Revuelta Comunitaria: The Politics Behind Amnesty for Political Prisoners in Mexico

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There has been much talk from the new political administration in Mexico, including the new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, regarding a federal amnesty law for political prisoners. The proposed amnesty law is part of a larger political strategy of the new administration to act as if they are on the side of social movements and communities in resistance against the authoritarian and repressive regimes of the past. As those doing solidarity work with political prisoners, we cannot ignore the potential benefits of amnesty, of possibly having our compañerxs with us in the streets. However, it is important to spell out some of the forces and figures behind the law, and their historical relationship to those engaged in radical social struggle. In doing so, we can illuminate the insidious interests of the new administration of coopting and pacifying resistance in the country, while digging at some of the contradictions present of those promoting the process of amnesty.

On March 18th, 2016, after 31 months of imprisonment, Nestora Salgado García was released from prison. As an ex-commander of the community police of Olinalá, Guerrero, part of the community system of the CRAC-PC, Nestora Salgado was detained on August 21st, 2013, and accused of kidnapping, carrying a firearm and participating in organized crime. She was released after a widespread international solidarity movement was organized demanding her freedom. It was ruled that as an authority of the system of Community Police, Law 701 of Recognition, Rights and Culture of Indigenous Peoples and Communities of the State of Guerrero applied to her case. This law allows for Indigenous peoples in the state of Guerrero to organize their own systems of security and justice, while the law addresses directly the legality of the CRAC-PC community system of which Nestora was a part.

At a press conference on the day of her release, Nestora Salgado committed to fighting for the freedom of Mexico’s nearly 500 political prisoners. “I don’t represent any political party,” she said. “I only fight for my people. Sometimes they ask me if I’m afraid. And yes, I’m afraid, but I’ll die fighting for our people’s dignity. It doesn’t matter what I have to do, I am going to win freedom for our prisoners. I will be present in all of the struggles, as long as they need me.”[i]

On February 18th, 2018, nearly two years after her release from prison, Nestora Salgado García was appointed candidate for senator of the state of Guerrero for the 2018 national elections during the National Congress of the political party MORENA. On July 1st, 2018, Salgado was officially elected to the Senate. In the run-up to the election, and in various press conferences following her election, Salgado has maintained her commitment to the freedom of the political prisoners of the country, but now taking up a new strategy from her new position as state senator. Thus while Salgado’s participation in state politics as senator for MORENA directly contradicts her previous commitment to social struggle outside political parties, her commitment to the freedom of political prisoners in the country has remained at the forefront of her political agenda. Quickly following her election, in coordination with the president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Salgado was put in charge of making a comprehensive list of political prisoners in the country, and formulating a potential process, with which each case can be reviewed and amnesty can be applied where warranted.

Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, the new president of Mexico, has committed himself both pre- and post- election to implementing amnesty for political prisoners, as a more general strategy of pacification of a country riddled by violence. In a press conference in Quintana Roo on October 11th, 2018, AMLO stated, “We will establish a procedure. I have asked Olga Sánchez Cordero to help me in the elaboration of the agreement, the decree, and the law…to establish the conditions to give amnesty to political prisoners based on the expeditious analysis of each case.”[ii] During his presidential acceptance speech on December 1st, AMLO declared, “Today I begin the process of amnesty to free political prisoners or victims of retaliation, of caciques, functionaries or government leaders of the old authoritarian regime and to cancel accusations against activists and social fighters”.[iii] Once again, he reinforced that the new Secretary of Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, will direct the process.

While members of the new administration, including AMLO and Nestora Salgado speak of amnesty for political prisoners as part of their supposed commitment to being on the side of social struggles, their political party, their political authority, and the very nature of state politics itself, have historically served as oppositional forces to on-the-ground social struggle; as forces of repression, division, domination and violence.

In 2018, Nestora Salgado’s abandonment of the principles of the CRAC-PC for the halls of congress sent shock waves through the community system. It was a divisive blow to the community system, as Nestora had been an ex-commander of the community police, and a high-profile political prisoner who represented the struggle for Indigenous self-organized systems of security and justice. CRAC-PC political prisoners were quick to criticize Nestora Salgado. Political prisoner Gonzalo Molina González announced from prison in Chilpancingo, “It is a betrayal of the principles of the CRAC” referring to Salgado’s bid for senate, “because for the community system, the pathway forward is not through political parties”.[iv] In Ayutla de los Libres, on behalf of ex-political prisoners of the CRAC—Berardino García Franscio, Ángel García, Abad Francisco Ambrosio and Benito Morales Justino, among others—Arturo Campos Herrera stated that, “Nobody can use the CRAC for other ends than the defense of community territory”.[v] Nestora Salgado’s decision to participate in national elections as part of the MORENA party, helped fulfill the historic role political parties play in communities in resistance, as antagonistic forces damaging years of hard work organizing a culture and practice of autonomous politics antithetical to political parties and governments.

The case of the community of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, exemplifies in another way the contradictory politics of the new government in its proposed law of amnesty for political prisoners. In Eloxochitlán in 2010, the political party, Convergencia Ciudadana, an offshoot of the political party PRI, financially and politically backed the local cacique Manuel Zepeda, catapulting him into the position of municipal president in the community. Contrary to the traditional modes of decision-making and politics in the community, Manuel Zepeda put to use coercive economic and political incentives as a means to gather votes, while skirting around the community assembly as the maximum organ of authority in the community.

Once in the position of municipal president, Manuel Zepeda abandoned the traditional approach to power in the community, as a service and responsibility to the collective, rather using his authority to serve his individual interests along with those of his direct family members. Using his municipal power, Manuel Zepeda deployed intense repression against those who resisted his rule, including of course members of the community assembly. It was the community assembly after all that has historically organized along autonomous and non-political party lines—a political ethic contrary to the political party affiliations of Manuel Zepeda. Through a series of repressive and violent actions, members of the community assembly were threatened, beaten and detained, as a means to eliminate forces of communal organization that resisted Manuel Zepeda’s authoritarian rule and way of doing politics. As a result of the repression brought by the Zepeda cacique family, seven members of the community assembly are currently imprisoned, while various others have warrants out for their arrest and are unable to return to their community.

In 2016, Elisa Zepeda Lagunas, the daughter of the cacique Manuel Zepeda and one of the major forces behind the accusations and false testimonies against the compañerxs of the community assembly, took the position of municipal president in Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón. Like her father, Elisa Zepeda Lagunas took the municipal presidency in a manner foreign to the traditional modes of decision-making in the community, and also like her father, with political party backing. It soon became clear that Elisa Zepeda’s thirst for power didn’t stop at the municipal presidency, but that she had greater ambitions, to further scale the political system using the municipal presidency in Eloxochitlán as a stepping-stone toward more power. In early 2018, taking advantage of the anti-PRI and pro-MORENA fury throughout the country, she announced her candidacy for local representative of the district 04 of Teotitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, for the political party MORENA. On July 1st, she was elected local representative and now is a fundamental member in the ranks of the MORENA political party apparatus.

The history of repression against autonomous community organization in Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, exemplifies the hypocrisy inherent in the push for a federal amnesty law for political prisoners coming from the new MORENA administration. While AMLO declares that he will “free political prisoners from caciques, functionaries or government leaders of the old authoritarian regime”, he ignores that fact that members of his own party are those very caciques whom are behind the detention of political prisoners. Similarly, while Nestora Salgado puts amnesty for political prisoners at the forefront of her legislative agenda, she too ignores the role her very own party and her own involvement in political party politics has played in repressing and dividing communities in resistance, including the community system of the CRAC-PC.

It is worth mentioning one more important force currently pushing for amnesty legislation, as a means to further exemplify the contradictory nature of parties and organizations that claim to be on the side of social struggle, but have a history of working against those organizing for autonomy from below. The human rights organization, Comité Cerezo, has been active in demanding and proposing an amnesty law for political prisoners at the federal level. Comité Cerezo was founded in 2001, as a human rights organization with the specific interest of achieving freedom for the imprisoned Cerezo brothers, along with their compañero Pablo Alvarado Flores. Alongside the struggle to free their prisoners, something they eventually achieved, the organization has taken on the role of documenting cases of repression and political imprisonment in Mexico, and in theory struggling for the fulfillment of human rights for victims of political repression.

On November 13th, 2018, Comité Cerezo, accompanied by family members of political prisoners, ex-political prisoners, popular and human rights organizations submitted a proposal for an amnesty law to the Senate of the Republic. In it they listed around 130 political prisoners who could be directly freed and hundreds of others with criminal records or who continue to be persecuted who would benefit from the amnesty law. While the submission of the proposed amnesty law from the Comité Cerezo was more of a symbolic gesture, it suggests Comité Cerezo’s commitment and faith in an amnesty law from the new government.

On March 3rd, 2014, around 4:30am in the early morning, a group of porros[vi] attacked the autonomous squat on the UNAM University City campus in Mexico City, Okupa Che, seeking to evict the compañerxs living inside. The porro group was “armed with at least one pistol, a airsoft machine-gun, bulletproof vests, electric batons, clubs and knives”.[vii] The group was made up of around 30-35 men and women. In a communiqué from the compañerxs of the Okupa following the attack, they blamed the self-titled, Coordinator of Auditorium Che Guevara, with members linked to the human rights organization Comité Cerezo, the FNLS (Frente Nacional de Lucha por el Socialismo) and the Multidisciplinary Brigade.

The day following the attack, Comité Cerezo released a communiqué denouncing rumors that they had been involved in the attack, acting rather as victims themselves in a state-led attempt at the defamation of their organization. However, in following statements and articles, the true politics of the organization became clearer. Rather then defending those attacked by the group of porros, their discourse sought to discredit and delegitimize the anarchist currents in the space, while portraying themselves as the victims. On March 6th, 2014, three days after the porro attack on the occupied space, Comité Cerezo published an article from CNN Mexico on their website addressing the attacks. In a clear character assassination of the anarchist and autonomous currents within the Okupa, the article attempted to paint the porro attack as the result an internal dispute over control of the occupied space, while portraying the anarchists as illegitimate to the space. The article states, “According to students and professors consulted by CNN Mexico, that dispute between groups over control of the space exemplified a situation: the Che Guevara Auditorium, one of the most emblematic of the principal public university of the country, has been converted into a distant and strange space for many members of the university community.”[viii]

The discourse didn’t stop there. On March 8th, the Mexican newspaper La Jornada published an article about the porro attack, drawing much of its investigation from the Comité Cerezo. In the article, one of the leaders of Comité Cerezo, Francisco Cerezo, expressed his worry that the attacks were another attempt to oust “legitimate organizations” from the space. In the article, he says, “Groups of different currents have cyclically taken control of the auditorium, some see it is legitimate to use the auditorium for concerts, to sell pulque and marijuana as countercultural activities; others try to regulate it and open it to more diverse interests. But the government of the university is permissive because it is in their interests that the chaos should wear down the rebellious student movement.”[ix] Here, Comité Cerezo is insinuating that the radical currents in the Okupa, those that don’t abide by top-down organizational structures and the “moral behaviors” he sees fit, are permitted to exist in the Okupa with the permission and protection of the authorities.

Comité Cerezo’s statements following the porro attack on Okupa Che reflects their fundamental interests and politics as an organization. Rather than condemning the attacks in support of members of the Okupa, Comité Cerezo sought to clear themselves of any involvement and paint themselves as victims, while at the same time espousing rhetoric used by university and political authorities to delegitimize occupants of the Okupa. University authorities are often portraying the Okupa as a space inaccessible to university students or university events, a space occupied and controlled by non-students. Furthermore, the Okupa is often portrayed as a space of criminal activity including drug dealing, etc. The same discourse used by political and university authorities was used by Comité Cerezo in their response to the attacks, showing clearly their interests to delegitimize and ultimately evict the anarchist and autonomous currents from the Okupa.

In a communiqué following the attack, the compañerxs of the Okupa made clear that since its beginnings in 1999, Okupa Che has organized itself as an autonomous space of self-organization and mutual aid. Essential to those politics, is decision-making being carried out in general assemblies, and a steadfast rejection of any state or organizational forces that threaten the autonomous character of the space, including of course the influence of political parties. The porro attack on Okupa Che on March 3rd, 2014, exposed interests opposed to those of autonomy, self-organization and mutual aid. Organizations like Comité Cerezo, and others of the pseudo-left, made clear that their interests are the same as political and university authorities. That is, to eliminate the autonomous and radical character of the Okupa, to eventually appropriate the space in the interests of watered-down and toothless activism.

Taking in the complexity of the politics behind the proposed amnesty law wouldn’t be complete without mention of the recent amnesty legislation passed in Mexico City. In April of 2018, the legislative assembly of Mexico City approved a local amnesty law. Proposed and approved by the political party MORENA, this law was directed toward those “…persons detained, consigned, prosecuted and sentenced in the context of public demonstrations from December 1st 2012 to December 1st 2015…”[x] in Mexico City. As a consequence of the implementation of this law, anarchist political prisoner Fernando Bárcenas was freed after spending 4.5 years organizing and resisting from inside prison. Bárcenas was accused of burning a Coca-Cola Christmas tree during protests against the rise of public transportation costs in December of 2013. Contrarily, anarchist political prisoner Luis Fernando Sotelo has been negated amnesty under the law, beneath ridiculous judicial justifications. Luis Fernando Sotelo was arrested November 5th, 2014, accused of setting fire to a metro station and metro bus during the third global day of action for Ayotzinapa. He was originally sentenced to an absurd 33 years and five months. After an appeal, his sentence was reduced to 13 years and 15 days, and then down to 4 years, 8 months and 7 days in prison. Sotelo will be freed next year in 2019 after serving out his sentence.

Engaging in autonomous solidarity efforts with political prisoners is often a difficult task, when from the outset we are beholden to the political terrain and temporality of the judicial system and the state. In a sense, it is only political or judicial authorities that have the definite say in releasing our compañerxs, short of an effort to physically free them from capture. It is important to stress that each case carries with it its own set of circumstances and characteristics. Ultimately, each prisoner and their support crew have to make the tough decisions on how they want to organize around their case. Integral to these tough decisions, is the fact that we cannot ignore the potential benefits from something like amnesty. Yet, solidarity politics should not be reduced to just that.

The top-down mode of seeking freedom for political prisoners, as is the case of an amnesty law, exemplifies a more general tendency in Mexico, regarding the relationship between communities in resistance—in particular Indigenous and campesino communities—and human rights organizations, political parties and even various currents of the more authoritarian left. These authoritarian and opportunistic parties and organizations have a tendency to arrive to communities in resistance, seeking to command and not obey the interests of the local people. They often seek to exploit local struggles to serve their own interests as a party, group or organization. The proposed amnesty for political prisoners exemplifies this, showing the manner in which political parties and politicians seek to coopt social struggle, by acting as allies in freeing political prisoners. In this top-down act of political prisoner liberation, the pressure from below, the social struggles and community organization supporting political prisoners gets erased, while the “correct manner” of doing politics is reduced to appealing to instituted political powers.

There is much to be desired in a grassroots, autonomous solidarity movement with political prisoners. A self-organized movement from below, that maintains an autonomous work ethic, has the capacity to develop links of solidarity and cross-organization which can facilitate further action and resistance. Rather than reducing our politics to that of victims, making demands to and waiting for the state to release our compañerxs, a politics of struggle helps concretize a culture of resistance and the organizational capacities necessary to further inflict damage on capital and states beyond the specific case from which the organizational efforts are emerging. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, autonomous solidarity efforts work, plain and simple, in applying the necessary pressure to accelerate the release of political prisoners.

While we ruminate on the politics of amnesty and the various contradictory elements and forces behind the amnesty bill, it is important to point out something more deep-seated. That is, an amnesty law for political prisoners, like that which is being proposed by the new government in Mexico, will not address the underlying tensions and contradictions that make up the politics of capitalism and the state. States do what is necessary to survive, while facilitating with ever more expediency the accumulation of capital. The struggle of Indigenous and campesino communities, along with anarchist, feminist, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist and other currents of autonomous politics, are directly in conflict with the agendas of capital accumulation and state sovereignty. We are ultimately talking about self-determination, self-organization, land defense, territorial recuperation and a politics of collectivity and communality. These are political tendencies that inherently work against the state and capital. Thus, while the new MORENA administration acts as they are on the side of communities in resistance, proposing an amnesty bill to release political prisoners, we must maintain that their interests as political party politicians at the reigns of the nation-state, will always be opposed to those of us from below, struggling for autonomy and self-determination.

NOTES:

[i] https://elenemigocomun.net/2016/03/born-free-nestora-salgado/

[ii] https://www.proceso.com.mx/554981/a-partir-del-1-de-diciembre-amnistia-para-presos-politicos-lopez-obrador

[iii] https://www.jornada.com.mx/ultimas/2018/12/02/amlo-bajo-ninguna-circunstancia-habre-de-reelegirme-1111.html

[iv] https://www.jornada.com.mx/2018/02/21/politica/007n2pol

[v] https://www.jornada.com.mx/2018/02/21/politica/007n2pol

[vi] Porros are groups hired by university authorities or the state to violently smash up student and social mobilizations.

[vii] https://www.lahaine.org/mundo.php/okupa-che-guevara-cae-montaje-paramilita

[viii] https://www.comitecerezo.org/spip.php?article1705&lang=es

[ix] https://www.jornada.com.mx/2014/03/08/politica/016n1pol

[x] https://www.jornada.com.mx/2018/04/25/capital/036n1cap


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Voices in Movement
Voices in Movement publishes translations and analysis – both contemporary and historical – to share strategy, solidarity and histories of resistance across imaginary divisions of nations and borders, drawing insight from struggles of below and to the left, where the heart is. They also author Revuelta Comunitaria, a semi-regular column on It's Going Down addressing social struggles and political repression in the territory of so-called Mexico.