Mexico’s dirty secret

Alberto Ulloa Bornemann recounts his imprisonment and torture during Mexico’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s


Surviving Mexico’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’s Memoir
Alberto Ulloa Bornemann, edited and translated by Arthur Schmidt and Aurora Camacho de Schmidt
2007, Temple University Press
218 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN JULY 2007 guerrillas blew up a pipeline in central Mexico controlled by the state oil monopoly Pemex, causing millions of dollars of lost production and angering large businesses dependent upon supplies, not least the US food and confectionery companies Kellogg’s and Hershey’s.

The Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR) – a small but effective guerrilla organisation with a Marxist orientation fusing Maoist and Leninist perspectives – put its hand up, but attributed responsibility for the attack on the security forces which, it said, had “disappeared” two of its comrades after breaking up unrest in the state of Oaxaca the year before.

Predictably, Mexico’s federal authorities threw their arms in the air with indignation – and claimed they had no record of any such arrests.

It is for this reason that Alberto Ulloa Bornemann’s testimonial account of his disappearance, imprisonment and torture – the first significant memoir of a political prisoner from Mexico’s “dirty war” of the 1970s – is so important, for it should remind us, and Mexicans themselves, not to forget a past that was both so sinister yet so recent.

As the excellent introduction to this book by Aurora Camacho de Schmidt and Arthur Schmidt points out: “Although the dirty war has long since ended, serious human rights abuses and patterns of official impunity have not… Surviving Mexio’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’s Memoir brings the illegal and corrupt actions of the Mexican judicial system and prison authorities out into the open.” The editors quote Amnesty International’s view that arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment by police have remained widespread in Mexico and that the authorities have singularly failed to combat these practices.

Lest we forget

Whether history is repeating itself – and given that little fundamental has changed in Mexico’s judicial universe since Bornemann’s appalling experience to suggest that this is an impossibility – this account is a damning indictment of the justice system in a country whose state is built on liberal principles, and proof, if ever it was needed, of the importance of political pluralism as an antidote to social conflict.

While Bornemann himself has changed his view of the “naïve” revolutionary activities that he participated in alongside such legendary figures as Lucio Cabañas Barrientos of the Partido de los Pobres, the fact that extra-judicial terror was being used routinely in a country now all-but claiming first world status speaks volumes about the impunity that had become part of political culture under the bureaucratic authoritarianism of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Moreover, the comparisons between the experience of Cabañas – a courageous former schoolteacher turned provincial guerrilla – and that of the EPR are striking: Cabañas originally took to the hills in 1967 after police in Atoyac had attacked a demonstration and killed several people, including his brother. The EPR itself first appeared in 1996 at a memorial service near Acapulco commemorating the first anniversary of the Aguas Blancas massacre in the state of Guerrero of 17 unarmed citizens – supporters of a peaceful campesino group – at the hands of government police.

Understandably, Bornemann remains grateful for the sheer good fortune that allowed him to get out alive – and many less fortunate than he seized by the authorities in this period did not. But the existence in 2007 of the EPR and the emergence of other guerrilla organisations in Mexico could be interpeted to mean that, for many people and in particular the poor, things have really not changed that much in the post-PRI universe and thus the lure of revolutionary activity remains attractive.

If nothing else, the author – whose testimonial account was translated and edited by the Schmidts – introduces readers to this important chapter of Mexico’s hidden history and allows them to explore a theme that, to many people, will come as a surprise.

Bornemann, an activist on the highly fragmented Mexican revolutionary left of the late 1960s whose bourgeois background ultimately saved him, was a committed – and highly idealistic – militant of the Ho Chi Minh branch of the Liga Comunista Espartaco that became known to cadres simply as the Organisation. This splinter group was influenced by the perspectives of a former revolutionary activist in the state of Morelos, Rubén Jaramillo, who had founded his own party, the Partido Agrario Obrero Obrense, many of whose members ended up in the Organisation.

Splintered left

Yet the circumstances of the time meant that Bornemann also had frequent contacts with several of the other known leftwing organisations of the era: Movimiento de Acción Revolucionaria, Comandos Lacandones, Procesos, Guajiros, Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre and the Frente Urbano Zapatista.

He helped comrades transfer weapons, travel to meet with other rebels, and take money and medicine to their supporters in southern Mexico. This splintered left emerged after the two notorious massacres of students by government thugs in 1968 and, in particular, on Corpus Christi in 1971 – but by 1976 it had largely evaporated because of infighting, its own suicidal tactics and harsh government repression: Mexico’s “dirty war”.

Mexico was ruled from 1970-76 by the vainglorious Luis Echeverría who nurtured a public image as a generous populist listening to the agitated voice of youth, yet ultimately bore more responsibility than anyone else in the PRI for the massacres that took place and the abuses that were subsequently committed. Since democracy apparently unseated the PRI definitively in 2000, one would have expected prosecutors to look again at the crimes committed during this time – but the national human rights commission and special prosecutors have been singularly unsuccessful in their efforts to bring charges against officials guilty of such past abuses.

After his capture in 1974, Bornemann was held in appalling conditions and tortured at the infamous Campo Militar Número Uno (Military Camp No. 1) before being transferred to civilian jails. He was held variously at Lecumberri, Reclusorio Oriente and Santa Martha Acatitla before his eventual amnesty in 1978. Upon his release, he developed a career as a media analyst and has lived in Mexico City with his family since.

His testimony weaves two parallel narratives: of his revolutionary activities and eventual capture; and of his imprisonment and mistreatment at the hands of the infamous secret police, the Halcónes, and the prison system.

While his insights into the activities of the revolutionary left and the personalities who dominated the various groups are clearly shaped by his own intellectual and class formation, Bornemann provides important clues to why a credible guerrilla movement proved unable to prosper in Mexico in this period and how the provincial vanity of some of the leading protagonists help to explain the serious mistakes they made. There are stories of real courage and endurance here, but also of petty criminality, moral corruption and sheer stupidity.

It is interesting to note how the iconic, mythical figure of Che Guevara and the influence of the Cuban Revolution loomed large in the minds of many of these actors. Bornemann describes in fascinating detail a “naïve and stupid trip” he himself made to revolutionary Cuba in 1967 and the pride with which he established contact with the family of Guevara’s first wife, Hilda Gadea.

As the Schmidts point out in their introduction, this work is an important contribution to the genre of testimonial literature that has emerged in Latin America in the late 20th century that is distinguished, above all, by the moral force of the accounts related. Temple University Press must be praised for publishing this book: it makes an important contribution to our understanding of Mexico in the 1970s and gives us a unique insight into the activities and ideas prevalent within the guerrilla organisations of the period, and into the character of figures such as Cabañas.

Bornemann comes across as a man of real integrity, prepared to confess his own mistakes, improprieties, prejudices and naivety. Denunciation is an outcome of his testimony – but not a purpose, and we end up being largely in agreement with him about the misguided direction of the revolutionary adventure while, like him, still cherishing the notion of a fairer world.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books