Zapata’s Children

For some Mexicans the Revolutions still isn’t over.

September 1975By Comments

The hats were peasant hats, huge round monstrosities shading the laborer from the sun; the mustaches—full and black—drooped past the lower lip; the pants were baggy, often with leather leggings; the clothes always dusty. And then there were the weapons: the crossed bandoliers, the rifles, the revolvers slung low. So they, appeared, so they abide: the classic images of the first great revo­lution of the twentieth century—Villa and Zapata. Villa and Zapata at the San Angel Inn, Villa and Zapata lounging in the chair of Maximilian, Villa riding at the head of a column snaking down from the mountains. Villa in the north, Zapata in the south—together they gave the Revolution its energy and muscle, and a good deal of its vision.

In Mexican history they are honored as revolutionaries. The problem, of course, is that some Mexicans have never gotten the word that the Revolu­tion is over. If Villa and Zapata were alive today, they would be known as political terrorists, and chances are they would operate in the cities instead of the mountains. Their part of the Revolu­tion is one which is not always remem­bered fondly by the ruling members of Mexico’s Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolutionario Institucional or PRI, as it is generally called), which views the rising incidence of ter­rorism with increasing uneasiness.

Most of the PRI leadership is from the same middle class that provided the political leadership of the 1910 Revolu­tion while Villa and Zapata were provid­ing force of arms. The middle-class goal was to unseat longtime ruler Porfirio Díaz, whose corrupt dictatorship had endured for 34 years, and to end the hated practice of personalismo, or the long-standing accumulation of great power by one person. Their slogan was “No Reelection,” distinctly a more phil­osophical and procedural point than the peasants’ cries for land and bread. That class tension existed during the Revolu­tion. It continues today.

There are but two statues commemo­rating Pancho Villa in all of Mexico. One is on the outskirts of Durango where Villa’s activities were centered. The other is in Mexico City. Rarely is Villa’s name mentioned officially today. Zapata fares better. His memory is evoked on those occasions, more fre­quent now than in the past, when the government alludes to the success of its agrarian and social reforms. But Zapata is also the folk hero, the martyred Che Guevara of yesteryear, of those increas­ing numbers among the Mexican masses who believe that the aims and benefits of the Revolution never quite filtered down to them.

Politically the Revolution is a success. There is no personalismo at any level of government. The country has a large, stable, and growing middle class. Eco­nomically, the nation has progressed through a series of so-called “Mexican miracles” which have produced a steady economic growth rate. Partly because of these factors, and partly because the PRI has co-opted the rhetoric of revolu­tion, Mexico, unique among the Latin-American republics, has enjoyed almost uninterrupted political stability for more than forty years.

But underneath the apparently stable surface; there is sufficient unrest and discontent among the lower classes—rural and urban—that a tantalizing question continues to circulate through­out the country. What might occur if another Emiliano Zapata or Pancho Villa suddenly appeared or, for that matter, a Fidel Castro or Che Guevara? None has. But recent events have dem­onstrated that the continuing Mexican Revolution has been unable to inoculate the country totally against the virus of terrorism which inflicts the rest of Latin America. A rash of kidnappings, bomb­ings, and even murders has caused some people—including some U.S. diplomats stationed in Mexico City—to speculate about whether the country may be head­ing for another revolution.

Unlike their forerunners Villa and Zapata, most Mexican terrorists today operate in the cities. Mexico City, Gua­dalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Oaxaca, and San Luis Potosí have been among the hardest hit in a recent series of spec­tacular and audacious guerrilla operations ranging from hijacking airliners and kidnapping prominent persons to bombings and bank robberies. A high-ranking police official in Guadalajara (population, 1.2 million) has compared his city with Chicago during the gang­land days of the Twenties. Guerrillas there have claimed credit for almost a hundred assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and robberies during the last three years. In 1973, Guadalajara ter­rorists kidnapped U.S. Consul General Terrance George Leonhardy, Honorary British Consul Anthony Duncan Wil­liams, and wealthy Mexican business­man Fernando Aranguren. Leonhardy and Williams were released unharmed (Leonhardy after the payment of an $80,000 ransom), but Aranguren was executed after being “sentenced” by what the guerrillas described as a “peo­ple’s court.”

In another daring move a year ago, guerrillas in Guadalajara struck directly at Mexico’s official family when they kidnapped President Luis Echeverría’s father-in-law. The 83-year-old victim, Jose Guadalupe Zuno, was himself a veteran of the Mexican Revolution. Several days later he was released un­harmed by his abductors when the gov­ernment refused to negotiate. To every­one’s surprise Zuno had kind words for his kidnappers and even expressed sym­pathy with some of their aims.

The on-the-street gun slaying of prom­inent Mexican businessman Eugenio Garza Sada in the northern industrial city of Monterrey two years ago had profound political and personal reper­cussions in the business community. Only days before, Echeverría had declared a three-day mourning period for Salvador Ailende, recently assassinated Marxist president of Chile. Monterrey businessmen protested that the govern­ment had publicly honored a commu­nist leader while Mexican lives were being jeopardized by leftist terrorists. In the wake of the killing, businesses insti­tuted strict security measures; for exam­ple, any person entering the IBM build­ing in Mexico City with a briefcase could expect to have it searched. Prominent businessmen hired personal bodyguards, who soon became a new status symbol for the country’s industrial elite.

The most recent terrorist attacks have been a coordinated series of bombings in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, and San Luis Potosí, where simultane­ous explosions have occurred twice dur­ing the last year. But such cooperation and organization are rare among Mexi­can terrorists, who are mostly com­posed of small, independent groups. Estimates of their ranks range from less than a hundred to several thousand. The militants are, for the most part, young people—some of them students, most of them well educated. A few have pro­fessional backgrounds in law, engineer­ing, science, or medicine. They claim to fight for the poor but are not of the poor; they are intellectuals, not peas­ants. They share a common leftist ide­ology, but it is not leftist in the usual sense of the word, i.e., rigidly Marxist. The terrorists view themselves as a movement for the liberation of the urban poor, not as part of an inter­national workers’ movement; Mexican terrorism remains nationalistic.

The genesis of the current wave of urban terrorism coincides with the Mex­ico City Olympics in October 1968, when troops opened fire on thousands of antigovernment demonstrators, kill­ing an unknown number of persons (49 according to a New York Times report­er on the scene), most of whom were students. From then on it became ap­parent that demonstrating or protesting in the streets risked, if not death, then severe beating. Demonstrations have since been replaced by terrorism, forc­ing the government to deal with small, elusive, dedicated revolutionary groups—a job which has proved to be far more difficult than controlling mass protests.

As though bound by some unspoken agreement, Mexican terrorists have never struck directly at the several mil­lion U.S. tourists who flood into the country each year, nor at the many thousands of U.S. nationals living in Mexico. (An estimated 35,000 U.S. citi­zens, many of them retired, live in Gua­dalajara alone.) Acapulco, mecca for thousands of tourists, is located in Guerrero, one of the poorest states in the country and historically a hotbed of rev­olution. Mexicans have been kidnapped there, held for ransom, and even been killed for political reasons—but not a single foreigner.

The mountainous wilds of Guerrero are the base of operation for Mexico’s few remaining rural terrorists, who claim to be the spiritual descendants of Zapata. But conditions now are different from what they were at the time of the Revolution. Zapata fought for land re­form, to break up the huge agricultural haciendas whose owners sometimes con­trolled more than a million acres. The land reform of 1938 changed all that; the haciendas were broken up and dis­tributed to the peasants. The big rural is­sue today is not land reform but better living conditions for the campesinos, the agricultural peasantry. A rural school teacher, Genaro Vásquez Rojas, led a band of campesino guerrillas through the mountains of southwestern Mexico, including Guerrero, until he was killed in an automobile accident in 1972. He liked to say that he had “taken up the banner where Zapata left off.” He was joined by another former school teacher, Lucio Cabanas, who successfully dodged the authorities (including the army) for seven years while leading his Poor Peo­ples Party in a series of politically motivated kidnappings and robberies. His biggest coup was the kidnapping last year of then PRI Senator Ruben Figue­roa, who at the time was running for governor of Guerrero. Figueroa was fi­nally released, but the reason why is disputed: the government claims the re­lease followed a shoot-out which cost Cabanas seventeen men, but the guerril­las say that the government paid a sub­stantial ransom.

Cabanas became something of a folk hero to the campesinos of the region, who helped him evade pursuing govern­ment troops. But the army finally caught up with him last December and in a final battle killed Cabanas and 27 of his followers. The army’s forces were di­rected by the defense minister, a high cabinet officer whose presence gives some indication of growing government concern over increased terrorism.

In fact, the urban terrorists have made virtually no inroads among the popu­lace and have little support. Mexico’s urban masses are dissatisfied, to be sure, but for many of them the solution is emigration rather than revolution. The ease of illegal entry into the United States is a safety valve that has so far managed to reduce the pressure of urban poverty. The terrorists have been more successful in the rural areas, however, where the movement involves peasants rather than intellectuals, and the lead­ers have identifiable personalities. But the rural guerrillas don’t pose a major threat to the government, for Mexican politics is increasingly urban oriented.

President Echeverría, whose term ex­pires in 1976, has urged social reforms for Mexico’s rural and urban poor—about half of the country’s estimated 60 million. But some influential Mex­ican politicians fear reform will mean the end of the patronage deals and priv­ileges. “They are a shortsighted lot who don’t see that Mexico is a volcano,” one high government official said recently. “If social justice is not instituted to bring these millions of poor into the economy, this place could go off like a million Krakatoas.”

Such apocalyptic talk is no doubt highly exaggerated. If the place didn’t go off in 1968, when troops were kill­ing students, then it may never go off. There are indications that Echeverría is determined to designate as the next pres­ident of Mexico a man who will carry forward his rural and urban reforms. The problems are awesome, and so far the terrorists have offered no alternative to government programs. There remains, however, the memory of 1910, and those who gained power by revolution must always harbor the fear they could lose it the same way.

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