ce399 | research archive: (anti)fascism

The US Military’s Mapping of Mexico’s Indigenous Communities

Posted in Uncategorized by ce399 on 16/05/2011

An investigative report into Kansas University’s D.O.D. funded mapping project of indigenous land in Oaxaca and San Luis Potosi.

By Simon Sedillo

An edited and abridged version of the article “The Demarest Factor: The Ethics of U.S. Department of Defense Funding for Academic Research in Mexico” by Simon Sedillo, of http://www.elenemigocomun.net.


Lawrence Journal World published an article (October 2006) which quietly uncovered a funding scandal at Kansas University.  In 2005, the Department of Geography received at minimum $500,000 in Department of Defense funds to map communally-held indigenous lands held in San Luis Potosi and Oaxaca, Mexico.

Piqued by LJ World’s article, elenemigocomun published a follow-up story “The Road to Hell” (9/26/2007) elaborating upon the dangers of a military-funded mapping project. Since then, we found ourselves among a growing number of community members and students across the U.S./Mexico border investigating those behind the mapping project.

Our concerns have revolved around:

1. academic ethics violations due to lack of transparency with communities about the sources of their research funding,
2. U.S. Army violations of Mexican sovereignty,
3. and violations of indigenous autonomy.

Our collective research has shown that our concerns have indeed been justified.

Bowman Expeditions & Mexico Indigena

Kansas University Dept. of Geography professors Peter Herlihy and Jerome Dobson received funding for their mapping project Bowman Expeditions from the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth.  The Mexican incarnation of the project —Mexico Indigena— began mapping an indigenous region known as “La Huasteca” in 2005, and then moved into areas in the state of Oaxaca amid the 2006 popular uprising of the APPO (Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly).

On the January 14th 2009, UNOSJO (the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez of Oaxaca) released a communique expressing concerns of biopiracy as result of the Mexico Indigena mapping project, claiming that communities were unaware that the primary funder of the project was the FMSO. They cited a lack of  transparency and expressed concerns about the US Army’s controversial Human Terrain Mapping System (HTMS).  Indeed, there is compelling evidence that the FMSO is engaging in what they themselves define as “Civil Information Management in Support of Counterinsurgency Operations.”

Mexico Indigena’s Response

Following the initial elenemigocomun.net article, the Mexico Indigena team released an official response to concerns raised by the military funding.  Since then the scandal has ballooned and several Oaxacan indigenous communities and organizers are demanding answers:  Why were they not told about the military funding?  What will the maps be used for by the military? And is any of this ethical at all?

In the face of these concerns, Professor Dobson individually, his Mexico Indigena team, and the American Geographical Society (AGS) —of which Dobson serves as president— have each released statements claiming transparency, conformance to ethical standards, as well as “the best of intentions” for the indigenous populations under study.  The AGS goes on to deny any involvement with the US Army’s HTMS project.


The Bowman Expeditions are aptly named after the father of American imperial geographic exploration and imposition, Isaiah Bowman.  A recent biography by Neil Smith, “American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization,” reveals a racist, arrogant academic who used science  to advance imperial political and economic impositions around the world.  One example among many that Smith cites is that Bowman captured several indigenous Quechua people and used them as pack animals during his explorations in Peru, leading to the “discovery” of Machu Pichu.

UNOSJO claims that neither they, nor the communities they represent were ever made aware of FMSO funding behind the Mexico Indigena mapping project.  At a press conference held in February 2009, the Director of UNOSJO Aldo Gonzalez said that originally several Oaxacan communities denied the Mexico Indigena mapping project access to their territory because they noticed a FMSO logo on some of the promotional maps shown to the communities. Later on, new maps were shown without the logo. However, at no point was the funding source ever mentioned to them.

Mexico Indigena team members have also worked in Colombia with FMSO.  In Colombia, counter insurgency and strategic military uses of US Army funded mapping projects cannot be disguised as altruistic or otherwise intended.  Either the Mexico Indigena team is lying about their intentions in Mexico, or they’re feigning naivete. Yet the implications and intentions behind a military-funded project are self-evident.

Colonel Demarest: Private Property = Security

The official at FMSO assigned to the Bowman expeditions is Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey B. Demarest, an IberoAmerica researcher. During a 23-year military career, Demarest served in multiple assignments in Latin America. A graduate of the School of the Americas, his first book Geoproperty considers private property ownership as an issue of national security and strategy.

The Foreign Military Studies Office is a research and analysis center operating under the Deputy Chief of Staff G-2 (Intelligence). FMSO manages and operates the Ft. Leavenworth Joint Reserve Intelligence Center (JRIC) and conducts analytical programs focused on emerging and asymmetric threats, regional military and security developments, and other issues that define evolving operational environments around the world.  Asymmetric threats are defined as terrorist organizations and guerrilla insurgent armies, while emerging threats are being defined as social phenomenon and in particular, social movements.

Six declassified essays published by Lieutenant Colonel Demarest belie the professed innocent intentions of the Bowman Expeditions.  One is entitled “Mapping Colombia: The Correlation Between Land Data and Strategy,”  and another essay by FMSO colleague Major José M. Madera is titled “Civil Information Management in Support of Counterinsurgency Operations: A Case for the Use of Geospatial Information Systems in Colombia.” It details the counterinsurgency and intelligence uses of open source GIS information and land data for what the FMSO calls “Civil Information Management.”

It’s notable that the bulk of the information provided by these texts is in reference to the use of geographic data for ongoing U.S. military operations in Colombia.  The military operation is financed by U.S. taxpayers through funding for Plan Colombia. Although Plan Colombia has brought about little positive results in the last ten years, recently the U.S. government voted to fund a similar plan in Mexico: the Merida Initiative, known among communities and organizers in Mexico as Plan Mexico.  Both plans use the pretext of narcoterrorism to militarize poor and indigenous communities.

These FMSO essays and Demarest’s textbook expose a particularly sinister military ethic, attitude and strategy with regards to the control of large populations of poor people, indigenous people, and the disenfranchised.  This includes the systematic devaluation of any forms of indigenous self governance and self determination.  Cultural identity, as a whole, is regarded as an impediment to prosperity.  Traditional forms of communal land usage and rights, or in Demarest’s words “informal land use,” is specifically cited as the primary impediment to “progress” and “security.” Demarest’s essays argue that informal property ownership in both rural and urban settings is a breeding ground for criminal and/or insurrectionary activity.
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