In Southern Mexico, the Road to Democracy Riddled With Upheaval


In the midst of Mexico’s celebrated transition to democracy, a state election was held here recently. The result: 15,000 protesters took to the streets. A campaign worker was assassinated. And guerrillas are warning of “war” if the new governor takes office Thursday.

Bullets or ballots? It’s not even a question in most of Mexico, which is enjoying a new era of clean elections. But the poor rural south faces the prospect of further upheaval and even bloodshed as the country’s one-party system gives way to popular government.

Nowhere is that clearer than here in Guerrero state, home to both wrenching poverty and glittering coastal resorts.


“All Acapulco is worried,” said Jorge Luis Corona, 28, who works at one of the city’s most elegant hotels, Las Brisas, and lives in one of its poorest slums, Ampliacion Zapata.

Corona’s opinion would seem exaggerated, judging from the sunblock-smeared hordes relaxing on Acapulco’s beaches. But he has reason to be nervous: Recently, a dozen olive-clad guerrillas clutching AK-47s marched through his hilly, unpaved neighborhood, urging residents to protest alleged fraud in February’s gubernatorial election.

And the guerrilla activity isn’t limited to propaganda, according to the state attorney general’s office. It recently uncovered plans by a Marxist-inspired rebel group to attack four police stations to protest Thursday’s scheduled inauguration of Rene Juarez, the incoming governor. Three stations are in rural communities, and the fourth is in Zihuatanejo, a popular Pacific resort.

Mexico’s Wild West

Guerrero has been a kind of Mexican Wild West in recent years. The state was the birthplace of two left-wing rebel groups that the army defeated in the 1960s and ‘70s. Then, three years ago, a new Marxist group emerged--the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR. After an initial burst of deadly raids on army and police bases, the guerrillas have conducted sporadic hit-and-run attacks.

But the violence goes beyond the army and rebels. Human rights groups say scores of social activists and members of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, have been slain for political reasons in recent years. In Guerrero, “being in the opposition means risking your life,” said Rafael Alvarez of the Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City. Members of Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, also have been killed in apparent revenge attacks.

The most recent turmoil in Guerrero began, paradoxically, with a buoyant example of democracy: More than half the eligible voters cast ballots in the Feb. 7 election.

That was a remarkable turnout. As in other southern Mexican states, politics here has been in the hands of caciques--local bosses who wield economic and political power--practically since Spanish colonial days. In recent decades, most of these bosses have belonged to the PRI.

“Voting never used to be important,” said Mirna Rondin, 40, a peasant in the rural village of San Juan de las Flores, referring to the days when the PRI won every election, often resorting to fraud. “Now we vote, to see if there can be a change.”

But protests erupted when Juarez, the PRI candidate, was declared the new governor by a razor-thin margin. His opponent, Felix Salgado of the PRD, alleged vote-buying and fraud.

March to Protest Vote

Salgado and 15,000 outraged supporters marched nearly 200 miles to Mexico City, demanding that the vote be annulled. Many of those supporters are now camped out in Chilpancingo, the state capital, prepared to physically block Juarez from taking office, even though the nation’s top electoral court upheld his victory Tuesday. The Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled that the PRD had failed to prove that vote-buying occurred.

“We’ll impede the usurpation of power in Guerrero with mobilizations, with the people, in a peaceful and organized way,” Salgado declared in a recent interview. “We don’t want the use of arms.”

But the decision may be out of his hands.

The guerrillas maintained a truce during the elections. Since Salgado’s loss, they have protested only through periodic propaganda visits such as the one to Corona’s neighborhood.

But the EPR said in a communique that Juarez’s inauguration would be “a frank declaration of war against the people of Guerrero.” Meanwhile, an offshoot of the rebel group, the Popular Insurgent Revolutionary Army, has offered to be the “self-defense of the people.”

Three previously unknown rebel groups also have issued declarations protesting Juarez’s victory, but it is unclear whether they actually exist. None are believed related to Mexico’s most famous rebels, the Zapatistas of the southernmost state of Chiapas.

Mexican officials said they believe that there are only several dozen armed guerrillas in Guerrero, capable merely of small ambushes.

And officials criticize the election demonstrations, saying the PRD should fight only through the courts.

“We’re trying to show that in Mexico, there is democratic normality in elections. We don’t want to send a message to citizens that they can politicize processes that are legal,” said a senior federal official in Mexico City who requested anonymity.

Fears of More Violence

Paradoxically, though, the democratic process here has resulted in turmoil that could fuel more violence rather than less.L

Already, PRD activists are protesting the slaying this month of a Salgado campaign coordinator. Aurelio Penaloza, 32, was returning to his home in the rural town of Zirandaro at dusk when men in police-style uniforms pulled up in a truck and gunned him down with high-powered weapons.

Salgado insists that the slaying was linked to the postelection fight. “It’s to intimidate us,” said the former candidate.

State and local officials deny a political motive. So far, though, little evidence has emerged about the identity of the killers. Penaloza’s family says the campaign coordinator had few enemies and had received no threats. But they are convinced he paid a price for his 10 years of left-wing activism.

He wasn’t the first to do so in the family, they say. Twenty years ago, Penaloza’s older brother, Felipe, a former guerrilla, was gunned down in their hometown. While no one has been convicted, his family blames security police.

“We continued the fight, but through legal channels. We didn’t go with armed groups,” said another brother, Vladimir, sitting in his mother’s living room. But violence stalked the family all the same. Vladimir glanced at a makeshift altar in the corner, where vases of wilting lilies surrounded a picture of Aurelio.

“We want to live in peace,” he said quietly. “We want tranquillity, not just for our family but for everyone.”