This story is over 5 years old.


Guerrillas at Ayotzinapa: Legacy of Armed Movements Is Present at Mexican Protests

Guerrillas are active at the Ayotzinapa Normal School campus, students tell VICE News. But tactics have changed and maybe the lines have blurred since guerrilla warfare in Mexico in the 1960s and 70s.
Photo by Lenin Ocampo

Oscar Ortiz is father of 22-year-old Cutberto Ortiz, one of the Ayotzinapa Normal School students who were disappeared by police in the state of Guerrero on September 26, 2014. Like other parents waiting for the 42 still-missing young men to return, he is angry, frustrated, and deeply hurt.

But he also has a historical connection to the tragedy that is linked to a key question about the future of the Ayotzinapa protest movement today.


Ortiz is a cousin of the late Lucio Cabañas, a Mexican armed leader who was killed in combat with Mexico's army in 1974 and was considered by the CIA the leading guerrilla of the period in Mexico. This means that a relative of Lucio Cabañas is among the now 42 missing students from Ayotzinapa, a painful parallel that is impossible to ignore for Ortiz.

Cabañas was killed for confronting state forces blamed for injustices and violence against Guerrero's poor. Ortiz reasoned his son Cutberto was attacked and disappeared for basically the same reason as his cousin 40 years ago.

"We've had enough," Ortiz, a farmer, told VICE News in a phone interview last week. "The parents of the other young men as well, and those of us who live here [in Guerrero], it's years of more of the same."

"If Lucio were still alive," he added. "There would already be a revolution here."

'Do you really think you're going to see them armed and masked like you do on the news?'

Guerrilla movements active throughout the mid-20th Century in Mexico are a mostly forgotten element of the nation's past, written out of official history books despite widespread rural and urban warfare with government forces, guerrilla kidnappings of bankers and politicians, and documented state massacres and disappearances.

But the topic has re-entered the public eye since the disappearance and likely massacre of the students from the Ayotinzapa Normal School. Lucio Cabañas, incidentally, studied at Ayotzinapa and became a prominent leader in a national socialist student federation before he took up arms in 1967.


But in what ways are guerrillas active in Guerrero today? And how plausible is it for an actual armed revolution to spring from the protest movement surrounding the Ayotzinapa survivors now?

Argentine Investigators Cast Doubt on Mexico's Claims Over Student Remains. Read more here.

Members of a Guerrero state guerrilla group, the Popular Revolutionary Army, known as EPR, in this 1997 file photo. A separate armed group, the ERPI, branched off from the EPR in 1998. (Photo via Reuters)

On a recent day at the campus near the town of Tixtla, Guerrero, "Angel," a third-year Ayotzinapa student leader who provided a false name to maintain his anonymity, allowed VICE News to accompany him on an assigned security patrol of the school.

Access to Ayotzinapa, which is governed by a student council and not school employees, is tightly controlled.

The students keep only the central administrative section of the school open to contact with the news media, while many other sections of the campus are off-limits to the press. This includes areas where the students store stolen goods from corporate delivery trucks and park the hijacked buses they use to get from protest to protest.

After some hours, Angel admitted that he has had contact for "about a year" with members of the Guerrero state guerrilla group Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo Insurgente, known as ERPI, or the Insurgent Revolutionary People's Army.

The ERPI formed in 1998 after branching off from the Popular Revolutionary Army, or the EPR, which emerged in 1996.

Two other student leaders present at the interview declined to be named but confirmed Angel's statement.


"They are here," one of them told VICE News, adding with laughter, "Do you really think you're going to see them armed and masked like you do on the news?"

The students did not specify how many ERPI guerrillas have been present at Ayotzinapa. He said they have approached him and his fellow students with "respect, and to share ideas related to the struggle of the classes." Nothing more, Angel assured.

An excerpt from the VICE News documentary The Missing 43. Watch it here.

Ayotzinapa students take over a toll booth south of Chilpancingo, Guerrero, in October. Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)

A Living Legacy?

The Center for the Documentation of Armed Movements, based in Spain, says there are 40 insurgent groups or guerrillas active in Mexico. Ten of these are present in the state of Guerrero, although only three, including the EPR and the ERPI, have released statements decrying the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students.

None of these groups operate today as guerrilla movements did in previous generations. They do not target civilians or political enemies, or stage frequent public demonstrations of force as the EZLN in Chiapas. Guerrillas in Guerrero mostly release communiques or videos on YouTube, both of which are difficult to confirm as credible.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly after the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, guerrilla warfare aimed at government institutions flourished in Mexico, prompting repressive anti-guerrilla military tactics in a campaign that historians have since dubbed the Dirty War.


Some of the most decisive figures from this period, including guerrilla leader Genaro Vásquez, come from Guerrero, a state steeped in revolutionary history. Today, Guerrero is once again simmering with anti-government sentiment as the days pass and the students carried by off police in the city of Iguala remain vanished.

The Ayotzinapa school has also transformed into a hive of protest activity since the Iguala attacks. No classes have been held for weeks, as the students have been busy attending protests.

The 1971 Student Massacre That Mexico Would Rather Forget. Read more here.

For more than two months, VICE News has documented attacks on political buildings, city halls, and state government structures in Guerrero, which have been seen a coordinated response to the missing students case. Protesters have also blocked federal highways and taken over toll stations, and for a few hours on November 10, occupied access points to the international airport in Acapulco.

These attacks have mostly been led by masked members of the state teachers union, known as CETEG, as well as some students from Ayotzinapa, campesino organizations, and other supporters whose affiliations are not totally clear.

The burning of government buildings in Guerrero, along with two Molotov cocktail assaults on the National Palace in Mexico City, have been condemned by pro-government voices who have labeled those who lead the attacks as vandals or guerrillas who are intent — as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto himself has said — on "destabilizing" the country.


On Monday, the teachers union symbolically shut down the federal elections agency building in Chilpancingo, the state capital. They said there will be no elections in Guerrero in 2015.

A student paints a mural at the Ayotzinapa Normal School. (Photo by Hans-Máximo Musielik)

The Guerrilla That Isn't

After graduating from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in 1962, Lucio Cabañas worked as a teacher and then became active in peasant land-rights struggles in Guerrero.

In 1967, he formed the armed Poor People's Party to advocate for campesino demands and to fight directly against a government it viewed as brutal and corrupt.

After a state attack on teachers in Atoyac de Álvarez, in May 1967, Cabañas fled to Guerrero's mountains, leading authorities and paramilitaries to hunt him down by attacking, disappearing, and torturing civilians who might have known of his whereabouts. By then, Cabañas was well on the radar of the US Central Intelligence Agency, and was labeled even more threatening after he kidnapped Ruben Figueroa, a Mexican senator and later a governor of Guerrero.

Cabañas was killed on December 2, 1974, in a clash with Mexican soldiers in the community of El Otatal, municipality of Tecpan de Galeana, Guerrero. Some accounts still maintain Cabañas shot himself dead before surrendering.

'It's like with people who practice lucha libre. Do you know you're passing a luchador when you see one on the street?'

"[We were] aggressive, nothing compared to taking over a toll booth or setting fire to a municipal hall, like the normalistas do today," said Fernando Pineda Ochoa, an ex member of the Armed Revolutionary Movement, or MAR, which was active between 1966 and 1979.


Pineda Ochoa, now 79, spoke to VICE News at his small apartment with little natural light in Chilpancingo a few weeks ago. He spent six years behind bars in Mexico after being caught and convicted of conspiracy, kidnapping, and amassing weapons.

"With the guerrilla, the strategy was violence," Pineda told me. "We'd kill police, kidnap people, businessmen. We were going for the cash. It was money we'd use to buy weapons and to make propaganda."

Recruitment in such groups was often carried out by visiting colleges and schools, Pineda explained.

"We'd analyze ideas of socialism and the Communist Youth, and we'd invite the students to join the movement or at least accompany the groups that were rising up in response to what was happening in the world during the Cold War," Pineda said.

With the kidnapping and disappearance of the normal school students from Ayotzinapa, some of the missing students' parents have even said they wouldn't discount the thought of taking up arms if the government is unable to resolve the case and give them justice.

New Evidence Leads to Jailing of Mexican Soldiers in Tlatlaya Massacre. Read more here.

Pineda, the ex guerrilla fighter, said he believed in the possibility of a "civil insurgency" emerging today in Guerrilla, but not an armed guerrilla in the classical sense.

"These are other times, the communist discourse has changed," he said. "The army is infinitely superior to the young men from the normal school, and so is organized crime, and it's much worse if the [army and organized crime] act together."


The events of the past two months do not correspond to a guerrilla movement, Pineda argued, but the "intellectual basis" of the guerrilla is alive at the protests, marches, and among the surviving students, he said. "This is not the same Guerrero."

Watch the VICE documentary on Guerrero: The Warrior State.

A mural of Mexican guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos, at the Ayotzinapa Normal School campus. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)

While the EPR has released ten communiques related to the Ayotzinapa missing students case, the ERPI has released only one, saying it holds the government "responsible" for any repercussions against students, teachers, or social groups organizing in Guerrero since the Iguala attacks.

The ERPI also said that it is "not an organization that involves itself in conflicts among drug cartels, or among organized crime groups."

Angel, the third-year student at Ayotzinapa described the contact with the group as discreet and simple.

"The ERPI people are not always up in the mountains. They are as normal as us, as you and me. They can't always go around with their faces covered," he said. "It's like with people who practice lucha libre [Mexican masked wrestling]. Do you know you're passing a luchador when you see one on the street?"

Ayotzinapa: A Timeline of the Mass Disappearance That Has Shaken Mexico. Read it here.