Mexico's Dirty War

Six years after the Zapatista uprising

by Bill Weinberg

In These Times magazine, Feb. 2000


When the security forces in Mexico's militarized southern state of Chiapas persecute foreign sympathizers of the local rebel Indians, it makes headlines. On January 3, Greg Ruggiero, an editor working on a collection of writings by verbose guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos for New York's Seven Stories Press, was detained at the mountain village of San Andres Larrainzar, held for six hours and interrogated. He had his 90-day tourist visa revoked and was ordered to leave the country within a week. His story made the New York Times.

Kerry Appel, a Denver-based organic coffee importer working with indigenous cooperatives, was also picked up at a roadblock-and banned from Mexico for three years for alleged visa violations. His story also was picked up by the international press. These were just two of 47 foreigners detained by authorities in Chiapas over New Year's, the anniversary of the Zapatista uprising that shook the state in 1994.

But every day the Maya Indians of Chiapas face a far more dire human rights situation-and the world media have paid little note. Ruggiero, back in New York, describes the Chiapas he witnessed as pervaded by "road" block after roadblock of heavily armed military troops searching vehicles and videotaping, photographing and harassing travelers of all nationalities."

With the Chiapas peace process at a long impasse and the government resorting to "dirty war" tactics to reconsolidate control over the state, the Indians face not only harassment-but terror. Mercedes Osuna, director of Enlace Civil, a human rights monitoring group based in the Chiapas highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas, says arbitrary detentions are common. She counts more than 100 political prisoners in Chiapas and says 20,000 Chiapas Indians are "displaced by the terror implemented by paramilitary groups, living in conditions of extreme misery, without sufficient food, shelter, clothes or medicine. There is at least one dying each week."

T he Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) chose January 1, 1994 to launch its uprising because it was the day that NAFTA took effect. They called NAFTA a "death sentence" against Mexico's Indians. Under constitutional changes pushed through in preparation for the treaty by then-President Carlos Salinas, the communal peasant lands known as ejidos could be legally privatized or used as loan collateral. This robbed the residents of the "inalienable" village lands that Emiliano Zapata fought for in the Revolution of 1910 to 1919. But the measures were approved by Congress and all 32 state legislatures, then all under the control of the corrupt, entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Subcomandante Marcos has said that this constitutional reform "was the door that was closed on the indigenous to survive in a legal and peaceful manner."

The New Year's uprising was followed by 12 days of war in the Chiapas Highlands. After huge peace protests in Mexico City, the government and rebels agreed to talk. But the dialogue was stalled by President Emesto Zedillo's refusal to accept the San Andres Accords, a peace proposal the Zapatistas hashed out with congressional negotiators in a painstaking process. The accords (named for San Andres Larrainzar, where they were negotiated) call for changes to the Mexican constitution to recognize the autonomy of indigenous peoples (provisions already found in the Colombian and Nicaraguan constitutions). Acceptance of the accords was the EZLN's one precondition for laying down its arms and transforming itself into a civil organization. But the Zedillo government called the accords a dangerous call for "separatism" and vetoed them.

The EZLN remains holed up in the Lacandon Selva, the lowland rainforest region of Chiapas, while the highland communities are bitterly divided between rebel and PRI loyalists. But despite the state of siege, the EZLN has not been goaded into using its weapons. Therefore, the 60,000 federal army troops in Chiapas are still bound by certain restraints. The EZLN has been able to help build and coordinate a national movement from its besieged territory, holding high-profile gatherings in La Realidad, the jungle settlement that serves as the rebels' unofficial capital.

Chiapas has been costly for the PRI. Analysts across the Mexican spectrum acknowledge that the Chiapas rebellion was critical in the nation's tentative democratic opening. Since 1994, the PRI has struggled to maintain control as Zapatista-inspired rebel movements have emerged in Oaxaca and Guerrero (see "The Next Chiapas," December 26). In the 1997 elections, the party lost control of the lower house of Congress for the first time. Then last November, the PRI held its first-ever presidential primary to select a candidate for the 2000 elections.

But just like in the bad old days before such extravagances as primaries, the regime's favorite candidate, Francisco Labastida, won the nomination. Labastida is a former federal Interior Secretary who had been appointed with the implicit mission of pacifying Chiapas. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the left-opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose victory was stolen by fraud in 1988, will challenge Labastida. The right-opposition National Action Party (PAN) is fronting former Guanajuato Gov. Vicente Fox, who advocates freewheeling cowboy capitalism. Pacifying Chiapas remains a top issue. A Labastida victory would point to continued army-paramilitary collaboration in Chiapas.

Immediately after the PRI primary, Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, toured Mexico in response to the deteriorating situation in Chiapas and elsewhere. Robinson criticized the regime for covering up crimes by security forces in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, saying "government reports do not always match reality."

In Chiapas, Robinson met with both state legislators and Tzotzil Maya women who had survived the December 22, 1997 massacre at the highland hamlet of Acteal, which briefly brought the ongoing crisis to the world's attention. The killers, organized in a paramilitary group called Red Mask, gunned down 21 women, 15 children and nine men, targeted because they were Zapatista sympathizers. After the massacre, leaked government documents revealed that the network of paramilitary groups had been established under the direction of officers from the Rancho Nuevo army base outside San Cristobal at the behest of military intelligence. Some of the officers involved were graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. (Last year, Mexico received $500 million in U.S. military aid, plus helicopters and other equipment-all in the guise of narcotics enforcement.)

Last September, Jacinto Arias, former PRI mayor of Chenalho, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the massacre. More than 100 suspects have been arrested in the case-including 12 police officers and a soldier. But in January, Arias and 23 co-conspirators had their sentences unexpectedly overturned, hardening local perceptions that no justice is possible within the system.

Since Acteal, the paramilitaries have avoided indiscretions such as killing 45 people in a single day, so as to avert undue media attention. But the grisly terror campaign grinds on. At Sabanilla, in the north of the state, Osuna reports that in recent weeks 52 Chol Maya families have been expelled by the Orwellian-named paramilitary group Peace and Justice, and are waiting in the mountains for some guarantee of safety before they will return home. In Sabanilla and nearby villages, Peace and Justice is engaged in a violent struggle against campesinos loyal to the Zapatistas and the PRD for control of the municipal governments.

On January 5, 29 Tzotzil Maya were arrested by state police while working in their coffee fields near the highland hamlet of Polho. Two of the detained are still being held at the harsh Cerro Hueco state prison in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital accused of murder and revenge attacks on village chieftains, or caciques. Through La Voz de Cerro Hueco, a political prisoner's organization, the men have proclaimed their innocence, and are backed up by Polho's pro-Zapatista indigenous authorities. The men, Manuel Gutierrez and Antonio Arias, were expelled by caciques from their native hamlet of Tzanembolom in 1997 under threat of death. The crimes they are accused of took place there a year later, when they were already in exile in Polho. "They were persecuted for opposing the paramilitaries," Osuna says.

The government also has exploited the stalemate to encircle the Zapatistas with military roads. Since August, there has been a stand-off at the jungle settlement of Amador Hemandez, with Zapatista-loyalist Tzeltal Maya campesinos blocking an army road-building crew from advancing into the tropical forest. Many Lacandon Selva settlements have been occupied by the federal troops, but the rebel authorities of these settlements, the "autonomous municipalities" loyal to the EZLN, continue to function clandestinely in the shadow of the army. They have issued press statements accusing the occupying army forces of harassing Indian women, illegal logging, and plundering the area's wildlife for sport and profit.

The critical issue of subsoil rights underlies this struggle over land and autonomy. La Jornada, Mexico City's aggressively investigative national daily, recently found that for the first time since the 1994 uprising, the Mexican government has resumed oil exploration in the Lacandon Selva, signaling a return to long-delayed plans to push into Chiapas from the petroleum heartland of Tabasco state to the north on the Gulf Coast. Pemex, the state oil monopoly, is both a top supplier to the United States and the top money-maker for the Mexican regime.

Making matters worse for Chiapas, Bishop Samuel Ruiz, for generations the relentless advocate and beloved "grandfather" of the Maya, submitted his resignation to the Vatican on November 3, upon reaching the customary retirement age of 75. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Ruiz was seen by many as the one man standing between Chiapas and total war.

Ruiz brokered the EZLN-government peace dialogue, only to step down as a negotiator to protest the deadlock two years ago. But the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center that his diocese led remained at the forefront of documenting abuses in the Maya lands of Chiapas. Ruiz, who says the church must learn to recognize "God working among the Indians," has been the target of numerous death threats in recent years. In 1997, his motorcade was sprayed with gunfire on a tour of the state's northern zone.

Many presumed that Ruiz would be succeeded by his loyal Bishop Coadjutor Raul Vera. But on December 30, the Vatican abruptly announced Vera was being transferred to Saltillo, far away at the other end of the country. This decision sparked local protests and suspicion in the press that the "dark hand" of the government was behind the move. Mexico's new Papal Nuncio Justo Mullor insisted the decision was "purely ecclesiastical."

The veto of Vera's ascendance to the diocese was said to have been arranged by Mullor's long-reigning predecessor, Girolamo Prigione, whose personal mission had been to purge the Mexican church of Liberation Theology influences. He succeeded in rotating the progressive Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo out of the Diocese of Cuemavaca in Morelos state, and had asked Ruiz to resign in late 1993-just before the Zapatista uprising suddenly made him indispensable. Now, the official moves against his legacy at the diocese signal "a very dangerous moment," Osuna says.

The year in Chiapas ended-as the anniversary of the 1994 uprising approached-on the traditional note of paranoia. Army and state police troops flooded into the Lacandon Selva, with the Chiapas government warning (on no evidence) that the EZLN was planning "new acts of violence." At Amador Hemandez, where the army still maintained a heavily fortified post, the Tzeltal jungle settlers resorted to political theater to lampoon the hyped threat of Zapatista violence. Calling themselves the Zapatista Air Force, the Indians pelted the troops with dozens of paper airplanes. On each one was a message to the young conscripts: "Soldiers, we know that poverty has made you sell your lives and souls. l also am poor, as are millions. But you are worse off, for defending our exploiter-Zedillo and his group of moneybags."


Bill Weinberg's book, Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico, will be released by Verso in April.

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