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Saving History from Oblivion in Guerrero

Peter Watt ([email protected]) is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield, UK. His teaching and research interests include contemporary Mexico, U.S./Latin American relations, new social movements in Latin America, and representations of Latin America in the British media. The author wishes to thank Tita Radilla of AFADEM and Susi Bascon and Mike Tamblyn of Peace Brigades International.

In summer 2009, the case of Rosendo Radilla, the first to deal with forced disappearance by the Mexican state, went before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAHRC). In December, the Court found Mexico guilty of the crimes of systematic human rights violations and forced disappearance. This was a landmark development led by the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared and Victims of Violations of Human Rights in Mexico (AFADEM) and the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) in a struggle with the Mexican government to obtain information on what happened to those disappeared by the authorities during the country’s guerra sucia, or dirty war, in the 1970s.

Thirteen hundred people were “disappeared,” many more assassinated, tortured, and incarcerated. In Guerrero, Radilla’s home state, around 650 people were disappeared, while in the municipality of Atoyac de Álvarez alone, 450 people went missing, as repression escalated under the administration of President Luis Echeverría, in a war against guerrilla fighter Lucio Cabañas and the Partido de los Pobres (Party of the Poor—PDLP). All of this took place during a reform and public relations campaign spearheaded by Echeverría under the rubric of “democratic opening.” Systematic abuses began in 1967, a few years before Operation Condor unleashed its fury in the Southern Cone, in a dirty war whose practices foreshadowed much of the misery inflicted elsewhere in the continent in the 1970s and ’80s. Thirty-five years later, no one as yet has been arrested or held responsible for any of the crimes committed in Guerrero.

The IAHRC is an autonomous judicial institution of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the highest and most respected legal body dealing with human rights in the Americas. The role of the Court is to interpret, advise, and enforce the American Convention on Human Rights, of which Mexico is a signatory. Its judgment of the Radilla case is thus an important and symbolic blow to those in government and the military who have kept the dirty war safely under wraps, and who have denied any wrongdoing from the outset. Legally, the Mexican state is now obliged to investigate and account for crimes committed during the dirty war. The judgment requires the state to reform article 57 of the military code, which until recently guaranteed military impunity in cases of human rights violations.1 With reform of the code, many more crimes committed during the dirty war and others more recently could potentially be investigated.

In a groundbreaking legal recognition of the dirty war, the Court acknowledged the historical context of Radilla’s disappearance, and that it was part of a systematic campaign. Initially, the Mexican government argued that it could no longer be held accountable for crimes committed thirty-five years ago, but here, the Court made an important judgment, stating that, given the structural and institutional barriers placed before citizens demanding justice, the crime was indeed ongoing. It recognized that the government’s failure to investigate the disappearances represents a continuing violation because it does not allow victims’ relatives closure or an account or explanation of the circumstances of the disappearance. And, as the crime is ongoing, the Court has now legally obligated Mexico to investigate the Radilla case. Furthermore, the government has been ordered to pay reparations to the family, to provide financial aid to the human rights organizations involved in bringing the case, and to erect a plaque honoring Radilla and victims of the dirty war in Atoyac de Álvarez.2

The Court’s decision is a massive achievement and vindication for some of Mexico’s most impoverished and marginalized communities, many of whom are illiterate, possess no formal education, and who still suffer military and police persecution. The Mexico judgment comes also at a time in which civil society throughout the continent has confronted the state over past abuses, as in Argentina and Guatemala.

Tita Radilla, Rosendo’s daughter and AFADEM’s co-founder, brought the case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which in turn recommended it to the IAHRC. She has received numerous death threats, presumably for her involvement in human rights activism and her tireless struggle to get the government to account for past crimes. Since 2003, foreign human rights workers from the organization Peace Brigades International (PBI) have accompanied her everywhere in order to ensure her safety.

Guerrero: Misery and Resistance

Guerrero’s history is marked by poverty, hardship, and injustice. In the 1960s, with Chiapas and Oaxaca, it was among the poorest states in Mexico. A number of social movements in the 1950s and ’60s attempted to redress the imbalances and inequalities rife throughout the state, which was characterized by the unflinching economic and political dominance of caciques (party bosses) and terratenientes (landowners). Guerrero’s marginalized were subject to frequent violent attacks by soldiers, police, and gangs hired by landowning elites when ordinary folk organized protests or community assemblies. For elites, impunity reigned. Additionally, guerrenses had little or no political representation by what they saw as corrupt and inept Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) state and national governments.

Only a few miles from the wealthy tourist resorts in Acapulco, according to the magazine Política, all in Guerrero was “misery, isolation, ignorance, endemic diseases.”3 Forty years later, Guerrero’s inequalities are far from resolved, with levels of human development equivalent to those of sub-Saharan Africa.4 At the height of the state’s war against the rural population in Guerrero, according to Laura Castellanos in her book México armado, there existed a Mexico of “torture, rape, secret prisons, hundreds of forced disappearances,”5 one very different from the image which the ruling PRI so keenly promoted abroad.

While guerrenses represented the most significant rural labor force in the country at a time when the bulk of the population lived in the countryside, little of their labor was reflected in the living conditions of the state’s majority. In the late 1960s, 62.1 percent of the population of Guerrero was illiterate. Four companies owned and exploited the state’s natural resources, felling timber and extracting minerals, while most people had only very limited access to land, or else worked the land of wealthy caciques, a key issue for social movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Coffee and coconuts, the region’s two principal agricultural products, no longer provided rural workers with a viable livelihood—government credits to peasant organizations, which had protected the ability of farmers to earn a living from these two crops, had been slashed in 1955, a significant factor in increasing Guerrero’s misery and poverty.6

Despite the supposed “economic miracle” that had taken place between the 1940s and 1960s, wealth distribution continued overwhelmingly to favor the rich. Indeed, for the poorest 50 percent of the population, economic conditions had worsened during the “miracle.” Widespread poverty in the countryside obliged huge numbers to migrate to the cities. Unemployment rose by 487 percent between 1960 and 1970, worsened under the Echeverría government, and by 1973 had risen further.7 This poverty and unemployment would lead to an explosive situation in which the rural poor demanded improved rights and living conditions and an end to political violence backed by the PRI and landowners. Rosendo Radilla was among those pushing for reform within his own community.

During the early 1970s Guerrero was subjected to unprecedented levels of state violence and repression; by 1971, 12,000 troops had been dispatched to Guerrero to combat peasant-led insurgency and organizing. By 1974, that number had doubled, in an attempt to capture the ex-primary schoolteacher-turned-leader of the PDLP, Lucio Cabañas.

Cabañas had led a campaign against the implementation of a policy that made it obligatory for school children to wear uniforms. He argued that families in Guerrero could barely afford enough food to feed their children, let alone uniforms and shoes. A public rally of parents and teachers on May 18, 1967, became the target of state repression when soldiers opened fire on the meeting, killing five. Cabañas escaped and fled to the mountains, where he joined the insurgency movement led by another ex-teacher, Genaro Vázquez Rojas. Though Cabañas’s group of guerrillas never totaled more than 300 fighters, it gained widespread sympathy throughout Guerrero, something that provoked the national government into sending thousands of troops to the state to quell the movement and crush its support base.

Counterinsurgency: Terror and ‘Disappearances’

But why did the Mexican state disappear Rosendo Radilla and hundreds of others like him? Terrorizing the population, as with counterinsurgency techniques elsewhere in Latin America during the 1970s and ’80s, was intended to intimidate communities into total submission, to restore “respect for authority.” As such, the state war on “subversive” elements was indiscriminate. On the trauma of living under what Pablo González Casanova has termed “internal colonization,”8 Radilla’s daughter, Tita, now a leading human rights activist, recalls:

People couldn’t go out. There was a curfew. Those who were children at that time in Atoyac were completely traumatized. People suffer this trauma regardless of whether or not they sympathized with the armed movement. Life was no longer the same. The military were there for ten years and those children could no longer go out and play in the street. The worst was in 1974 when the largest number of people disappeared, which was when they assassinated Lucio. The state continued trying to get rid of anyone associated with the guerrilla—and not only the guerrilla. Disappearances took place indiscriminately; you didn’t have to be related to them…townspeople, for example, shopkeepers who sold medicines. They accused them of supplying the guerrilla with food and medicine.9

Rural Guerrero—indeed, much of rural Mexico—was, by the late 1960s, experiencing something of an anti-authoritarian backlash. Corruption, the privileged, landowning elite, political power, and the use of force to quell dissent in the face of misery, inequality, and discrimination had led to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. State officials, landowners, and local government offices became the target of sporadic violence, while confrontation between the authorities and civil society became increasingly common. “In general,” notes Samuel Schmidt in his book The Deterioration of the Mexican Presidency, people “had lost all respect for authority.”10

A wave of bombings and kidnappings of politicians and business leaders between 1971 and 1974 increased the anger of elites with what they saw as Echeverría’s soft-handed, liberal approach to provocative actions by the insurgency. For example, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (Revolutionary Armed Forces—FAR) kidnapped the American consul in 1973. Even the president’s father-in-law, José Guadalupe Zuno, was kidnapped. These provocations reached their climax when one of the country’s most powerful business leaders, Eugenio Garza Sada of the Monterrey Group, was assassinated and future Guerrero senator, Ruben Figueroa, was kidnapped by Lucio Cabañas and the PDLP during a high-profile electoral campaign for the state governorship. For right-wing elites in Mexico, Echeverría’s liberalism and leftist discourse had allowed guerrilla movements to flourish, and these elites pressured the government to take a heavy hand with the insurgency. Furthermore, the deployment of troops to Guerrero was one way of appeasing a military disillusioned with poor working conditions and that had suffered a crisis of legitimacy after its role in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968 in Mexico City. The dirty war in Guerrero therefore allowed the government to be seen as clamping down on upstart guerrillas, while providing the army with a new sense of purpose.11

An uprising in the countryside was an alarming prospect for Mexican elites struggling to maintain the traditional hierarchies—and the abuses that they could employ with impunity. Popular support for the PDLP led by Cabañas, envisioned, alongside the emancipation of rural Mexicans, the overthrow of the traditional oligarchy of capitalists, landowners, and pro-imperialists.12 Because the rural population had lost “all respect for authority,” the Echeverría regime resolved to teach them a lesson.

Accordingly, any individuals associated with Lucio Cabañas, who shared his surname, supported his cause, or were simply regarded as suspicious by the authorities were targeted by a policy of terror in the countryside. In short, this was a war against the civilian population of Guerrero. Tita Radilla explains:

The military would arrive in the community. They would take everyone out of their homes, take them to the sportsfield or to the school—children, women, everyone—and they held them there. They selected all the men and took them away….Those who were left were women and children. Children of age 14 were also taken, so there are many disappeared children too….In 1974, the situation was terrible.…Villages were burned and communities in the hills were subjected to aerial bombardment.13

It was within this context that Rosendo Radilla was seized by soldiers at a military checkpoint on August 25, 1974. Thirty-five years later, his family is no wiser as to his whereabouts. Presumably, Radilla was targeted for his involvement in local politics, campaigning for improved rights and conditions for the residents of Atoyac. Perhaps more significantly, Radilla was a teacher in the same school as Cabañas, was politically active, and had composed corrido (ballad) songs about the guerrilla insurgency and Cabañas. When detained at a military checkpoint, soldiers cited this latter fact as the justification for his detention. He has not been seen since.

In the wake of a climate of violence and terror, local communities remained fragmented, and social relations were broken. Tita Radilla explains that few wished to be associated with families whose relatives had disappeared for fear of military reprisal.14 As a result, families of the disappeared now found themselves shunned in their own communities.

The absence of the paternal figure—in addition to the agonizing and continual trauma of the disappearance of a family member—also had severe practical implications in a society in which the breadwinners were predominantly male. Children, who would otherwise have attended school, grew up illiterate, as the disappearance of a father forced them into work. Guerrero was already blighted by poverty but this was exacerbated as the military “cleansed” the region of subversives, thus tearing apart the social fabric and leaving families all the more vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. Within her own family, explains Radilla, it was difficult to discuss Rosendo’s disappearance, given the emotional trauma it represented. It was because of the sheer number of people who had lost family members that relatives of the disappeared decided they should join together. In 1978, a number of movements pushing for information and justice for the disappeared formed the Frente Nacional Contra la Represión (National Front Against Repression). AFADEM was a subsequent outgrowth from this organization.

Three Decades Later: Bringing the Truth to Light?

That members of AFADEM have been able to confront the Mexican government and take their case before the IAHRC is testimony to their effort and dedication. Such a struggle has been far from straightforward. Human rights activists were hindered by a lack of exposure in the national media, most of which virtually ignored the dirty war during the period in which coverage might have made a difference. One periodical that did attempt to cover events in Guerrero, Por Esto, folded after the magazine’s director was assassinated. Thanks to government secrecy, complicity of the mainstream media with the state, and the silencing of dissenting publications, the dirty war in Mexico remained largely obscured and, throughout the country, the very notion of the dirty war was all but unknown to those outside its immediate scope.

In the wake of disappearances in Guerrero, there were few avenues open to families who tried to report their relatives’ disappearance. When Radilla’s sons took their complaint to the state governor, he informed them that he had no jurisdiction, that the region was effectively under martial law, and that, in his role as a politician, he could not oppose military rule.

A climate of impunity reigned, as Tita Radilla recalls:

If we wanted go to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, we couldn’t even file a complaint because the local prosecutors, the municipal police, even the transport police detained people and handed them in to the military. We knew there was a military barracks where they took everybody but when people went there to ask they gave no information on the disappeared. Many of those women were detained for short periods or intimidated by the army. We couldn’t achieve anything.15

In recent decades, changes resulting from pressure on the government by civil rights activists have been quite remarkable. In the 1970s, the president’s and the military’s sacrosanct status was matched only by that of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Journalists, activists, political leaders, and unionists, like the director of Por Esto, who dared break the taboo, did so often at great personal risk. And yet, although he was subsequently exonerated, ex-President Echeverría was arrested and charged with genocide in 2005, a development that marked something of a milestone in post-PRI Mexico. Clearly, the pressure to prosecute crimes committed during the dirty war did not come from above. The Mexican state’s constant denial of wrongdoing and of criminal activities has been remarkable, a trend that continues to the present, despite the release of incriminating government documents for public viewing. Human rights defenders and civil rights activists have continually pressured the government to account for past crimes but have been met with indifference, denial, or the placing of obstacles in the path towards justice. One study of freedom of information in Mexico conducted by the Universidad Iberoamericana ranked Mexico 182 of 189 countries surveyed, a marginal degree above Libya, China, and North Korea.16

It was in this context that the Radilla case was taken to the IAHRC. Having exhausted all possible avenues with the Mexican authorities who continually refused to investigate, relatives of Radilla and human rights organizations decided that international action would raise the profile of the dirty war.

Radilla’s case, of course, has wider implications than that of one missing person, as the Court’s indictment indicates. Its presentation before the Court represents an international and high-profile recognition that the Mexican state engaged in a dirty war against elements of the population over a prolonged period. Revelations about the state’s use of force against the civilian population during the guerra sucia have become more and more frequent since the change of government from PRI to the National Action Party in 2000 and the release in 2001 of government documents of the period for public viewing in the national archive, the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. They sit uncomfortably with the image the PRI had created of the liberal president Echeverría, who spearheaded a massive program of public spending (the biggest since the post-revolutionary government) and attempted to implement the famed “democratic opening.” The “democratic opening” hardly equated with the charge of “genocide” that was brought against Echeverría in 2005 for his role in massacres in 1968 and 1971. Now, as a result of popular pressure, an account of the discrepancy between “democratic opening” and “dirty war” is coming into the open in Mexico and gaining an ever larger presence in public consciousness.

As recently as a decade ago, even in the Mexican media, the very notion of a Mexican dirty war had to fight for acceptance and has only begun to be recognized thanks to the persistence of activist groups such as AFADEM, CMDPDH, ¡Eureka! and El Comité del ’68, and a handful of investigative journalists and intellectuals writing in progressive publications such as Proceso and La Jornada.

Human rights violations in Guerrero and throughout the country continue with impunity, particularly as the Obama administration increases military “aid” to Mexico. Reports by Mexican and international human rights organizations document ongoing abuses by the police and military. According to Tita Radilla, such abuses are, if anything, as bad or even worse now than in the 1970s at the height of the dirty war, though the pretext has been modified somewhat. Now, the government claims, the battle is no longer against communism, but against the narcotraffickers who run the Mexican economy. The victims of state violence, however, remain the same: marginalized sectors who oppose Mexico’s thoroughly unequal socio-political system, just as the perpetrators continue to be immune to prosecution. Nonetheless, the Radilla judgment against Mexico is a major high-profile achievement in exposing such practices, and illustrates the importance of historical memory and justice as ways forward in changing a radically unfair and brutal status quo.


  1. Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Sentencia de 23 de Noviembre de 2009 (San José: Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 2009), 80.
  2. Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. Estados Unidos Mexicanos.
  3. Laura Castellanos, Mexico armado. 1943-1981 (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2007), 103.
  4. Ximena Antillón Najlis, La desaparición forzada de Rosendo Radilla en Atoyac de Álvarez. Informe de Afectación psicosocial (Mexico: Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, 2008), 48.
  5. Castellanos, Mexico armado, 103.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Samuel Schmidt, The Deterioration of the Mexican Presidency: The Years of Luis Echeverría (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991), 20-21.
  8. Pablo González Casanova, La democracia en México, (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2007), 85-126.
  9. Interview with Tita Radilla, October 30, 2009. All translations from the original Spanish are by the author.
  10. Schmidt, The Deterioration of the Mexican Presidency, 82.
  11. Kate Doyle, “La Guerra sucia vista desde Washington,” Proceso (December 7, 2003), 27-28.
  12. Schmidt, 84.
  13. Interview with Tita Radilla.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Charles Bowden, Down by the River (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 16.
2010, Volume 61, Issue 10 (March)
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