Tomorrow morning Professor Gomez and I will be on a plane to Mexico City, and by the following afternoon about a dozen female ex-guerrilla fighters will have joined us to spend three days talking (and hopefully writing) about their experiences fighting government forces in the Mexican Dirty War. Few Mexicans are aware of the role women played in the guerrilla insurgency of the 1970s. The Dirty War itself is little more than a vague memory to most Mexicans of my (the younger) generation – a memory they received secondhand and already blurred. The Mexican government has spent a great deal of time and effort ensuring that the Dirty War continues to recede into a distant, half-forgotten past. Those who survived the struggle and have attempted to share their experiences of the period have routinely been silenced by government authorities. Few first-hand accounts have escaped censorship, and women – a minority within this already marginalized group – have received little to no recognition for their role in the conflict.
For that reason, I’ve spent the past several weeks sifting through texts on women insurgents in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Columbia, even a few female Vietnam War vet memoirs, as well as the testimonials of Latin American women who lost male relatives in guerrilla resistance struggles – but I’ve encountered very little literature on the experiences of Mexican female guerrilla fighters themselves.That said, here is the abridged version of what we do know, the historical context that indicates there must be a story here, just waiting to be told:
The 1960s in Mexico
Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date or even the year in which the Mexican Dirty War truly began, this violent, internal struggle is generally recognized as a two-decade conflict, spanning the 1960s and the 1970s. During that period, Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI or “Institutional Revolutionary Party”) maintained control of the federal government through the successive presidencies of three politicians selected from its own ranks: Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría, and José López Portillo. The reign of PRI politicians in the presidential office preceded Díaz Ordaz’s administration and continued after Portillo’s departure, but these three presidencies, together, are recognized as among the least democratic, most repressive periods of modern Mexican history and thus stand apart.
In the years leading up to and during Díaz Ordaz’s administration, economic policies that favored the ruling elite as
well as increasing censorship of political dissidents fueled popular discontent, provoking citizen strikes and demonstrations. In particular, a growing student movement organized several major protest marches and rallies in Mexian cities. By early October of 1968, just days before Mexico City was scheduled to host its first Olympic Games, the PRI regime decided that its country could not afford to appear unstable or divided - nor did the president wish to appear unpopular – in front of an international community that would undoubtedly have its eye trained on Mexico for the duration of the Olympic Games. And thus, on October 2nd, in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City, government forces opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters and onlookers, killing hundreds of Mexican citizens. Though initially devastating to the student movement, the Tlatelolco killings, as well as a second government massacre known as “Corpus Christi” that occurred on June 10th of 1971, inspired a new wave of anti-government fervor, galvanizing many to join the guerrilla insurgency that dogged the PRI regime through the 1970s.
The 1970s in Mexico
Mexico’s guerrilla insurgency began years before Tlatelolco, and even before Díaz Ordaz was elected president. But the struggle took on a new vigor and urgency following the two massacres: not only did the ranks of pre-existing groups increase, but also entirely new resistance troupes were formed and the insurgents expanded their activities into urban areas where they had rarely ventured before.
The events of the 1960s convinced many Mexican citizens that peaceful, democratic means of expressing their discontent had been closed to them, and thus most of the guerrilla fighters of the 1970s describe their participation in the insurgency as a last resort. Life as a guerrilla insurgent meant cutting one’s self off completely from one’s family and friends, and living clandestinely, likely nomadically. Capture by government paramilitary forces (forces created for the purpose of quashing the insurgency even though the Mexican administration publicly denied any insurgency was taking place) meant one of two scenarios: the first, and far preferable case, would see the insurgent incarcerated in an official prison, a prison that the press was permitted to visit and to which family members might have limited access. Torture occurred within these institutions, but the abuses permitted within official prison walls barely rivaled those committed against prisoners at clandestine camps. These camps, the second possible destination of any captured dissident (or suspected dissident), routinely tortured their inmates, even to the point of death. Torture was not practiced for the sole purpose of extracting information, but also for instilling terror. Lucky inmates were subsequently transferred to official institutions or even released, but many died during torture sessions or were assasinated immediately after their release from prison, their bodies quietly disposed of. When individuals were captured and sent to one of these institutions, they joined the ranks of the “disappeared;” no one in the victims’ community knew where they were being held, nor if they might ever return. The individuals who did not survive these camps remain the desaparecidos of the Mexican Dirty War.
We don’t know if women joined the guerrilla movement of the 1970s in order to support their male relatives, or to fight on behalf of their own goals and convictions. There is no comprehensive documentation that describes what it was like to be a woman in the guerrilla insurgency, what it was like to interact with male counterparts, what it was like to be a female political prisoner and victim of torture. Even less frequently discussed but no less important topics include: motherhood from within prison, relationships between guerrilla fighters, familial and cultural attitudes towards female guerrilla members, and the impact of women’s involvement in the armed struggle upon women’s status within Mexican politics and society. But we know that there were women who joined the guerrilla movement. We just want to know more.