The flames jetting 300 meters into the night sky and the black smoke billowing over the fertile flatlands of central Mexico's Bajio were not a good omen. According to a spokesperson for the national oil monopoly PEMEX, the two explosions that rocked installations in Guanajuato and Queretero states July 5th and 10th were caused by a sudden drop in pressure in two natural gas pipelines due to "pinchazos" or illicit perforations in the ducts to siphon off fuel.
The explosions, which shredded aging, poorly-maintained infrastructure underscored the urgent need for private investment in the nationalized enterprise argued PEMEX director Jesus Heroles Jr., mimicking President Felipe Calderon's take on the subject. Calderon, who was elected a year ago in a fraud-marred vote taking, has pledged to privatize PEMEX.
But were the explosions just further mishaps in an endless skein of pipeline blowouts and toxic spills that have plagued the state oil company for years?
On July 11th, newspapers in Mexico City began receiving a series of communiqués under the rubric of the "Military Zone Command of the Popular Revolutionary Army and State Committee of the Party of the Popular Democratic Revolution" claiming credit for blowing out two 36 inch natural gas pipelines in Guanajuato (July 5th) and a key valve house in Coroneo Queretero (July 10th) that shut down gas distribution to millions in central Mexico.
The Popular Revolutionary Army or EPR for its initials in Spanish, a long dormant guerrilla whose home base is usually in the conflictive states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, explained that the two explosions had been "surgical strikes against the oligarchy" and signaled the initiation of a "national campaign of harassment" that would continued until two disappeared EPR leaders are presented by the Calderon government "with life."
Although the Mexican government refrained from using the T-word, it was definitely in the air. "EPR ALLIANCE WITH AL QAEDA!" whooped the headlines on newspapers hanging from the kiosks. Indeed, a purported Al Qaeda document emerged in 2006 encouraging attacks against U.S. allies that supply Washington with oil - Mexico exports 1.6 million barrels of petroleum to the U.S. daily, without which George Bush would be hard pressed to wage war in Iraq.
Washington has a proprietary interest in the Mexican oil flow and news of the bombings furrowed brows in the U.S. capital. As a signatory to the euphemistically named North American Agreement for Security and Prosperity (ASPAN), Mexico is designated as the U.S.'s southern security perimeter, potentially invoking military action by the United States North Command housed in Colorado should terrorist activity be detected in the neighborhood. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security regards Mexico as a potential terrorist staging area.
The EPR bombings were the first here since last November when a previously unknown guerrilla formation - the Army of the Insurgent Popular Revolution (ERIP) - took credit for taking out the nation's top electoral tribunal, a bank, and the national headquarters of the once-ruling PRI party.
The Popular Revolutionary Army's successful July jamboree shut down more than 90 manufacturing plants in central Mexican cities, sending tens of thousands of workers at such transnationals as Nissan, Honda, Vitro (Mexican owned), Kellogg, and Ideal Standard, the world's largest toilet maker, home for the day.
The precision location of the plastique charges (plastique is popular in Europe but not much used here) points to an inside job and disgruntled PEMEX workers are one object of an on-going investigation. If the EPR is really responsible for the explosions than their technical skills and ability to strike close to the heart of the economy have taken a qualitative leap since the group was last heard from.
The Popular Revolutionary Army made its public debut June 28th 1996 on the first anniversary of the massacre of 17 dissident farmers at Aguas Blancas Guerrero under the guns of a corrupt governor, Rubin Figueroa. In documents distributed to the press, the EPR identified itself as a Marxist-Leninist military organization composed of 14 little-known guerrilla "focos" that seemed to revolve around an alliance between a clandestine clique of Maoists with a predilection for bombing - the PROCUP - and the Party of the Poor, founded by the long-dead guerrilla martyr Lucio Cabanas along Guerrero's Costa Grande in the 1970s.
The EPR is said to have bankrolled its uprising with the kidnapping of Banamex president Alfredo Harp Helu in 1994 for which they received a reported Latin America record ransom ($12 million USD.) With a hefty arsenal at its command (tons of weapons were alleged to have been delivered to Guerrero in 1994), the EPR repeatedly attacked military and police installations during the summer of 1996, killing and wounding dozens of troops. A synchronized six-state shooting spree on August 28th took 24 lives, many in Oaxaca.
The EPR quarreled with the other Mexican guerrilla, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), accusing its charismatic, pipe-smoking spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos of trying to make a revolution with poetry. The Sup, in turn, lambasted the EPR as only being interested in taking state power and refused suggestions of an alliance between the two armed organizations.
After the August 1996 attacks, the Popular Revolutionary Army seemed to become unglued. Military pressure and internal dissension led to fragmentation and a handful of split-offs such as the EPR-Democratic Tendency, the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (the ERPI as opposed to the ERIP), and the FARP (the Armed Front of the Popular Revolution) have staged sporadic attacks for several years.
But following last summer's much-questioned presidential election, the EPR issued a rare communiqué announcing its intentions to vindicate the popular vote in favor of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - AMLO quickly rejected the guerrilla's intervention and the rebels held off their promised campaign.
Rather than marking the first anniversary of the Great Fraud against Lopez Obrador, the Bajo bombings probably obey a more immediate calling: the arrest of two top EPR comandantes May 24th in Oaxaca when Eduardo Reyes Amaya and "Raymundo Rivera Bravo" AKA Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sanchez were taken into custody in a hotel in the city's market. Cruz Sanchez is described by guerrilla historian Carlos Montemayor as a 30-year veteran of clandestine armed movements in Mexico and is thought to be the brother of Tiburcio Cruz Sanchez also known as Francisco Cerezo, a maximum EPR leader and patriarch of a clan that includes three activist sons, two of whom are serving long prison sentences for bombing banks in 2001.
According to the Oaxaca daily Noticias, which the hated governor Ulises Ruiz has tried to shut down repeatedly, the two men were severely beaten at the state prosecutor's offices and transported in a military ambulance up to Mexico City where they are thought to be still alive and imprisoned at the notorious Military Camp #1. State and federal authorities claim they have no record of the two guerilleros in any Mexican prisons.
In Mexico's hothouse political ambiance where Calderon's credibility is constantly questioned, news of the EPR's purported assault on PEMEX was met with deep skepticism. Failure of the nation's top intelligence agency, the CISEN (now run by Calderon's favorite political pollster) to anticipate EPR resurgence is compared to the CIA's blackout prior to 9/11. AMLO describes the bombings as "a smokescreen" to privatize PEMEX and reinforce the criminalization of social protest.
But whether the attack was a government ruse to reign in social discontent, induce terrorist paranoia as a tool of control, and underscore the need for opening up PEMEX to private investment or a legitimate initiative by the armed resistance, the bombings have spiced up a pot already over boiling with upheaval.
On Monday July 17th, for the second year in a row, dissident teachers and militants of Oaxaca's Popular Peoples' Assembly (APPO) sought to take back the "Guelaguetza", a traditional cultural interchange between Oaxaca's multiple indigenous peoples that Governor Ruiz has turned into a tourist-only commercial spectacle. 45 people were arrested and 42 hospitalized when celebrants were attacked by heavily armed state and federal police. The APPO and its allies have vowed to shut down Governor's version of the dance festival set for July 23rd and 30th.
Ruiz has repeatedly tried to tie the APPO and dissident teachers to the EPR. A year ago last July during the protestors' successful efforts to shut down the Guelaguetza, the EPR's initials were painted on a hill overlooking the city. Similarly, both Ulises and Calderon's PAN Party accuse Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which is on track to win big in the Oaxaca state legislature later this summer, of being infiltrated by the EPR.
Those skeptical of the Popular Revolutionary Army's involvement in the Bajio bombings point out that the EPR has no social base in states like Queretero or Guanajuato, the home state of ex-president Vicente Fox and the mysterious religious right formation "El Yunque" which has had so much influence in both the Fox and Calderon administrations. Moreover, guerrilla watchers like Montemayor underscore that bombings are not the EPR's usual Modus Operandi (although the PROCUP were skilled bombers) - during its 1995 rampage, the EPR staged direct attacks on military bases and personnel.
Others such as the left-leaning daily La Jornada analyst Carlos Fazio scoff at the bombing as a "hoax." "Why would the left try to destroy PEMEX when we are fighting to defend it from destruction by neo-liberal privatization?"
What surprised Felipe Canseco, a former leader of the PROCUP and uncle of the Cerezo clan was how long it took the EPR to respond to the disappearance of its leaders in Oaxaca on May 25th. "When I went down, he comrades took action the next day," he recalls. Canseco, who served eight years for guerrilla activities, estimates that there are 30 armed groups operating in 22 out of Mexico's 32 states.
One of the hottest pirate DVDs on the Mexican street these days is "The Violin", which depicts the military's "dirty war" in Guerrero in the 1970s in brutal detail. The disappearance of the two EPR leaders and the government's claim that it is not holding them is painfully reminiscent of those terrible years when an estimated 650 Cabanas supporters along the Costa Grande were forcibly disappeared and held in secret lock-ups where they were tortured and eventually killed and thrown into the Pacific Ocean from Mexican air force planes near Acapulco.
If recent events are any indicator, Mexico's dirty war is not just a movie.
by JOHN ROSS