A Time of Reflection and New Challenges

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10 Years After the Armed Uprising

 

As ten years have passed since the armed Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, the present moment offers itself to initial reflections. In Mexico, regardless of one's political affiliations or level of involvement in politics, the year 1994 constitutes a watershed.

 

In January, the magazine Proceso published a special issue entitled: “1994-2004: The Great Hope…The Great Frustration." In the issue, the sociologist Bernard Duterme, sums up much of the spectrum of existing views on the Zapatistas, when he writes: “Neither euphoric nor definitive, the picture is tinged. On the one hand, … they are catalysts of the democraticization of Chiapas and Mexico, engineers of the fall of the party that had monopolized power since the 1920s [Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI], the driving force behind the creation of a national - and possibly Latin American - indigenous movement, affirmative, massive and democratic, pioneers of a new international plurality, known today as altermundialista. ... On the other hand, ... the results of a decade of more or less ongoing conflict and negotiations between the rebels and the government have only pleased the EZLN's detractors. Beyond its social significance in Chiapas, the movement - whether undermined from without or within - appears threatened at the very least. Its arrival on the Mexican political scene, constantly delayed, ended up capsized. The movement's intergalactic connection with altermundialista convergences - ambivalent yesterday, evanescent today - did not fulfil its promise."

 

When Samuel Ruiz García, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, presented his pastoral letter, entitled "A New Hour of Grace,” he pointed out : “despite the fact that the conflict has not been resolved in its causes, the effort to build ‘la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad’ (Peace with Justice and Dignity) - to which numerous and diverse actors have contributed - is a common inheritance belonging to the entire nation, one that has contributed advances, achievements and a new consciousness. Although not the only factor, the uprising of the EZLN and its subsequent political evolution fostered the consciousness and organization of many of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico; the movement led to the emergence of a new national consciousness about the rights and significance of the indigenous population; it stimulated the growth and participation of civil society; it challenged political society to seek new paths; it led to some of the small advances in State reform; it shed light on the need to transform our institutions and social and economic relations; it revealed the grave deficiencies of the Mexican political system and the long road to be travelled for the nation to achieve an honourable democracy; it demanded a responsible answer (still forthcoming) from the State as to its part in causing the conflict; it questioned the churches about their historical role in the search for justice; it brought the topic of the world's Indigenous Peoples to the international arena and it denounced the neoliberal system and its consequences."

 

A New Zapatista Challenge: The Good Government Councils (Juntas de Buen Gobierno)

 

As Miguel Alvarez from Serapaz (Servicio y Asesoría para la Paz) points out: “The indigenous counter-reform was not the closing of a chapter, but rather part of a book in progress. The proposal of the JBG (the Good Government Councils) is part of its second volume.” For more than 6 months, EZLN support bases have been focusing their energy on strengthening the 35 existing autonomous municipalities by way of the Good Government Councils, a new step on the regional level (see SIPAZ Report, Vol VIII No. 3).

 

The JBGs face numerous challenge to their successful functioning. The first has to do with the existent plurality in the territories that they attempt to cover. In many areas, part of the population (the majority or minority, depending on the case) opposes the project of Zapatista autonomy. For example, tensions arose in Altamirano in December when various social organizations agreed to carry out mobilizations against the local JBG. At present, the conflict has been diminished, thanks to intervention by the state government.

 

Another point of tension is the topic of public utilities (water, electricity and public works). The Zapatistas who act in resistance to government demands sometimes generate friction with the the population that pays for these services. Two particularly tense situations in the past few months occurred in Zinacantán (where militants from the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD, cut the water supply to Zapatista support bases) and in San Juan Cancúc (where members of PRI threatened to expel indigenous EZLN sympathizers who had refused to co-operate to receive services). Some people believe that such divisions within communities are a key element of the new counter-insurgency strategy.

 

 

After the approval of the constitutional reform on indigenous rights in 2001, both the EZLN and the Congreso Nacional Indígena (National Indigenous Congress), or CNI - which represents the majority of indigenous Mexico - opted to pursue autonomy as the path for future actions.

 

Recent events in Morelos, which unfolded when citizens of Tlanepantla declared an autonomous municipality in January, serve as an important example about the future of autonomy. On January 14, the state government sent police to the municipality to ensure that the constitutional mayor could assume his post. They ousted the Autonomous Municipal Council, which led to a confrontation resulting in one death and hundreds of peoples displaced at least until March. The governor of Morelos justified the intervention by claiming that the police had encountered a "guerrilla-type training camp" and that they “have intelligence that the group opposed to the municipal government was heavily armed."

 

Regarding such incidents, Secretary of the Interior, Santiago Creel, stated that responsibilities need to be defined "with clarity and precision," but that the State "will not permit anyone to establish new forms of government out of their own will, solely to please a group opposed to the constitutional authority." The Asociación Jalisciense de Apoyo a Grupos Indígenas (Jalisco Association of Support to Indigenous Groups) warns that such declarations: "sound like threats, and endanger projects like the Zapatistas' Good Government Councils."

 

Anders Kompass, representative of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights in Mexico, declared in the UN report on human rights in Mexico that if post-electoral problems are not resolved through peaceful measures, "there is a great risk that they will result in violence."

 

Indigenous Rights in Mexico: Persistent Delays

 

The United Nations formally presented its report on human rights in Mexico on December 8, 2003. President Fox accepted 32 of the report's recommendations and admitted that much remains to be done before personal guarantees of human rights become a full reality in the nation.

 

With regards to indigenous rights, the report states: "Even if there have been some advances in the area, there are also serious delays that have not been given sufficient political attention. … The human rights violations against indigenous Mexicans are generally the result of a high level of conflict, particularly in rural areas, which is fundamentally related to agrarian issues and disputes over local and regional political power. We have been informed repeatedly of conflicts in indigenous communities, including violent acts and interventions by public authorities, which frequently constitute human rights violations. According to reports we received, many of these violations remain unpunished, aggravating the conflict and increasing the level of violence.”

 

 

Despite protests demanding the pull-out of the Army from indigenous communities, such as those in Emiliano Zapata (in the Norte region) in January, the military presence in Chiapas remains the highest in the nation after Mexico City, where national military command headquarters are located. Some consequences of militarization are becoming increasingly noticeable and called into question; these include alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and the breakdown of social fabric.

 

According to its recently published report Military Occupation in Chiapas: The Prisoner's Dilemma, the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations, (CAPISE), located 91 permanent military installations in the conflict zone. The report states that: “the presence of the Army means a suspension of guarantees that burdens indigenous communities with a social cost, which has been and continues to be, very high." CAPISE reports that "the military operations have been irregular, or in other words, war-like activities that are not intended to reach decisions, but rather to harras and wear down the adversary, and can be seen either as isolated and individual acts or as part of a previously established defensive plan, in combination with or independent of regular operations. These operations have been based on the creation of paramiltary groups, which have had a strong impact on the situation and have forced the displacement of thousands of poor peoples. (See: www.capise.org)

 

In March, the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center), or CDHFBLC, reported that since the end of last year paramilitary groups have carried out covert attacks, threats, and killings in the municipalities of San Andrés and San Juan de la Libertad (El Bosque). The activity of a paramilitary group known as Máscara Roja (Red Mask) - the group accused of being responsible for the massacre at Acteal - has been reported and documented in the same region.

 

 

CDHFBLC announced that 23 houses were burned down in the community of Nuevo San Rafael in the Montes Azules biosphere reserve on Thursday, January 22nd. The act occurred when dozens of Marine corps members, police, and functionaries of the Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente (Attorney General for Environmental Protection), or Profepa, arrived in Nuevo San Rafael in what CDHFBLC calls, "disproportionate" numbers. The human rights centre reported that Profepa kept the community "incommunicado" and violated the right to “freedom of movement in the Montes Azules region.” In its defence, the Secretary of Agrarian Reform (SRA), stated that the families in the community decided to abandon it "voluntarily." However, others believe that the SRA had knowingly divided the population. Some families returned to the municipality of Sabanilla, where they had previously lived, while other community members decided to stay in Montes Azules.

 

After these acts, the nearby Zapatista settlement of Nuevo San Isidro, which was founded almost two years ago, declared: "They will only remove us from these lands when we are dead, because we will not accept the government's bribes." Speaking about this same region, the president of the organization Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste (The People's Woods of the Southeast), warned: "if the tensions continue and the government intends to carry out an eviction there, what they will get will be a confrontation - a massacre - because they will be facing the EZLN."

 

At the beginning of February, five NGOs called for the federal and state government to "stop their isolated operatives" in Montes Azules, "until all of the involved parties have been clearly consulted regarding this process." They confirmed that the incident in San Rafael occurred when the government "wound up returning one group of refugees to El Calvario, the same community from which they had been displaced by the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice)."

 

The group of NGOs also stated that, with the recent agreement between the European Union (which will give 15 million euros) and the government of Chiapas (which will give another 16 million) to benefit the 155,000 inhabitants of the 16 micro-regions of the Lacondan Jungle, “the circle of international interests ...has closed, and has divided up” the region between the European Union and the United States. Despite the European Union's stated desire to foster dialogue between indigenous communities and the government, the project is being undertaken in what remains one of the most problematic regions in Chiapas.

 

Re-opening the Case of the Massacre at Acteal

 

On December 22, 2003, on the sixth anniversary of the massacre at Acteal - during which 45 indigenous members of the organization Las Abejas were killed - leaders from the main evangelical churches in Mexico called for the case against those being held responsible to be re-opened. Arguing that the majority of the 74 indigenous prisoners (many of whom are evangelical Christians) are innocent, the church leaders claim they have sufficient evidence to free them.

 

In February, Las Abejas launched a "campaign against impunity" to counter what they fear is the federal government “preparing the way for the liberation of those guilty of massacre." They denounced the re-opening of the case as a “strategy designed to cover up the masterminds of the genocide that took place Acteal.” The group also pointed out that the conflict in Chenalhó is not religious and mentioned that they see the liberation in January of seven members of the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia as a dangerous precedent.

 

In March, a group that includes representatives from the offices of the Secretary of the Interior and the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR), the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), and the evangelical community initiated talks regarding the case. Abner López Pérez, an evangelical pastor and director of the Biblical Society of Mexico issued a “brotherly call” to Las Abejas to participate in the talks. Adoniram Gaxiola, another evangelical pastor demanded that “those responsible for the planning and execution of the acts receive just punishment, (...) there will only be justice for those killed at Acteal when the truly guilty are identified.”

 

The Bishop of San Cristóbal, Felipe Arizmendi, asserted that “if those currently imprisoned are innocent, which would need to be proven, it would be necessary then to find those truly responsible. I hope that the case is handled delicately because if those set free are in fact justly incarcerated, the case could lead to a serious loss of confidence in the judicial system."

 

Electricity, A New Point of Tension

 

In December, the governor of Chiapas, Pablo Salazar, announced that more than 500 chiapanecos facing various fines and penalties due to conflicts with the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) - a result of the movement to protest unfair taxes by refusing to pay for light - will be pardoned, since federal authorities have withdrawn their accusations.

 

At the beginning of the new year, the CFE implemented the new "Vida Mejor" ("Better Life") tax, which was designed to bring an end to the resistance movement and to stabilize the situation. However, conflicts between the CFE and hundreds of communities in the state have increased rather than diminished.

 

In February, the Frente de Resistencia Jurídica y Civil Chiapaneca (Frejuch) announced that there are still three thousand trials for protection pending, 2,500 demands currently before the Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor (Profeco), and at least 7,000 complaints lodged with the National Human Rights Commission.

 

On March 12, the superintendent of the CFE claimed that “ninety-eight thousand agreements have been reached out of the three hundred thousand claims” that it is trying to settle, and that “the population that refused to pay debts owed to the CFE is now participating enthusiastically in resolving the problem." Groups working in opposition to the CFE state that in fact at least 78 municipalities are rejecting the tariffs that local authorities have imposed. Some municipalities in the Altos and Norte regions use administrative processing costs (such as school enrollment and military service fees) to offset the payments. In Cancúc, the program has served to threaten by expulsion bases of Zapatista support. Emilio Zebadúa, ex-Secretary of the Interior, recognized that "the 'Vida Mejor' tax has not resolved the problems that it was supposed to when it was presented."

 

This report was supplied by SIPAZ. Find out more about SIPAZ and the continuing struggle for social justice in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico at http://www.sipaz.org