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Breaking Ranks 

A Mexican officer defects, seeks asylum in U.S.

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
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EL PASO, Texas — During the first days of the rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in January 1994, Captain Jesus Valles, then stationed at the 30th military zone just across the Chiapas line in Villahermosa Tabasco, was ordered by his commanding officer to take no prisoners in the Lacandon jungle city of Ocosingo, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the short 12-day shooting war.

The order was to kill, rather than capture, suspected rebels.

Startlingly, rather than responding with the mechanical compliance that the military demands of its conscripts, Valles and two of his fellow soldiers refused the orders on legal and moral grounds. "I had served in Chiapas once before. I learned the lives of the Indians there. They live only on what they plant in the ground, yet they shared their food with us," Valles explained to a United States immigration judge last year.

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This March 19, ex-Captain Valles became the first member of the Mexican military ever to be granted political asylum in the U.S. He is also the first Mexican to ever be given sanctuary on the grounds of a "conscientious objection to killing his fellow Mexicans."

In dramatic testimony before federal immigration Judge Bertha Zuniga here, Valles described how Brigadier General Luis Humberto Portillo, commander of the 30th military zone, instructed troops to exterminate suspected Zapatista rebels but to use caution when the press was in the vicinity. Some of General Portillo’s underlings apparently did not take this instruction to heart. Major Alberto Perez Nava, testified Valles, executed five suspected Zapatistas in the Ocosingo market, and full-cover photos of the corpses made the front covers of newspapers and magazines around the world. Perez Nava has never been charged with the crimes.

Military authorities deemed an army lieutenant responsible for the killings of eight civilians at the Ocosingo hospital in the early days of the war, but the soldier allegedly "committed suicide" before he could be tried in the military’s private justice system. Although reports issued by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the U.S. State Department and Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission concur that the Mexican military committed atrocities in Ocosingo and in the Zapatista farming hamlet of Morelia in January 1994, no member of the military has ever been charged.

On the other hand, Valles’ objection to killing the Zapatistas marked him for the maximum penalty within military ranks. After refusing General Portillo’s orders, the captain was transferred into a unit in Tehuacan, Puebla, where several colleagues warned him that he would be "disappeared." Rather than risk death or imprisonment, Captain Valles deserted and fled to his wife’s home state of Chihuahua. When, in February 1995, President Ernesto Zedillo ordered the Tehuacan unit into the Lacandon jungle to obliterate the EZLN leadership, Jesus and his wife, Maria, a nurse, escaped across the border into Texas.

Despite being rendered in particularly fractured legalese, Zuniga’s decision makes no bones about both Valles’ asylum claim and the Mexican government’s culpability in the commission of human-rights abuses in Chiapas. Citing multiple documents and the expert testimony of Dr. Samuel Schmidt, a Mexican-born University of Texas political scientist who himself was once obligated to flee Mexico because of government death threats, Zuniga writes that "there is reason to believe the Mexican government has killed innocent civilians and engaged in repressive military action" in Chiapas, and that Valles has "a well-founded fear of persecution" because of his "refusal to obey orders to kill captured EZLN rebels and engage in such repressive action."

The U.S. State Department deferred the captain’s asylum application to federal immigration — ignoring findings of systemic abuses by the government reiterated in its past four annual human-rights reports — on grounds that a grant of asylum would cause consternation in the military establishment south of the border. "This is the first claim to be brought by an officer who deserted the Mexican Army that we have ever received," wrote William Bartlett of State’s Asylum Office, in proclaiming the secretary’s "reluctance" to allow sanctuary in the Valles matter.

The ex-officer was defended by colorful border lawyer Carlos Spector, a pioneer of political-asylum cases for Mexicans fleeing to Texas. Back in the late 1980s, Spector, the son of a Brooklyn GI and a Chihuahua farm woman, won political asylum for a pair of leaders of the conservative National Action Party who were being persecuted by the long-ruling (70 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in their home state of Chihuahua. Since then, Mexicans have filed a total of 61,000 political-asylum claims in the U.S. — although only a handful have been successful. Fewer than a hundred applicants have obtained asylum, on such diverse grounds as political persecution, police threats to their well-being, and sexual orientation.

Jesus Valles is the first conscientious objector to have won such sanctuary — Spector cites international standards for refusing illegal orders as the basis for Valles’ refusal to carry out execution orders.

In many respects, Jesus Valles’ conscientious objection reflects the rifts that now afflict Mexico’s military structure. A poor boy from a sugar-cane town in the highland state of Morelos, Valles was born in 1968 — a year in which the Mexican army massacred hundreds of students in the nation’s capital. When still a teenager, Valles won a scholarship to the Heroic Military College, the Mexican equivalent of West Point and a bastion of nationalist thinking whose most famous graduates are the "heroic children" — cadets who 151 years ago committed suicide rather than surrender to U.S. invaders during the war of annexation. Imbued with the blind patriotism that the military inculcates, Captain Valles was commissioned in 1988 — a time when incoming President Carlos Salinas deployed the army to suppress political opponents in Michoacan and Guerrero states and sent troops into the great copper pit in Cananea, Sonora, which he then sold to private owners.

Jesus Valles’ first mission was in Chihua-hua, where he participated in army anti-drug campaigns and where he first witnessed members of the military torturing local Tarahumara Indians. The use of the military in the drug war, once exclusively a civilian police matter, has been repeatedly question-ed by high-ranking ex-officers such as retired Brigadier General Samuel Lara and retired Brigadier General Luis Garfias, both of whom have deserted the PRI and joined the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

In the past year, the rift within the military has become increasingly visible as dozens of officers defect to the PRD, whose founder, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, is the son of a revolutionary general. The split seems to focus on both the use of the military for personal, political and civilian law-enforcement purposes, and the military’s unquestioned loyalty to a series of Mexican presidents whose neoliberal economic policies and the privatization of once-revolutionary institutions do not seem to be in sync with the principles of Mexico’s nationalist revolution.

Military justice — or injustice — has also become a galvanizing issue. Perhaps the nation’s most celebrated "prisoner of conscience" (so designated by Amnesty International), General Jose Francisco Gallardo has been jailed for years after advocating the creation of a military ombudsman to represent low-ranking troops against officers in military-justice proceedings. Lieutenant Colonel Hildegardo Bacilio Gomez, the leader of the Patriotic Command To Raise the People’s Consciousness, as well as 50 soldiers and officers who staged an unprecedented public march in Mexico City last December to protest inequities in the military-justice system, were imprisoned this winter, many on charges of sedition. At the time of the commandos’ march, Bacilio Gomez voiced objections to the military campaign in Chiapas and expressed admiration for the EZLN’s charismatic spokesperson, Subcomandate Marcos.

Although he is the first to be considered a conscientious objector — a status the Mexican military does not recognize — ex-Captain Valles is not the only member of the army to desert because of the conflict in Chiapas. Indeed, Valles himself testified that about a hundred troops abandoned the military in that state during the first weeks of the war, a claim first made by the EZLN in some of its earliest communiqués. It is not uncommon for reporters in the conflict zone to encounter army personnel beating the bushes for deserters.

Nor is Jesus Valles the first Mexican soldier to receive political asylum in North America. Ten years ago, Zacarias Osorio, the Mexican army’s most notorious deserter, was granted sanctuary in Canada after confessing that, as a paratrooper-fusilier attached to an execution squad based at Military Camp No. 1 on the western edge of Mexico City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he shot between 60 and 140 political prisoners on orders from his superiors before escaping north. Much as in the Valles matter, Canadian immigration authorities decided that the revelations would place Osorio’s life in danger should he be forced to return to Mexico.

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