Atenco’s Political Prisoners: The Persistence of Resistance
by Alejandro Reyes
When the parents of Oscar Hernández Pacheco were told that their son would be free in late August or Early September, they were overwhelmed with happiness. At the prison of Molino de Flores, don Paco and other relatives of political prisoners — who since the violent repression in San Salvador Atenco on May 3 and 4, 2006, had faced uncertainty, fear, and indignation — celebrated the news. “You see, don Paco,” said the father of another young prisoner from the town of Texcoco, “the kids will soon be free, we just need to stick it out a little longer.” “We’ll celebrate back in our town,” answered don Paco.
But some days later, on August 21 this year, they heard the terrible news: their son, like all other political prisoners held at Molino de Flores, were sentenced to 31 years and 10 months in prison, accused of kidnapping, while Ignacio del Valle was given an additional 45 years, on top of the 67 which he had already been sentenced to.
When doña Francisca learned of the decision, she fell ill. At 63 years of age, both she and her husband suffer from diabetes, an illness which has worsened in these two hears of anguish. “My children didn’t want me to go to the prison because they were afraid for my health, but I went anyway. I was a bit calmer, but when I got there I felt like I was no longer myself. I felt very ill. The next day I went to the hospital and the doctor told me I had to calm down, or I would have to be hospitalized. But how? He’s 30 years old. In another 30, he will be 60. How can they do that to him? And with such young children… the girl is eight years old, the boy is about three.”
As most of the prisoners sentenced, their son did not participate in the confrontations on May 3 and was not even a member of the Peoples’ Front in the Defense of the Land (FPDT), the organization that in 2006 was defending the flower vendors of Texcoco from being evicted from their place of work.
In the municipal auditorium of San Salvador Atenco, on one side of the central plaza, a small group of relatives of political prisoners recount what they have lived through these past two years and their indignation with the sentences of August 21, while the preparations continue for the Independence day celebration, on September 15, 2008, organized by the FPDF. Doña Francisca continues:
“The day they captured him he was going to see a relative that was very sick. They stopped him on the highway. They beat him, they injured his head, his face. We have a picture where the police are beating him, and one officer has a piece of concrete block with which he’s hitting him on the head. I didn’t know anything because that day he’d been at home. We were having breakfast, eating pozole, which is his favorite dish, and he told me that he would pick up the girl and he would come back to eat some. When the troops started coming into the town, we locked ourselves up. At around 3 pm my sons knew they had arrested him, but they didn’t tell me because they were afraid for my health. But then I saw him in the news, and that’s how I found out.”
Something similar happened with Julio César Espinoza Ramos, son of Maribel Ramos Rojas. At the time Julio was 18 and he hadn’t even heard about the FDPT. He liked to play soccer, worked in sales at the town of San Pablito Chiconcuac, and helped his grandmother take care of the cattle. On May 3, 2006, Julio César was riding his scooter on the highway that goes by San Salvador Atenco. Near the gas station of Tocuila he was detained at a police blockade. There he was brutally beaten, and then taken to the police station, before being transferred to the high-security prison of Santiaguito, in Almoloya, in the state of Toluca.
Julio César doesn’t understand why all of this is happening to him. Why was he sentenced to so many years in prison, if he didn’t do anything? And why such a heavy sentence, while the true kidnappers, those who maim people, those who murder and rape, are free? “He had so many dreams,” says his mother, “and now those dreams are truncated, locked up behind those prison walls.”
Juan de Dios Hernández, the FDPT lawyer who defends Atenco’s political prisoners, argues that the sentence was made without convincing proof, through legal proceedings full of irregularities and contradictions. One of the relatives even claims that, when he questioned the judge about the harshness of the sentences, he answered that he didn’t have full control over it and that the decision had come from above.
The political motives behind the sentences are evident in the fact that they were announced the same day that a highly publicized meeting of the National Council on Public Security was being held at the National Palace. In this meeting one of the topics that most concerns Mexican society was discussed: the insecurity that is currently lived in the country. There, a National Security Agreement was drafted, through which police and judicial institutions will be strengthened, with a focus on fighting kidnapping, money laundering, and organized crime. Among other legal reforms is a proposal for a general law on kidnapping. The sentences against Atenco’s political prisoners, precisely for kidnapping, should be read by Mexican society as a sign of alarm, since they criminalize dissidence and the defense of basic rights, equating political activism to organized crime. “We’re indignant,” says Trinidad Ramírez Velázquez, wife of Ignacio del Valle. “How dare they compare someone who defends the land and his rights to someone who kidnaps, murders, mutilates, rapes, and so on.” One of President Felipe Calderon’s proposals is to apply life in prison to convicted kidnappers. The sentence of 112 years to Ignacio del Valle is nothing less than life in prison.
It’s important to note that, regarding insecurity, the wave of kidnappings that are increasingly the topic of front-page headlines, and the drug-related violence that plagues the country, state corruption and impunity are two of the main contributors. Practically all known kidnapper gangs have members who are agents or former agents of precisely the same police forces which are in theory in charge of combating them.
At the same time, while political prisoners are given these absurd sentences, those responsible for the blatant human rights violations committed in San Salvador Atenco enjoy complete impunity. The events of May 3 and 4, 2006, represent one of the darkest moments of state repression and violence in the history of modern Mexico: murders, mass sexual aggressions against women and men, breaking and entering without a warrant, destruction of property, beatings, torture, humiliations. The savagery committed in Atenco were not just the uncontrolled actions of unprepared police forces, but rather a premeditated act of state violence designed to provoke terror in the population and to set a precedent that serves as an example to other social movements. The sentences of August 21 are just one more ingredient of these politics of terror.
It is hard to describe the pain of the families. “I’m a single mother,” says Maribel Rojas. “My son is all I have, and I’m all he has. This has affected me a lot at work because I’ve had to miss many times and I’m afraid to lose my job, but I can’t leave him alone. It’s also affected my health because I have diabetes and I’ve been hospitalized many times. And of course, it’s been very hard economically. I have to take him food, there are many expenses, and if I don’t work, how am I going to get the money, especially being alone? It hurts me a lot seeing him there. The day he called after the sentence, he seemed strong because he didn’t want to hurt me. But when I went to see him, he seemed an entirely different person, he was entirely broken.”
Doña Francisca can’t hold back her tears when she speaks of her son. “I feel very bad when I can’t go see him, but it hurts me a lot when I go to the prison. Since he was in Toluca, I used to go see him. But I feel terrible when I see my son like that. That’s why he tells me, ‘Don’t come, mother, because I get very sad when I see you cry.’ And we both cry together. But God willing I’ll be able to go see him and I’ll be calm and I won’t cry.”
For don Paco, his son’s imprisonment has also been devastating. He is a farmer, he plants corn in Atenco. “These two years have been very difficult. There are times I can’t go see him, because I have to work. There’s no money. We have to take money and food to him, and we make every effort to do it. And we spend 500 or 600 pesos in just one day. Imagine that, and we have no money. So we go crazy trying to find a solution, because I can’t work like I should.” Doña Francisca explains: don Paco is also diabetic and he often falls ill for one or two weeks at a time.
For Trinidad Ramírez, these two years have been a veritable ordeal. Her son César was in jail for almost two years. Her daughter América is in hiding. And her husband Ignacio faces a sentence of 112 years in prison. Nonetheless, she seems strong, firm, decided. “I think about them,” she explains. “I think of Ignacio in jail, always so optimistic. I’m afraid of falling into a depression and not being able to get up to continue fighting. But love can do so many things.” She says that, despite the sentence, Ignacio holds his head up. “He is very secure in his beliefs, in his ideals, in his cause. That’s why when I say that Ignacio is doing well, it’s not because he is well being there, because the conditions in prison are very tough, but because he believes in his ideals.”
But the repression and especially the sentences, which were intended to provoke fear and to silence people, had another effect. Maribel Ramos knew nothing about the FPDT, she had never participated in any struggle, she had never expressed indignation against the injustices she sees.
“My vision has changed a lot,” she says, “because we used to be very shy about expressing what’s happening in our country, the repression we suffer. Because what the government is doing is repression. They want to use us as an example and tell people: if you rebel, this is what can happen to you, you can have the same fate as these people. But instead of intimidating me, that has made me stronger, and I think it’s really important for me to express my indignation as a mother, to defend my son, because he’s completely innocent, and to denounce all this injustice we’re living. It’s time to raise our voices. If they said, ‘You better be quiet,’ well, I don’t think so. We have to face them and denounce everything that’s happening.”
Doña Francisca and don Paco, like other relatives of political prisoners who had never participated in any struggle, have also approached the FPDT, joining forces to struggle together for their son’s freedom.
For Trinidad Ramírez, “all bad things have a good side.” The sentences reawakened indignation and gave a new impulse to the struggle, in Mexico and around the world. This September 15, the FPDT organized an Independence Day event in the main plaza of San Salvador Atenco, and on September 23 a march is planned from the Angel to Los Pinos in Mexico City. At the same time, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) announced that the encampment in front of the Molino de Flores prison would be reinforced and that it would be transformed into a space of encounter for the Other Campaign. The EZLN also called for a renewal of the national and international campaign for the freedom of political prisoners.
For many people, demanding the release of Atenco’s political prisoners is an urgent necessity, because what is at stake, besides the lives of innocent people, is the right to resistance and the defense of basic rights. It is, in sum, a struggle for justice, democracy, and freedom in Mexico.