Don’t Call Them Pirates


Article Highlights

It's 7 p.m. Starting time.

The Montes family, Emiliano, Alejandra and their adult son, Emiliano Jr., sit around the kitchen table. Nervous tension fills the air. The situation is the same every Thursday, but they’re still not used to it. The three know that they face danger. They are breaking the law. But they begin anyway. Alejandra quickly pushes three buttons, the father leans back in the chair and waits for the signal to go. Emiliano Jr. looks at his list. Everything has to be perfect, there can be no errors, because five seconds ago, an act of rebellion, of insurrection began.

With a shout of “Heeeey Familia!” their program, Danzon Dedicado, began. Between danzon songs — Cuban orchestral music — the Montes’ comment on politics, history and share recipes. They speak into secret microphones, in the hidden studio of clandestine radio station, 99.1, Frecuencia Libre, The Free Frequency.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, at least 12 clandestine radio stations transmit from the most innocuous of places such as homes, cybercafes and stationary stores. They do so without the permission of the Secretary of Communication and Transportation, risking fines of up to 50,000 pesos, about $5,000, jail time and the confiscation of equipment. While they transmit a variety of content from Zapatista communicados to evangelical hymns, these stations have one thing in common — they are all illegal.

But don’t call them pirates. Emiliano, Sr. says the airwaves belong to everyone. “Pirating means taking something that isn’t yours, something that is stolen. We aren’t stealing from anyone. We are citizen radio, exercising our right to express ourselves,” he adds, stroking the dark hair of the station’s “security team,” a black Rotweiller named Solo.

The goal of Frecuencia Libre is to speak freely about taboo themes that aren’t often touched by official or government stations. Their programs often criticize the government and talk about sex education and discrimination against women, explains Emiliano, Jr. as he makes a playlists on his personal computer which often doubles as a server to transmit the station’s programming via Internet to their listeners in Catalonia, the United States and Argentina.

Frecuencia Libre is the offspring of San Cristóbal’s first citizen radio station, Radio Rebelde, started by Zapatistas, Chiapan indigenous revolutionaries, shortly after their 1994 uprising. The station broadcast mostly information about the war and a bit of music, beginning their programming with the now-famous phrase, “From the mountains of southeastern Mexico.” Some who started Radio Rebelde toyed with the idea of starting a more formal radio station, says Emiliano Sr.

“But they didn’t dare to. A few years later, though, they decided to do it and appropriated a frequency in order to speak critically about their lives, the feelings of regular people and that is how the station 99.1 was formed,” he says.

When Frecuencia Libre began transmitting in the spring of 2002, they did so openly, without concealing the location of their studio. A week later, SCT inspectors arrived at the station, says José Montero, a lawyer and original member of the radio collective. The collective petitioned the SCT, asking them “to protect our right to receive and disseminate information,” says Montero.

But their request was denied and 11 members of the collective were charged with “the theft of national goods (sound waves),” a federal crime. The case was dropped due to a lack of evidence, but the collective learned a lesson. “We decided to go underground, to camouflage our antenna. Four years later, we’re still in the same situation,” Montero adds.

Though their programming is very different than Frecuencia Libre’s, the underground evangelical radio station operated by the Alpha and Omega group on 104.1 has its own agenda, airing programs about morality, family life and health from a Christian perspective. “We create programs with content that makes people think about how they live their lives. We want the people to listen to our programs and think, ’I need to change,’ ” says Marcelino Vázquez, programming director for the station.

The station, 104.1, has been in operation for seven months, transmitting from an internet café where rows of computers and posters advertising a congress of young Christians hide the station from the eyes of the authorities.

In San Cristobal, only one public, government-funded radio station exists, Radio XERA, which has been on the air for over 30 years. Yuri Corzo, station manager, said the fact that so many clandestine radio stations have appeared in the last decade showed that, “the people feel the need to hear new points of view.” He went on to say that once the public realized that starting a radio station only required a little bit of money, they began to multiply.

Installing a radio station in the city requires an investment of between 10,000 MXP and 15,000 MXP, between $1,000 and $1,500, for a transmitter, microphones, a mixer, a CD burner and antenna. But putting together the equipment isn’t the real challenge. “The hard part is getting permission from the SCT and putting together enough money to cover all of the fees that they charge,” says Alejandra.

Ley Televisa, a law passed in March 2006, requires groups that want to use a frequency to meet certain equipment requirements and bid against for-profit and other community groups for permission to use the station. “It’s hard for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money to [get permission from the SCT],” she adds.

Because of the difficulties they faced obtaining official permission to run their station, Emiliano Montes says he and his family will continue taking risks to express their views. “All we do is put a bug in the ear of our listeners, saying that another Mexico is possible, that other ways of living are possible,” he says.

Originally published 2006 PIWDW