As a leader of the Insurgent Peoples’ Revolutionary Army, or ERPI, Gloria Arenas Agis went by the name of Coronel Aurora.
She and her husband Jacobo Silva Nogales helped found the guerrilla movement – splitting from the Popular Revolutionary Army (or EPR), a group formed by surviving members of Lucio Caba?a’s Party of the Poor and the urban guerrilla movement, The Union of the People.
In 1999, Arenas and Silva were detained by Mexican security forces, tortured and put in prison, where they served over ten years for the crime of rebellion. They were released in 2009.
Fault Lines sought Arenas out at the cafe she now runs with her daughter, a cheerful place with wi-fi and good fair-trade coffee on a small side street of a working class neighborhood of Mexico City.
Our team had just spent a number of days in Guerrero’s mountain communities, where people told us of their experiences of torture and murder perpetrated by the Mexican army, allegedly at the behest of the local narco-mafias.
Some of them had known ERPI Commander Ramiro, who had organized in the communities and encouraged them to resist being subsumed by the narco-economy. Ramiro was gunned down in the mountains after publicly naming members of the local narco-mafia within the state government. We wanted to ask Arenas about Ramiro, whom she had met when he first joined the ERPI at age 18.
When we arrived at the cafe, there were a couple of people using the computer terminals. Her college-aged nephew and a few of his friends were hanging out on the sofas, talking and studying.
The former guerrilla commander prepared cappuccinos for our crew (and later prepared tuna sandwiches for lunch – the best tuna salad I’ve tasted). Then she sat down to speak with us, in an interview too thoughtful and too interesting to leave almost entirely on the edit suite floor.
Arenas speaks with the clarity of someone who has reflected long and carefully about her commitments, and is accustomed to teaching others. Her demeanor is serious but not severe, and her smile is luminous. Over three memorable hours, she shared her reflections not only about Ramiro’s work in Guerrero’s mountain communities, but on the narco-state, the purpose of repression, and the trajectory of social movements in Mexico.
Gloria Arenas: Often people try to make an artificial distinction between the popular, unarmed movement and the armed movement. I would say that in 100% of cases, the armed movements arose after long years and a whole history of unarmed movements that were repressed, and after the spaces in which they tried to achieve their goals by peaceful means had been closed – whether by means of [electoral] fraud, or repression, or direct violence. Then the same movement expressed itself in armed form. And so it’s not simply that the two are interrelated, but that they’re two expressions of one single popular movement.
Fault Lines: How does the Mexican army interact with the popular movement?
Arenas: It’s a relationship between repressor and repressed. Nothing more. There is a national reality, but in Guerrero the role the army has played repeatedly has been very serious. And for a long time it has led to massacres. [She refers to massacres committed by the army during the 1970s, and the massacre of Aguas Blancas (1995) and El Charco (1998)]. As well as militarization, military check-points across the territory, incursions into the mountains, rapes of women.
So it’s a very violent relationship, a violence which the state exercises against society, against the towns. But now I’m not only talking about the towns, but also about people in the cities. Now we’re seeing it across the country. Guerrero has experienced it for many years. It was one of the states where people first began experiencing what the entire country is experiencing now.
But it’s not just the army, but through the army, because there are other actors who are what I call a narco-paramilitaries. These are people who left the army, who were trained as special forces by the army and who then went over to work with the drug cartels. And they’re still doing what they did in the military: assassinating, disappearing, by the means they were trained to do in [Mexico] and in the United States. Or in Colombia where the US pays Colombian instructors to train the Mexican army.”
Narco-trafficking is not something separate, it is part of the groups in power. This entire illegal economy – which is not only the narco-trafficking industry but also involves human trafficking, sex slavery, pornography, child pornography, extortion, kidnapping of migrants and non-migrants – this entire set of businesses is sustaining the economy of our country. So it is part of the same government, the same state. There isn’t a Mexican state that fights narco-trafficking to defend society… No, there’s one narco-trafficking state, within which groups are taking each other on to further their own interests. And society is the victim.
When we talk about the narco-trafficking industry one tends to think that it includes everyone from those who grow to the highest governing powers who protect their own interests and participate in the business, and vice versa, the narco-traffickers that partake in the power of the state. But I make a distinction. It’s not the same for a campesino who [grows because he] can’t grow anything else…
The Mexican countryside is dead. Why? Not because Mexicans are lazy or because we don’t know how to take advantage of the land that’s here. The manual labor is here but it finds itself having to go work in the United States, running tremendously dangerous risks including death. Many die simply in order to work. Why? Because it’s not profitable to work the land. The countryside died after years of free trade agreements. So to me, these campesinos are among the victims of the Mexican countryside, and of the whole system of narco-trafficking. Because then they have to sow poppy and marijuana to survive.
It’s a vicious circle. There’s a plunder of the country’s resources, of its wealth there’s a free trade agreement that puts an end to employment and to the countryside. But people still have to survive somehow, no? So some immigrate, and for others, the only option is narco-trafficking. But they’re not the narcotraffickers – they’re just paid employees that need the work in order to eat.
Fault Lines: But aren’t they sustaining the very people who are repressing them?
Arenas: Yes! The campesinos and workers and all those of us on the bottom are sustaining those on top! And not because we want to, but because we understand this is the system we have to survive in. So there’s a refusal to conform, there’s rebellion, there’s dissidence, and this is shut down – we talked about militarization and what happens to those who think differently. Communities are militarized. Social activists are disappeared. These are the forms of control. But indeed, we sustain the entire capitalist economy from below. And that’s precisely what I was talking about when I said we had to change things. We don’t want to continue sustaining this corrupt, repressive, anti-democratic system in Guerrero, in the country, in the world.”
Changing things, says Arenas, is what Ramiro was trying to do. He had grown up in the mountains of Guerrero, and understood the communities in which he had been assigned to organize by ERPI leadership.
Arenas: As someone from that place, he was aware of the control the narcotraffickers have. And when he goes to that area, he says, “What should I do? The campesinos here are growing. A lot of people are growing poppy and marijuana.” And he decided to stay with them, and to change their vision.
You saw what now exists in the area where Ramiro was. Communities who have dared to confront that network of power that is government and drug-trafficking, the narco-military state. Communities that don’t want to be part of that network, that are opposed to being hired killers, that oppose drug consumption, and that are being massacred, disappeared, tortured by precisely this narco-trafficking state. And beyond being subjected to repression, they’re accused of being the narco-traffickers by the narco-state.
This is what there is now. This is what [Ramiro] achieved, and he was assassinated for it, simply for saying that the popular movement (and the armed movement as part of it)are not part of or allied with the narco-traffickers.
It’s a very difficult thing. I think that it would be easier to say “That’s such a difficult problem, this issue of a countryside that is dead, of campesinos who find themselves having to grow, so better that I not get into it and that I get out of here.” But then you go to the city, and you meet people in the neighborhoods, guys who take drugs and are also employed in the narco-trade. And then you go somewhere else and you find the same thing – wherever you go in the country it’s the same. It gets a bit better in some places, but it’s happening everywhere. So either you decide to leave Mexico, or you decide to stay and to try to solve these things here, with the people.
Fault Lines: What’s the cost of the kind of organizing Ramiro was doing?
Arenas: It’s a very high price, and it shouldn’t be that way. I don’t think Ramiro would have thought “I want to die, let them kill me. Let them assassinate the people from the villages…”
The other price is to remain silent. And we watch this narcoterrorist state as it comes and kills those people over there. And we don’t say anything, and it makes us scared, and we hide in our homes.
The purpose of the fear that they want to instill in us as a society is to keep us silent and paralyzed. And the saddest thing would be for us to pay this high cost, that they keep killing people, and that on top of that we remain silent, because then they’d have succeeded.
Fault Lines: As someone who’s been part of many movements, what’s your vision of the path forward?
Arenas: There’s a proposal called autonomy, and it’s a practical proposal, in the society from below, different from all those options that have been tried and that we see don’t work. It’s to say fine, we have no choice but to take our destiny into our own hands.
So if there are no jobs, we’ll generate our own projects. If there’s no education, we’ll build our own schools. If the authorities come only to repress, rob, and put us down, we will organize ourselves as communities and make the decisions that affect us. That is autonomy. Others call it popular power, or power from below.
And it’s the future. As a society, in our cities as much as in the countryside, we must take our future in our own hands, and no longer hope that anyone else will solve the problem and save us.
“Mexico’s Hidden War” co-producer John Gibler interviewed Gloria Arenas a number of times while she was still imprisoned. Those conversations, about both Gloria’s life story and the evolution of armed and unarmed social movements in Guerrero, form the backbone of a chapter called “The Guerrilla”, published in Gibler’s first book, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.