Mexicans Use Video Cameras for More Than Weddings: To Keep Cops Honest

Article excerpt

RING the United States, where the videotaped beating of Rodney King created a public outcry about police abuse and racism, videotaped testimony in Mexico is putting authorities on the defensive.

In the past few years, Mexican television viewers have witnessed the brutal assassination of a presidential candidate, a guerrilla war in Chiapas, the massacre of 17 peasants, and Mexico City police beating striking teachers.

"Videotape says to the government 'you can't deny it' or 'you can't lie,' " says social critic and author Carlos Monsivais. "That's a powerful message."

Much of this political violence has come to their TV screens via privately owned, hand-held video cameras. The cameras have created a new culture of accountability that has driven one governor from power, forced the arrest of dozens of police, and exposed government coverups.

Mexico's video revolution was brought about both by the proliferation of video cameras and the increasingly willingness of TV stations to put controversial footage on the air.

For decades, Mexicans have had one source of television news - a monopoly called Televisa that was often little more than a mouthpiece for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But in the past few years, a rival network, TV Azteca, has gained a wide audience, and cable networks like CNN and NBC's 24-hour Spanish-language broadcast are reaching more and more cable subscribers.

"Censorship used to be much cruder," says Sergio Sarmiento, the vice president for news at TV Azteca. "We air things without government approval, although sometimes we get flak for it."

Low-cost video equipment has made censorship that much harder even when the footage doesn't make it on air. For example, after part of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City was captured on film, the government immediately confiscated the footage. "But video is multiple," says critic Monsivais. "It's impossible for the government to round up all the copies."

Mexico's video revolution began in January 1994, when the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched attacks in the southern state of Chiapas. It seemed like a war made for television, fought more with images than with guns.

Television showed images of Indians sometimes armed with sticks fighting against government tanks. A tourist also caught the first image of a light-skinned, masked leader later identified as Subcommander Marcos.

That February, Marcos gave his first videotaped interview. The footage was not broadcast on the Mexican networks, but was widely seen on cable. It was copied and distributed by hand throughout Mexico, where VCRs are common even in the most remote hamlet. …