Mexico's Thought Police

FBI-trained forces allegedly tortured political dissidents

by Kent Paterson

In These Times magazine, May 2000


Controversy is raging in Mexico over the creation and deployment of a new police force largely made up of soldiers. Officially formed to fight drug lords and kidnappers, critics charge that the 5,000-member Federal Preventive Police (PFP) is instead being used by President Ernesto Zedillo to repress political dissent during the run-up to elections in July.

The PFP was formed last year under the watch of Francisco Labastida, Mexico's former interior minister and current presidential candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PFP's mission is to enforce federal laws against everything from drug trafficking to illegal tree cutting. Last year, President Clinton praised the PFP as a positive step forward in Mexico's campaign against drug traffickers and sanctioned FBI training for the new police unit.

But according to the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the PFP is actually the Mexican government's new counterinsurgency brigade, employing both physical and psychological warfare tactics against government critics. "The government is throwing gasoline on the fire and fanning the flames of social conflict," says Jose Sanchez, a lawyer for six prisoners from Guerrero state who claim PFP officers tortured them.

In November, the PFP abruptly transferred the prisoners from the state penitentiary in Acapulco to the maximum security Puente Grande prison hundreds of miles away in the state of Jalisco. The Mexican government claims that the so-called Acapulco Six are connected to two of the guerrilla groups operating in Guerrero, the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) and the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR). But the Acapulco Six deny the charges and consider themselves political prisoners because of their involvement in the PRD.

Virginia Montes, a PRD member and one of the Acapulco Six, claims that PFP officers tortured her and the other five prisoners during their move to Puente Grande. "Police hit my ears and threatened to kill me and my entire family," Montes says. "They kept asking us for the names of the leaders of the EPR and ERPI, to which we answered, we had no knowledge of anyone in these groups and knew nothing about them." She says the warden of Puente Grande warned the prisoners to keep their mouths shut about the tortures or face solitary confinement.

Montes and her husband Guillermo Martinez-both PRD members-were arrested in Acapulco last October for the murder of fellow party member Marco Antonio Lopez. Lopez was found shot within hours of local elections that toppled the PRI's 70-year hold on the local government. Other PRD members cried that Montes and Martinez were framed, and the police eventually dropped charges. However, federal authorities then filed new charges against Montes for alleged weapons possession. She denies the charge, but was convicted and is now serving 10 years.

Another member of the Acapulco Six, Begnino Guzman, is the leader of the Peasant Organization of the Southern Sierra Madre. In 1995, Guerrero state police shot and killed 17 unarmed farmers and members of his group near the village of Aguas L Blancas. Guzman is now serving a 13-year sentence for charges stemming from a protest that resulted in destruction of government property.

Meanwhile, U.S. assistance to police forces in Guerrero is on the rise. Zeferino Torreblanca, mayor of Acapulco, has invited the FBI to train officers this spring. Among the agencies expected to participate in the FBI program is the state police. In recent years, state police agents have been arrested for their involvement in kidnapping rings and have been accused of numerous human rights violations, including robbery, torture and murder. One such incident was Aguas Blancas. The FBI attaché in Mexico City has declined to comment on U.S. involvement with the PFP or other branches of Mexican law enforcement.

The PFP also has been involved in quashing student protests. In February, 3,000 PFP personnel evicted student strikers from Mexico City's National Autonomous University (UNAM) campus. Critics denounced the move as a violation of Mexico's long tradition of university autonomy. Predictably, members of the PRI, including Labastida, defended the use of the PFP in the UNAM conflict as a last resort.

In the wake of the UNAM strike, Wilfrido Robledo, commander of the PFP, was ordered to testify before the Mexican Congress. According to PRD Sen. Felix Salgado Macedonio, secretary of the Mexican Senate's Defense Commission, Congress doesn't even know what the current budget of the PFP is. Salgado says he expects Robledo to testify this spring.

PFP units are now frequently seen on the streets of Mexico City, but their presence has had little effect on the bloodletting between drug rings, which has recently claimed several lives. Nonetheless, the Zedillo administration announced in March that it was setting up five new PFP training academies.

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