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MEXICO: Troubles on the V

4 minute read

Political one-upmanship in Mexico frequently comes in the guise of a comic book. All factions can and do compete to produce the cleverest and most convincing interpretation of national events. Last week a new comic hit the stands. On the cover was Miss Liberty in all her Grecian-gowned glory, about to be done in by sinister men armed with rifles and long Turkish knives. Were those the Russian and North Korean flags over their heads? They most certainly were. This unabashedly patriotic comic, the handiwork of a wealthy, middle-aged illustrator named José G. Cruz, spins out in cartoons, photographs and cryptic dialogue what many Mexicans are talking about these days: the arrest of 20 young Mexican revolutionaries who traveled to North Korea for guerrilla training and returned home to cause the severest strain in Mexican-Soviet relations since Leon Trotsky sought asylum in Mexico in 1937.

2 de Octubre. Even without the comic embellishments, which probably exaggerate the Soviet role in the affair, the story is a remarkable account of international intrigue. As pieced together by TIME correspondents from various sources, it all began in the dormitory of Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow. The time was October 1968. Upset by the bloody university riots in Mexico City that month, which claimed at least 34 lives, six Mexican students studying at Lumumba University on Soviet scholarships got together and decided to form a clandestine organization. They named it Movimiento de Acción Revolucionaria (MAR) and called the guerrilla unit the 2 de Octubre, the date of the massacre. Fabricio Gómez Souza, one of the students, made contact with the North Korean embassy in Moscow and arranged to visit Pyongyang. There he received the North Koreans’ assurance that they would give the Mexican students political and military training. Back in Moscow, he was handed $10,000 by the North Korean embassy to finance the students’ travels.

Gómez then returned to Mexico, where he recruited several more aspiring guerrillas. In order to avoid suspicion by Western intelligence agencies, they traveled individually to East Berlin, where they exchanged their Mexican passports for false North Korean passports. They regrouped in Moscow, where they visited for ten days before flying to Pyongyang on a Soviet Aeroflot plane. Next came six months of training in guerrilla tactics, radiotelegraphy, judo and use of weapons. Retracing their steps through Moscow and East Berlin, the youthful firebrands returned to Mexico and, during the next year, with another $16,000 supplied by North Korea, recruited 40 more like-minded revolutionaries to make similar trips to Pyongyang.

The movement, which only really got off the ground last August, turned out to be short-lived. On Dec. 19, six MAR members allegedly assaulted a bank messenger and snatched a strongbox containing $84,000 in U.S. currency. The raid put the police on their tracks. The break in the case finally came when a MAR member named Francisco Parades Ruiz was arrested on a vagrancy charge March 1 and police found a phony passport on him. Under interrogation, Parades Ruiz reportedly informed on the others in exchange for immunity. With his information, police soon arrested 19 more MAR members on a wide variety of charges.

Soviet Involvement. The youths readily admitted that they had received guerrilla training in North Korea. “No easy coup d’ état was planned,” said Gómez, “but a long struggle, guerrilla warfare and armed confrontation.” At first, the Mexican government cautiously avoided implicating the Soviet Union and put full blame on the North Koreans with whom Mexico has no diplomatic relations. But when it came to light that no less than 50 Mexicans had crisscrossed the Soviet Union on North Korean passports, the Mexican government reacted angrily, expelling five top-ranking Russian diplomats and recalling its own ambassador from Moscow. Western intelligence said that the diplomats had been directly involved with MAR’s activities. As police stepped up the search for 28 other members of the ill-fated movement, the Soviet embassy issued a statement proclaiming its “strict observance of the principle of nonintervention in the acts of each country.” But few Mexicans could accept that profession of innocence.

The episode may mean a considerable setback for Soviet foreign policy in Latin America. In the last two decades, Moscow has established diplomatic relations with every South American country except Paraguay, and assiduously cultivated a Via Pacífica policy emphasizing cultural exchange programs and trade agreements as a means to peaceful expansion and influence. The first repercussions came from Costa Rica, which postponed negotiations for a Soviet embassy in San José. It would have been the first for the Russians in Central America.

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