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Free Javier Elorriaga!

by Elissa J. Rashkin

It used to be said: "Mexico has many heroes. But all of them are dead." The two-year-old EZLN uprising, however, has produced heroes by the bushel: not only the "guerrilla superstar" Marcos and the masked men and women he represents, but also impressive numbers of journalists, clergy, politicians, human rights workers, and many others have engaged in daring acts of bravery and chutzpah, putting their jobs, their safety, their sanity and their lives on the line for justice. One such inspiring figure is Javier Elorriaga Berdegue, a video producer and journalist imprisoned since February 1995 on charges of rebellion, sedition, riot, terrorism and conspiracy.

In late 1994, a documentary video entitled Viaje al centro de la selva (Journey to the Center of the Jungle) appeared in market kiosks in the streets of Mexico City--one of the few ways in which independently produced media can be freely distributed. Directed by Epigimenio Ibarra, the video documented the Zapatista uprising from its beginning in January, 1994 to August of that year, when the first National Democratic Convention was convened in Aguascalientes, Chiapas, as a bridge between the rebel forces and Mexican civil society. When the video was shown in Mexico City on September 20, it was nearly upstaged by a phone call from Marcos himself, who spoke to Ibarra via cellular phone, and to 1500 listeners via the theater's sound system.

A few months later, the Zedillo regime reneged on its promise to negotiate with the rebels and began a crackdown on Zapatista leadership and sympathizers. The president himself went on TV in February to announce the discovery of secret arsenals in Veracruz, Mexico state and the capital, the capture of "terrorists" in these states, and--Zedillo's piece de resistance--the "true identity" of Subcomandante Marcos. Among those arrested were Javier Elorriaga and his wife, María Gloria Benevides, the alleged "Subcomandante Elisa." Both worked with the television collective Argos, makers of Viaje al centro de la selva.

The February witchhunt, however, did not go quite as Zedillo might have hoped. As it turned out, the sizable fraction of the Mexican public that supports the EZLN did not give a damn whether Marcos was the dissident professor Rafael Guillén or not. In Mexico City, huge crowds took to the streets shouting "Todos somos Marcos"--We are all Marcos! After a few scary weeks, in which many Chiapaneco villagers fled their homes to hide in the hills, the Janus-faced government once again agreed to negotiate.

But the political hostages of February remained in prison, in spite of international outrage. On April 14, Jorge Santiago Santiago, Elorriaga's cellmate and a respected human rights worker, was freed for lack of evidence. Investigations by the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center found considerable "irregularities," including untraceable witnesses and forced confessions, in the arrests of Elorriaga, Benevides, seven accused Zapatistas in Yanga, Veracruz, and several others in the state of Mexico. Although the alleged "subversives" remained incarcerated, the case against them did not hold up. Benevides was finally absolved of all charges in November, and many of the charges against the Veracruz prisoners were struck down as well. But even though Elorriaga was accused by the same "witness" who was deemed unreliable in the other cases, a petition filed on his behalf in May--on the grounds that he has never been sentenced, but merely accused--was denied in January 1996, as he completed his first eleven months in the Cerro Hueco prison in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas.

Several of those arrested in February, including Benevides and Elorriaga, are veteran leftists whose activism goes back to the turbulent 1970s, when the supposedly progressive government squashed the last traces of the student movement and used military force against a guerrilla rebellion in the state of Guerrero. That the wounds of that era have not yet healed means that during any crackdown on subversion, the government has a ready-made list of targets at hand. Yet the government's hypocrisy in the Elorriaga case was clearly revealed at the end of 1995, when the journalist went public about his encounters with the EZLN.

In late 1994, when Zedillo had been elected but had not yet taken office, the president-elect sent a series of letters to the EZLN leadership. This correspondence, kept secret in the Mexican political tradition of behind-closed-doors dealmaking, continued through early February; and for each letter and its response, the go-between was Javier Elorriaga. In a January 5, 1996 interview, Elorriaga told Blanche Petrich of La Jornada that he himself proposed the exchange to the EZLN leadership, as a "peacemaking effort": "I always thought it was worth paying the price, if it meant opening more paths to dialogue and making a political solution possible." Although Elorriaga never communicated directly with Zedillo, he believes that the president must have known of his role, given the presence of military intelligence in Chiapas and the fact that at least one of the messages was delivered verbally to Zedillo's offices. But even if Zedillo did not know last February, Elorriaga argues, "what is important is that he knows now, and that if there is no trickery involved, he could still amend the decision to arrest me."

Although separated from his wife and family for a year, Elorriaga has not been silenced; from his cell in Cerro Hueco, he is serving as the publisher of the journal Espejo (Mirror). In an essay published in La Jornada in November, he reiterated the pressing need for dialogue as a precondition for democracy. He writes: "Participating, bringing the dialogues of Sakamch'en de los Pobres [site of the Chiapas peace talks] to every corner of the country, presenting [our] collective demands at all of the negotiating tables, defending the agreements achieved at each of these, fighting for unity and a democratic transition, we will leave those in power with no other alternative than to submit to change. That is their option. Or to request different citizenship. Ours is to take things to that point, without falling for the provocations of the government that are inciting civil war. We will demonstrate that political maturity, and change for the better, are on the side of the people. So let us begin."

[As of this writing, there is a possibility that Elorriaga will be freed on bail under a provision of Mexican law that states that no one may serve over a year in prison without being sentenced. The Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center is organizing a campaign for Elorriaga's liberation. To help, send faxes to Lic. Juan Manuel Alcántara Moreno, First District Judge in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, at 011-52-961-3-44-60, and Lic. Antonio Lozano García, Mexico's Attorney General, at 011-525-624-44-78.]

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