San Salvador Atenco just outside Mexico City last spring, came up with an ingenious strategy to visit their loved ones in the Santiaguito prison where they have been held practically incommunicado for months. Taken advantage of a Mexico state prison custom that allows outsiders in to entertain the inmates during the holiday season by performing “pastorelas” or Christmas passion plays, the relatives of the prisoners presented themselves at the prison gates dressed as shepherds and wise men, the Virgin Mary, and the Devil himself–a typical pastorela story line involves the Devil trying to divert the Three Wise Men from bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus.
But the authorities at Santiaguito were ready for the relatives of the prisoners. The shepherds and the wise men and the devils were strip-searched. Wooden machetes, a symbol of the farmers’ struggle, which were to be used as props in an updated version of the pastorela, were confiscated. The Virgin Mary was forced to do “sentadillas”, squats so that jailhouse matrons could examine her body cavities for smuggled subversive materials.
At length the troupe was passed in and allowed to perform their pastorela for the inmates of Santiaguito, ending the show with a rousing chant of “Presos Politicos Libertad!” (Liberty for Political Prisoners!), a cry that is being heard all over Mexico these days.
The criminalization of social protest is filling the nation’s jails and prisons with political prisoners. 214 protestors were arrested in the crackdown at Atenco last May 3rd and 4th–all but 26 have been allowed to bail out but still face charges that could lock them up for years. Two young men were killed during the police actions, which involved thousands of state and federal police and appeared to be in retaliation for the farmers’ successful battle to fend off expropriation of their lands for the construction of a new multi-billion dollar international airport in 2002.
Another 140 citizens were beaten, gassed, and arrested in Oaxaca on November 25th by the Federal Preventative Police to break up the seven month-long occupation of the city’s old colonial center by the Oaxaca Popular Peoples’ Assembly (APPO) and striking teachers who have been demanding the removal of a tyrannical governor. 19 activists have been executed by Governor Ulises Ruiz’s death squads and 60 remain disappeared–human rights workers suspect that some are being held in secret state, federal, and military lock-ups.
Many of the prisoners taken November 25th just five days before the chaotic inauguration of Felipe Calderon whose election last July 2nd is questioned by many Mexicans, were hardly political. One mother was trapped outside a downtown pharmacy after she had bought medicine for a sick child, beaten, cuffed, and flown a thousand miles north to a Nayarit state prison–then Secretary of Public Security and now Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora decreed that prisoners deemed to have “a dangerous profile” should be held out of state. A similar fate awaited a Oaxaca architect who had gone downtown to Xerox blueprints. A dozen juveniles were seized and jailed in adult prisons.
As at Atenco where police are accused of sexually abusing 23 women who were being transported to Santiaguito (seven claim they were raped), federal police sexually abused and taunted men and women captured November 25th–in testimony to the International Civil Observation Commission on Human Rights, a European NGO that spent a month investigating abuses in Oaxaca and interviewed over 400 witnesses to the repression, the mother of one young protestor testified that her son was sodomized by the cops. The Calderon government has refused to accept the findings of the Commission, which it insists has no bonafides.
Of the more than 200 prisoners taken in Oaxaca since May, 62 remain imprisoned. Dozens of activists and teachers were already locked up in Oaxaca jails prior to the mass arrests.
Among the most prominent political prisoners seized in the right-wing Calderon government’s rush to make social protest into a crime, is Ignacio Del Valle, the leader of the Popular Front to Defend the Land (FPDT) which spearheaded the “macheteros” movement of Atenco. Although he was arrested on the first day of the May confrontations, “Nacho” Del Valle is charged with an April “kidnapping”–during a meeting with state school officials who had threatened to walk out, Del Valle locked the door. The charge mandates imprisonment at a maximum-security prison and the Machetero leader is now housed at El Altiplano (formerly La Palma and Almaloya) where many of the nation’s toughest narco lords and organized crime figures are locked down.
Also jailed at El Altiplano is Flavio Sosa whom Calderon fingered for being the ringleader of the APPO protests, and who is charged with sedition, riot, and a variety of crimes allegedly committed during demonstrations at which Sosa was not even present. Sosa, who is being held with two brothers whose only apparent crime is to be named Sosa, is a former Oaxaca leader of the right-wing president’s leftist nemesis, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) whose candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador probably beat Calderon in last July 2nd’s fraud-smeared elections. Sosa who was captured leaving a negotiating session with the new government in early December is considered Calderon’s first political prisoner.
The number of political prisoners being held in federal penitentiaries, CERESOS (social rehabilitation centers), state prisons, municipal jails, and secret lock-ups is unknown but clearly numbers in the hundreds. At least 90 of those taken at San Salvador Atenco and in Oaxaca remain behind bars. Another 100 have either disappeared in Oaxaca or were already imprisoned prior to the November 25th crackdown.
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