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1996 EPR Attack on Huatulco and 6 Other Towns

Guerrillas armed with assault rifles and submachine guns execute 7 coordinated attacks in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Tabasco, Guanajuato and Mexico.

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At exactly midnight on the evening of Aug. 28, 1996, about 80 armed guerrillas attacked government offices in Huatulco. The group is called the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), and has no connection to the better known Zapatistas (EZLN). There were 7 coordinated attacks conducted in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Tabasco, Guanajuato and Mexico. In Chiapas, roadblocks were set up where leaflets were distributed. Reporters were told that the state of Chiapas was spared from attacks out of deference for the peace talks underway by the EZLN. This is the first major action by the EPR, who state that they are only targeting the government.
The EPR first appeared on June 28, 1996 when they were represented at a memorial service near Acapulco commemorating the first anniversary of the Aguas Blancas massacre of 17 unarmed citizens in the state of Guerrero at the hands of government police. These were supporters of a peaceful activist group Campesino Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS) which works on issues affecting farmers. Prior to August 28th, the EPR had conducted a few raids on military convoys in the state of Guerrero, killing 1 soldier and 1 civilian and had not been considered a major threat by members of the Mexican government. Guerrilla leaders claim to have 23,000 members spread across the country of Mexico.
For the last 2-1/2 years, revolutionary activities have been dominated by the group EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) who shocked the nation when they launched violent attacks on January 1, 1994 in the state of Chiapas, which adjoins Oaxaca to the east. This group is fighting for land reform and a government more responsive to its people. They are currently in negotiations with the government and not connected with the EPR. There is even some animosity between the two groups, with Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos accusing the EPR of telling lies and seeking power while the Zapatistas fight for democracy, liberty and justice, and the EPR pointing out that the EZLN is involved in negotiating the non-negotiable. Marcos did clarify that they are different from but not enemies of the EPR. The Mexican army had stationed 15,000 of its 100,000 troops in Chiapas in efforts to deal with the Zapatista problem. The EPR wants to overthrow the government and replace the constitution. They are calling for the resignation of President Zedillo and wish to build a socialist republic. They want land reform and the nationalization of the banking system. They have no desire to negotiate, preferring at this time to raid lightly guarded government buildings and outposts. While the EZLN has received worldwide recognition and support for their efforts, they haven't quite gotten the widespread local support that they need for the substantial realization of their goals. It seems doubtful that the EPR will do any better in this regard.
The outbreak occurred only a few days before Mexico's president Ernesto Zedillo was to deliver his state of the union address. The nation's financial woes had shown promising improvement in the past few months with steady economic growth and a stable peso. Unfortunately there are no signs of improvement among ordinary people yet. Unemployment is high and malnutrition is increasing. Prices on medicines are so high that many can no longer afford them. News of the attacks caused a dip in the stock market and the value of the peso and served as a reminder of political and social instability in the country. The economic figures quickly resumed their positive trend, however.
The first attack occurred at 10 p.m. in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, 60 miles west of Oaxaca City, where 50 men armed with AK-47s attacked the city hall killing 2 police. The bloodiest attack occurred in the resort town of Huatulco 2 hours later. 80 gunmen arrived and began spraying the post office, police station and other government buildings with gunfire. At about the same time, a police station was attacked in the town of Tixtla, Guerrero, where about 30 guerrillas marched across the town square before opening fire. As one policeman sat at his desk, his legs were shot off and he bled to death. 2 other officers and 2 soldiers were wounded. Another assault on an army barracks in Altamirano, Guerrero, left 6 soldiers wounded. A police station in Acapulco was attacked as well as another barracks in Petatlan, Guerrero. Near Mexico City, 3 police were wounded. In all, there were 17 killed and 28 wounded.
In Huatulco, 2 large covered trucks entered the town minutes before midnight and discharged about 80 guerrillas armed with AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles. They commandeered passing cars and fanned out to a dozen locations including police stations, city offices, a naval barracks, a post office and the tourist bureau. At precisely midnight, they simultaneously opened fire covering the facades with

Bullet holes in wall in front of police building in La Crucecita (Huatulco), Oaxaca.
bullet holes, shattering windows, computer equipment and furnishings. At the post office and tourist bureau, gunmen aimed only above the windows and occupants were spared. Postmaster Antonio Brena, 51, was asleep in his apartment above the post office at the time. The shooting lasted 10-15 minutes before the guerrillas departed. 3 police, 2 sailors, 2 guerrillas, and 2 civilians were killed. 1 sailor was abducted, then tortured and hanged. One of the civilians was identified as Gabino Castillo Fierro, 27, a street vendor, who had gotten caught in the crossfire. A visitor staying at the Club Med was reported slightly injured when the windows of the taxi in which he was riding were shattered by gunfire. See Visitors' Comments.
A local physician, Dr. Ernesto Estevez, was called to the hospital to treat the wounded but was intercepted by five guerrillas who wanted to steal his car. When he protested that he was a doctor on an emergency call, they kidnapped him and took him to a village to attend to 3 wounded guerrillas. He was driven west along highway 200, then north on a dirt road for about 10 miles to a village of 20 homes in a coffee growing region. Examining the body of a dead rebel, he noticed that the feet were wide like those of a peasant who worked barefoot although he had been wearing combat boots. Likewise, the coroner later reported that the 2 dead rebels in the Huatulco morgue had wide, flat feet that were badly blistered from the boots they had been wearing. Of the 3 wounded, Estevez expected 1 would not survive. He reported that the military leader spoke Spanish with a foreign accent and appeared to be well trained. Other members spoke an Indian language with a Chiapan accent and knew little Spanish. He also noted that the group seemed to have support from the local peasant population. He was detained for 3 hours.
The incident in Huatulco had a side effect on nearby Escobilla Beach where on this same night thousands of Golfina or olive ridley sea turtles were coming to shore to lay their eggs. Since commercial harvesting of turtles and eggs had brought turtle populations to dangerously low levels, the Mexican government outlawed the practice in 1990. Soldiers who had been guarding the beach left their post to respond to the trouble in town. Word of this spread and within hours some 200 poachers descended on the beach taking an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 eggs and slaughtering the turtles. Several of the poachers were later arrested and 16,000 eggs were reportedly recovered. See comment.
After the attack, government troops were sent in to increase security, investigate the attacks, and search for guerrillas using helicopters and ground forces. Police discovered 17 rifles and uniforms that had been buried in a camp 20 miles from Huatulco where they also recovered the body of the abducted sailor. Three safe houses were located that had been recently rented and used to hide weapons and guerrillas. Captured rebels reported that they had been recruited only weeks earlier and had been blindfolded and taken to safe houses for training. They were organized into 12-member groups and never saw their leaders. A number of leftist peasants from the surrounding area were detained and questioned by police. They reported that guerrilla organizers from outside the region had made rounds a few weeks earlier offering $18/week and a pair of new boots to any that would come and fight for them.
Interior Undersecretary Arturo Nunez claims that the EPR is a faction of a violent and unpopular Marxist group called the Clandestine Revolutionary Workers Party Union of the People (PROCUP). A manifesto released by the EPR stated that they were formed in 1994 from 14 smaller groups that included PROCUP. Others have suggested that it is a radical group from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This theory is supported by a photograph published in a Tabasco newspaper showing two men who were later arrested as suspected EPR members, accompanying Governor Roberto Madrazo on a campaign tour. Madrazo is currently fighting allegations that he spent over 10 times the legal limit on this campaign. The flames were further fanned when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leader of the minority Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) announced that members of his party recognized one of the men as having participated in the violent disruption of a PRD sit-in at Villahermosa, capital of the state of Tabasco. Another theory is that it is a group of drug traffickers who are retaliating against the government in response to crackdowns in northern Mexico, thus necessitating the diversion of military forces away from that area. Still another theory suggests that they are European terrorists.
Compared to the Zapatistas, the EPR is well armed with AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles and Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns. The EPR admits that a portion of its funding comes from bank robberies and kidnappings of wealthy businessmen. They have threatened further attacks on Cancun, Acapulco, and Huatulco in order to damage Mexico's tourism industry and reduce the sale of domestic holdings to foreign investors. Following the attacks, the government asserted that several above-ground leftist civilian groups were serving as fronts for the EPR and began arresting their leaders, including several members of the Campesino Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS).
Citizens in Huatulco are angry and afraid. They just wish to live peacefully but can see themselves getting caught in the middle of this conflict. Their town has been set upon because of its status as a revenue producer for the government and the publicity that military action in an internationally known resort would generate. There is no significant military installation there to be a target or to resist attack. On the one hand, the populace can sympathize with the rebels' frustration with their government and on the other hand they grieve with the families of the dead and wounded in their town and for the loss of peace there. They are concerned with what actions government may take in administering justice. In the 1970s, a government crackdown against a small rebel group in the state of Guerrero resulted in an estimated 530 citizens kidnapped and killed by police according to the government's own Human Rights Commission. They may be worried that police will see them as sympathetic to the rebels or that rebels see them as sympathetic to the police. There is very little support for the EPR among the residents of Huatulco and other coastal towns.
There may, however, be support for the group among the peasants of more remote regions. To what extent is unclear. Soldiers have been setting up roadblocks and patrolling the mountainous regions of Oaxaca and other states in areas they feel are "rebel zones." Members of known leftist groups have been rounded up and questioned, sometimes being accused of hiding rebels. Most are later released, some have been beaten first. A number of suspects have been arrested. Soldiers have engaged in a few minor battles with rebels since the attacks. In the state of Guerrero, soldiers went on a two-hour shooting spree blasting away at cornfields and trees only because a taxi driver had reported seeing masked armed gunmen crossing the road. The government later determined that there was no evidence that rebels had been in the area. This all serves to further agitate this segment of the population and may further galvanize whatever support exists among rural residents for rebel causes.
Culturally, Mexico is composed of a majority of mestizos (a native/European mix), a 10% body of mostly Spanish European descent who monopolize the wealthy class, and the remaining 1/3 are native Indian, most of whom are poor. The latter group have a significant population in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Mexico is a country with a large poor population, a small middle class, and a tiny group of wealthy elite. The middle class has grown in recent years but many have but a weak hold on that strata which could be lost with the next devaluation of the peso or election result. The gap between wealthy and poor has been growing. Half of Mexico's wealth is controlled by only 2 dozen family groups. Those feeling the most excluded are the poor native populations which are most numerous in the southernmost regions of Mexico. With a healthy disdain for the governing body, this group needs little encouragement to strike out against them. In recent months, peasants have increased forceful takeovers of numerous ranches and turned them into ejidos or community-owned cooperatives. In Chiapas state, over 1700 holdings have been seized since the EZLN initiated its activities on January 1, 1994. Sadly, these problems are but a continuation of a long history of wealth, deprivation and unrest which has been recorded back to the time of the Spanish conquest.

DEVELOPMENTS: Early on September 25, 1996, a convoy of 43 transports with over 400 government troops entered the Zapotec Indian town of San Agustín Loxicha, Oaxaca, population 3000, in a rugged mountainous area about 100 miles north of Pochutla, 25 miles off highway 175 to the west. Eleven were detained and questioned, including the mayor, Luna Valencia, and most of the city council on charges of murder, terrorism, sabotage, conspiracy, kidnapping and criminal association. The government claims that residents of Loxicha comprised a significant part of the EPR force which attacked Huatulco and that they were encouraged by the Oaxaca Teachers' Union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), which has a long history of radical activity in Oaxaca. Protests were later held in Oaxaca over these arrests. The Oaxaca Teachers' Union now holds an annual week-long gathering in which they occupy the Zócalo and surrounding blocks in the city of Oaxaca. Attention was drawn to Loxicha when one of the rebels killed in the attacks of 8/28/96 was identified as the San Agustín tax collector. As of early December 1996, there have been 40 arrests in the Loxicha area. According to one local resident, some of these people were involved with the EPR and others were not. Actions of the Mexican government have drawn the attention of human rights groups who have reported numerous cases of torture and forced confessions of suspected EPR members.
This map is an excerpt of a larger regional map [121K].
Highway 175, running roughly north-south, goes from
Pochutla to Oaxaca (shown in red).
Loxicha is the regional seat of an area of about 35,000 inhabitants in 32 communities. 80% are illiterate and some 60% speak only their native Indian language. 8 of the communities have electricity. Most do not have drinking water or medical services. May die from colds or stomach infection. In children, malnutrition, anemia and diarrhea are common. Subsistence farming is the main occupation. Coffee, corn and beans are the main crops. Farm laborers earn 3 to 5 pesos a day.

On November 1, 1996, at 10:40 p.m. about a dozen armed guerrillas attacked local police who had stopped to investigate a barricade of burning containers that had been placed across a highway 8 miles north of Oaxaca City. Four police were killed, another died later from wounds, and two others were wounded in the attack. Other attacks occurred the same evening near Mexico City and about 50 miles from Acapulco. The EPR has claimed responsibility for the attack near Oaxaca city, and the letters EPR were painted on a bridge near the site of the Oaxaca attack earlier the same day.

On November 7, 1966, in the early morning hours state and federal officials arrested 15 men on various charges including murder and attempted murder in connection with the August attack in Huatulco. The arrests were carried out in the towns of San Agustin Loxicha and Magdalena Loxicha and included two school teachers and a town official. 30 more warrants are still outstanding. No shots were fired during the arrests.

Around the first of December 1996, the EPR took over two Oaxacan broadcast companies, XEAX and the XEAO, and forced employees to transmit a communiqué. They called for the population to form armed self-defense groups to assist in the overthrow of the current unpopular government and indicated that they would discontinue attacks on police and military forces. They also called for the release of the soldier Rafael, who was detained October 25, 1996 by the federal Army in Zumpango del Río, Guerrero.

An appeal from a group called the FAC-MLN which appeared in the misc.activism.progressive newsgroup on 1/8/96.

Twelve of the 43 arrested in the Loxicha area of Oaxaca and accused of participating in the attack on Huatulco began a hunger strike on January 14, 1997. One of the men, Gaudencio Garcia Martinez, a deputy mayor of Loxicha, told reporters the he and the other strikers are political prisoners and wish to be released. They are asking for a fair and speedy trial and better jail conditions. He said there were 26 men living in one cell and can only leave for 1 hour per day to exercise.

The Mexican government is reported to be building its military forces in areas of neighboring Chiapas since the January 11, 1997 EZLN rejection of a government counter proposal to EZLN's proposal for Constitutional reforms. Negotiations with the EZLN have been broken down since September 1996 when the EZLN accused the government of showing no real interest in peace. Local residents fear that military action is imminent. It has been suggested that the January early repayment of Mexico's debt was designed to soften the effects of later fighting in Chiapas on the Mexican stock market, and that Chiapas troubles could be blamed for a future peso devaluation which has been recommended by experts. As part of a US$50 million weapons and reconnaissance package, the first 20 of 73 Huey helicopters have been shipped from the United States to Mexico. Although the official purpose of this equipment is to combat the drug trafficking problem, U.S.-provided helicopters were used to transport military personnel in the 1994 EZLN uprising in Chiapas. 33 helicopters have been given to Mexico over the past seven years. Other equipment in the weapons and reconnaissance package includes four C-26 reconnaissance planes, 500 bullet-proof armored personnel transporters, night vision and C-3 equipment (command control and communications), global positioning satellite equipment, radar, spare parts for helicopters, machine guns, semi-automatic rifles, grenades, ammunition, flame throwers, gas masks, night sticks, uniforms, and food rations.

On March 5, 1997, the Mexican military and police again made arrests in the Loxicha region, reportedly the ninth such intervention since the arrests of September 1996. Four Zapotec indians were arrested and accused of being EPR members. One is a bilingual teacher, another is the brother of the former mayor of San Augustín Loxicha, who was also arrested.

On Friday March 21, 1997 at about 9:30 p.m., a group of Mexican human rights representatives and teachers from the National Teachers Union (SNTE) were attacked by a group of 80 men armed with sticks, machetes, and rifles. The human rights group were setting up a "peace camp" in San Augustín Loxicha in protest of the arrest and imprisonment late last year of local residents who have been charged with belonging to the EPR and were in the process of unloading donated supplies for the community. The attackers, who said they did not want observers in their community, reportedly included members of the state police and the army. Army personnel also prevented the protesters from seeking refuge in the town hall. Several protesters were seriously injured and one was arrested or remains missing, Ignacio Fernando Niño García, a human rights activist and teacher. The human rights group was removed from the community in three police vehicles and were abandoned (including the wounded) in the community of El Manzanal. Two of the aggressors of this attack were recognized as Celso Felipe Matias and Meliton Felipe Matias from the Ranch La Conchuda who reportedly stole the belongings of the peace camp members.

On March 24, 1997, about 500 teachers and students participated in a demonstration in the city of Oaxaca to protest the March 21 attack on protesters in San Augustín Loxicha. It is also noted that on March 18, responding to a call by CNTE (the National Coordinating Committee of the Teachers Union), teachers from the Federal District, Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Durango marched to demand changes in educational policy, an end to repression of organizations and social activists, and for a 100 percent pay increase. There were about 1000 participants in Mexico City and 8000 in Michoacan.

A May 8, 1997 Usenet post from the Christian Peace Teams on human rights workers being expelled from Mexico.

On August 7, 1997 in the community of San Vicente Yondoy, in the Loxicha, Oaxaca, area it was reported that police and paramilitary agents burned several houses and detained the following individuals: Ponciano Garcia Pedro, Celso Garcia Luna and Alfredo Garcia Luna. Silvano Garcia Hernandez and Herminio Garcia Hernandez were also detained and apparently not yet brought before a judicial authority.

on July 2, 1998 this Information campaign of the EPR appears in the USENET newsgroup alt.thebird.liberal.

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