Peace Talks, But No Peace

September 25, 2007

Shortly after the 1994 New Year rebellion, the Zapatistas and the government negotiated a cease-fire. Four years later, Chiapas has become militarized, alternating between negotations and violence-never truly at war but never truly at peace. The first four years of the Zapatista rebellion were framed by two very different events. Shortly fol- lowing the cease-fire which ended the open mili- tary confrontation of the first days of the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), high-level peace talks were held between the rebels and representa- tives of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The talks were held in the cathedral of San Crist6bal de las Casas in February 1994 and mediated by a commis- sion headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Four years later, dur- ing Christmas week 1997, a pro- On December 29, government paramilitary group 1997, Mexican soldiers massacred 45 unarmed Zapatista "visit" Zapatista sympa- thizers who were supporters in the highland town of forced to flee their Acteal. In the years between these homes in Puebla, events, the state of Chiapas has Chenalh6 due to undergone a dramatic militariza- paramilitary violence. tion, alternating between negotiations and violence- never truly at war but never truly at peace. There was general agreement that the scope of the February 1994 talks between the Zapatistas and the government had to be as broad as the Zapatista agenda itself, which included not only economic demands but a call for social and political reform. The calls for democ- ratization at the local and national levels were crucial to the Zapatista's agenda-as long as ruling-party politicians were not accountable to Mexican citizens, they could eas- ily rescind any agreement reached at the negotiating table. Remarkably, Manuel Camacho, former mayor of Mexico City and head of the government's negotiating team, appeared to agree with the rebels' analysis, publicly recognizing that peace required "a commitment to democracy"-a commitment that has been virtually nonexistent in Chiapas over the past decades.' Regardless of Camacho's sincerity, however, there were deep divisions within the ruling party, which were revealed most clearly a month later when the PRI's presidential can- didate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated in Tijuana. These divisions and the pressures they placed on Camacho VoL XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1998 Karen Kampwirth is assistant professor of political science at Knox College. She wrote this article while she was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her forthcoming book is entitled Feminism and Guerrilla Politics in Latin America. 15REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA Subcommandante Marcos is accompa- nied by mediators Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia and Congressman Juan Bafuelos on his way to negotiations with the gov- ernment on July 29, 1996 in San Crist6bal de las Casas. to limit the scope of the talks resulted in a set of agree- ments which addressed some of the regional economic and social issues raised by the Zapatistas, but made no connection between these inequities and the existence of single-party rule at the national level. 2 The Zapatistas brought the agreements back to their communities for con- sideration. After three months of deliberations, they rejected the accords, arguing that they completely ignored their demands for democratization. There would be more rounds of negotiations over the next few years, but the most important political events would not occur at the negotiating table. One such key event was the 1994 national and gubernatorial elections. While the election of the PRI's Ernesto Zedillo as president was generally perceived to be clean, in many cases, local-level elections were widely believed to have been fraudulent. This was the case in Chiapas, where the PRI's Eduardo Robledo was elected governor. The Zapatistas rejected Robledo's victory and, after months of futile protests, issued a call for the creation of a Transitional Rebel Government. On December 8, the man many believed had received the majority of the votes in the August election, Amado Avendafio, was inaugurated as governor in an open-air ceremony that took place at the same time as the official, invitation-only inauguration of Robledo. AvendafHo, editor of the Chiapas daily El Tiempo, was an outspoken defender of indigenous rights for years before he first entered politics in 1994 as the gubernatorial candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The rebel government headed by Avendafio would "govern" from an office in a 26-build- ing complex in San Crist6bal that was owned by the National Indigenous Institute (INI) until the day of the inaugurations, when it was seized by a coalition of unarmed indige- nous groups. Without firing a shot, the Zapatistas were consolidating their presence in Chiapas and extending their influence in civil society at the national level. Notably, while most Mexicans generally opposed the Zapatistas' use of violence, they did not oppose their goals. A survey conducted on January 7, 1994, showed that 61% of the residents of Mexico City supported the Zapatistas' goals. That percentage had risen to an impres- sive 75% by February 18, just as the peace talks were getting under way. 3 Following their rejection of the government's peace pro- posal, the Zapatistas had set in motion a series of politi- cal alliances to strengthen their own bargaining position. In an appeal to opposition forces nationwide, the EZLN called for the first of three National Democratic Conventions to be held in August. Through such appeals, the Zapatistas were able to quickly transform and unify the political opposition. Over the next several months, a wide array of new coalitions and organizations were formed, including the National Women's Convention, state conventions in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Morelos, Veracruz, Durango, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Guerrero and Michoacdn, and the Movement of National Liberation, headed by for- mer presidential candidate and current governor of Mexico City, Cuauht6moc Cdrdenas. It was this growing political threat that led President Zedillo to change his public stance toward the rebels in February 1995, when he ordered the arrest of top Zapatista leaders. Four days before Zedillo broke the cease-fire, the third meeting of the Democratic National Convention had come to a close. Unlike the first two meetings, which were held in the relative isolation of Chiapas, this meeting was held in the state of Quer6taro, uncomfortably close to the center of power in Mexico City. That same week, the National Women's Convention met for the first time, also in Quer6taro. As the opposition grew and became better organized, the federal government increasingly moved towards a militarization of the conflict. After the arrest warrants were issued, the army launched a massive military offensive in Chiapas. They seized a sig- nificant amount of the territory that had been under NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS CREPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA Zapatista control, and arrested dozens of unarmed politi- cal activists suspected of being Zapatista supporters. Less than a week after the government launched its mil- itary offensive, there were important changes on the polit- ical front in Chiapas, which were designed to quell the ongoing protests against Governor Robledo. Robledo announced that he was taking an 11-month leave of absence and fellow PRIista Julio C6sar Ruiz Ferro imme- diately replaced him as governor. 4 Because the state Constitution allows the governor to take a leave for up to 11 months, this guaranteed that there would be no new election. With Robledo out of office, the cries of electoral fraud were effectively muted. T he second round of negotiations, which eventually led to the 1996 San Andr6s accords, took place in a very different political context than those held in 1994. To be sure, there were continuities-the PRI con- tinued to dominate national and local politics, and while the officeholders had changed as a result of the 1994 elec- tions, the government's stance on negotiations remained the same. As one observer put it, the Zedillo Administra- tion was "willing to talk but not to negotiate, and certainly not to fulfill promises." 5 In fact, representatives of the rul- ing party were eager to talk with the Zapatistas, because engaging in talks would help to preserve the image of the Mexican state as reasonable, as preferring talks to vio- lence, as different from the Central American states that had faced guerrilla rebellions a few years earlier. The negotiating position of the EZLN, on the other hand, had changed considerably since 1994. In February 1994, the Zapatistas controlled large portions of the east- ern third of the state of Chiapas, but after the 1995 army offensive, they controlled very little territory. And while in 1994, pro-Zapatista social movements were growing exponentially, by late 1995, the old government strategies of divide-and-conquer had proven effective in weakening those groups. While the Zapatistas wanted to hold the sec- ond round of peace talks in Mexico City, to emphasize the fact that their demands were national in scope, the central government rejected their proposal, threatening to arrest any Zapatista leaders who left the confines of the state of Chiapas. And in contrast to 1994, when the talks were held in the spectacular colonial cathedral of San Crist6bal, the 1995 talks took place in temporary shelters hastily erected on a basketball court in the highland town of San Andr6s Larriinzar. Despite the government's violation of the 1994 cease- fire, the EZLN nonetheless agreed to start a new round of peace talks. Congress created the legal framework for new talks by passing the "Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and Peace with Dignity in Chiapas" on March 11, 1995. In the ensuing months, the Zapatistas and the government met to work out the details of the talks, including the location, the ground rules, and who would participate. Finally, on October 1, the two sides sat down at what was supposed to be a series of working groups. 6 The outcome of the first working group was a set of accords on indigenous rights and culture that were signed on February 16, 1996. The accords called for increased autonomy for indigenous communities through a series of legal and political reforms, including a promise that the Congress of Chiapas would pass new agrarian reform leg- islation. 7 At the request of the EZLN, photographers were not allowed at the official ceremony because the Zapatistas suspected that the government was more interested in the photo opportunity than in the content of the accords them- selves. Their suspicions proved correct. In subsequent President Zedillo has proven willing to talk but not to truly negotiate with the Zapatistas. months, the federal gov- ernment refused to enact any of the legislation necessary to implement the accords, and paramili- tary violence in northern Chiapas continued. To make matters worse, President Zedillo made absolutely no mention of the accords in his September 1st state of the union address. The next day, the EZLN, prompted by these blatant demon- strations of bad faith, withdrew from the negotiations, seven months after the accords had been signed. 8 The congressional commission that had participated in the San Andr6s talks made one last effort to save the nego- tiations. It drafted a document that intended to address the concerns of both the government and the EZLN which the parties could either accept or reject, but not modify. On November 30, the EZLN accepted the document, despite some serious flaws from the perspective of the rebels. The same document was presented to the Minister of the Interior, who accepted it on behalf of the government, but asked for time to show it to President Zedillo, who was out of the country at the time. Zedillo sent the document back with a series of new provisions. Arguing that Zedillo's modifications of the document violated the ground rules of the negotiations, the Zapatistas rejected the accord on January 11, 1997.9 All of 1997 would pass without a return to the negoti- ating table. It was in this context that the municipal and congressional midterm elections were held in July. The elections were widely heralded-at least in other parts of Mexico-as a major step toward the institutionalization of real democracy in the country. Two important political changes came out of the election. Cuauht6moc Cirdenas VOL XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1998 17REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA from the center-left PRD was elected gov- ernor of Mexico City, and the PRI lost con- trol of the lower house of Congress to a coali- tion of opposition par- ties. Neither of these changes could have happened without the sweeping electoral reforms that were passed in July and August of the previous year. The electoral reforms increased the autonomy of the elec- toral tribunal as well Just weeks before the Acteal massacre, Chiapas governor Julio CUsar Ruiz Ferro gave $575,000 to the so-called "Peace and Justice" paramilitary group. as the resources available to the opposition parties, which had always been outspent by the ruling PRI. The reforms also opened the office of governor of Mexico City--a position that in the past had always been appointed-to electoral competition.10 In northern and central Mexico, a more democratic era appeared on the horizon. But amidst the excitement that was sweeping most of the country, many forgot that in the southern states, little had changed. The Zapatistas, fearing more electoral fraud, announced that they would not vote, but encouraged their supporters to vote their conscience if they thought that conditions for a fair election existed in their municipalities. Many Zapatista supporters blocked roads and burned ballot boxes rather than let the ruling party enjoy the stamp of electoral approval. In places where the elections did take place, some observers noted the old-style PRI at work making sure that their supporters voted early and often. The great irony is that while the Zapatista uprising was a factor in prompting the electoral reforms, these had little if any impact on political life in Chiapas itself. The Acteal massacre last December was only the most dramatic of a steady stream of violent inci- dents in the region between 1994 and 1998.11 In fact, violence against those who work for social and polit- ical change-often with either overt or covert support from state and national authorities-was a fact of life in Chiapas long before 1994. Private police forces known as the white guards, for instance, were created in 1961 when the state governor granted ranchers legal permis- sion to carry arms and hire private police forces. The white guards enforced the rule of the ranchers and big landowners, especially in those parts of Chiapas where public authorities had a weak presence. While official support for the white guards was rescinded in the early 1990s as part of the process of agricultural moderniza- tion that led to the NAFTA accords, those private police forces continued to exist, occasionally joining forces with the police and the army to battle peasants in disputes over land. 1 2 By the 1990s, the presence of the white guards in Chiapas had diminished, but this was not the end of extralegal armed groups in the region. After the military offensive of February 1995, paramilitary groups were created-with significant support from local PRI politi- cians-to fill the vacuum. One of the most notorious groups, ironically named Peace and Justice, was openly led by local PRI deputy Samuel Sdinchez Sinchez. 1 3 Just weeks before the massacre at Acteal, Peace and Justice received a grant of $575,000 from Chiapas governor Julio CUsar Ruiz Ferro. 1 4 Paramilitary groups have been most active in contested areas of the north and central highlands, where support for the Zapatistas is high but where the Zapatista army could offer much less protection than it could in the Lancand6n jungle. In contrast to the EZLN's jungle stronghold, where the government had little presence, the north and central highlands were areas in which there had been a high degree of government penetration. While Lacandonean communities were united in their anger at the government's broken promises, the north and central highlands were deeply divided. Some of the indigenous residents of those regions were threatened by the Zapatista agenda, since they had something to lose if the PRI's hegemony were to break down. These regions, marked by high rates of landlessness and unemployment, were ripe for the mobilization of pro-PRI paramilitary groups. Many marginalized young men in these com- munities were easy to recruit into such groups, even to attack their fellow villagers. 1 5 For the PRI, the strategy of organizing and funding para- military groups had one great advantage over utilizing the military or police forces-plausible deniability. The semi- autonomous nature of the paramilitary forces allowed their funders to denounce paramilitary violence in a way that would not have been possible had the same acts been car- ried out by the military or police. As long as paramilitaries killed only two or three people at a time, they were only a marginal political liability for the government, even though over 500 people had been killed by paramilitaries in the state of Chiapas in 1997 alone. 1 6 But their partial autonomy also meant that, if they decided to kill many people at once-as they did in Acteal-there was little that the state and federal authorities could do about it. n December 22, 1997, heavily armed and uni- formed men approached a group of worshipers at the entrance to a chapel in the indigenous town of Acteal. Opening fire with their high-calibre weapons, they killed a few villagers in the chapel, while the others fled 18 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA into the mountains. Their attackers had no trouble fol- lowing them-they were from the area and knew the terrain well. The autopsies would later show that the vast majority of their 45 victims were shot in the back. 1 7 At 11:30 that morning, just an hour after the killings began, three villagers sought help from the commander of a local police station. But instead of investigating the reported mas- sacre in progress, Commander Ricardo Garcia Rivas detained the three villagers. Police patrols continued their rounds, some of them stationing them- selves at a school no more than 700 yards from the chapel. For six or seven hours, they stayed there without advancing fur- ther. Their response to the sounds of the massacre in progress was to fire shots into the air, but they did not inter- vene or try to stop the killings.18 At noon, the police were once again informed of the events in progress, this time by several people who had escaped the paramilitary bloodbath. Again they were ignored. Seeing that they would get nowhere with the police, the Acteal residents called the Catholic Church's human rights office. The vicar of the archdiocese, Gonzalo Ituarte, called the secretary general of the state government. About a half an hour later, a call was made to the telephone booth of Acteal, apparently by someone in the central government, who told the villager who answered the phone that a police patrol would be inves- tigating the shooting. He promised to call back in ten minutes but he never did. Throughout the day, Catholic Church officials continued their calls to government offi- cials in the capital, who assured them that there was no reason for alarm. 1 9 Finally, at about 5:00 in the afternoon, a group of women told Cornelio P6rez, one of the people who had first tried to alert the police patrol, that there were many dead and wounded. With night falling fast, P6rez requested to be freed in order to attend to the wounded. Commander Garcia Rivas gave P6rez and three women permission to visit the scene of the massacre, but refused to provide any protection or support. "We can't go there," he said. "What if they are still there and they shoot us in the head?" 2 0 The massacre in Acteal created a huge public relations problem for the state and federal governments. While Chiapas had disappeared from On January 28, 1998, the international press after the protesters blocked the peace process came to a halt in San Crist6bal-Palenque road, demanding the early 1996, it was once again withdrawal of the making international headlines. Mexican army from The massacre had received far indigenous communities too much attention to be ignored in Chiapas. by the government, as had been the case with earlier paramilitary atrocities. In the days that followed, more than 40 men were accused and detained, including the former municipal president of Chenalh6, Jacinto Arias Cruz of the PRI. Within two weeks, both the minister of the interior and the governor of the state of Chiapas had stepped down. But while their replacement might have reflected a new way of con- ducting politics, the way in which the replacements were carried out was a classic example of centralized PRI power at work. Legally, the legislature of the state of Chiapas should have selected a new governor. Instead, news of Ruiz Ferro's "personal decision" to step down, and of the appointment of Roberto Albores Guill6n as his replace- ment, was released in Mexico City hours before legisla- tors in Chiapas were formally notified. Like Ruiz Ferro, Albores Guill6n represents the old school of PRI poli- tics-the school of the big landowners, the ranchers, the people who would stop at nothing to annihilate the Zapatistas. This is certainly not the only school of thought within the PRI, but as the Christmas massacre demonstrated so clearly, it continues to be the dominant one in the state of Chiapas. Peace Talks, But No Peace 1. Tim Golden, "Mexican Rebel Leader Sees No Quick Settlement," The New York Times, February 20, 1994. 2. See Thomas Benjamin, A Rich Land, A Poor People: Politics and Society in Modern Chiapas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), pp. 263-269. 3. Tim Golden, "Rebels Battle for Hearts of Mexicans," The New York Times, February 26, 1994. 4. Alonso Urrutia and Candelaria Rodriguez, "Robledo se fue cuando estaba mas fortalecido que nunca: ganaderos," La Jornada (Mexico City), February 16, 1995. 5. Luis Hernandez Navarro, "Entre la memoria y el olvido: Guerrillas, movimiento indigena y reformas legales en la hora del EZLN," in Neus Espresate, ed., Chiapas, Vol. 4 (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1997), p. 85. 6. Luis Hernandez Navarro, "Entre la memoria y el olvido," pp. 74- 75. 7. Rosa Rojas and Elio Henriquez, "Acuerdos de Larrainzar sobre reconocimiento constitucional del sistema juridico indigena,"La Jornada (Mexico City), November 17, 1996. 8. Luis Hernandez Navarro, "Entre la memoria y el olvido," pp. 82- 85. 9. Luis HernAndez Navarro, "Entre la memoria y el olvido," p. 88. The original text and the federal government's subsequent changes are reprinted in COCOPA/Ejecutivo, "Balance compara- tivo entre la propuesta de reformas constitucionales presentada por la COCOPA y las observaciones del Ejecutivo," in Neus Espresate, ed., Chiapas, Vol. 4. 10. Ricardo Becerra, Pedro Salazar and Jose Woldenburg, La reforma electoral de 1996: Una descripcidn general (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Econ6mica, 1997), pp. 9-10. 11. Between 1994 and March 8, 1996, 100 PRD activists were assassinated in Chiapas. Center for Information and Analysis of Chiapas (CIACH), Coordinator of Nongovernmental Organizations for Peace (CONPAZ), and Processed Information Services (SIPRO), Para entender Chiapas: Chiapas en cifras (Mexico: Impretei, 1997), p. 100. 12. CIACH, "The Covert War Waged by Gunmen, White Guards, and Paramilitary Forces," La Opini6n, No. 79 (November 11, 1997), pp. 1-6. 13. CIACH, "The Covert War Waged by Gunmen," p. 2. 14. Julia Preston, "Feuding Indian Villages Bringing Mexican Region to Brink of War," The New York Times, February 2, 1998. 15. Andr6s Aubrey and Ang6lica Inda, " Quienes son los 'paramil- itares'?" La Jornada (Mexico City), December 23, 1997. 16. Angeles Mariscal, "En tres aios, 11,443 desplazados; en 1997, 500 muertes violentas," La Jornada (Mexico City), December 31, 1997. 17. Angeles Mariscal, "Detenidos por la matanza declaran su fil- iaci6n priista," La Jornada (Mexico City), December 26, 1997. 18. Jes0s Ramlrez Cuevas, "Jamas atendib la policla estatal los Ila- mados de auxilio: testigos," La Jornada (Mexico City), December 30, 1997. 19. Jesis Ramirez Cuevas, "Jamas atendi6 la policda estatal los Ila- mados de auxilio: testigos." 20. Jesis Ramlrez Cuevas, "Jamas atendi6 la policla estatal los Ila- mados de auxilio: testigos." 21. Julio Hernandez L6pez, "Astillero" and "Chiapas: Recambios en el Vacio," La Jornada (Mexico City), January 8, 1998; Juan Manuel Venegas, "Madrazo: En Acteal, conflicto intercomuni- tario," La Jornada (Mexico City), December 27, 1997; and Juan Manuel Venegas and Angeles Mariscal, "Albores Guill6n susti- tuye a Rulz Ferro; riesgo de choques," La Jornada (Mexico City), January 8, 1998.

Tags: Mexico, Chiapas, Zapatistas, peace talks, violence, paramilitaries

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.