A small guerrilla band is waging war in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Edmundo Reyes is a slight, unassuming man of 55 who loves baseball and children’s literature. Until recently, he sold candy and soft drinks from his family’s corner grocery store in this city’s Nezahualcoyotl district.

In May, he left to visit relatives in the state of Oaxaca and never returned. His disappearance might have gone unnoticed but for the fact that it has set off a small war that has twice shut down a sizable chunk of the Mexican economy.

Unbeknownst to family and friends, Reyes was conducting a double life: He was a leader of a group calling itself the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR in Spanish. His comrades are convinced that he has been captured by “the enemy.”


To get back Reyes and another EPR militant said to have disappeared with him, the Popular Revolutionary Army has started bombing the pipelines of Pemex, Mexico’s national oil and gas company.

The attacks are the most spectacular campaign by a guerrilla army in Mexico since the 1994 uprising of the Zapatistas in the southern state of Chiapas.

Unlike the Zapatistas, the EPR has struck at a critical element of Mexico’s economic infrastructure: the pipelines that transport petroleum products from the Gulf of Mexico to the interior of the country and elsewhere.

The attacks on 10 pipelines in July and this month forced the temporary closure of some of Mexico’s largest factories, caused fuel shortages for millions of people and pushed up the price of oil futures in New York. The economic losses caused by the bombings total hundreds of millions of dollars, according to business groups here.

Yet the EPR is an “army” probably consisting of fewer than 100 people, including several members of five extended families with roots in Oaxaca, analysts and Mexican officials say.

Intelligence reports leaked to the Mexican media say the mild-mannered Reyes was an EPR leader.


“I’m not convinced that all the things they say about him are true,” said Nadin Reyes Maldonado, Reyes’ 25-year-old daughter, who is a nursery school teacher. “But when he appears again there are some things he’s going to have to explain to us.”

The story of the EPR harks back to another chapter of Latin American history, when leftist urban guerrillas inspired by Cuba’s Fidel Castro went underground to wage war against dictatorial governments. Some alleged EPR members are said to have been operating clandestinely for many years, though their struggle went largely unnoticed until the Pemex bombings.

“It’s been 17 years since I’ve seen my parents,” said Francisco Cerezo Contreras, a 33-year-old Mexico City resident whose father and mother are said to be EPR leaders.

“I have no idea where they went. They just left.”

The EPR launched itself publicly in 1996 in Guerrero, a Pacific Coast state with long traditions of armed resistance to the Mexican government. As many as 100 masked EPR members armed with assault rifles marched into the town of Aguas Blancas as residents were gathering to commemorate the killings a year earlier of 17 members of a peasants rights group by state police.

Mexico was by then well into its transition from a one-party state to a multiparty democracy. But to the EPR, Mexico remained a country of political impunity ruled on behalf of a wealthy few.

“Our political constitution is . . . a dead letter,” read the first EPR communique, explaining the group’s decision to take up arms. “Individual rights are violated every day, and the people are left out of the economic and political decisions of the country.”



Seems rooted in Oaxaca

Since then, the rebel group has split several times. It now appears to be rooted in the adjacent state of Oaxaca, whose social inequities and heavy-handed governing style have fed several militant movements.

Oaxaca remains one of the poorest states of Mexico: 68% of its residents live below the government’s poverty line, with monthly income less than $90. And more than one-third of the population is living in “extreme poverty,” according to government statistics.

On Tuesday, a little more than a week after its most recent bombings, the EPR issued a new communique denying widespread speculation that the group was linked to foreign rebels, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

“We have never received any training or financing from abroad,” the communique said. “We are an expression of the class struggle in this country.”

The group has bombed banks and other targets since 2001. Mexican authorities have identified most of the EPR leaders, but have been unable to apprehend them, said Jose Luis Piñeyro, a security expert at the Autonomous Metropolitan University here in the capital.

“There was a failure of civilian and military intelligence here,” Piñeyro said. “The EPR increased their technical and military capacity. They expanded their support base. None of this was detected.”


Authorities said the devices used against the Pemex pipelines were made from a combination of plastic explosives and potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter.

Mexican Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said Monday that the explosives were of a “common” variety, used in many industries.

They may have been stolen from a Mexican mining operation, or purchased on the open market.


‘Terrorist actions’

“Historically, these groups have financed themselves through kidnapping,” Medina Mora said. “But you don’t need a lot of money to undertake terrorist actions like those we’ve seen in our country in the last weeks.”

More impressive than the bombs themselves was the logistical sophistication of the operation this month: Six targets were struck simultaneously with 12 bombs.

“To do something like this, you have to have a minimal support base,” said Jorge Chabat, an analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching. “You need a people who will protect you, hide you, a place where you can melt away.”


Friends and relatives say Reyes, the grocer from Nezahualcoyotl, was a member of an impoverished Oaxaca family. Too poor to complete his studies, he was self-educated, and migrated to Mexico City in search of work.

“He traveled often to Oaxaca to visit his mother,” said Adrian Ramirez, president of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights.

“No one suspected that he could be linked to an insurgent group.”


Five extended families

Intelligence reports say members of five extended families make up much of the rank and file of the EPR faction responsible for the Pemex bombings. Many of the leaders are said to be men in their 50s with experience in the failed guerrilla groups of the 1970s.

One is Tiburcio Cruz Sanchez, also known as Francisco Cerezo and nicknamed “the Professor.” His wife, Emiliana Contreras, is also said to be an EPR member. Both are natives of Oaxaca.

Their son Francisco says his father was a university professor, “or at least that’s what they tell me,” Cerezo Contreras said.

Cerezo Contreras said his parents never explained why they left home. But he and his three siblings sometimes receive letters from them.


One, dated March 2006, is from their mother. Contreras tells her progeny to rely on “the strength that comes from having principles and the highest human values, including solidarity and the love of justice, which you learned from the time you were small.”

Two of Cerezo Contreras’ brothers, Hector, 27, and Antonio, 30, are in prison, convicted of bombing a Mexico City bank building in 2001. Cerezo Contreras says the charges were fabricated to make his family a “scapegoat” for the EPR’s actions.

Cerezo Contreras says he has never met Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sanchez, the EPR leader who is said to be his uncle. EPR communiques say that Cruz disappeared, along with Reyes, in May.

“These militant comrades are being brutally tortured in the office of the attorney general by the army, the federal police and by North American agents,” read an EPR communique released in June.

The Mexican government denies that the two men were arrested.

“We can affirm, without fear of being wrong, that no element of the Mexican state, federal or local, has detained these people or has them in custody,” Medina Mora said this week.

The fate of the two men is the subject of much speculation here. One theory is that they were detained by local authorities who tortured and killed them. Another theory has it that they were killed by members of a rival guerrilla group.


“Whether my father is in the EPR or not isn’t important to us,” Reyes said. “He’s missing. And that causes us fear and anguish.”


Cecilia Sánchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.