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From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Subject: Eye Witness in Chiapas
Followup-To: alt.activism.d
Date: 15 Jan 1998 18:18:01 GMT

The following report from a member of a recent Global Exchange delegation to Chiapas provides some interesting insight and details about the situation there that have not appeared in the commercial press.

From: (Frank Shansky)

Spending seven days over the New Year's break in Mexico in one of the most beautiful places in the world would ordinarily mean a relaxing and care-free vacation. But the week I spent in Chiapas was much more than a winter break. Sponsored by the human rights group Global Exchange, I was indeed awed by the majestic mountain views and lush green foliage, but even more moved by the living conditions faced by the indigenous Mayan Indian people and their determination to fight for change.

I was able to visit and speak with villagers in three rebel Zapatista communities: in the newly proclaimed township of Moises Ghandi in the municipality of Ocosingo; at Oventic, a more developed Zapatista stronghold which has its own health facilities and other services in the municipality of Larrainzar, and at Polho, a community in the highly conflicted municipality of Chenalho. It was at Polho that our group was able to take part in a march of 1000 Mayan Indians to the village of Acteal, the site of the December 22 massacre of 45 unarmed people. A few days later, in one of the most moving moments of the trip, we sat down and talked with three villagers from Acteal.

Lastly, we spoke with other groups and individuals active in the conflict, including representatives from the Catholic church, the CONAI, which is an organization mediating the negotiations between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government, the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights and other groups fighting for autonomy. We attended a New Year's Eve Mass said by Samuel Ruiz, the Catholic Bishop who has been a mediator between the Indians and the government, and who is highly respected by the indigenous people. All of my time except for one day was spent in what is called the Los Altos region of Chiapas, the area north of the picturesque city of San Cristobal, which was our home base. Los Altos, an area of rugged mountain roads with high elevation, is that area of Chiapas with the most struggle and repression.

Despite my short time in Chiapas, I came away with some firm conclusions based on what I saw and heard. First, there indeed exists what is commonly referred to as a low intensity war being waged by the PRI-led Mexican government against the Zapatistas and any indigenous people who are suspected of supporting them. While there are many forms to this type of war, it is mainly carried out by the use of the army and paramilitary squads. Both of these groups serve the same purpose: intimidation of any indigenous people who are not loyal to the PRI.

The Army's presence when I was there was substantial and well thought out. In the three Zapatista communities I was in, the army had set up camp within a quarter mile of each community. And at two of these three army outposts, they had set up what they called a social labor service which offered a few services (I was told they offered haircuts) to people. It seemed that the army was trying in a small way to compete with the nearby Zapatista townships in attempting to provide services. I saw no Mayans, however, taking advantage of any of these services. The army's main purpose remains to keep an eye on the Zapatistas, and to be able to attack them in a very short time if ordered to do so.

The paramilitary groups, of which there are many with varied titles, are made up primarily of indigenous people who, it appears, have been trained and armed by local PRI officials. In Acteal, for example, local government officials have been arrested for planning and organizing the massacre. It is obvious to most people in Chiapas that the people who murdered in Acteal could not afford automatic weapons on their own. They were directly given them by the army or by local officials. One question I had when I got there is why would fellow Mayans, themselves poor peasants, brutally slaughter others. While there are particulars to the situation in Acteal, just as there are in other areas where paramilitary groups have been involved in murders, a common response I heard was this. Many of these communities have never had any government other than one led by the PRI. With the arrival in 1994 of the Zapatistas, there was a serious threat to PRI hegemony in these areas. Given that local governments have the power to distribute funds and services, local officials have been able to recruit, through the granting of money and other privileges, a group of people willing to terrorize and intimidate in order to keep the few benefits they receive.

In any case, the paramilitary groups (in the Los Altos area the main group calls itself Paz y Justicia) have served for some time to provide a local and continuous intimidating and murderous presence in many communities. Acteal was the culmination of ongoing, low-intensity violence that has been escalating especially over the last few months. Homes have been burned and people killed. Thousands have been displaced just within the last three weeks. In fact, many of the people in Acteal at the time of the massacre were refugees from nearby towns.

Lastly, the paramilitary groups serve to legitimize the government's growing contention that this is a civil war among the indigenous rather than a fight of the majority of indigenous against the government. It is the PRI's attempt to keep its hands clean while the bloodshed and displacement of people from their homes continues.

The second major impression I returned with is that the movement for autonomy is the cornerstone of the strategy of the Zapatistas and other anti-government forces in Chiapas. This movement has been active since the mid-1980's, according to Margarito Ruiz, a leader of FIPI, the Independent Front of Indigenous Villages. Ruiz, whom we spoke with on the outskirts of San Cristobal, was once a federal deputy in the Mexican government. He was active in setting up the first autonomous region in Chiapas in 1988, years before the birth of the Zapatista movement. Ruiz, who has differences with the Zapatistas over the concept of autonomous areas, nonetheless agrees with the Zapatistas that autonomy does not mean withdrawing from the federal framework, but rather proposing what is viewed as a fourth level of government. They consider the present governmental structure as one based on federal, state and municipal organizations. Autonomous communities are viewed as a necessary fourth level in which indigenous and non-indigenous can determine and serve their own needs on a local level.

So what do these autonomous regions look like? Prior to my trip I had envisioned Zapatista held areas as just that; areas that were in firm control of the EZLN and upon which the government could not encroach without a military battle. In practice, these areas are much more fragile and vulnerable. Since the army has set up bases next to each Zapatista area, there is no doubt in my mind that at any time, the army could destroy these communities if it chooses to. Even in the Eastern area of Chiapas, near the Lacondan jungle, where the EZLN has its base at La Realidad, the rebels are militarily no match for the army. On the day prior to my departure from Chiapas, government forces had surrounded La Realidad with no military resistance.

But the Zapatistas do not claim to have a force or even to be building a force to carry on a protracted armed struggle. What they are doing, and what I did see in the communities I visited were what appeared to be serious attempts to organize people to support themselves. Access to land, growing crops, medical care, new schools and more are on the agenda in all these communities.

The last 15 years have been economically devastating to all of Mexico, but in particular to the Chiapan people. Since Mexico's bankruptcy in 1982, US companies have increased their movement into Mexico. When foreign tariffs were removed in 1990, the entry of multinational companies increased. Then in one of the most significant acts that was a pre-condition to the NAFTA agreement, the Mexican government eliminated the "ejido" system from Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution.

Initiated during the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Article 27 allowed land to be set aside and used by the indigenous peoples collectively to grow crops. Between 1934-1940, then-President Cardenas expanded the amount of ejidal land available to Mayan and non-Mayan peasants. By changing Article 27 in the early 1990's to weaken the ejidal system, the government pushed many of the indigenous to see organization and resistance as necessary. One of the things the Zapatistas and others like FIPI are doing is to challenge the change in the ejido system by occupying some of these lands and beginning to cultivate and grow crops (in the area I was in the main crop is coffee).

Of course the main problem of organizing model communities such as those I saw at Oventic and Polho is that the government will not just sit back and watch. While there may not be more Acteals in which scores of people are killed, there will certainly be continued ambushes by paramilitary groups like that which attacked the caravan of Bishop Samuel Ruiz in early November. What the Zapatistas will do in response is still not clear.

What is clear is that the Zapatistas and other groups see national and international publicity as their main defensive weapon. In every community we visited, the people and their leaders were glad to see us. They rely, perhaps too much so, on the view that nothing bad will happen if international observers are nearby. Many autonomous communities have peace camps set up in between the villages and the army. Sponsored by the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights in San Cristobal, peace camps usually consist of two or three volunteers from another country staying in front of the villages for a period of two to three weeks. After they leave, another group replaces them. When we visited the autonomous village of Moises Ghandi, we passed the army base, then two young, female peace campers from Europe and then we arrived at the village.

Helping to tell their story to the world, especially to people in the U.S., is the reason we were able to see and hear so much. I'll never forget hearing the translation of the 7 year old Mayan girl from Acteal who carried her younger sister on her back as she spoke to us. She spoke Tzotzil, her native language, and thanked us for coming, as she told of her parents and another sibling being killed. Or a few days later when the elderly Mayan woman, also a survivor of Acteal broke down several times while explaining her experience .

While international pressure in support of the rights of the indigenous people of Chiapas is very important, it is unclear how much longer the Mexican government will allow foreign peace activists to remain in Chiapas to help tell the story to the world. There are already threats against individuals to rescind their visas.

We asked community leaders what else we could do to support their struggle. They said we could pressure our government to discontinue military aid to Mexico. Military hardware, including helicopters and surveillance equipment from the US that is intended to be used in the "drug wars" is in reality being used against the people of Chiapas and other states. In addition, trade agreements like NAFTA should be challenged; NAFTA has been shown to benefit corporations at the expense of poor and working people in both countries.

I feel fortunate to have experienced "the real" Mexico. I see now that there is a Mexico beyond Cancun. I am grateful to the people of Chiapas who allowed me to intrude into their lives for one week and who so kindly shared their experiences with me.

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