(Photos from 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures. Elizabeth Martinez, editor. 1991)
January 29th 2017 was the 45th anniversary of the police murders of Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova, two organizers with the Black Berets of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rito Canales was an ex-convict, and through the Black Berets organization became an outspoken prisoner activist .
Antonio Cordova was a reporter and photographer for the Chicano movement press, which included the Berets own newspaper Venceremos, and El Grito, the movimiento newspaper edited by Elizabeth Martinez.
Many militant organizations formed from the Chicano Movement. The Brown Berets were formed in Los Angeles in 1967, appealing to many Chicanos with their militant postering and rhetoric. Many other chapters formed around the country. These organizations were mostly autonomous, and their ideology was a mix of cultural and revolutionary nationalism. Other organizations took up black berets and named themselves as such, in honor of Che Guevara. The Black Berets groups took on a more internationalist approach.
The Albuquerque chapter, Los Gorras Negras, was formed in 1969 by Richard Moore and other Chicano activists. They created a 12-point program that was anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and internationalist. In it the organization pledged to commit their lives to “Service, Education, and Defense of La Raza.” The titles of each of their points are as follows:
- We Want Self-Determination and Liberation for All the Chicanos in the USA
- We Want Self-Determination for All Latinos and Third World Peoples
- We Want Community Control of Our Institutions and Land
- We Want a True Education of Our Mestizo Culture and Spanish Language
- We Want Freedom for All Political Prisoners
- We Oppose the Amerikkkan Military and Its Unjust Wars of Oppression
- We Want Equality for Women, Machismo Must be Revolutionary…Not Oppressive
- We Want an Immediate End to Police Harassment, Brutality, and Murder of La Raza
- We Want For Our People to Have the Basic Necessities to Exist
- We Want Full Employment For Our People
- We Oppose Capitalism and Alliances Made By Our Treacherous Politicos
- We Believe Armed Self-Defense and Armed Struggle Are the Only Means to Liberation
New Mexico was part of the northern land forcefully seized from Mexico by the United States in the war that ended in 1848. Remaining a territory for 64 years after, it only became a state of the union in 1912 after Anglos became a majority in the state. The Chicano people remaining on the land were subjected to colonization, making them an internal colony, an oppressed nation within the United States. The Chicano people became second class citizens in their own land. The Black Berets formed out of this oppression of the Chicano people, responding to this colonial oppression.
The Black Berets did many serve the people programs, such as food distribution, community patrols and other activities, modeled after the Black Panther Party. They were involved in many community issues and made alliances with other groups, showing their internationalist practice. Many members also participated in the Venceremos Brigades to Cuba in solidarity with the socialist country.
In 1969 in New Mexico, Bobby Garcia, a VISTA volunteer, disappeared and was later found dead in an arroyo outside of Albuquerque from a bullet to the back of his head. The Berets established the Bobby Garcia Memorial Clinic in remembrance. It was run by volunteers and gave health care to the people free of charge. It stood for independence and self-determination, accepting no government money for its operation and relying on the community.
The issues of police brutality and prison conditions, directed mostly against Chicano and Native peoples, became main issues for the Berets.
With resistance came repression, by the state and reactionaries. The Black Berets and other Chicano activists became targets of the police and right-wing vigilantes. One group, the Minutemen, an underground right wing paramilitary organization, mailed Berets death threats of cards with cross hairs, a tactic they used on other leftists. There was increasing amounts of police shootings in this time, and up to 12 Chicano activists in New Mexico, in the region ranging from Albuquerque to Taos, were killed in this violence. There were rumors of a death squad operating within the Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico State Police.
The Black Berets uncovered evidence of the existence of the Metro Squad, an inter-agency group made up of officers from the APD, New Mexico State Police, Bernalillo County Sheriffs Department, and having the involvement of federal agents. The Metro Squad had worked with reactionary groups like the John Birch Society and the Minutemen, sharing dossiers they kept on activists. This was a time where the COINTELPRO operation of the FBI against internal dissidents was exposed. While no account so far has shown the extent of what COINTELPRO has done to the Chicano Movement, it is clear that most state repression against the Chicano national movement was done through local and state police departments as well as independent fascist paramilitary groups.
The Black Berets also brought attention to prison conditions in the state, these institutions of which were made up mostly of Chicano and Native peoples. In November 1971 the Berets attempted a citizen’s arrest of New Mexico State Penitentiary warden Felix Rodriguez.
The Berets were going to have a press conference to expose wrongdoings at the state prison and the police terror inflicted through the Metro Squad. Before this happened the police ambushed and murdered Antonio Cordova and Rito Canales.
On the night of January 29th, 1972, a man named Tim Chapa lured Canales and Cordova to a construction site on the West Side of Albuquerque. Officers from all three departments in the Metro Squad were there, and engaged in a shootout with Cordova and Canales. Both ended up dead.
The official story alleges that the police were tipped off on January 19, 1972 that a burglary would happen on that construction site in order to steal dynamite. When officers from the Metro Squad departments attempted to arrest Canales and Cordova, they engaged in a shootout, where both of them were shot dead. No police were ever brought up for charges in their deaths. With the demonization of Chicano radicals during this time, the police narrative was accepted.
This author would not fault Canales and Cordova for having weapons on them and using them in self-defense. They believed in and upheld the right to self-defense for oppressed people, even against the state that upheld settler colonialism. Also, others allege more nefarious motives, that they were kidnapped and brought to that site to be executed. The truth, having been buried, may never be truly known.
In January of 1974 the Canales estate filed a lawsuit in federal court for wrongful death. In September 1974, another lawsuit was filed by Mary Cordova, mother of Antonio Cordova, against the city of Albuquerque and various officials, along with the construction company, Wylie. The lawsuits raised the argument that Tim Chapa, who led the two to the site, was a police informant. Chapa denied being an informant in an affidavit filed with that suit, and it was quickly dismissed in the courts.
Starting in 1999, other lawsuits were filed in court, this time because Tim Chapa changed his story about being an informant. Here is what the filing says:
“In 1999, Tim Chapa made an affidavit that purported to “clear [his] conscience in this matter regarding the homicides of Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova in January of 1972.” The affidavit stated that Chapa had been a confidential informant for the state police in the 1960s and 70s, that he was asked to infiltrate an organization called the Black Berets, that he had devised a plan in conjunction with the police to kill members of this organization, and that the plan had culminated in the shootings of Cordova and Canales. Chapa also stated that the police officers involved threatened to kill him if he ever exposed this plan and that he denied the existence of the conspiracy during all the subsequent court proceedings because he feared for his life.” (source: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/nm-court-of-appeals/1004022.html)
This case was also dismissed by the courts on technicalities.
The Black Berets as an organization declined, out of a mix of repression and cooptation. Many members continued to be community activists in other organizations up to today. The prison conditions highlighted by the Berets became visible in 1980 through the violent Santa Fe prison riots. The aftermath of the incident was 38 prisoners killed, being the worst in U.S. history so far. Police terror continues to effect Chicanos and other oppressed people all over this occupied land.
There have been a handful of cultural products to remember the martyrdom of Canales and Cordova. A play was written about the incident by Nita Luna-Davis, an ex-Beret who became an activist and playwright. A corrido by Roberto Martinez was written about them. A documentary and book are in the works about the organization. The fact that the names of Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova are not well known, as well as thousands of others who fought for the liberation of the Chicano people, is another example of how colonialism and neocolonialism has affected the national struggle.
The Black Berets represented the spirit of resistance for the Chicano people. We must always remember our fallen comrades. As white nationalism has raised its specter in our occupied land, we must organize to resist it. Part of this is preserving the memory of this history of resistance, while using it to build toward the liberation of our land and our people.
“Twelve Point Program of Las Gorras Negras,” reprinted in Venceremos, Black Beret newspaper, 1971. Cited in – Lopez y Rivas, Gilberto(editor). The Chicanos – Life and Stuggles of the Mexican Minority in the United States. Monthly Review Press. 1973.
Correia, David. “The Return of the Albuquerque Death Squads.” Counterpunch. November 23, 2011. http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/23/the-return-of-the-albuquerque-death-squads/
Administrator. “The Black Berets Live On.” Frontera NorteSur. October 10, 2012. https://fnsnews.nmsu.edu/the-black-berets-live-on/
Mygatt, Matt. “Court upholds ruling in Chicano activists lawsuit.” Associated Press. March 5, 2001. https://www.policeone.com/legal/articles/34781-Court-upholds-ruling-in-Chicano-activists-lawsuit/
Hernandez, Alexandro D. “A Corrido of Struggle: Remembering Roberto Martínez and the Black Berets through “El Corrido de Córdova y Canales.” Smithsonian Folklife Festival blog. March 16, 2013. http://www.festival.si.edu/blog/2013/a-corrido-of-struggle-remembering-roberto-martinez-and-the-black-berets-through-el-corrido-de-cordova-y-canales/