It is a typical Saturday night in Mario’s Restaurant on the fringe of San Antonio’s West Side. Beyond the crowded foyer, mariachis gather around a group of anniversary celebrants. Virtually unnoticed in the restaurant’s hubbub, two men at a table in the corner sit staring at outfolded newspapers. One man, the larger of the two, is a convicted gunrunner who has spent time in prisons on both sides of the border. But the other, smaller man is clearly the one in charge. He is Mario Cantú, convicted felon, radical Chicano leader, accused arms smuggler and the proprietor of Mario’s Restaurant. They are plotting a new Mexican revolution.

Mexican political intrigue is nothing new to San Antonio. Cantú styles himself after Ricardo Flores Magón, the radical prophet of Mexico’s last revolution. Driven into exile in 1904, Magón came to San Antonio to publish his newspaper Regeneración. It was in San Antonio that Francisco Madero penned the Plan of San Luis Potosí, the program for the 1910 Revolution. In the fall of 1910, from the old Hutchins Hotel, Madero and his cohorts plotted their rebellion. From San Antonio they sent arms and dollars to comrades across the border. After Madero became president, his rivals regrouped against him—again in San Antonio—for a futile uprising. Today Mario Cantú hopes to follow in their footsteps as the spokesman for a clandestine revolutionary party operating in southern Mexico.

I have known Cantú for about six months. It has taken me this long to persuade him that I can be trusted to go into the mountains to report on guerrillas who are trying to organize peasant revolts. As I make my way past the rows of tables to join Cantú and his compañero, Cantú rises to welcome me warmly. For a few minutes we make polite conversation. Then he gives me the name of a modest hotel in a residential section of Mexico City. I am to go there, take a room, and wait. The underground will contact me and lead me south to revolutionary strongholds in Oaxaca. Cantú does not say how or when and I do not ask; in these circles, inessential questions raise suspicions. I bid the men adiós.

The city of Oaxaca lies in a warm semitropical valley surrounded by the summits of the rugged Sierra Madre del Sur. It is one of Mexico’s jewels, a mixture of Indian and modern Mexico, famous for pink arcades and black pottery. But away from this principal city of southern Mexico and from the Pan American Highway linking it with Mexico City, modern Mexico is nowhere to be seen. Draw a circle around the city of Oaxaca, perhaps fifteen miles in diameter, and outside that circle the federal presence is almost undetectable. In those mountains, which reach 11,000 feet, are villages with no paved roads, no schools, no telephone lines, no railroads, no mail service and no electricity, villages where Zapotec and Mixtec Indians scrape out an existence. Beans, tortillas, rice and chiles make up their diet, and in that remote backcountry, peasants live in thatched palm huts with dirt floors and take their water from shallow creeks. The jungle—Oaxaca is well south of the Tropic of Cancer—is the universal sanitary facility, outhouses being unknown. Malaria is a constant menace, and the mortality rate in the state of Oaxaca is the second highest of Mexico’s 32 districts. Only two states have lower literacy rates; none has a lower proportion of dwellings (18.7 percent) with running water. Nowhere in Mexico do more people speak local Indian dialects instead of Spanish.

Peasant unrest in these mountains goes back as far as Santa Anna. The two great political figures who dominated Mexico for the latter half of the nineteenth century came out of the Oaxacan mountains: the Indian lawyer Benito Juárez and his successor, the mestizo general Porfirio Díaz. Juárez set out to break the stranglehold of the clergy on the Mexican agricultural system by forcing the Church to sell its immense land holdings, but it was Díaz who left a legacy that still casts its shadow on modern Mexico. During one 11-year period of his 34-year reign, Díaz gave away 134,500,000 acres of public land—about a fourth of the entire area of Mexico—to friends and influence-buyers. He broke up the Indian ejidos, the farms and villages owned collectively by the tribes, and sold them off. So successful was Díaz in re-shaping Mexico that at the onset of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, less than 10 percent of the Indians’ communities owned any land, and big estate operators held 96.6 percent of the nation’s cultivated acreage.

Ever since the new government established itself half a century ago, it has struggled with the problem of land reform. It has tried to reestablish the ejidos, and more than half of the land that was in large haciendas in 1910 has been delivered to small farmers and ejidatarios. Yet the economic picture in the countryside doesn’t seem much better than it did in Díaz’ time. Most peasants still work on ranches and large estates. Their medium of exchange is the crops they raise; cash income is often less than $75 a year. There are simply too many campesinos for the available land: even if all remaining large holdings were split up, barely one in fifteen of Mexico’s landless peasants could get standard-sized tracts to plow.

Mexico’s economic woes continue to thwart the government’s efforts to deal with its agrarian crisis. Its huge foreign debt is the largest in the world; its birthrate, the highest of any nation its size; its staggering rate of persons out of work or marginally employed, now 45 percent. Consequently, idle campesinos, frustrated by government inaction, have begun seizing property owned by ranchers and corporations. Last year there were more than 300 land invasions, and in the ensuing violence, over 200 peasants and estate guards were killed in the state of Oaxaca alone. To organize and arm peasants for this virtual land war, revolutionary groups like the Partido Proletario Unido de América (United Proletarian Party of America) have organized in the mountains. The PPUA (called POO-ah by its members) is the party of Mario Cantú, and its guerrillas will take me deep into the mountains of Oaxaca, where few government officials, civil or military, ever go.

The PPUA is a small, secret and illegal organization. Unlike many leftist revolutionary cabals, it has little interest in political theory. Since it keeps no membership roster, estimating its size is difficult and requires several standards of participation. If the PPUA is regarded as an organization of professional revolutionaries, then there are perhaps not more than a hundred members. But leaders of ejidos in five states—Oaxaca, Michoacan, Guerrero, Veracruz and Morelos—have joined the PPUA, and the ejidatarios support the party’s activity as if they belonged. Peasant leaders who have read the party’s program and accepted the goal of revolution probably number less than five hundred, but their local following numbers in the thousands.

The PPUA is widely known in Mexico for a 1974 kidnapping that was sensationalized in the Mexican press. The target, American millionaire Tom Davis, was not in his Cuernavaca mansion when the PPUA paid its visit; instead raiders carried off his Mexican wife. She was released 77 days later, after Davis paid a $40,000 ransom and signed over a tract of farmland near Cuernavaca to leftist Bishop Méndez Arceo, who, on instruction from the PPUA, split it into plots for distribution to landless peasants.

Unlike Mexico’s urban terrorists, PPUA leaders do not believe that detonating bombs in public plazas will provoke mass action. The party has an elaborate timetable for revolution, including the seizure of a large area of mountainous countryside that can serve as a base for conventional battles beyond its boundaries. However, military preparations are no more the PPUA’s forte than kidnappings. The party’s more sensational actions, like the Davis abduction, have not gone smoothly, and the archaic arms it provides supporters are no match for the automatic weapons the army wields. The PPUA’s strength and any future it has lie in the leadership’s ability to weld peasants together for small goals with short-term payoffs. With tractors financed by PPUA money, peasants in several ejidos are increasing their productivity. With vintage rifles supplied by the PPUA, they are taking over new acreage and defending themselves, not from federates but from pistoleros, the private armies of cattle, lumber and marijuana operators. It is as much like a wild West range war as a guerrilla uprising. The chief figure behind the PPUA is known to police as Florencio Medrano Mederos;[1] in the mountains of Oaxaca he is known to the people as Güero.


El Comandante

Ten days pass before the courier contacts me at my Mexico City hotel, and he takes me not to the peasant south, but to an industrial suburb of the city. He leads me into a junkyard and up to an adobe apartment at the rear. A man in his middle thirties, muscular and unmistakably güero—“light-skinned”—rises to embrace me. Unlike most of the people I will meet, Güero has few Indian features. He has clear, deep-set blue eyes and curly, sandy hair cut short. “So you are the cousin whom Mario has sent,” he cries out, as if overjoyed by my presence. I am not related to Mario, of course, but to Güero everyone the revolution touches becomes part of his clan.

Güero came down from the hills just this morning and rented the apartment on arrival. Pasteboard suitcases, still packed, are scattered around the room. A pile of floor sweepings rests in a corner beside a broom, and the smell of dust laces the air. In the center stands a single chair and an unvarnished table stacked high with wrinkled paper bags and fresh tortillas. Along one wall is a narrow cot where we sit down side by side. We are not alone in the room: there are three young men who act as guards. They glance repeatedly at the doorway, looking for soldiers or police, but if the authorities learn Güero is here, they will come in such numbers that the bodyguards will be useless. Near the table an Indian woman bends over her infant daughter. She is about thirty, less than five feet tall, with attractive dark spots on the crests of her cheekbones. Her name is Silvia, and she is Güero’s wife.

Güero tells me that our meeting was delayed because several days earlier an army search party marched on the ejido where he is headquartered. Forewarned, he and his aides retreated further up on the jungle-covered mountainsides, where only peasants and outlaws go. He did not come down until spotters told him that the troops had abandoned the region.

Güero wears laced boots that reach up to his calves, and the cuffs of his tan khaki pants are stuffed into the tops. Although he is only five feet, six inches, his athletic build makes him seem taller. Every movement reveals fine muscle tone. He is clean-shaven, and if his pink shirt were not soiled by the grime of mountain trails, he might easily be mistaken for a high school gym coach. I have been told he has bleeding ulcers in need of treatment, but nothing in his manner betrays illness of any sort. I ask about the ailment. “Well, I’ve had that problem for a few months, and I guess it’s getting worse. But we’ll straighten it out in the next few days,” Güero says, as though he were talking about plumbing repairs.

He politely refuses my request to photograph him. Police pictures show a man with a moustache, but Güero says he trimmed it off last night to avoid detection in the city. He is not too concerned about giving authorities a new view of him for their dossiers; instead, he doesn’t want his picture taken because his new look doesn’t compliment him.

Admirers compare Güero to Che Guevara, and indeed his boyish soccer-star appearance is reminiscent of Che’s Mexican period, just before he embarked with Fidel for the invasion of Batista’s Cuba. But several things set Güero apart from Che, Lenin, Mao and other revolutionary leaders in whose footsteps he hopes to follow. Communist revolutionaries have typically been men from educated classes who take up arms against injustices they understand in theory but have never suffered personally. Che was an allergist by profession; Lenin, an attorney; Mao, a schoolteacher and the son of a prosperous farmer. Ten years ago Güero was a landless peasant and traveling handicrafts hawker. Güero grew up illiterate; communist friends taught him to read as an adult. Lenin, Mao and Che were self-taught revolutionaries. Güero went to China in 1969 to be trained. Other revolutionary leaders have been propagandists, but the PPUA does not even publish a newspaper. “The people will be in revolt before we have time to do much educational work,” Güero says.

Güero was born in 1945 in the little town of Limón Grande, Guerrero. The Medrano clan was notorious long before Güero’s time for agitating in favor of land reform; three generations ago, Güero’s ancestors fought alongside Zapata. During Güero’s childhood, the family more than once clashed with pistoleros and the army. He remembers one Christmas when 27 of his relatives were jailed for taking part in a land seizure.

“When I was about 15, I had to join in the struggle with the other men in my family, the struggle for land.” Outwitting the pistoleros became Güero’s occupation. But after several gunfights with pistoleros and one clash with the army, he quit to seek work in Mexico City. There he had to face up to not knowing how to read. “Several times I went out to buy tortillas and couldn’t find my way back home. All the streets looked the same to me, and I couldn’t read the signs. Nobody would give me a job because I hadn’t finished primary school.” For a few days he pushed a fruit cart in La Merced market, then he moved on, first to Cuernavaca, where he worked for a short time as a bricklayer’s apprentice, next to join the army. Nine months later he quit. Within weeks, he had joined a group of traveling artisans. While on tour with them, Güero made friends with members of a now-defunct communist political faction. At their discussion sessions, he was awakened to the Medrano heritage.

“Before, I always thought that our enemy was only in Limón Grande. But the more I studied and thought, the more I understood that the landlord problem affects all of Mexico. There are hundreds of thousands of peasants in the same condition as my family,” Güero says. His Maoist friends invited Güero to join them on a trip to China. He was there for six months, and when he returned, he began to organize the peasants.

In 1973, Güero and his younger brother, Primo, led a handful of homeless Cuernavacans in the takeover of a large tract of undeveloped land owned by a politically prominent landlord. Within weeks 20,000 other squatters, most of them dispossessed peasants who had come to the city seeking work, joined the seven families who led the invasion. The encampment, dubbed Rubén Jaramillo in honor of a martyred land-movement leader, was nonviolent by default: the only weapon available was an M-l rifle Mario Cantú had given Primo. When the army came into Rubén Jaramillo to arrest its leaders, Primo fired away while the others escaped. Primo was killed, but the survivors, along with Chicano supporters like Cantú, regrouped as the PPUA. The army has been hunting Güero ever since.

Güero is a man who disdains words. He tells me that Mexico is about to explode, but does not follow with the usual Marxist sermon about why the masses ought to rise up. Instead, he orders an Indian youth at the doorway to guide me through half a dozen named villages. Then he opens his billfold and gives my guide 500 pesos for expenses. I note that the wallet is bulging, both with pesos and American greenbacks—whether sent by supporters or taken in ransom I do not know. Güero dictates a note to the youth who will accompany me, signs it with flourishes, then writes his name legibly below. I now have my passport to the war zone.


Rocking Guerrilla

My broad-faced mahogany guide is Trueno, a twenty-year-old Zapotec from Oaxaca. Though he speaks Spanish without an Indian accent, Trueno’s thick muscular limbs, his squatness, his complexion and his straight, shimmering black hair that stands nearly straight up mark him as an indígena, or Indian. Yet Trueno is more like my younger brother, Joe, than any of his tribal ancestors. Like millions of young people north of the border, Trueno worships a music box. His particular icon is a battery-powered GE tape player and radio that he carries everywhere and without whose companionship he cannot fall asleep. The questions Trueno asks me about the U.S. are not about politics, economics or history; they are questions about Alice Cooper, Elton John, the Grateful Dead and the Doors. Trueno’s pockets and his backpack are crammed with cassettes of their songs, whose words he cannot understand.

Trueno became a guerrilla less for ideological reasons than because he is surging with physical vigor in need of an outlet. Though he ran away from home at fifteen because his village had no high school, he is not inclined to intellectual pursuits. One day during our journey Trueno picked up my copy of the Mexican gun law. He read for less than five minutes, then said, “Hell, you don’t need to study that. All it says is that everything is illegal.” Two months earlier, when a kidnap ransom was paid, Güero gave him 194,000 pesos (about $8,200) to make an arms purchase on the black market. Trueno completed his mission without difficulty, so why study the law? He showed no interest in my other pamphlet explaining the agrarian reform law.

When I ask Trueno why he joined the PPUA his answer is: “¡Hijo, hombre, es la honda! Las chamacas de la universidad se vuelvan locas por los guerrilleros.” (“Damn, man, that’s the groove! College girls go crazy over guerrillas.”) He does not talk freely about his past, and we travel together for nearly a week before I can piece it together.

Trueno is the second-oldest son born to peasants in a region of rural Oaxaca where life is especially cheap and survival unusually dear. By his own account, his family was more prosperous than others. “We had electricity in our house,” he says. An older brother, Jaime, ran off to Mexico City, where he educated himself and became a primary school teacher. Five years ago, Trueno joined Jaime in a waterless, unheated one-bedroom apartment in the city and shined shoes in neighborhood bars for pocket change. Three years later he graduated from a technical school and found work as a drill-press operator in an electronics factory. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed peasants in Mexico City pray every day for such luck. But Trueno could not abide the discipline of industry. “That was the toughest time of my life, there in the factory. I couldn’t stand to have the foreman looking over my shoulder all the time. I wanted to quit every minute I was there.” Trueno was never assimilated into urban life, and when a cousin in Oaxaca who had joined the PPUA invited him back to the hills to organize, he left the city at once. The PPUA gave Trueno what the Oaxacan economy could not: a sense of belonging, a mission. At last he was no longer burdened by the lowly status and monotony that go with the word indígena. Now villagers regard Trueno as a man of the world, a leader whose heart is in the countryside, but whose head has urban savvy.

Trueno has been with the PPUA only six months, yet already he is “burned”—known to the police. His frightened parents forbid him to visit their home. Trueno has not yet killed anybody, but he says he undoubtedly will when the order is given. He regards violence as a natural fact that only cowards and the naive would question. “They have always killed us, haven’t they? So why not kill a few of them?” He studies the crime pages of newspapers, keeping score of every new kidnapping as though revolution were a soccer game and the kidnappings goals for his side. “But the articles don’t say who does these things or why,” I point out. “What difference does that make? They have it coming,” he retorts. “They” includes American businessmen, diplomats from every capitalist country, the rich of all nations, all policemen and military officers and politicians.

Despite his icy bravado, Trueno is full of the sentimentality and openness of youth. He plays with children on the streets and chats expansively with ticket clerks in bus stations, farmers in their fields, Indian women in their huts. Engaged to marry when he joined the PPUA, he now refuses his fiancée’s pleas for a wedding date. He confides to me that he has never slept with her because he does not want to make promises he may not be able to carry out. Like most young men his age, he is often homesick. Every night before going to bed, he places a special tape into his machine, a song by revolutionary balladeer José de Molina:

Madre, me voy a la sierra,
Madre, dispuesto a luchar.
Me llevo un puño de tierra,
Pa’ recordar el hogar.
(Mother, I am going to the mountains,
Mother, ready to fight.
I carry with me a fistful of dirt,
To remind me of our home.)


No More Waiting

At the ejido Miguel Allende, a three-hour walk into the hills from the highway, Trueno introduces me to a dark, squat, graying man who speaks in near-falsetto. He is the ayor of this community as well as one of its founders. In 1971, along with 200 other landless peasants, he petitioned the agrarian reform agency for an ejido on the square mile of ranchland where their fields and homes now sit. For five years, representatives of the peasants’ committee signed papers—the verb “to sign” has become local scatological slang —and kept appointments with the bureaucracy’s regional offices. But nothing happened. In early 1976, a few militants, armed only with machetes and hatchets, decided to seize the land in time to clear it for spring planting. As soon as they erected huts on a knoll, pistoleros moved in and harassed them unmercifully, fencing over their plots and turning cattle loose to trample their crops. The community survived by splitting up the harvests from fields that withstood the Santa Gertrudis invasion, and, I suspect, by income from a small and well-hidden harvest of marijuana as well. But the ejido’s spirit was broken. Families began moving out, some to seek work in far-off cities, some to return to the employ of patrones whom they had proudly told good-bye just six months earlier. Only those who had little future apart from the ejido decided to stay and fight.

Most peasants in southern Mexico know the name Güero Medrano. They whisper of his exploits in bus stations—the nerve centers that connect mountain villages with the rest of the world—and tell of them openly in the ejidos. Güero’s organizers circulate through the backcountry, carrying the message of class struggle. The leaders of Miguel Allende had been hearing about Güero for six months or more; finally, they contacted an organizer and sent for him, in the hope he could help their ejido survive.

Güero showed up alone and empty-handed, but brought promises of guns and a tractor for the embattled community. He asked in return that the settlers aid other peasants in the land war and that they pledge allegiance to revolution if problems of campesinos could not be solved by ordinary means—in effect, that the village join PPUA. All Miguel Allende discussed the proposal for a week at midday meetings. A vote was taken, and the PPUA won. Six dissident families left the community, and the rest awaited the inevitable confrontation with the pistoleros. Before spring planting time, the PPUA sent a tractor and a cache of Mausers, .22 automatic pistols, and M-l carbines. Party organizers cleared a spot of land further up in the hills to train villagers in the use of firearms.

On the evening of May 1, the men gathered in the ejido assembly hut for the attack. There were 77 altogether, 22 with guns and the rest with machetes and hoes. They grouped in a crescent on a ridge above the hollow where the pistoleros had built their huts. A warning shot initiated the fighting.

The mayor tells me the rest: “They shot back, about twenty rounds. One person was hit in the ankle. We started giving them thunder from all sides, and they skipped out, running for the highway. We got one as he ran off. He just lay there and we waited, not shooting anymore because we were short on ammunition. After dark, a pickup pulled up down there, and two men laid the pistolero in the back and drove off. We don’t know if he was dead or alive.”

Nothing has been heard from the pistoleros since the shoot-out. New families have joined the ejido, taking over homes abandoned by those who left last year. “Some who moved out on us back when things looked bad now want to return. But we’ve voted to keep them out, because they ran out in our time of trouble,” the mayor explains.

Shooting a pistolero, of course, is a far cry from waging revolution, but the people of Miguel Allende have no concept of this. Miguel Allende’s revolutionaries dream not about taking over the government but about taking a piece of land and holding it. For them, revolution means taking up arms against foot soldiers. They believe that if they can get enough M-ls, they will have all the advantages on their side. It is a simple equation: rifles plus geography means victory. The army must come up from highways below their village. No one in the village is aware of fragmentation or napalm bombs; only a few have ever heard of Viet Nam.

One family in the ejido does have a broader perspective. A father and his adult son came from Guerrero, the southern state where Acapulco is located and the former base of Che-style guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas, killed by the army in 1974. “When we lived in Guerrero,” the father says, “some people in our ejido helped Cabañas, but we were afraid. But here we decided to join this organization [villagers almost never say PPUA because they have been told the party’s name is a matter of security] because people said it was for the same things Cabañas was. The farmer is suffering everywhere in Mexico and we’re tired of it.”

The son, about twenty, takes off his cowboy hat before speaking to me. “I have two boys who will someday want land. Unless we get rid of this government of the rich bourgeoisie [some PPUA visitor must have taught him that phrase] my children won’t have the dirt to bury themselves in.” But for most of the villagers, including the mayor, the world they know is limited to the Oaxacan jungle, and the idea of a national revolution is beyond them.

I ask the mayor whether the government could head off peasant insurgency simply by delivering a tractor to every ejido. He agrees with my proposition, but has no faith in the government. His skepticism has nothing to do with the government’s economic crisis, of which he is unaware. “If the government would help us . . . If, if,” he repeats. “I have lived sixty-three years, and the only government I ever saw that gave a damn for campesinos was the Cárdenas government, way back in the thirties.”

The peasants’ distaste for governments and landlords is rivaled only by their faith in Güero, the only leader most have ever trusted. They reward him with near worship. When I ask the mayor why he decided to support Güero, his answer is a hearty “¡Porqué el Güero es tan cabrón!” which translates to something like, “Because Güero is such a son of a bitch!”

“You see, Güero doesn’t care what will happen if they catch him. All he thinks about is what we have to do to get out of this hole we’re in. He is macho enough to do whatever it takes. We all waited for years, suffering, doing as we were told, hoping a new leader would come along. Now he has come, and we are ready and this time we won’t forgive. Now we are cabrón, too. You see, when the people get mad, they are cabrón, and it takes one big cabrón to lead them.”

Two mornings later, I see just how serious the mayor is about being cabrón. I am awakened by the voices of several town elders, including the mayor, who are talking to Trueno. The topic is Alfonso, a founder of Miguel Allende, its first PPUA leader and the very man who invited Güero in. But the elders say he tried to sell ejido memberships to landless peasants in the region, a common but illegal practice of corrupt ejido leaders. Peasants who buy into an ejido in this manner often are merely front men for big landowners who want to expand onto the ejido. The peasant stands aside while cattle are run onto his plot (and others), and pistoleros stand by with automatic weapons to protect him from irate ejidatarios. Suspicions about Alfonso were confirmed some weeks ago when he came back from Ocotopec, the nearest market town, with new knee-high boots and a feathered cowboy hat. “Where else could he get that kind of money? The rest of us barely have enough to feed the cockroaches,” one of the elders declares. “We’ve got to kill Alfonso, the mayor says, and all nod assent.

The visitors have noticed that I am listening, but no one pays any mind. A little boy and a dog wander in and sit down together in the dirt; they too are ignored. The leaders want Trueno to approve their decision about Alfonso, but he wants a question answered first. “What about his family?” Alfonso is divorced and has no children in Miguel Allende. He lives with two sisters, one of whom has a child. The child is already an orphan, and therefore killing Alfonso will not deprive him of anything, the mayor says. Trueno hesitates a moment, sitting at his table in thought. Then he looks straight at the villagers and grins. “Yeah, man, you’re right. Alfonso deserves to be thundered. But don’t you provoke him in any way. Wait until you can ambush him in the jungle.”


The Church Leans Left

There are no regular religious observances in Miguel Allende. The village is one of 24 visited by Father Antonio, a beleaguered itinerant priest. The padre is a curly-haired, white-skinned man of about forty, a native of  Mexico City with an urbane, middle-class accent. Though he has a sturdy lumberjack’s build, he seems gentle, intense and, in a way, sad. He tells me he knows Alfonso but won’t talk about him in the village. We agree to meet the following night in Ocotopec.

The encounter is set for a snack bar on a side street, and the padre, dressed in street clothes and a clerical collar, is waiting when I arrive. As soon as I am seated, he leans towards me and whispers rapidly, “Do you know that they’re going to kill Alfonso?” I ask the padre what he has done to save him. The priest stares at me with his green eyes; my question has distressed him, not because it provokes a moral crisis, but because it tells him I do not understand.

“Alfonso brought a pistol to Mass last week, and I threw him out. Afterwards, I went by his house to persuade him to give up the ejido. His sisters agree, but he’s determined to show that he cannot be scared off.” He says he has not tried to talk the villagers out of murdering Alfonso. “What good would it do? They know and I know that Alfonso tried to make side deals on the ejido. People here in Ocotopec have told me that he offered to make them members for a fee.” The padre does not consider his inaction tantamount to condoning murder. He tells me a parable about a man who committed seven sins and was forgiven; but when the man committed seventy times seven sins, there was no pardon from man or God.

In fact, the point of the parable related in the Book of Matthew is that there is no limit to mercy: Jesus tells Peter that even seventy times seven sins should be forgiven. Father Antonio’s inventive interpretation of Scripture reveals a great deal about the role of the Church in Mexico today. Since the Church no longer has extensive land holdings to protect, priests for some time have had greater political latitude than they did before the 1910 Revolution. Especially in rural parishes, many priests have begun to embrace radical social and political ideas. Even the hierarchy is gradually being transformed. In Cuernavaca, Bishop Méndez Arceo, whom newspapers have labeled the Red Bishop, instructs his clergy on the sacred duty of advocating the cause of the poor. His priests are social agitators as much as men of the cloth, and they are not alone: all over Latin America, the Church is leaning left.

The padre orders Cokes for us both. “Aguas negras del imperialismo” (“black waters of imperialism”), he calls them; he frequently drops the rhetoric of revolution into the conversation. He tells me about his conversion, not to the priesthood, but to socialist politics. “Two years ago, I came out here to care for the spiritual needs of the indígenas, not knowing anything about how important material needs are. You see, my father was a merchant, and my brother is a judge; I come from a very petit-bourgeois family. Or I should say I did. Today I see things in the light of poverty.”

Three months ago, Father Antonio asked the Church to set up a technical training school for ejidatarios, primarily because inexperienced peasants ruined a PPUA-bought tractor. But he does not know if his request was favorably received, and he, like his flock, is impatient with duly delegated bureaucracy. “You know, the revolution for independence was led by a priest, Miguel Hidalgo, who had Indian parishioners like mine. Hidalgo didn’t wait for the whole Church to develop a full-blown social conscience, and sometimes I wonder what I should do.” But Father Antonio has not joined the PPUA, nor is he likely to, because he has found a disconcerting verse in the scriptures of Engels: “Every premature attempt at an insurrection can only end in a new, perhaps still more horrible defeat.”


A Time To Die

Trueno and I return to the countryside, but to a different ejido, Cuesta del Sol, a four-hour walk uphill from the highway. After we cross a muddy river in a dugout, a peasant boy leads us through a patch of jungle, which, many turns later, opens onto a hut on the far edge of the settlement. He has brought us this roundabout way because in Cuesta del Sol’s center there are 17 uniformed policemen with Mausers; this in a village of about 350 inhabitants clustered in a little over a square mile. The squad was sent from Ocotopec some two months before, after an ejidatario suspected by his townspeople of spying for the government was found shot dead in the jungle. The police have not bothered to investigate, presumably because they already know that two tractors on the village square were paid for by the PPUA—and because they know, too, that the townspeople are armed. Each Saturday, the police force is rotated. Otherwise, the cops keep to their quarters, venturing out only to raise and lower a flag each day. The PPUA has issued orders not to harm them. “If one of us were to kill a cop, a thousand soldiers would come in his place,” the party’s local chairman tells me.

On my second day in the village, I meet a lanky young man who speaks knowledgeably about both Mexican and American affairs and professes a passion for books. After he has twice grilled Trueno about my reliability and inspected the signature on my pass from Güero, he tells me he is not Hector Calzado, as the villagers believe, but Pablo de la O Castareña. I recognize the name from newspapers. His sister, Maricela, is imprisoned for her participation in the Davis kidnapping.

Pablo, who is now 26, was working in a brickyard near Cuernavaca when Maricela prevailed on him to drive the getaway car for the Davis kidnapping. It was his first taste of revolutionary involvement. The next morning he began reading Lenin. “I found my whole life there. Everything that I had seen or felt since my childhood was explained,” he says. After the ransom was paid, Pablo was dispatched to the U.S., where he arranged to smuggle a gun shipment into Mexico. Eighteen months ago, he was arrested at a checkpoint, taken to Monterrey, and warned that he would be tortured until he confessed to all he knew about the arms trade. Pablo decided it would be less painful and more valorous to die. He passed his belt around his neck and over a shower pipe in his cell. “Just as I was losing consciousness, the damn pipe broke,” he says. When the guards discovered his attempt, they promptly took him for the “heating” he had dreaded. They forced water, lemonade and alcohol down his mouth and nostrils. “For part of that time, they held my nose shut and stuck a hose down my throat. I had to swallow. When my belly was full, the cops gave me karate punches in the gut.” Pablo vomited. The “heating” was repeated several times over four hours, until Pablo promised to tell all.

The guards hauled him upstairs, where he was unbound. Pablo told them he was a street hoodlum who traded in guns for profit, but they knew he was lying and ordered him taken down for another treatment.

“I knew I’d rather die than suffer through that again, and I knew that if they kept up, I would talk,” Pablo recalls, telling the story with obvious relish. “We were going downstairs and the handcuffs were still off. So I told them that if they didn’t shoot me right there, I would make a run for it.”

They didn’t, and Pablo did. There were shots, but the only casualty was a young passerby. After Pablo eluded the police, he looked for a way to go south.

“I found the poorest house in the poorest part of town, and I asked for help. The people let me stay overnight, and when I left, they gave me nine pesos and a pair of old socks.” Pablo’s picture was in the newspapers, which listed him as a leader of the American Terrorist International, a name the police invented and have never used since. Radio reports said that helicopters over Monterrey were looking for him and that all hitchhikers were being asked for identification. So Pablo went downtown and begged handouts until he had collected bus fare to Mexico City.

He is now living in Cuesta del Sol by day, sleeping in the jungle at night in a hut the villagers built for him. Looking upwards from its door at night, I can’t see the stars through the dense foliage of the jungle. If, as Pablo likes to believe, the helicopters are still looking for him—which they aren’t—he is well hidden.

Pablo lights a kerosene lantern and reads aloud passages from Mao. “A revolutionary,” he tells me, “is someone who has given himself to death. A true revolutionary knows that the struggle must be bought with blood, and he has made the decision to give his own life. Once you have decided to die, then nothing the enemy does can stop you. You become invincible.” Trueno disagrees. “The point isn’t like that, man. A revolutionary has to be ready to kill, not die.”


The Widow’s Lament

Cuesta del Sol, like every town controlled by the PPUA, has refugees from ejidos where insurgent peasants failed. Those here are from Valencia, an ejido deserted last spring after an invasion by some two dozen armed men in federate uniforms; the refugees swear they were pistoleros in disguise. Among the refugees is Conchis, a widow of 24 who has three children, one only a few months old. Her husband, Miguel, was a native of Valencia, a leader of its ejidatarios, and a clandestine member of the PPUA. After fleeing Valencia, Miguel regrouped the refugees for a legal battle to regain their land and homes. As is usual in peasant affairs, they had no money to pay lawyers and none came forward to help; the peasants themselves scratched out denunciations and appeals to the government. Miguel and a companion left their huts in Cuesta del Sol last June 9 bound for Mexico City and an appointment with agrarian reform investigators. But they never arrived. Two pistol-toting men intercepted their bus about 15 kilometers west of the Cuesta del Sol bus stop. The two pistoleros took Miguel off the bus and, with 50 passengers as witnesses, shot him dead on the roadside. His companion, also hauled off the bus, received a flesh wound as a warning to the refugees from Valencia. There are no widow’s benefits for ejidatarias in Mexico, and Conchis survives now on the slim resources other refugees provide her.

As we talk, she tends a clay pot of rice with one hand, holding her newest-born to her breast with the other. The infant is clubfooted, as is her second-born child, a two-year-old girl. Conchis talks to me through a missing front tooth, but without an Indian accent. “My husband practically left me in the streets when he died. He never worried about anything but the ejido during the whole three years we were married.” She grimaces at the rotting roof of the hut. “When we came here the people in town donated us this hut. Miguel kept promising to fix it up, because the roof leaks. But he never did. Now he is gone, and I have no one to do it. The men here have promised to put on a new roof for me, but I can’t pay for it, so you can see—they’ve done nothing.” Conchis sits down in a hand-hewn chair, rocking the baby in her arms. She smiles at me, and places one bare foot on top of the other. “Señor, do you know where I might find a doctor for my two kids? I have been told that their feet can be fixed, but I don’t know who will help. The priest who sometimes gives Mass here told me he would ask for a doctor, but no one has come.”

It is true, as Conchis says, that the villagers are not helping her. “That woman goes into town at night and comes home in the morning with new clothes. She doesn’t need our help because she’s getting money from men in town,” an ejido gossip tells me. A local PPUA leader says, “She talks against us so much, you’d think she had joined the enemy. We will help her someday, but not until she quits blaming us for her husband’s death.” Conchis and her children can be fed for about ten dollars a week; they could survive for a year on no more money than it takes to buy a single M-l on the black market. But the PPUA has asked its members to refuse her aid until she silences her critical tongue.

Conchis, however, is unlikely to give verbal or any other kind of support to the PPUA’s enemies or, for that matter, to the PPUA itself. Like most women in the Oaxacan hills, she simply wants to survive. Politics are not her affair, by her own choice. Like most Mexican peasants, male or female, she is not curious about her place in history and asks only that history leave her alone. But that is no longer possible in Oaxaca. The whole rural expanse of southern Mexico is bristling with pistoleros, soldiers and revolutionaries. No one is likely to answer her appeals for food, shelter or medical care, and she is beginning to realize that her future is out of her hands. The last thing she said to me as I prepared to leave the village was, “Señor, is there any way I could get help from people in the United States?”

It has now been six months since I first saw Güero and his PPUA. Since then, I have made another trip into the mountains. Alfonso, the intended murder victim, took Father Antonio’s advice and abandoned Miguel Allende. Pistoleros ambushed Pablo de la O in October and left him for dead. With five bullets in his torso, he nonetheless survived and today is organizing in a new locale. The widow Conchis, still despised by her townspeople, has been joined by another widow, whose husband was killed by police just days after I left the village. Trueno carried the PPUA’s message into his home region, where he won such support that he now visits his parents in broad daylight. Güero’s headquarters today is an ejido in the state of Veracruz; six months ago, Trueno and I were asked to leave there because its villagers were fearful of government reprisals. It was apparent on my second trip that the PPUA is growing even faster than its leaders expected.

Its success is directly attributable to the persistent crisis that plagues the Mexican countryside. The statistics testify that the crisis is real, but anyone who has ventured into the backcountry requires no mathematical proof. I see the campesino’s plight most clearly in my own memory: the peasants of Oaxaca live no better today than they did in my childhood, a quarter-century ago, when I first set eyes on them. In the market towns, one now sees with frequency scenes that a generation ago could only be witnessed in far-off places like Calcutta or Hong Kong: multitudes thronging around vegetable stands and bus stations, a great crush of people spilling into the streets, the flesh of the population explosion, dressed in bright colors. Urban Mexico may be entering the modern age—it is true that ordinary workers now purchase televisions and used cars—but in the mountains, nothing has changed.

Official peasant organizations assembled Jan. 7 in Veracruz to protest conditions in the countryside, and President José López Portillo responded with a promise to put agricultural reform on a par with petroleum development. But what can the government do? It can neither create jobs by the thousands nor fashion new lands from the ocean. It lacks even the elementary resources to supply each ejido a tractor.

The government can’t even effectively mobilize against the PPUA and the half-dozen other insurgent groups operating in the countryside. It has taken some symbolic steps: the new governor of Oaxaca is the general whose troops tracked down and killed Lucio Cabañas, and the army recently went on maneuvers in the Oaxacan mountains. Several cities I saw on my return were under guard at night, and sentries were posted around the clock at bus stations which connect with the ejidos. But the police are as clumsy and corrupt as they are portrayed in legend. Revolutionaries fear only the army, and with every passing day the insurgents are better armed for battle. Of course, they would lose any serious confrontation, but they don’t plan to engage in direct combat. For the foreseeable future, their fight is with the landowners and their pistoleros.

It is, of course, unthinkable that the PPUA or its kindred organizations might bring off a successful revolution in Mexico within this decade or the next. But the PPUA just might lead thousands into massive land seizures, leading to who knows what kind of retaliation and accompanying turmoil in the cities. In the meantime, the threat posed by the PPUA is neither so great that the party must be dealt with, nor so insignificant that it can be ignored.

Recently the PPUA has defined itself as a “Marxist-Leninist party.” But that change is a calculated one aimed at winning support from the radical movement in urban Mexico. The PPUA’s real character was described long ago by a now-forgotten general in Pancho Villa’s army. The general told an American correspondent, “I am not an educated man, but I know that to fight is the last thing for any people. Only when things get too bad to stand, eh? And, if we are going to kill our brothers, something fine must come out of it, eh?” It is that simple faith—“something fine must come out of it, eh?”—which keeps revolution alive in Mexico.

[1] The people in this account are identified by their real names. The names of the villages are fictitious.