Last Sunday, my fifteen year old daughter and I went to Querétaro, Mexico. We were trying to visit Cristina Rosas Illescas at the state penitentiary of San José El Alto, five miles northeast of the state capital. At the entrance, my daughter refused the guards’ orders to take her clothes off and let them conduct a search on her body. So she wasn’t allowed in and had to wait outside. I did get in.
Cristina Rosas and Mr Pánfilo Reséndiz, the latter a construction worker and community leader, were jailed almost a year ago, without bail, accused of breaking the state law on “public order and urban development.” Because of her resistance to intimidation and absurd orders, Cristina has been placed in isolation in a tiny, humid cell known as “La Jaula” (“The Cage”), roughed up by the guards and other inmates, and subjected to a daily assortment of petty humiliations.
Months ago, after a couple of weeks in The Cage, Cristina visited the prison’s doctor and was given what she thought to be a painkiller. Almost immediately, she felt the effects of what may have been poisoning, an allergic reaction, or even a mild stroke: the muscles of half her face and limbs got paralyzed. While she has recovered most of her mobility, her right arm and foot are still numb and she walks with a bit of difficulty. Despite all this, she is as determined and good-humored as she’s ever been. We brought some food for the occasion (thoroughly searched by guards wearing surgical gloves) and, like the families of other inmates, we ate at a cement table in the jail’s patio, surrounded by barbed-wired high walls and under the shadow of a cement turret overlooking us.
I met Cristina sixteen years ago. At the time I was a college teacher at Chapingo and, like her, an organizer in the shantytowns that surround eastern Mexico City. A great deal of my work consisted of helping popular struggles in Nexquipayac de Atenco, Texcoco, and to a lesser extent Chimalhuacán and Ixtapaluca. The movements were grassroots efforts aimed to build and operate schools, local clinics, and other public services. The centers of Cristina’s work were Ixtapaluca, a textile manufacturing town in the Valley of Chalco, and the much tougher Chimalhuacán.
Cristina was born in Naucalpan, a heavy-industry town contiguous to Mexico City on the western side, got her high school education at the Preparatoria Popular de Tacuba, and a bachellor’s degree in education at the UNAM. She’s always had the no-nonsense instincts and the self-deprecating humor that appear to go along with a genuine proletarian background. When I met her, Cristina was already established as one of the leading organizers in the working-class “colonia” (settlement) of the Cerro del Tejolote and — right about then — she was taking part in the founding of the Citlalmina, a new “colonia” named after an Aztec female hero. Mexico’s state government (not to be confused with the government of Mexico City or the Federal District) tried very hard to prevent the formation of the Citlalmina.
One day, the governor Ignacio Pichardo Pagaza and his state secretary Emilio Chuayffet sent a group of “porros” (thugs) to evict the settlers. As their attack failed, Pichardo then sent the “granaderos” (riot police) with full gear — helmets, shields, batons, and automatic rifles. A worker from Chimalhuacán who was showing solidarity with the settlers was shot in the head by a “granadero,” dozens were savagely beaten up (including some of my students), and several people were jailed. (I was in Mexico City that day and luckily missed the event.) Chauyffet and the then “secretary of economic development,” Arturo Montiel, personally commanded the “granaderos” from a low-flying helicopter. During weeks, the settlement was cordoned off, held by “granaderos” armed with AR-15s. As it often happens, there was a temporary decline in participation, but then the surviving settlers (most of them), their leaders, and their supporters toughened up and persisted. At the end of all that, the Citlalmina prevailed. Last year, the “colonia” celebrated its fifteenth anniversary with a dance and theater festival. Cristina was a key figure in this triumph.
I could illustrate it with several anecdotes, but I’ll say it succinctly: Cristina Rosas is one of the most impassioned, courageous, honest, and hardworking social fighters I’ve ever met. She synthesizes all of those stereotypical virtues we tend to attribute to women — sharp intuition, people skills, ability to juggle many tasks at once and get them done, personal warmth, etc. Lucid, tough, studious, and a great friend. Sometime in the 1990s, Cristina married a lucky fellow from Nayarit (Jerónimo Gurrola) and moved to Querétaro. In Querétaro, she and her comrades organized a group of “colonias” in the outskirts of the state capital and fought to obtain deeds and urban public services. In the coming years, the movement grew from a few dozen working-class families and students to thousands of them.
Since 1997, Querétaro has been governed by the PAN, the party of the president Vicente Fox. And at least since the 1970s, the PAN has been heavily infiltrated by El Yunque (The Anvil), a virulent Catholic, anti-communist, anti-Semitic, secretive group with terrorist inclinations, who used to support the dictator Francisco Franco in Spain and the military dictators in South America. One of the bases of operation of El Yunque is the Bajío, a plain in central Mexico that stretches from eastern Jalisco to northern Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Querétaro. Fox is from Guanajuato and his influential wife, Martha Sahagún, is from northern Michoacán. Under Fox, El Yunque has accumulated much power. Just to mention something the press has documented recently: “El Yunque” largely controls the allocation of top and mid jobs in the federal executive branch.
Querétaro’s state governor, Francisco Garrido Patrón, is a lawyer educated in the Universidad Panamericana, one of El Yunque’s main recruiting centers. In his well-researched book El Yunque: La ultraderecha en el poder (Plaza Janés, 2003), Álvaro Delgado, an investigative reporter from the magazine Proceso, lists Alfredo Botello Montes, the secretary of state of Querétaro and former PAN congressman, as the commander of an El Yunque death squad captured by the police in Zacatecas in 1977 as they plotted the assassination of rivals from another ultra-right group, the Tecos from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara. While internal rivalries among ultra-right groups have been bloody, the most vicious acts of violence committed by El Yunque have victimized the left. And El Yunque operates under a rather broad, catholic (with lower “c”), definition of the left that includes about 90 per cent of Mexico’s political spectrum.
I didn’t know it when I visited Cristina, but Jerónimo Gurrola told me later in the afternoon that the prison inmates used to be forced to work long shifts in a sweatshop that manufactured religious medals to be marketed in the Vatican. Jerónimo told me he saw one of the medals himself. According to him, Cristina refused to work in the sweatshop, a gesture that didn’t please the prison’s managers. Jerónimo added that, just prior to a visit by the Human Rights Commission, the making of the medals was abruptly discontinued in the prison. I wonder if the shoppers in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome are aware that those cute little medals catching their eye, perhaps even blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, may be the product of semi-slave labor by prison inmates in rinky-dinky jails such as that in San José El Alto, Querétaro.
But the basis of the PAN-El Yunque power in Querétaro is not merely religious or ideological. In Querétaro, as bad as being a godless communist is, it’s not nearly as bad as being a godless communist who challenges the economic power of the ultra-right. One of the ultra-right’s milk cows is “urban development.” In simple terms, this consists of using legal maneuvers — if not brute force — to expropriate ejidos (farm land under traditional collective tenure) in areas next to the city of Querétaro and other large towns in the state and transferring the land to their patrons, who then build huge cookie-cutter housing projects and market the homes to state employees or the local middle class. As an IPADE alumnus (the IPADE is a copy in caricature of — say — the American Enterprise Institute in Washington), Garrido preaches the virtues of the “free-market” and “free-enterprise” system. But as a governor, he is a practitioner of old-school crony capitalism.
I personally visited the development of San Pedrito Los Arcos, built by “Geo Querétaro SA de CV,” previously “Copromoción y Servicios Inmobiliarios del Bajío SA de CV,” corporations owned by some of Garrido’s favorite sponsors: the brothers Alejandro and Héctor García Alcocer and Antonio Bermúdez Jiménez. Pre-fabricated houses that, according to a neighbor I interviewed, have “leaky roofs” and sloppily-installed bathroom furniture. This is big business. I suppose that anything that competes with it, such as — say — a grassroots movement that offers more affordable and dignified alternatives, is a dangerous threat.
Journalists who have dared expose the corruption involved or even mildly critical of the state government have been ruthlessly persecuted. Perhaps the most prominent case involves Luis Roberto Amieva, former director of the Diario de Querétaro and a journalist since 1947. Amieva became well known for his journalistic work exposing the corruption in Querétaro under the PRI. He managed to survive all sorts of PRI governors, including some with strong repressive impulses like Mariano Palacios Alcocer. But he wasn’t as lucky with the PAN’s Garrido.
Curiously, the newspaper’s editorial line under Amieva was cautiously supportive of the previous PAN governor Ignacio Loyola. But generic support for his party wasn’t enough for Garrido. Since Amieva had been somewhat critical of Garrido’s tenure as major of the city of Querétaro, as soon as Garrido became state governor, he set out to get Amieva fired. To pull it off, Garrido negotiated with the head of the conglomerate (OEM) that owns the newspaper, Mario Vázquez Raña, a lucrative deal to publish state-government propaganda in the newspaper. Amieva was fired in the spot. He then tried to start a new newspaper, Al Minuto, but his attempt was boycotted by Garrido. Amieva called it quits and retired with his health damaged.
In the late 1990s, still as mayor of the city of Querétaro, Garrido led an initiative to enact punitive legislation against working-class settlers and squatters. The fruit was the 2001 state law to “regularize the ownership of urban and semi-urban settlements,” which characterizes virtually any autonomous, grassroots movement for low-income housing — insofar as it falls outside of the official “urban development plan” concocted by government bureaucrats through which the interests of their cronies are duly taken care of — as a crime against “public order and urban development.” Since this is a crime against the “people” of Querétaro, bail is ruled out. Under this kind of legislation, a protester could be jailed for decades while a rapist could walk free on bail. All for the sake of “urban development” in Querétaro.
This is the law that, the state government alleges, Cristina and Mr Reséndiz broke. How did this happen? Under the PAN administration of Ignacio Loyola, the state of Querétaro promised people in “colonias” such as Tlanese and Bustamante, hundreds of families, to help them get their streets paved, install electric lines, build sewers, and introduce piped water. The settlers would pitch in with some money and sweat equity. The state government also promised to help pay the rent of a building where a group of working-class high-school and college students formed a “Casa del Estudiante,” a kind of students’ dorm co-op, self-managed and mostly self-funded via “colectas” (canvassing and collection of small spontaneous donations by the public on streets, in public places, and on buses).
When, in 2003, Garrido became the state governor, he reneged on the agreements, refusing to even meet with the representatives of the “colonias” and the “Casa del Estudiante.” When they staged public protests, Garrido sent the “granaderos” to deal with them. The detention and mistreatment of workers and students became routine. Dozens of detentions later, the protests grew and the government responded by tightening its methods. In July 2004, hundreds of workers and students occupied the plaza in front of the state palace in a permanent “plantón,” vowing to stay there until the state government released three students jailed for distributing leaflets.
Garrido must have thought that the “plantón” would dissolve as he refused to listen to the demands and harassed the protestors with occasional detentions. But the “plantón” remained strong and began to attract support from workers, settlers, and students of neighboring states. Finally, on March 19, 2005, a group of “granaderos” dislodged the “plantón” by force. They seized Cristina, Mr Reséndiz, and dozens of other protesters, and threw them all in jail. Cristina thought this would be another routine detention for disturbing “public peace,” which would entail another short visit to the jail. She and the people in the “plantón” were already used to all that. But, this time, the state government invoked its recent law on “public order and urban development” and pressed charges against Cristina and Mr Reséndiz to keep them in jail for a longer while.
Formally, the two leaders are still in a pre-trial phase of their legal process called “instrucción,” during which the state government is supposed to argue the case before the judge, both on the facts and the law. Because of the backlog in the courts and likely pressures from Garrido himself, this phase has taken months in the case of Cristina and Mr Reséndiz. A few weeks ago, the phase of “instrucción” was to expire. Since no sentence had yet been declared, Cristina and Mr Reséndiz were to walk out. But two days before the expiration date, the governor leveled a battery of new charges against both of them. A new phase of “instrucción” was opened and they remain in jail as of this date. With legal tricks of this sort, Garrido could easily keep them in jail for ten years or more.
Cristina’s and Mr Reséndiz’s political organization, Antorcha, has been demanding that the state government drop the charges, release the prisoners immediately, and engage in serious talks to give resolution to the legitimate demands of settlers and students. It is a sensible petition. The demands are basic. Nothing fancy. Electricity, street pavement, schools, tap water, sewers, financial support to students of low-income families, etc. Again, the settlers will contribute with resources and labor. These demands arise from need and won’t be defused with repression and cruelty. Supporters from all over Mexico will be taking part in the coming protests. I am here inviting fair-minded people from all ever the world to join this campaign.
Please write to the governor of Querétaro and demand the immediate release of the political prisoners Cristina Rosas Illescas and Pánfilo Reséndiz. This is his address:
Francisco Garrido Patrón
Gobernador del Estado de Querétaro
Palacio de Gobierno
Or send an e-mail to:
(A letter is far more effective than an email.)
Julio Huato is an economist. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.