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U.S. arms to Mexico repeats dark past


With Central America's civil wars over, arms are now flowing to Mexico at a rapid rate. The Pentagon, business community and political leaders have apparently decided our vital interests are threatened. And rather than urging Mexico's leaders to deal with the social conditions that led to the rise of the Zapatistas and, more recently, another rebel group in Guerrero, weapons are flowing southward so that Mexico can eliminate the rebels. Thus the mistakes made in Central America in recent decades will be repeated, this time closer to home.

Delivery of the first shipments of a $50 million weapons and reconnaissance package began in November, according to an Inter Press Service story by Jeffrey St. Clair. Included were 73 Huey helicopters, four reconnaissance planes, 500 armored personnel transporters, night vision and command control and communications equipment and many kinds of individual and crew-served weapons.

The stated purpose of the shipments is to fight drug wars, but the true purpose, according to St. Clair, harks back to a recommendation made in 1994 by the Chase Bank. In an advisory to its clients -- a position later disowned -- the bank stated that the Zapatistas "should be eliminated." The Inter Press Report quotes Donald E. Schultz, professor of national security at the U.S. Army's War College as saying: "A hostile government could put U.S. investments (in Mexico) in danger, jeopardize access to oil, produce a flood of refugees and economic migrants to the north." Similar statements were often made about Central America in the 1980s.

Kathy Vargas, a Maryknoll lay missioner based in Mexico who occasionally accompanies her husband, Javier, on visits to Chiapas where he has projects with indigenous groups, said recently that Chiapas has become a garrison state. One third of Mexico's Armed Forces, 60,000 troops, are stationed in the region. "There are encampments of 500 troops literally a stone's throw from villages of fewer than 300 people," Vargas said. For indigenous people, some of whom have never visited a city or even seen automobiles, the sight of tanks, helicopters, jeeps, trucks and sophisticated weaponry is extremely intimidating, she added.

The occupying army has brought prostitution, venereal disease, AIDS and drug abuse. Alcoholism has worsened and rapes have increased. Over 50 rapes were reported in the conflict zone the past two years. The villagers suffer continual harassment and intimidation, house raids, land evictions and forced labor. They are denied freedom of movement and the right of peaceful assembly. More than a year ago, over a thousand Ch'ol Indians were forced to leave their homes. They are now returning, but the government will not assure their safety.

"In Chiapas there is neither peace nor justice," said Vargas. The war in Chiapas has not ended. It has just taken new forms.

Human rights workers, pastoral agents, teachers, social workers and journalists have all suffered attacks and threats, Vargas said. "Three missionary priests have been forcibly deported during the past two years and two others have been denied re-entry into Mexico," she said.

Encouraged by the flow of arms, the Mexican government has taken a hard line in dealing with the Zapatistas. Negotiations did not begin until a year after Mexican troops had beaten back the Zapatistas from the townships they invaded. Bad faith and foot-dragging characterized the talks, which were supposed to deal with indigenous rights and culture, democracy and justice, well-being and development and women's rights. The discussions were suspended in September by the Zapatistas, who charged that the government had not fulfilled initial agreements.

According to St. Clair, the Pentagon became interested in sending arms to Mexico in 1988. During the Bush administration such shipments came to $212 million. The Clinton administration will easily exceed that amount. When the Zapatistas marched out of the Lacandon forest and seized five townships in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, several helicopters meant for drug interdiction were used to transport Mexican troops to the combat zone. A 1996 General Accounting Office report says that was a violation of the transfer agreement between the United States and Mexico. Yet, according to reports, U.S. officials have not insisted on strict compliance.

Instead, officials are beginning to speak more openly about providing arms to defeat rebel groups. James Jones, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, was reported to have said in a public telecommunications conference last September that the United States was willing to provide increased military support to fight rebel groups. "Whatever they need, we will certainly support," Jones was quoted as saying.

Forgotten -- if indeed they were ever considered -- are the causes that lead to the rise of these movements: poverty, inequality, political corruption, electoral fraud, economic and political manipulation of the poor to the advantage of the rich and powerful. Decades of warfare did not solve those problems in Central America and will not solve them in Mexico.

Moises Sandoval is editor of Revista Maryknoll, a Spanish-English mission magazine, and editor-at-large of Maryknoll magaine.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997