Mexico's Dirty War
Six years after the Zapatista uprising
by Bill Weinberg
In These Times magazine, Feb. 2000
When the security forces in Mexico's militarized southern
state of Chiapas persecute foreign sympathizers of the local rebel
Indians, it makes headlines. On January 3, Greg Ruggiero, an editor
working on a collection of writings by verbose guerrilla leader
Subcomandante Marcos for New York's Seven Stories Press, was detained
at the mountain village of San Andres Larrainzar, held for six
hours and interrogated. He had his 90-day tourist visa revoked
and was ordered to leave the country within a week. His story
made the New York Times.
Kerry Appel, a Denver-based organic coffee importer working
with indigenous cooperatives, was also picked up at a roadblock-and
banned from Mexico for three years for alleged visa violations.
His story also was picked up by the international press. These
were just two of 47 foreigners detained by authorities in Chiapas
over New Year's, the anniversary of the Zapatista uprising that
shook the state in 1994.
But every day the Maya Indians of Chiapas face a far more
dire human rights situation-and the world media have paid little
note. Ruggiero, back in New York, describes the Chiapas he witnessed
as pervaded by "road" block after roadblock of heavily
armed military troops searching vehicles and videotaping, photographing
and harassing travelers of all nationalities."
With the Chiapas peace process at a long impasse and the government
resorting to "dirty war" tactics to reconsolidate control
over the state, the Indians face not only harassment-but terror.
Mercedes Osuna, director of Enlace Civil, a human rights monitoring
group based in the Chiapas highland town of San Cristobal de las
Casas, says arbitrary detentions are common. She counts more than
100 political prisoners in Chiapas and says 20,000 Chiapas Indians
are "displaced by the terror implemented by paramilitary
groups, living in conditions of extreme misery, without sufficient
food, shelter, clothes or medicine. There is at least one dying
T he Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) chose January
1, 1994 to launch its uprising because it was the day that NAFTA
took effect. They called NAFTA a "death sentence" against
Mexico's Indians. Under constitutional changes pushed through
in preparation for the treaty by then-President Carlos Salinas,
the communal peasant lands known as ejidos could be legally privatized
or used as loan collateral. This robbed the residents of the "inalienable"
village lands that Emiliano Zapata fought for in the Revolution
of 1910 to 1919. But the measures were approved by Congress and
all 32 state legislatures, then all under the control of the corrupt,
entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Subcomandante
Marcos has said that this constitutional reform "was the
door that was closed on the indigenous to survive in a legal and
The New Year's uprising was followed by 12 days of war in
the Chiapas Highlands. After huge peace protests in Mexico City,
the government and rebels agreed to talk. But the dialogue was
stalled by President Emesto Zedillo's refusal to accept the San
Andres Accords, a peace proposal the Zapatistas hashed out with
congressional negotiators in a painstaking process. The accords
(named for San Andres Larrainzar, where they were negotiated)
call for changes to the Mexican constitution to recognize the
autonomy of indigenous peoples (provisions already found in the
Colombian and Nicaraguan constitutions). Acceptance of the accords
was the EZLN's one precondition for laying down its arms and transforming
itself into a civil organization. But the Zedillo government called
the accords a dangerous call for "separatism" and vetoed
The EZLN remains holed up in the Lacandon Selva, the lowland
rainforest region of Chiapas, while the highland communities are
bitterly divided between rebel and PRI loyalists. But despite
the state of siege, the EZLN has not been goaded into using its
weapons. Therefore, the 60,000 federal army troops in Chiapas
are still bound by certain restraints. The EZLN has been able
to help build and coordinate a national movement from its besieged
territory, holding high-profile gatherings in La Realidad, the
jungle settlement that serves as the rebels' unofficial capital.
Chiapas has been costly for the PRI. Analysts across the Mexican
spectrum acknowledge that the Chiapas rebellion was critical in
the nation's tentative democratic opening. Since 1994, the PRI
has struggled to maintain control as Zapatista-inspired rebel
movements have emerged in Oaxaca and Guerrero (see "The Next
Chiapas," December 26). In the 1997 elections, the party
lost control of the lower house of Congress for the first time.
Then last November, the PRI held its first-ever presidential primary
to select a candidate for the 2000 elections.
But just like in the bad old days before such extravagances
as primaries, the regime's favorite candidate, Francisco Labastida,
won the nomination. Labastida is a former federal Interior Secretary
who had been appointed with the implicit mission of pacifying
Chiapas. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the left-opposition Party of the
Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose victory was stolen by fraud
in 1988, will challenge Labastida. The right-opposition National
Action Party (PAN) is fronting former Guanajuato Gov. Vicente
Fox, who advocates freewheeling cowboy capitalism. Pacifying Chiapas
remains a top issue. A Labastida victory would point to continued
army-paramilitary collaboration in Chiapas.
Immediately after the PRI primary, Mary Robinson, the U.N.
High Commissioner for Human Rights, toured Mexico in response
to the deteriorating situation in Chiapas and elsewhere. Robinson
criticized the regime for covering up crimes by security forces
in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, saying "government reports
do not always match reality."
In Chiapas, Robinson met with both state legislators and Tzotzil
Maya women who had survived the December 22, 1997 massacre at
the highland hamlet of Acteal, which briefly brought the ongoing
crisis to the world's attention. The killers, organized in a paramilitary
group called Red Mask, gunned down 21 women, 15 children and nine
men, targeted because they were Zapatista sympathizers. After
the massacre, leaked government documents revealed that the network
of paramilitary groups had been established under the direction
of officers from the Rancho Nuevo army base outside San Cristobal
at the behest of military intelligence. Some of the officers involved
were graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. (Last
year, Mexico received $500 million in U.S. military aid, plus
helicopters and other equipment-all in the guise of narcotics
Last September, Jacinto Arias, former PRI mayor of Chenalho,
was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the massacre.
More than 100 suspects have been arrested in the case-including
12 police officers and a soldier. But in January, Arias and 23
co-conspirators had their sentences unexpectedly overturned, hardening
local perceptions that no justice is possible within the system.
Since Acteal, the paramilitaries have avoided indiscretions
such as killing 45 people in a single day, so as to avert undue
media attention. But the grisly terror campaign grinds on. At
Sabanilla, in the north of the state, Osuna reports that in recent
weeks 52 Chol Maya families have been expelled by the Orwellian-named
paramilitary group Peace and Justice, and are waiting in the mountains
for some guarantee of safety before they will return home. In
Sabanilla and nearby villages, Peace and Justice is engaged in
a violent struggle against campesinos loyal to the Zapatistas
and the PRD for control of the municipal governments.
On January 5, 29 Tzotzil Maya were arrested by state police
while working in their coffee fields near the highland hamlet
of Polho. Two of the detained are still being held at the harsh
Cerro Hueco state prison in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital
accused of murder and revenge attacks on village chieftains, or
caciques. Through La Voz de Cerro Hueco, a political prisoner's
organization, the men have proclaimed their innocence, and are
backed up by Polho's pro-Zapatista indigenous authorities. The
men, Manuel Gutierrez and Antonio Arias, were expelled by caciques
from their native hamlet of Tzanembolom in 1997 under threat of
death. The crimes they are accused of took place there a year
later, when they were already in exile in Polho. "They were
persecuted for opposing the paramilitaries," Osuna says.
The government also has exploited the stalemate to encircle
the Zapatistas with military roads. Since August, there has been
a stand-off at the jungle settlement of Amador Hemandez, with
Zapatista-loyalist Tzeltal Maya campesinos blocking an army road-building
crew from advancing into the tropical forest. Many Lacandon Selva
settlements have been occupied by the federal troops, but the
rebel authorities of these settlements, the "autonomous municipalities"
loyal to the EZLN, continue to function clandestinely in the shadow
of the army. They have issued press statements accusing the occupying
army forces of harassing Indian women, illegal logging, and plundering
the area's wildlife for sport and profit.
The critical issue of subsoil rights underlies this struggle
over land and autonomy. La Jornada, Mexico City's aggressively
investigative national daily, recently found that for the first
time since the 1994 uprising, the Mexican government has resumed
oil exploration in the Lacandon Selva, signaling a return to long-delayed
plans to push into Chiapas from the petroleum heartland of Tabasco
state to the north on the Gulf Coast. Pemex, the state oil monopoly,
is both a top supplier to the United States and the top money-maker
for the Mexican regime.
Making matters worse for Chiapas, Bishop Samuel Ruiz, for
generations the relentless advocate and beloved "grandfather"
of the Maya, submitted his resignation to the Vatican on November
3, upon reaching the customary retirement age of 75. A Nobel Peace
Prize nominee, Ruiz was seen by many as the one man standing between
Chiapas and total war.
Ruiz brokered the EZLN-government peace dialogue, only to
step down as a negotiator to protest the deadlock two years ago.
But the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center that his diocese led
remained at the forefront of documenting abuses in the Maya lands
of Chiapas. Ruiz, who says the church must learn to recognize
"God working among the Indians," has been the target
of numerous death threats in recent years. In 1997, his motorcade
was sprayed with gunfire on a tour of the state's northern zone.
Many presumed that Ruiz would be succeeded by his loyal Bishop
Coadjutor Raul Vera. But on December 30, the Vatican abruptly
announced Vera was being transferred to Saltillo, far away at
the other end of the country. This decision sparked local protests
and suspicion in the press that the "dark hand" of the
government was behind the move. Mexico's new Papal Nuncio Justo
Mullor insisted the decision was "purely ecclesiastical."
The veto of Vera's ascendance to the diocese was said to have
been arranged by Mullor's long-reigning predecessor, Girolamo
Prigione, whose personal mission had been to purge the Mexican
church of Liberation Theology influences. He succeeded in rotating
the progressive Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo out of the Diocese
of Cuemavaca in Morelos state, and had asked Ruiz to resign in
late 1993-just before the Zapatista uprising suddenly made him
indispensable. Now, the official moves against his legacy at the
diocese signal "a very dangerous moment," Osuna says.
The year in Chiapas ended-as the anniversary of the 1994 uprising
approached-on the traditional note of paranoia. Army and state
police troops flooded into the Lacandon Selva, with the Chiapas
government warning (on no evidence) that the EZLN was planning
"new acts of violence." At Amador Hemandez, where the
army still maintained a heavily fortified post, the Tzeltal jungle
settlers resorted to political theater to lampoon the hyped threat
of Zapatista violence. Calling themselves the Zapatista Air Force,
the Indians pelted the troops with dozens of paper airplanes.
On each one was a message to the young conscripts: "Soldiers,
we know that poverty has made you sell your lives and souls. l
also am poor, as are millions. But you are worse off, for defending
our exploiter-Zedillo and his group of moneybags."
Bill Weinberg's book, Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous
Struggles in Mexico, will be released by Verso in April.