When the Mexican army rumbled by Isabel Pinzon’s corner store and occupied this muddy hamlet in Guerrero’s mountains, folks were skeptical.
The slaughter of 17 peasants by state police in Aguas Blanca a year earlier was shattering. And just hours before the army moved in, the town was shaken again: Self-proclaimed rebels appeared at the massacre site to mark its June 28 anniversary with gunfire.
So Pinzon and her neighbors feared the worst when 108 combat troops commandeered the schoolhouse as a counterinsurgency base. Yet when the soldiers left about a month later to pursue the mystery rebels elsewhere, Pinzon said, her 9-year-old son cried. So did many other residents.
“We didn’t want them to go,” the storekeeper whispered sadly. “They gave us security.” Security, she said, not from the rebels but from the police - the state and federal “judiciales” who for years have terrorized this and other towns in the Pacific Coast state.
In a land where the cops are often the criminals and few local civilians see the rebels as a threat, even the harshest critics of the army’s mobilization in Guerrero agree that its presence has been a welcome relief for many - if only as a security force of last resort.
At a time when the militarization of Guerrero and other pockets of Mexico has drawn the concern of human rights groups, opposition leaders and peasant activists, the view from Aguas Blancas testifies to the depth of Mexico’s national insecurity.
That view is shared in other towns now occupied by the army as thousands of soldiers deploy in some of Guerrero’s most remote areas. Many agree even in Mexico City, where, amid a continuing insecurity crisis, President Ernesto Zedillo has put a tough army general in charge of the police force. The capital’s record crime and rampant corruption have silenced most criticism of the general’s first act: dismissing department heads for what he called their crooked “brotherhood” and replacing them with army generals.
The army has a reputation as a far more moral force than the police. Jose Espina, a city assemblyman from the conservative opposition National Action Party, observed: “The military presence in the police force will reinforce certain values, such as discipline, efficiency and professionalism, including fighting corruption and respecting human rights.”
The problem is more complex in Guerrero, a state plagued by drug trafficking, kidnapping, poverty and a history of political bossism.
That state of neglect follows decades of rule by authoritarian governors, often from the same few families. Among these bosses was Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who rose from governor of Guerrero to the ruling party’s second-highest post before being assassinated in Mexico City two years ago.