Army, Paramilitary Build-Up in Zapatista Stronghold

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 10 (IPS) – The Zapatista guerrillas and their supporters in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are experiencing the worst onslaught by state forces in the last 10 years, although most people are unaware of the fact, according to reports from a research centre working in the area.

On Monday, in the area under Zapatista influence, "we rescued a wounded Indian grassroots supporter of the guerrillas who had been shot by paramilitaries. The situation is serious," Ernesto Ledesma, head of the Chiapas-based non-governmental Centre for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE), told IPS.

According to CAPISE, which has had brigades out for the past five years, monitoring military movements in areas held by the barely-armed Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), in recent weeks there has been an increased presence of uniformed soldiers who are acting in concert with paramilitary groups.

Also, agrarian reform institutions have initiated an "irregular" distribution of land that had been occupied by indigenous people when the EZLN rose up in arms for two weeks in January 1994, according to CAPISE.

Title deeds to about 250,000 hectares are being distributed, but Zapatista sympathisers are being excluded, Ledesma said.

"Around 30 Zapatista communities are under enormous pressure from the military, the paramilitaries and the authorities, with the intention, we presume, to undermine the strength of the EZLN. This has not happened since 1998," said the head of CAPISE.

The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre has also been reporting, for months now, that the situation in Zapatista areas is serious, because of the increasing presence of the army and of indigenous groups opposed to the guerrillas.

An anonymous source in the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón told IPS that the reports from Chiapas came as a complete surprise, and stated that the executive branch has no harassment strategy towards the EZLN, who have not fired a single shot since the second week of 1994.

The authorities in Chiapas, headed by Governor Juan Sabines of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), have not reported any changes in the situation in the area, while lawmakers and social activists have lost interest in the once-famous guerrilla group.

Ledesma said that on Monday he travelled through jungle and valley areas in Chiapas, and with the help of several companions rescued a wounded indigenous man who had been shot and pursued by groups that he identified as paramilitaries, in a conflict over land.

"A deliberate concerted action between paramilitaries (who are also indigenous people) and the police, army and authorities is taking place here, the purpose of which is to attack the Zapatistas," Ledesma said.

One of the first actions undertaken by former president Vicente Fox (2002-2006) was to order the withdrawal of the army from the guerrilla-held areas and their surroundings, but human rights organisations say that this was merely a strategic relocation of troops.

Since 2001, when a convoy of EZLN delegates entered Mexico City to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of people, to call for approval of a law on indigenous culture and rights, the guerrillas have gradually faded from the political scene and their leader, ‘Subcomandante Marcos", has distanced himself from the left and the intellectuals who supported him.

In 2006 and 2007, beginning in parallel with the election campaign which brought Calderón to power on Dec. 1, 2006, Marcos travelled the country unarmed, with government permission, leading "The Other Campaign", an attempt to rally non-electoral political actors and press for the drafting of a new constitution.

But most Mexican saw and heard nothing of his cross-country travels.

Before the end of 2007, Marcos announced that he was returning to his stronghold in Chiapas and that he would neither emerge nor speak again until a future unspecified date. He warned, however, that the EZLN would retaliate if attacked.

Fourteen years ago, thousands of Mexicans mobilised against the army attacks on the EZLN, which led to a law declaring a ceasefire.

But now it appears that no one is prepared to react to the information that an onslaught against the rebel group is in progress.

"The situation in Chiapas is serious and violence is on the rise. The public should know this," Ledesma said.

Earlier reports by the Fox administration, confirmed by several researchers, indicate that the EZLN is in administrative and political control of 15 percent of Chiapas, the country’s poorest state, which has a total area of 75,634 square kilometres.

In that area, where government social programmes are inoperative, there are about 100,000 mainly indigenous people, who live in dire poverty, as do most of Mexico’s roughly 10 million Indians.

About 5,000 poorly armed men constitute the military forces of the EZLN. But Zapatistas have forsworn all offensive action.

CAPISE says that indigenous self-rule in the Zapatista area is a reality, and that their own health, education and development programmes are in place. But these achievements are increasingly threatened by the military and paramilitary presence and by pressure from indigenous campesino groups opposed to the guerrillas.


Diego Cevallos is correspondent in Mexico for the Inter Press Service, which first published this article.
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