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Remember the Zapatistas? The Mexican Government Surely Does

January 26, 2008

Two different accounts which talk about increased repressive actions taken lately by the government against the communities in Chiapas, and point to the possibility of another all out struggle taking place soon.

Zapatistas, Code Red 

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

By Naomi Klein 

Nativity scenes are plentiful in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial city in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. But the one that greets visitors at the entrance to the TierrAdentro cultural center has a local twist: figurines on donkeys wear miniature ski masks and carry wooden guns.

It is high season for “Zapatourism,” the industry of international travelers that has sprung up around the indigenous uprising here, and TierrAdentro is ground zero. Zapatista-made weavings, posters and jewelry are selling briskly. In the courtyard restaurant, where the mood at 10 pm is festive verging on fuzzy, college students drink Sol beer. A young man holds up a photograph of Subcomandante Marcos, as always in mask with pipe, and kisses it. His friends snap yet another picture of this most documented of movements.

I am taken through the revelers to a room in the back of the center, closed to the public. The somber mood here seems a world away. Ernesto Ledesma Arronte, a 40-year-old ponytailed researcher, is hunched over military maps and human rights incident reports. “Did you understand what Marcos said?” he asks me. “It was very strong. He hasn’t said anything like that in many years.”
Arronte is referring to a speech Marcos made the night before at a conference outside San Cristóbal. The speech was titled “Feeling Red: The Calendar and the Geography of War.” Because it was Marcos, it was poetic and slightly elliptical. But to Arronte’s ears, it was a code-red alert. “Those of us who have made war know how to recognize the paths by which it is prepared and brought near,” Marcos said. “The signs of war on the horizon are clear. War, like fear, also has a smell. And now we are starting to breathe its fetid odor in our lands.”

Marcos’s assessment supports what Arronte and his fellow researchers at the Center of Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations have been tracking with their maps and charts. On the fifty-six permanent military bases that the Mexican state runs on indigenous land in Chiapas, there has been a marked increase in activity. Weapons and equipment are being dramatically upgraded, new battalions are moving in, including special forces–all signs of escalation.

As the Zapatistas became a global symbol for a new model of resistance, it was possible to forget that the war in Chiapas never actually ended. For his part, Marcos–despite his clandestine identity–has been playing a defiantly open role in Mexican politics, most notably during the fiercely contested 2006 presidential elections. Rather than endorsing the center-left candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he spearheaded a parallel “Other Campaign,” holding rallies that called attention to issues ignored by the major candidates.

In this period, Marcos’s role as military leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) seemed to fade into the background. He was Delegate Zero–the anti-candidate. Last night, Marcos had announced that the conference would be his last such appearance for some time. “Look, the EZLN is an army,” he reminded his audience, and he is its “military chief.”

That army faces a grave new threat–one that cuts to the heart of the Zapatistas’ struggle. During the 1994 uprising, the EZLN claimed large stretches of land and collectivized them, its most tangible victory. In the San Andrés Accords, the right to territory was recognized, but the Mexican government has refused to fully ratify the accords. After failing to enshrine these rights, the Zapatistas decided to turn them into facts on the ground. They formed their own government structures–called good-government councils–and stepped up the building of autonomous schools and clinics. As the Zapatistas expand their role as the de facto government in large areas of Chiapas, the federal and state governments’ determination to undermine them is intensifying.

“Now,” says Arronte, “they have their method.” The method is to use the deep desire for land among all peasants in Chiapas against the Zapatistas. Arronte’s organization has documented that, in just one region, the government has spent approximately $16 million expropriating land and giving it to many families linked to the notoriously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party. Often, the land is already occupied by Zapatista families. Most ominously, many of the new “owners” are linked to thuggish paramilitary groups, which are trying to force the Zapatistas from the newly titled land. Since September there has been a marked escalation of violence: shots fired into the air, brutal beatings, Zapatista families reporting being threatened with death, rape and dismemberment. Soon the soldiers in their barracks may well have the excuse they need to descend: restoring “peace” among feuding indigenous groups. For months the Zapatistas have been resisting violence and trying to expose these provocations. But by choosing not to line up behind Obrador in the 2006 election, the movement made powerful enemies. And now, says Marcos, their calls for help are being met with a deafening silence.

Exactly ten years ago, on December 22, 1997, the Acteal massacre took place. As part of the anti-Zapatista campaign, a paramilitary gang opened fire in a small church in the village of Acteal, killing forty-five indigenous people, sixteen of them children and adolescents. Some bodies were hacked with machetes. The state police heard the gunfire and did nothing. For weeks now, Mexico’s newspapers have been filled with articles marking the tragic ten-year anniversary of the massacre.

In Chiapas, however, many people point out that conditions today feel eerily familiar: the paramilitaries, the rising tensions, the mysterious activities of the soldiers, the renewed isolation from the rest of the country. And they have a plea to those who supported them in the past: don’t just look back. Look forward, and prevent another Acteal massacre before it happens.

 Army, Paramilitaries Build Up in Zapatistas Stronghold By 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.

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One comment

  1. Great article, amazing looking website, added it to my favorites.



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