Who killed Margarito Montes?

November 13, 2009

The spread of illegal violence around the drug trade in Mexico has provided an opening for the rich to engage in their own, says Stuart Easterling.

THERE WERE two recent events in Mexico that few news organizations, if any, bothered to connect.

The first was the massacre of 15 people in the northern state of Sonora on October 30. It was, sadly, not even the largest massacre this year, thanks to the "drug war" raging along the border with the United States.

This massacre was different in one key way, however: Its principal target was Margarito Montes, leader of the General Worker, Peasant and Popular Union (UGOCP), a peasant organization based largely in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz. Montes was killed, along with his wife, his children (of 4, 7 and 9 years of age) and a number of people in his entourage, as they drove along a rural highway.

Many in the press quickly blamed the affair on "the narcos," members of Mexico's powerful drug organizations. The peasant leader Montes must have somehow been tied up in the drug trade, it was implied.

The second event, seemingly unrelated to the first, was the public announcement by a mayor in the northern state of Nuevo León, Mauricio Fernández, that he was forming a private paramilitary organization. It would be composed of "rudos"--tough guys--recruited from the military and police. They would operate outside the law in collecting intelligence and fighting crime. They would be given tasks of "limpieza especial"--special cleansing. The problem, Mayor Fernández says, is the narcos.

Margarito Montes, the murdered leader of the General Worker, Peasant and Popular Union
Margarito Montes, the murdered leader of the General Worker, Peasant and Popular Union

Certainly no one can underestimate the power of the narcos in Mexico, and of organized crime more generally. They own large numbers of local police and government officials, particularly in the north. Public figures who don't cooperate are routinely assassinated, their quartered bodies often dumped in the street. Far more unknown individuals are also killed, often young men in their 20s, their bodies dumped en masse and frequently displaying signs of torture.

Indeed, more Mexicans died due to the "drug war" in 2008 than all Americans killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since both those wars began. The drug war was, of course, escalated by Mexico's conservative President Felipe Calderón, who has vowed to somehow defeat the organizations that serve the world's largest market for illegal drugs: the United States.

Meanwhile, organized crime in Mexico has also increasingly entered into the lucrative business of kidnapping in recent years. It has historically been the wealthy and near-wealthy who are targeted for kidnapping. But now it's not just the rich any more. Migrants from Mexico and Central America trying to reach the U.S. are now seized by kidnappers posing as coyotes, the people who facilitate border crossings. Relatives of migrants already in the north are forced give up what little they have to free their loved ones.

Some of the stories of kidnapping are truly horrific. One woman, recently rescued three years after having been seized, had given birth to two children in captivity, due to her having been sexually assaulted on so many occasions.

In such a climate, people like Mayor Fernández can gain support for extreme law-and-order policies. In fact, 76 percent of Mexicans currently support introducing the death penalty in Mexico.

And many people, not just the rich, support taking the law into their own hands. In a town near Mexico City, an attempted kidnapping of a local small-business owner led to protests and riots by roughly 3,000 people. They blockaded roads, burned cars and set fire to the police station because the authorities wouldn't hand over four would-be kidnappers to be lynched.

BUT AS with everything else, the elite in Mexico has attempted to manipulate the fear of crime and violence for their own interests. The narcos have become a super-scapegoat--everything can be blamed on them, including the killing of a peasant leader.

They can be denounced in the press as corrupt nouveaux riches who exploit the common people--while little is said about the far more numerous corrupt nouveaux riches in Mexico who exploit the common people completely legally. They can be denounced by the government as being at the root of Mexico's public insecurity, while completely ignoring the country's growing levels of economic insecurity.

More significantly, the spread of illegal violence provides an opening for perfecting the use of legal violence. The various weapons that the state develops, ostensibly to fight organized crime, can and will be employed against their critics and the left.

This is where Mayor Fernández comes in. The spread of illegal violence also provides an opening for the rich to engage in their own.

The community that Fernández represents is one of the wealthiest in Mexico. In recent years, so its fearful residents claim, it has gone downhill. The poor who have always lived in and around town have increasingly turned to the drug trade. Rich narcos now drive around town in fancy cars.

And so it's time to turn to "special cleansing." One conspicuous narco, who liked to show off his yellow Lamborghini, was recently rubbed out in Mexico City. The mayor was somehow able to announce his elimination even before the police knew about it.

Privately funded "special cleansing" groups are already known to exist in various parts of the country, exterminating the sorts of petty criminals--like car thieves--who harass the rich and the upper middle class. But it's also likely that they will start expanding their definition of pests who need to be cleansed--if they haven't already.

One such category of pests is journalists, for example. The Mexican north has already become a dangerous place for reporters asking pesky questions. Eight of them have been murdered in Mexico in the last six months. So: kill a journalist, or a political figure, one who was never a friend of the local rich. Dump the body in the street. Pin a sign on it saying the narcos did it. Don't bother to investigate the crime.

If this isn't happening already, Mayor Fernández's "rudos" will ensure it does.

Put differently, it's hard to imagine paramilitary and intelligence organizations, formed at the behest of Mexico's wealthiest people, not acting as an instrument to protect their interests as a social class--and doing so by taking a page out of the narcos' book.

And it is easy to imagine that such organizations would also come to be used against men like Margarito Montes.

PERHAPS MONTES was killed because he was involved with narcos--it's not unthinkable. Time will hopefully tell. But he had certainly angered plenty of other powerful people over the years.

Montes was a Trotskyist many years ago, a founding member of the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT) in Mexico in the 1970s. He first started organizing peasants in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, in the 1980s, a place with a long history of agrarian violence. Take the response to just one land invasion organized by Montes in 1991--local ranchers assembled 500 armed men to expel the invaders, and killed 39 people.

And so Montes quickly became a very tough customer, as one has to be to take land from rich people and give it poor people. Two political bosses who lost their land to peasants led by Montes were later found dead and buried, with their ears cut off, on that same land. In 2005, Montes was linked (though never charged) with the murder of César Toimil Robert and four others--members of a notorious armed organization that defended the interests of ranchers and landowners around Tuxtepec and had fought bitterly with the UGOCP.

Montes had also been accused of collaborating with Mexico's authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since the late 1980s. Critics say he focused many of his land invasions on political enemies of the PRI--particularly rivals of the "Salinas clan," the corrupt family of ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The Yaqui people of Sonora, for example, accuse Montes of working repeatedly with the PRI and Salinas to invade lands they claimed as their own. The latest contested land invasion was on the very month Montes was killed.

The UGOCP and other local and national peasant organizations have said that Montes was killed by a group resembling Mayor Fernández's "rudos"--a death squad assembled by the angry rich. They are demanding a thorough investigation of the massacre. They are asking how such a large number of assassins could have just slipped away. They suspect the state government had a hand in the massacre, or at least looked the other way.

It's true that perhaps the best time to commit a political murder is when killings over things like drugs are far too common. But whether the government will bother to seriously investigate Montes' death is an open question. It will certainly be easiest for them if they can just blame it all on the narcos.

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