- The Last Door:Political Prisoners and the Use of Torture in Mexico’s Dirty War
In December 1969, former President Lázaro Cárdenas sent a letter to political prisoners in the Lecumberri federal penitentiary in Mexico City, assuring them that he would continue to lobby for their release.1 In October 1973, Michoacán university students marching in front of the state government building in Morelia held up placards demanding the release of political prisoners.2 On June 29, 1974, Lucio Caba˜nas, guerrilla leader of the Partido de los Pobres (Party of the Poor) in the mountains of Guerrero, released a communiqué in which the group’s first demand was the release of political prisoners.3 In its founding document from March 1973, the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre (LC-23S), an urban-based guerrilla group responsible for more than 60 direct-action operations, made it clear that political prisoners were one of the costs of carrying out a revolution and, as such, would not distract from its broader mission.4 These are just some of the references to the imprisonment of activists during the height of what is considered Mexico’s dirty war. Taken together, the many references to political prisoners suggest that being held captive by the state was a common threat and, in some cases, a reality in the lives of those challenging the authoritarian government in the 1960s and 1970s.
This article is a broad look at the experiences of Mexico’s political prisoners, primarily in the 1970s. It includes the cases of the 1968 student movement but departs from them to focus on subsequent cases of urban guerrilla members who suffered the full force of torture and remained in prison for much longer than those involved in the student movement. By way of a disclaimer, the [End Page 57] article makes only make passing mention of what took place in Guerrero during this decade; it is unable to do justice to the scope of what political prisoners endured here.5 The analysis herein is also limited to the imprisonment and torture of individuals.
The frequency with which the subject of political prisoners was addressed among groups opposing the PRI is jarring when read against the official common sense of the time. After all, party leaders in the aftermath of the 1910 Revolution, had ostensibly ushered in a political system that, though imperfect, promised a modicum of social peace and gradual modernization. These promises appeared on path to becoming a reality during the 1940s and 1950s, with strong economic growth rates and the advent of what has been referred to as the Golden Age for modern Mexico. The 1960s witnessed greater unrest from a range of social sectors, including students and, after 1965, guerrilla groups demanding a democratic opening. Yet, the Mexican government, while violent in its response to the 1968 student mobilizations and its battles with guerrilla groups in the 1970s, was not as violent as the military governments carrying out “dirty wars” against similar groups in many South American countries at the time. Wil Pansters has stated that so much attention has been focused on distinguishing Mexico’s “moderate authoritarianism” from other cases of repressive regimes in Latin America that it has “unintentionally contributed to underestimating or masking violence and coercion—the ” dark side“—in state-making.”6 In other words, this differential attention has fueled the misconception that the government’s use of repression was not on par with that employed elsewhere in the region.
To counteract this misconception, the following pages explore the history of the “dirty war” of the 1970s. They answer a range of questions surrounding how these two repressive tools—detention and torture—helped the governing regime maintain its control at a moment of great vulnerability, especially in the face of armed guerrilla groups in both urban and rural areas. These questions range from relatively straightforward ones, such as what was it like to be a political prisoner in Mexico’s penitentiary system, and the evolving profile of political prisoners, to the more difficult ones of how the government nurtured a culture of fear to intimidate what it deemed recalcitrant members of society [End...