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NACLA: The War on Drugs War is a War on the Poor

December 21st, 2009

By Todd Miller

On June 20, 2009, soldiers set up a military checkpoint in Huamuxtitlan, a small town in the La Montaña region of the state of Guerrero, one of Mexico's many drug-war hot spots. They called a northbound passenger bus to a halt, searched it for drugs and weapons, and detained a passenger named Fausto Valera because he was wearing military-style boots. Perhaps suspecting that he was an insurgent, the soldiers demanded to know where he got the boots. When his answers failed to satisfy them, they placed him under arrest. The incredulous bus driver asked the soldiers to note in his log book that Valera was in their custody. After some complaining, they reluctantly did so.

Moments after the coach pulled away the bus driver heard noises, the sharp sound of rounds being fired, but couldn't imagine that the soldiers were shooting at the bus. "Stop driver!" "Go faster driver!" people yelled from the back confirming that the soldiers were in fact shooting at the bus. Although the soldiers later claimed they were firing into the air, several rounds hit the bus, and one instantly killed an indigenous man named Nava Bonfilio Rubio, who was travelling north with the hope of migrating to the United States.

The war on drugs in Guerrero, like much of the rest of Mexico, is a head-on collision of poverty and militarization, and the victims of the military presence - the occasional high-profile drug lord aside - are almost always people like Valera and Bonfilio. While the money-makers of the lucrative drug trade live in mansions in Acapulco, the military hardware remains aimed at the most vulnerable - the poor. The surging presence of soldiers in the La Montaña region, which is one of the principal poppy growing regions in the country, has made it one of the many political landscapes that, from time to time, brings the war into sharp and sudden focus. It is a place where abysmal poverty meets profitable drug trafficking, and where trafficking meets militarization, resulting in a consistent pattern of violence and abuse. When civic groups and communities organize to fight against this poverty and violence, they too become targets.

In 2006, thousands of soldiers moved into the state in a counternarcotics operation, following Mexican President Felipe Calderon's strong fisted approach to fighting organized crime. Many of these soldiers concentrated in La Montaña, one of the poorest places in all of Mexico. According to a 2004 UN report, most people in the region live in conditions of human development similar to Malawi, Africa, with illiteracy rates ranging around 70% and the vast majority well below the poverty line. The region is 80% indigenous, and has been victim to slashes in farm subsidies and government support during the neoliberal era of the past 25 years. Survival has become a struggle. Migration has become the most common response to the situation, but it is not the only option. Poppy, for opium production, has become an important cash crop.

The indigenous people who cultivate poppy say they are doing it to buy food to supplement meager incomes, while continuing to subsist on corn and beans and squash. They are the lowest and least dangerous link in the drug trafficking trade, most making a pittance of 12 to 42 dollars a month, normally producing enough flowers to eventually be distilled into a half kilogram of opium. "According to the government this is a drug," explained Elena, a Mixteca woman who was showing a poppy flower to a journalist from the Mexican magazine Proceso, "but for us, the indigenous, it is money to buy corn. We earn a little, just to eat."(See Gloria Leticia Diaz, "Guerrero: La Narcomiseria," Proceso Special Edition 25, October 25, 2009.)

The military has surrounded communities suspected of cultivating poppy, often roaming the hills in hopes of manually eradicating the illicit flowers, leaving numerous abuses in their wake. The Tlachinollan Human Rights Center says that, "Instead of tackling the root-causes of the drug trade, such as the abysmal poverty that forces communities to get involved in sowing and cultivating drugs, the state has simulated a war-like strategy that only sharpens conflicts and that is determined to criminalize the poor."

While the presence of farmers cultivating poppy partly explains the increased militarization in La Montaña, everybody has gotten caught up in the abrupt, intense military operations that have turned the region into a sudden "war zone." And this, in itself, has intensified the tension between residents and soldiers. During operations masked soldiers openly patrol the streets of towns and communities. Military checkpoints, a normal ongoing reality on major roads, suddenly appear everywhere. Human rights organizations, who question why the military is doing police work, say soldiers are trained to view everyone as the enemy.

This was the case of housewife Fernanda Hernández (not her real name). Last February12, at eight in the morning, 39 masked soldiers arrived in three Hummers and burst into Hernández's house where she was with her two children. In an interview, she told me that they asked where the weapons were. "We don't have any weapons, I said. I looked at my children, extremely worried. They barged right in and rifled threw everything - throwing everything on the ground - clothes, papers, even the food in my kitchen. My house is poor, made of corrugated metal, there is no security. I asked them if they had a search warrant and they didn't. They were there for a half an hour. They said we had guns and drugs but they found nothing. Of course we don't, we are poor. My children are still scared." This was one of 20 such cases of illegal house searches documented by Monitor Civil, a group that keeps track of military and police abuses, during a military operation that lasted from January to March 2009.

These types of military abuses have been commonplace in Guerrero since the 1970s, but the 600% increase in abuses within the country since 2006 has been clearly felt in the state. According to Tlachinlollan, communities throughout the region have had to endure such abuses "including rape, destruction of their land and harvest, robbery of animals, illegal house searches, harassment, threats, and even arbitrary detentions." In response, many community organizations have formed to confront the twin epidemics of military abuse and economic desperation.

Instead of economic aid and employment, the state's response has been increased military presence around communities sympathetic to militant organizations, such as the OPIM (The Indigenous Organization of the Me' phaa People). These communities' insistence on justice for the military abuses they have suffered - abuses that include the rape of two women by soldiers in 2002 and the forced sterilization of 30 indigenous men in 1998, has not endeared them to the army. According to Amnesty International, "OPIM members have been subjected to a concerted pattern of harassment and intimidation. They have been attacked and threatened on numerous occasions; many have been placed under surveillance; one of their leaders has been killed." The message is clear: In Guerrero, fighting for justice is the equivalent to drug trafficking, especially for civilian organizations that challenge the military. Cases of military abuses always go to military jurisdiction and are tried in military courts. The common result is impunity, creating a climate where soldiers don't fear shooting directly at a bus, like the one in which Nava Bonfilio Rubio was traveling.

Bonfilio was simply trying to go north, trying to find a solution to the despair. His father sat in the office of Monitor Civil in Tlapa. His eyes watered as he said that the military has offered them money for their loss. Breaking out of the slow, deliberate way he was talking his emotion rose to a boil as he leaned forward and said, "We don't want money. We want justice." Justice, however, will be determined by a military tribunal.

Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate and a member of Witness for Peace's Mexico-based International Team. All original research in this article was done for Witness for Peace.