The Lessons of Acteal

September 25, 2007

The Zapatistas have touched a raw nerve in a political system that once seemed unshakable, prompting a military and paramilitary escalation of unprecedented proportions in southeastern Mexico. The residents of San Crist6bal de Las Casas were preparing their Christmas festivities on December 22, 1997 when reports of a massacre of 45 Tzotzil indigenous people in the highland community of Acteal, some 12 miles north, reached the town. Survivors of the massacre told horrific tales of heavily armed paramilitaries in black uniforms surrounding the chapel where the pro- Zapatista civilians were gathered. Family members The paramilitaries opened fire and mourn the deaths of then pursued the fleeing villagers, 45 Tzotzils killed by paramilitaries in hacking and mutilating them with Acteal on December machetes over the next five hours. 22, 1997. The assailants cut babies out of the wombs of pregnant women-a tactic reminiscent of the feared Guatemalan "Kaibiles," an elite counterinsurgency unit that has reportedly trained 50 high-ranking Mexican military officers since the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).1 The 45 killed at Acteal included 36 women and children, and an additional 25 were seriously wounded. Public security forces were alerted to the ongoing carnage but refused to intervene. Over the past two years, paramilitary groups have pro- liferated in Chiapas, and there is strong evidence linking these groups to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).2 It has been reported that leaders of the "Anti- Zapatista Indigenous Resistance Movement" (MIRA), a paramilitary group that operates in the jungle region, receive $1,250 a month from the state government, quite an attractive sum in an area where the going wage is $3 a day. There are also credible reports that Mexican army and public-security officers train and arm the paramilitaries. 3 This is "low-intensity warfare," a post-Vietnam strategy for controlling populations while reducing the visibility- and political costs-of direct government repression. 4 It combines a mixture of repression, terror and civic cam- paigns to win the "hearts and minds" of the civilian popu- VOL XXXI, No 5 MARCH /APRIL 1998 Richard Stahler-Sholk is assistant professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University. A longer version of this article will be published in Latin American Perspectives. 11REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA lation-a text-book strategy straight out of the army manuals, implemented with a little help from the School of the Americas and U.S.-supplied helicopters. Indeed, the army's "Campaign Plan Chiapas 94," which calls for "training and support for self-defense forces or other paramilitary organizations," was written by General Jos6 Ruben Rivas Pefia--one of 13 graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas now playing key roles in the repression in southern Mexico. 5 Under the pretext of searching for arms and putting an end to killings like the recent massacre in Acteal, the army launched a new offensive in Chiapas--despite the fact that the massacre was carried out by groups linked to the PRI. Since December, the army has been invad- ing Zapatista communities in the jungle, reportedly tor- turing peasants and interrogating them as to the where- abouts of EZLN leaders. The government has also stepped up its long-standing policy of harassing and deporting foreign human rights and religious workers in Chiapas in an effort to stifle reports of human rights abuses that might worry foreign investors. A xenopho- bic campaign in the PRI-controlled press was accom- panied by a series of immigration sweeps. Three U.S. citizens were expelled in February, including former director of Pastors for Peace Tom Hansen and French priest Michel Chanteau, who worked for 32 years in the municipality of Chenalh6. The Zapatista challenge has touched a raw nerve in a political system that once seemed unshakable. The 69- year rule of the PRI has traditionally depended less on repression than on a vast system of Zapatistas supporters patronage, in which party bosses pur- detain a sniper affili- chased loyalties through organiza- ated with the ruling party on September tions that claimed monopolistic rep- 25, 1997. The resentation of labor, peasant and sniper was sent to "popular" sectors. But neoliberal attack the group as policies aimed at trimming the state it accompanied have undercut the resource base of refugees back to the old party bosses, splitting the PRI into the "dinosaur" wing, representing the old patronage brokers, and the new "technocrats," represented by President Ernesto Zedillo. While the liberalization of the economy has cemented alliances between Mexican and foreign capitalists, it has had a devastating impact on Mexican workers, peasants and the debt-ridden middle class as wages have been cut, price supports slashed and landholding rights eliminated. 6 The PRI's claims to the revolutionary legacy of elections, nationalism, social jus- tice and agrarian reform have come under severe strain since the post-1982 neoliberal transformation. The Zapatista rebellion partly reflects these contradictions, but a broader nationwide opposition to the government's neoliberal agenda has also emerged throughout Mexico. 7 few months appears calculated to sabotage negoti- ations between the government and the EZLN, which have continued sporadically since the National Mediation Commission (CONAI) headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz brokered a cease-fire shortly after the New NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA Year's 1994 rebellion. The government broke the truce in February 1995 with an army offensive that unsuc- cessfully attempted to capture Zapatista leaders. Following the offensive, the Mexican Congress estab- lished the multi-party Mediation and Pacification Commission (COCOPA) and passed a "Law of Dialogue," freezing troop deployment while peace talks continued. Finally, in February 1996, the government and the EZLN signed accords on the rights of indige- nous communities in the highland town of San Andr6s. The San Andr6s accords incorporated two key Zapatista demands--the official recognition of the right of indigenous communities to choose their own leader- ship and to control the natural resources in their territo- ries. In practice, however, these rights have not been respected. PRI leaders in many local communities have refused to recognize the Zapatista autonomous munici- palities that have been created since 1994, and many towns have divided into pro-PRI and pro-EZLN fac- tions. Powerful logging and oil interests have also opposed the San Andr6s concession regarding natural resources in Chiapas-a state rich in hardwood, hydro- electric, and oil resources. 8 In the end, the government refused to implement the accords, leading to a breakdown in negotiations and rising tensions.9 Since then, the conflict zone has spread from the eastern jungle region to the north, and most recently to the central highlands, where pro-government paramilitaries have been killing and terrorizing EZLN sympathizers. The escalation of violence has been steady, particularly since last November, when a caravan carrying Bishop Ruiz was ambushed near Tila in northern Chiapas. In the last quarter of 1997 alone, over 7,000 people fled their homes due to military and paramilitary violence. In the face of mounting international outrage over the Acteal massacre, the government moved quickly to counter the bad press. Some local officials were arrested, including the municipal mayor who was directly impli- cated in aiding the paramilitary unit responsible for the bloodbath in Acteal. Zedillo also forced out Minister of the Interior Emilio Chuayffet, a PRI hardliner, in mid-January. A PRI congressman linked to COCOPA leaked reports that Chuayffet had sabotaged the secret negotiations between President Zedillo and Subcomandante Marcos in late 1996, which nearly culminated in the signing of a peace agreement in March 1997.10 But days later, on January 12, 1998, state police fired on demonstrators who were protesting the Acteal massacre in the town of Ocosingo, killing an indigenous woman and wounding two children. Again, the government ordered some low-level arrests, but this did not deter the violence. In late January, two peasant leaders who had received death threats from paramilitaries were assassinated in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutidrrez. The government is actively seeking to foment divisions within communities in Chiapas by lavishing PRI supporters with handouts and special subsidies. The fact that it is unclear whether President Zedillo ordered the latest offensive reflects the growing auton- omy of the Mexican army. In fact, Subcomandante Marcos called the offensive a "coup d'etat." Given the PRI's inability to devise a coherent response to grow- ing instability, Washington seems to favor this strengthening of the mili- tary, insisting that NAFTA ties with the Mexican gov- ernment should be extended into the military arena. In the words of Defense Secretary William Perry during an unprece- dented October 1996 visit to Mexico, since "there are already two strong bases in our political and economic ties," such a "third link" would help to cement U.S.-Mexico relations." Yet the further militarization of the situation which some hardlin- ers propose is quite risky, especially given Mexico's sta- tus as an "emerging market" and the need to maintain the appearance of stability for international investors. n the autonomous municipalities-parallel local governments established by pro-Zapatista support- ers in dozens of towns throughout Chiapas-vil- lagers no longer recognize the official judicial system, and have established alternative methods of conflict resolution. They have also set about organizing collec- tive development projects, such as community corn and coffee fields, vegetable gardens, and raising rab- bits and chickens. These projects, coupled with the Zapatista ban on alcohol in their villages, have created strong community bonds that contrast sharply with government efforts to stir up conflict between PRI and EZLN supporters. Such conflicts were evident during my January visit to Ibarra, a community that, like many in the jungle, is divided into pro-Zapatista and pro-PRI families. A group of PRIistas brought their animals to graze in a Zapatista-tended pasture, setting off a dispute between the two groups. Pro-Zapatista villagers explained to me that since the PRI supporters had accepted govern- ment handouts and had not participated in any of the local projects implemented since the rebellion, "they sold their rights." The government is actively seeking to foment such divisions within local communities by lavishing PRI VOL XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1998 13REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA supporters with government assistance. According to Zapatista villagers in Ibarra, the PRlistas cast their lot with the government and fled for Ocosingo on the eve of the 1994 rebellion, returning only in 1995 after the army installed a base by the local airstrip. The government gave the PRIistas the huge sum of $1,125 per family as compensation payments in addition to a subsidy of $55 per hectare of corn and coffee through the PROCAMPO program, which was designed to alleviate the impact of neoliberal reforms. Army helicopters fly in handouts of rice, beans, sugar and cooking oil for the PRIistas. A new government program offers $2,000 in credit incentives to pro-government villagers for growing chili peppers to be sold to a processing plant in the city. Elsewhere in the region, government engineers provide drinking water taps and solar panels to PRIista families, while army civic-action programs offer free haircuts and dental exams. Yet villagers are wary of the government's generosity, of the "medical consultations" that are thinly disguised intelligence gathering, and of public works like building roads that facilitate army penetration into the jungle. The PRI supporters, meanwhile, have seen social and economic fabric of their communities torn apart by army-introduced alcohol and prostitution, and by grow- ing dependence on government provisions. The government's attempts to win over Zapatista sup- porters are regularly rebuffed. Government offers of aid, for example, to refugees from Acteal and other displaced Tzotzils who resettled in the town of Polh6 last January were refused. The refugees said that they could not accept assistance from the same government that organizes the paramilitaries who attack them. This mistrust of the government in Chiapas is deeply rooted, as I learned in 1996 during a visit to the com- munity of Mois6s Gandhi, now seat of the Che Guevara Autonomous Municipality. A Tzeltal villager was chat- ting to me in Spanish when a government health inspec- tor burst out of the cornfield in an outlandish safari out- fit with clipboard in hand and began inquiring about cases of malaria. Suddenly nobody in the village spoke a word of Spanish, and the health official finally left in frustration. Villagers told me that they suspected that a government vaccination team had sterilized women from the community without their consent. apatista communities like the Che Guevara Autonomous Municipality are not seeking isola- tion from the world or secession from Mexico. What they do want is a say in the terms that govern those relations. This struggle for autonomy is the essence of the indigenous rebellion. There is no denying that the incipi- ent structures of autonomous local government are partly symbolic. But villagers proudly contrast their own administration of justice with the official mal gobierno-- bad government-in which laws have always been applied according to "who gives more money." The real challenge to PRI hegemony lies in the Zapatistas' devel- opment projects, including collective agriculture, build- ing local infrastructure, piping water from streams, train- ing health promoters, and starting up small enterprises. The lesson of Acteal is clear. The old powerbrokers of the "dinosaur" wing of the PRI still loom large at Thousands of the local level in places like Zapatistas demonstrate Chiapas, and they are willing to in San Cristdbal de las use any means possible to hold Casas ro aemana com- pliance with the San Andrbs accords on November 29, 1997. onto power-even arming para- military groups to kill and terror- ize those who challenge them. Once unleashed, however, these fratricidal paramilitary groups spin out of control, destroying communities faster than govern- ment "aid." President Zedillo and the technocratic wing of the PRI-apostles of neoliberalism who lack a political base of their own-are ambivalent about whether the party hardliners like those in Chiapas are more useful than damaging. The answer will depend in part on whether the PRI technocrats suc- ceed in their international pub- licity campaign to portray the latest upheaval as Indian-on- Indian violence that requires the firm hand of an "impartial" modernizing state. he Lessons of Acteal 1. El Financiero (Mexico City), January 25, 1998. 2. Human Rights Watch/Americas, Implausible Deniability: State Responsibility for Rural Violence in Mexico (New York: Human Rights Watch, April 1997). 3. Jes0s Ramirez Cuevas, "Apoyarian soldados y policies a paramili- tares de Chenalh6" and "En Canolal existe una base de opera- ciones prilstas armados," La Jornada (Mexico City), January 2 and 3, 1998. 4. Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolom6 de Las Casas, Ni paz nijusticia: Informe general y amplio acerca de la guerra civil que sufren los Cho'les en la Zona Norte de Chiapas (Chiapas: CDHFBC, October 1996); and Camino a la masacre: Informe especial sobre Chenalh6 (Chiapas: CDHFBC, January 1998). 5. Carlos Marin, "Plan del Ej6rcito en Chiapas desde 1994: Crear bandas paramilitares, desplazar a la poblaci6n, destruir las bases de apoyo del EZLN," Proceso (Mexico City), No. 1005, January 4, 1998, pp. 6-11; and "SOA Graduates' Fingerprints on Mexico's Chiapas Policy," Open letter to members of U.S. House of Representatives from Rep. Joseph RP. Kennedy, sponsor of H.R. 611 to close the School of the Americas. 6. See David Barkin, Irene Ortiz, & Fred Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance: The Remaking of Mexico," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 4, January/February 1997, pp. 14-27. 7. On the politics of neoliberalism in Mexico and the origins of the Zapatista movement, see Gerardo Otero, ed., Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico's Political Future (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996). 8. Shannan L. Mattiace, "'Zapata Vive!': The EZLN, Indigenous Politics and the Autonomy Movement in Mexico," Journal of Latin American Anthropology, Vol. 3., No. 1, 1997, pp. 32-71. 9. See La Jornada (Mexico City), January 12-13, 1997; and Luis Hernandez Navarro, "Entre la memoria y el olvido: Guerrillas, movimiento indlgena y reformas legales en la hora del EZLN," in Neus Espresate, ed., Chiapas, Vol. 4, (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1997), pp. 69-92. 10. Proceso (Mexico City), No. 1105, January 4, 1998, pp. 12-17. 11. Carlos Fazio, El tercer vinculo: De la teoria del caos a la teoria de la militarizaci6n (Mexico City: Planeta, 1996).

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

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