August 27, 2004

Proxy Soldiers in Bush’s War

Mexico Fiercely Opposes the Iraq War, But Mexicans Are Dying There Every Week

By John Ross

“She died on Friday thinking about coming home to eat beans and carnitas”

Father of Sgt. Isela Rubacalva

Mexico City -  When Lance Corporal Juan Lopez Rangel was killed in a firefight near the rebel city of Fallujah in Al Anbar province just west of Baghdad on June 21st, his grieving parents, who now live in a small Georgia town, were determined to bury the proud marine in his hometown of San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato Mexico, a dusty crossroads in the shadow of the desolate Sierra Gorda where the only action after dark are the all-night funeral parlors and from which Juan Lopez and his family escaped when he was 15 for a new life.

Fernando Suarez del Solar, center, carrying the casket of his son Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez del Solar. Friday, April 11, 2003. Del Solar was killed in Iraq on March 27th. Photo from America First, Incorporated, website.

Juan’s funeral set for Mexico over the July 4th weekend—U.S. Independence Day—would include plenty of patriotic fanfare—U.S. patriotic fanfare. After negotiations with Mexican authorities over protocols, it was agreed that a four member U.S. Marine Corps Honor Guard carrying ceremonial weapons could accompany the interment—a 21-gun salute with M-16s was nixed by the Mexican military.

The U.S. marines paraded solemnly through the empty streets of San Luis de la Paz, stopping in front of the old house on Zaragoza Street where Juan had been born and where now he was being mourned. “Your son was a hero in our country” the marine spokesman told Juan’s parents, presenting Francisco Lopez and Delfina Rangel with a neatly folded U.S. flag. Then with the pallbearers in place and the U.S. Marine Corps leading the way, the final procession set out for the town cemetery.

But a few blocks short of its destination, the passage of the cortege was blocked by a dozen armed Mexican soldiers who demanded that the marines surrender their “ceremonial” arms or be held in violation of Mexico’s tough firearms laws. When the honor guard refused, the marines were escorted back to the vehicles that had brought them to San Luis and surrounded by the Mexican troops until Taps had sounded at graveside.

Even as Taps was being sounded over Juan Lopez’s bier up in Guanajuato this past July 4th weekend, several thousand anti-war protestors were taking advantage of the U.S. holiday to build a mock-up of Abu Ghraib prison in front of Garza’s embassy on Mexico City’s Reforma Boulevard. The demonstrators laid out 12,000 white paper crosses on the sidewalk to honor the Iraqis killed since the American invasion began 16 months ago.

Juan Lopez Rangel was the 36th and most recent U.S. soldier of Mexican descent to die in Iraq (since this was written two more G.I.s of Mexican descent have appeared in the New York Times daily list of the dead). By this reporter’s count, 20 of the dead soldiers were born in Mexico and 16 were the children of migrants who had gone over to the other side to find their fortune in El Norte.

Among the Mexican dead are at least three women, including one of Jessica Lynch’s tank mates. After Sergeant Isela Rubacalva, 25, a native of Ciudad Juarez, was killed near Mosul in May, her father Ramon mourned “she died on Friday thinking about coming home to eat carnitas and beans, drink a beer and go to a dance. This war is useless, as useless as Vietnam.”

Mexico has taken more casualties than any other nation in this cruel conflict outside of Iraq, the U.S., and Great Britain.

The first to fall was Rodrigo Gonzalez, the son of Coahuila farmers, whose helicopter went down in Kuwait February 25th  2003, even before the invasion began. Four Mexicans and one Guatemalan were killed in the first days of Bush’s aggression—marine units from Camp Pendleton where most California Mexican recruits train were in the vanguard of the invading force.

Joining the marines has become a sort of macho rite of passage for Mexican kids in southern California. Full court press recruitment in high school and promises to fix migration problems lures young people whose only other options are fieldwork or a dead-end job at Mc-Donalds. 13,000 members of the U.S. Marine Corps—8% of the force—are either Mexican or Mexican American. Mexicans and Mexican Americans account for 55% of the 109,000 Latinos—Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Central Americans—who constitute a tenth of the United States armed forces.

Although non-citizens are barred from induction in the U.S. military (the marines have an exemption), the loopholes are large. To bolster recruitment for the War on Terror in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, Bush issued new regs promising all non-citizens who joined the military after 9/11 that they would be on the “fast track” for citizenship. Still, despite Bush’s edict, the only non-citizen soldiers (out of a total of 37,000) who were eligible for immediate citizenship were dead ones—death in combat automatically conferred this dubious honor posthumously.

One of the first Mexican soldiers to be killed in action in Iraq was Jesus Suarez who grew up in Tijuana but came to California after his father won immigration amnesty. When the military offered Fernando Suarez post-mortem citizenship for his son, he turned it down. His son was a Mexican and proud of it—an “Aztec warrior”.

Now with the U.S. military facing an alarming short-fall to fight the Terror War and collateral “preventative” wars to be waged, the recruitment of Mexican youth on both sides of the border (U.S. recruiters have repeatedly invaded Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana high schools seeking duel citizenship students) is sure to be stepped up. Although Latinos are now the largest U.S. minority, they are under-represented in the armed forces and the Pentagon has launched a full-blast media campaign in Spanish-speaking media to sign them up.

”The recruiters have a lot of guilt for the death of our children” Fernando Suarez considers, “they tell them that only the veterans will go to fight the war and it isn’t true. Most of the Mexicans who have died in Iraq did not even have a year of military service.”

A New York Times reporter recently spent a day on patrol in south Baghdad with Company A of the Fifth Calvary which has many Mexican and Mexican-American members recruited principally off the streets of East Los Angeles. The stories they told of their months in Iraq confirm what Fernando Suarez saw in their eyes when he visited.

Specialist Ray Flores was shot twice in the head at the beginning of April, a cruel month for U.S. casualties. His buddy Roberto Araiga, who was sitting right next to him, was killed instantly—Roberto had just been denied leave to go home and get married. When he returned from the hospital, Flores’s superiors informed him that his tour of duty had been extended for 14 months. Now he is confined to barracks for “mental stress” and sits in a window seat all day, - trained on the terrain. “My life is ruined,” he told the Times reporter, “I am all alone out here.”

Specialist Gerardo Barrajas just wants out. His homeboy Jose Gonzalez caught one early in the war and Gerardo wants to go back to the barrio and marry the “ruca” whose photo is pinned up in his tank turret, and not in a flag-draped coffin.

For specialist Jesse Lopez, another East L.A. boy, there are few options. “I’d rather be doing what I’m doing here than flipping Big Macs at the minimum wage.” Lopez had just re-upped for four years.

This is an edited version reprinted from “Counterpunch”, August 17, 2004. John Ross is author of “Murdered By Capitalism—A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left”.

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