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100 years after death of Mexican Revolution hero, political prisoners begin hunger strike

President López Obrador named 2022 the Year of Ricardo Flores Magón, but has done nothing to help residents of the revolutionary’s hometown who have been locked up for eight years on what they say are unfounded charges.

ELOXOCHITLÁN DE FLORES MAGÓN, Mexico (CN) — Schoolbooks in Mexico say little, if anything, about Ricardo Flores Magón. His anarchist ideology was unpalatable to a state trying to consolidate power after the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. Picturesque roughriders like Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa made for more patriotic role models. 

Instead, children in the Mazatec community of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, where the journalist, activist and unsung revolutionary hero was born, learn about him through oral tradition. 

“My father taught us about Ricardo Flores Magón,” said Argelia Betanzos, 42, who is now using those history lessons to guide her struggle for her own father’s freedom. 

Jaime Betanzos, 69, was arrested in December 2014 after a fray between community leaders and a group supporting the Morena party, now the dominant party in Mexico’s national politics, left two people dead and others injured. He and six others were charged with homicide and attempted homicide, but supporters say the charges were fabricated and the imprisonment is due to their opposition to the regional Morena leadership.

“I don’t have the words to describe what it means to be calling for the freedom of political prisoners during the 100th anniversary of Flores Magón’s death,” said Argelia Betanzos, who led a march for the cause in Eloxochitlán on Monday. 

Ricardo Flores Magón poses for a mugshot in 1912. The Mexican anarchist revolutionary was jailed several times in the United States for his subversive actions. (Archivemagon.net via Courthouse News)

The 300-person protest wrapped up a weekend of arts, music, hikes and other activities of solidarity. Attendees included supporters from elsewhere in Mexico whose family members have also been imprisoned unjustly or politically. 

“I empathize with the pain of my Mazatec partners because I’ve lived the same experience,” said Teresa Santiago, whose three brothers were convicted of a crime they say they did not commit in México state a decade and a half ago. She came representing the unjustly imprisoned activist organization Haz Valer Mi Libertad (Assert My Freedom).

“Being here helps us to come together as organizations so that we can be united. Like we’ve always said: only united will we be able to overcome the injustices of the state,” said Santiago.

Following the march, organizers presented a letter from the political prisoners addressed to Oaxaca’s governor-elect Salomón Jara Cruz, a former member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution who now flies the Morena Flag. In the letter, Jaime Betanzos and the other prisoners announced they began a hunger strike on Monday “so that the death of Ricardo [Flores Magón] revives in life and freedom for us.” They plan to continue the hunger strike until Jara Cruz agrees to sit down and speak with them and their families.

Supporters of political prisoners and the unjustly imprisoned raise their hands in an indigenous ceremony before the march in Eloxochitlán, Oaxaca, on Nov. 21, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Although the legal limit to mandatory pretrial detention in Mexico is two years, they have spent the last four to eight years in prison on remand without being convicted of any crime. Critics have accused President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of using mandatory pretrial detention as a tool for political intimidation.

“We see this as a strategy of repression, because those who are imprisoned are those who have opposed the Morena leadership and participated in the community assembly of Eloxochitlán,” said lawyer Daniel Sosa, who represents six of the political prisoners. 

A study of poverty rate data conducted and published this past April by the magazine Eje Central found that municipalities governed by Indigenous community assemblies saw the largest reductions in poverty from 2015 to 2020. Morena was at the helm of the municipalities with the least reduction or growth of poverty.

In 2018, Mexico’s Senate recognized the trumped-up nature of the charges against the Eloxochitlán prisoners, calling theirs a “case of selective criminalization, characterized by the prosecution of sociopolitical conflicts by means of fabricating serious crimes.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar pledged this past July to have the case reviewed by federal public defenders. 

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat and descendants of Ricardo Flores Magón pose for a photo at a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary's death in Mexico City on Nov. 21, 2022. (Lopezobrador.org.mx via Courthouse News)

But despite the support of the legislative and judicial branches, the executive appears to be in no hurry to see Betanzos and the other political prisoners released. True to form, López Obrador seems more concerned with what the memory of Ricardo Flores Magón can do for optics of his party.

This past January, the president announced that 2022 would be the year of Ricardo Flores Magón, “Precursor to the Mexican Revolution.” On Monday, he held a ceremony in the National Palace in Mexico City to honor the revolutionary anarchist who died a political prisoner. 

Imprisoned for distributing “subversive” material through the U.S. mail, Flores Magón died in a prison cell in Leavenworth, Kansas, on Nov. 21, 1922, the night before he was scheduled to be released. The official story imputes his death to a heart attack, but supporters say he was murdered by a prison guard.

Alongside descendants of Flores Magón, López Obrador Monday eulogized the revolutionary’s “loving intimacy, his practical judgment and his deep revolutionary convictions.” 

The president’s admiration for Flores Magón’s convictions, however, has not led him to take action to help Betanzos and the others whose beliefs put them in a similar situation to that of their hometown hero.

Led by Argelia Betanzos, the prisoners’ supporters have made several attempts to open a dialogue with López Obrador and others in his administration, but to no avail. They have appealed to others in the federal government, including Human Rights Undersecretary Alejandro Encinas, but that petition led nowhere.

Federal deputies Susana Prieto Terrazas and Cecilia Márquez listened to their demands. The latter said she communicated their petition to Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López, but they have yet to hear from him.

Supporters of political prisoners in Mexico kneel around an offering to Ricardo Flores Magón before a march in Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca, on Nov. 21, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“Encinas ended up closing his door on us completely,” said Argelia Betanzos, who saw López Obrador’s tribute to Flores Magón as mere lip service of a government that lacks coherence. “The government is only using the figure of Ricardo Flores Magón. It’s a misappropriation with electoral ends, just the use of his image, and has nothing to do with vindicating Ricardo, not even with an interest in promoting the story of his life and work.”

López Obrador, Encinas, Augusto López and the cited federal deputies did not respond to Courthouse News’ requests for comment. 

While the federal government’s purported transformation of Mexico appears to be merely skin deep and its understanding of history as manipulative as that of its predecessors, Argelia Betanzos and her cohort will continue to draw upon the past to strive for a better, freer future. 

“For us daughters and sisters of political prisoners, this action has become profoundly relevant because it’s like a personal reunion with Ricardo, not just symbolic,” she said. “He was a person who himself went through what we’re suffering now.”

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