The Escalation of the War in Chiapas

September 25, 2007

The massacre at Acteal last December was not an accidental or isolated event. In fact, it was a carefully planned act of war against Zapatista rebels and their supporters. On December 22, 1997, in the small village of Acteal in the highlands of Chiapas, 45 unarmed men, women and children were massacred by a paramilitary group linked to Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The bloodbath was the most recent episode of political violence in the ongoing con- flict in Chiapas, in which 1,500 people have been killed, most by state security forces or paramilitaries. It was a dramatic reminder that in the seemingly endless war in southeastern Mexico, the great majority of the victims belong to only one group-those who oppose the gov- ernment. This is truly a dirty war. Luis Hernindez Navarro is an editor and columnist at the Mexico City daily paper La Jornada. He is also an advisor to the National Council of Coffee-Growing Cooperatives based in Mexico City. Translated from the Spanish by Fred Rosen. Today, four years after the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war on the Mexican govern- ment, peace seems more distant than ever. Whatever light could once be seen at the end of the tunnel has vanished. The government's refusal to comply with the Indigenous Rights and Culture Accords it signed with the EZLN on February 16, 1996 has added to the climate of uncertainty and political disorder in the state. Chiapas, indeed, has become the black hole of Mexican politics. While the government speaks of peace, it has sought to destroy the Zapatistas militarily. It agreed to a cease-fire shortly after the emergence of the EZLN on January 1, 1994, but within a year it had broken the fragile peace, launching a military offensive against the Zapatistas in February 1995. The army was able to push back the EZLN but not defeat it. As a result, the government has turned to low-intensity warfare in an effort to overpower the rebels militarily and politically. Key to the government's strat- egy has been promoting and assisting the formation of paramilitary groups, to which it has delegated the task of repressing the indigenous rebellion and terrorizing the civilian population. The massacre at Acteal was not an isolated or acciden- tal event. It was not, as the government claims, the spon- taneous product of the fanaticism of indigenous factions confronted with intercommunal or intracommunal prob- lems. In fact, it was a carefully planned act of war whose objective was to trigger an escalation of the conflict by VOL XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRiL 1998 7REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA diluting civil resistance and terrorizing the groups in civil society who could potentially mediate the conflict in Chiapas. Most of the victims of the Acteal massacre were Tzotzil Maya members of a group called Las Avejas (The Bees). Las Avejas had joined the democratic struggle against the semi-feudal political bosses of the state of Chiapas, and while they supported the goals of the Zapatistas, they rejected the use of arms and were committed to the non- violent transformation of political life in their state. The killings were an attempt to crack open the fishbowl in which the Zapatista guerrillas swim-an attempt to elim- inate all civic mediations, so as to force the indigenous rebels to confront those in power directly. Within the logic of counterinsurgency, the massacre also serves as exem- plary punishment for those who dare to challenge the local and national hegemony of the ruling party. The bloodbath in Acteal came just six months after the municipal and congressional elections held last July, which seemed to herald a new political geog- raphy in Mexico. The PRI lost its absolute majority in the Some believed that the breakdown of PRI rule would promote democratization in Mexico. Instead, there has been a feudalization of power and a rise in political violence. lower house to a four- party coalition, while maintaining its control of the Senate. And though the PRI retained three of the five state governments that were up for grabs, the center- right National Action Party (PAN) took the other two. The big win- ner, however, was the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a party that has been violently harassed by the government from its very inception. The PRD's Cuauht6moc Cdrdenas defeated the PRI candidate for the governorship of Mexico City-the first time in five decades this post was up for election-by a wide margin. The fact that the opposition won in relatively clean and fair elections led many observers to qualify the July vote as the beginning of Mexico's transition to democracy. In hindsight, it is clear that this optimism ignored major anomalies in local elections, the coercion and buying of votes in rural areas and the exclusion of entire indige- nous areas from the electoral process. Indeed, events in recent months have shown that Mexico is nowhere near the democratic "normalization" proclaimed by its pres- ident, and that it is in fact in the throes of a profound crisis of the state. As the power of the presidency has deteriorated in recent years-President Zedillo likes to say that it has been "delimited"-a reactionary coalition of state gov- ernors and party bosses has emerged in its place within the ruling PRI. While some believed that the breakdown of PRI rule would promote greater democratization and decentralization in Mexico, the result has actually been a feudalization of power and a dramatic rise in politi- cal violence. Chiapas is precisely one of those violent semi-feudal enclaves in which the local PRI has allot- ted itself more power with the weakening of the Mexican presidency. Meanwhile, wide areas of the country-particularly the indigenous regions in the southeast-have been militarized and the number of politically motivated killings has increased, making this Mexico's worst human rights crisis in years. Common crime is on the rise, and government officials seem incapable of finding a response other than the milita- rization of the police. R NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA Chiapas? BY ANDRES AUBRY AND ANGELICA INDA ally stealing food and animals from Samuel Sanchez weapons give them neighboring farms. Because they Sanchez, a PR! a power and status own no land and have no reliable deputy to the which neither they means of subsistence, they are Chiapas State nor their landless forced to live outside the law. Their known leader of parents have ever dislocation from community life the 'Peace and enjoyed before. also means that they have no rea- justice" paramili- The paramilitaries son to attend assemblies, and thus tary group. are active through- have no part in communal decision- t out the indigenous making processes. Their criminal regions in northern and eastern behavior, therefore, is at least in % 7 Chiapas, where the presence of the part a product of the government's j I I 1 Mexican army assures them perfect economic, agricultural and labor J impunity. Their objective is to dis- policies. mantle all civilian groups that sup- Because of their itinerant life in porttheZapatistaArmyof National search of work, and their estrange- Liberation (EZLN). They do so by ter- ment from community life, these rorizing communities, forcibly dis- landless young men have no sense placing the civilian population, and of communal responsibility. They disrupting their livelihoods. In have never experienced the civic Chenalh, for example, the para- education that comes with the pen- militaries not only killed unarmed odic assemblies in which the collective destinies of civilians, but destroyed productive facilities, harvests their communal lands, villages or municipalities are and even farming to ols in order to deprive members of decided. Their only teachers have been those who dissident communities o f the possibility of future instructed them in the proper use of their weapons. income. The paramili taries attacked the Acteal vil- Joining paramilitary groups has offered these young lagers at the beginning of the coffee harvest, more- men a quick solution to their economic desperation. over, in a year when prices were expected to be high, The heavy war tax they collect every two weeks from with the aim of remo ving entire communities of agni- all adults living in their areas of influence gives them cultural produc ers from the sources of their livelihood. regular income, and their war booty of animals, crops The tragic irony i n Chiapas is that the very forces which and household items is far more than what they could have deprived these landless youths of their livelihood obtain by stealing from neighboring farms. Being a are now using them to rob their own communities paramilitary also confers prestige. Their sophisticated of a future.R Several factors are at play in the crisis of the Mexican state. The political regime, which many have character- ized as a one-party state, has become obsolete, but it has not yet been replaced by a new system. The contradic- tions between a set of political institutions based on top- down corporatist and clientelistic relations on the one hand, and an increasingly mature civil society which seeks full political participation on the other, remains a source of permanent conflict. The crisis is also the result of factional wars within the state itself, sparked by the elimination of the traditional rules of the game by former President Carlos Salinas. These factional wars have been exacerbated by the grow- ing role of "narco-politics" in national life, a role so con- siderable that a large drug cartel was recently able to purchase the services of the military officer entrusted with the Zedillo government's war on drugs. The web that links the drug world to the world of Mexican politics grows more extensive each day. Voi XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1998 T o flesh out the specific logic of the terrible violence committed at Acteal, we must begin, as they do in detective stories, by asking who bene- fits from the crime. In this sense, the most significant evidence is the strategic repositioning and growth by 5,000 troops of the Mexican army in Chiapas. Troops stationed in the nearby states of Campeche and Yucatan have been transferred to the Chiapas highlands. In the two weeks following the massacre, there were 51 army incursions into Zapatista territory, including four into the EZLN stronghold of Aguascalientes. These troop movements have their public-relations cover the army is not pursuing Zapatistas, but making sure that Indians stop killing each other. Troop movements are not part of the conflict, the government claims, but part of the solution. While in the past, increasing the number of troops in Chiapas was justified by the "war on drugs," now it is justified to prevent new acts of violence between armed interest groups, to maintain law and orderREPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA and control the "savagery" of the Indians, and to halt the spread of arms. In short, the institution that has grown most in strength since the Acteal massacre is the Mexican army-the same institution charged with fighting the rebellion. The increas- ing militarization of the highlands did not correspond to Zapatista movements, as the army claimed, as there have been no such movements in recent months. Neither were army movements aimed at halting paramilitary actions, which have continued with absolute impunity in the areas under army control, nor have any paramilitary groups been disarmed. Rather, the presence of the army seeks, simply, to surround Zapatismo in order to prevent it from further consolidating its presence and its autonomous communi- ties. It is not coincidental that the area within which Acteal is located, the municipality of Chenalh6, is not only a The 1995 army offensive effectively forced the Zapatistas further Zapatista bulwark, but the heart of the highlands and a natural corridor con- necting a broad region of the Lacand6n Jungle. The autonomous municipalities promoted by the Zapatistas in into the jungle, but various towns throughout the state of Chiapas had it did nothing to become real nightmares for the federal govern- stop the spread of ment. The 1995 military the autonomous offensive against the EZLN effectively forced local governments. the Zapatista army further into the jungle, but it did nothing to stop the spread of the autonomous local governments. Within the official geopolitical logic, these municipalities had taken on the same meaning as the liberated Zapatista areas prior to the government offensive. After the Acteal massacre, there were some cosmetic changes in government policy toward Chiapas. A few offi- cials were removed from their posts, including the minis- ter of the interior and the governor of Chiapas, who had direct ties to the paramilitary units that carried out the mas- sacre. On January 22, President Zedillo announced that the government would accept the mediation of the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), led by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and the congressional Mediation and Pacification Commission (COCOPA). He also announced that some "alleged Zapatista" prisoners would be freed. These concessions seemed to signal both a commitment on the part of the government to a peaceful solution and its intention to comply with the San Andr6s accords nego- tiated in 1996. After attacking the credibility of CONAI and COCOPA for years, the Acteal massacre and its after- math forced the government to recognize that unless it was willing to accept the mediation of the Mexican Church and Congress, it might be forced to accept international medi- ation at a later date. Hemmed in internationally and devoid of credibility within the country, the government was forced to play on the field staked out by the EZLN, mean- ing accepting mediation and compliance with the San Andr6s accords. espite these policy changes, however, the more substantive aspect of government policy in Chiapas has changed very little. The approach adopted with the 1995 military offensive-squeezing the Zapatistas mil- itarily, paramilitarizing the conflict, trying to wear out the rebels' bases of support and hoping it would all blow over-remains essentially intact today. While the govern- ment was negotiating peace in the San Andr6s talks, the state security forces were dislodging and killing peasants. This duplicitous policy was more than just a reflection of the differences between "hawks" and "doves" within the government. It was two faces of the same coin. While the government spoke of peace, it was actively pursuing the disarming of the EZLN. It was not prepared to negotiate on the basis of Zapatista demands, and it was barely will- ing to negotiate the EZLN's reinsertion into civilian life. Ever since Ernesto Zedillo assumed the presidency, his administration has employed the same approach. While on one hand he speaks of seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, on the other he pursues a military solution. In the interim, the government hopes the conflict will simply deteriorate, that the opposing forces will wear themselves out, and that forgetting will defeat memory. But with the deaths in Acteal, the last vestiges of credibility of the gov- ernment's Chiapas discourse have been buried. While in the past, official promises have rarely corresponded to offi- cial acts, the gap is now enormous. Two months after the massacre, the government remains seated on the defen- dant's bench proclaiming its innocence, but it has yet to articulate a believable version of the massacre. Mexican politics remain uncertain and contradictory. On one side there is a worn-out regime that refuses to relin- quish power, a political class that refuses to think about the long term, a population that has suffered 15 years of neoliberal policies and shows signs of deep discontent, the growing influence of the drug trade, an ongoing war in the southeast, two active guerrilla groups, and a serious dete- rioration of human rights. On the other, is the emergence of a democratic opposition, its impressive electoral tri- umphs, and the influential role played by many indepen- dent groups in civil society. Is Mexico emerging as a vibrant democracy? Or is it sinking, Colombia style, into all-out war? How the conflict in Chiapas is played out over the next several months will be crucial in answering these questions.

Tags: Mexico, Chiapas, Zapatistas, Acteal massacre, violence

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