Welcome Back to the Jungle
Mexican Congress guts indigenous rights bill
by Rick Mercier
In These Times magazine, July 2001
The Zapatistas appeared to have the wind at their backs in
March. They had just made history by riding triumphantly into
Mexico City, culminating a two-week, 1 2-state tour in which they
spoke to hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from all walks of life.
The insurgents from Chiapas hoped their tour would compel
the Mexican Congress to pass an indigenous rights bill based on
the San Andres Accords, an agreement the rebels and government
negotiators reached in February 1996 (see "Zapapalooza,"
April 16). The accords laid the groundwork for amending the Mexican
Constitution to guarantee local indigenous self-rule in accordance
with traditional customs, regional indigenous autonomy on issues
such as native languages, and collective control of community
land and natural resources in indigenous territories.
The Zapatistas viewed these proposed changes to the constitution
as crucial to ensuring justice for Mexico's 10 million indigenous
people, and they went to the capital with their hopes pinned on
a bill that a nonpartisan legislative commission had drafted and
President Vicente Fox had submitted to Congress immediately after
his inauguration in December 2000.
But after Congress finished with the bill, it scarcely looked
like what the rebels had envisioned. The revised bill passed by
legislators at the end of April left to state legislatures the
responsibility of defining the terms of local self-rule for indigenous
communities, omitted provisions for regional autonomy, and added
protections for private land holdings in indigenous areas. The
legislation also said indigenous communities would have preference,
but not exclusive rights, to natural resources in their territories.
While Fox praised the revised bill, calling it a positive
first step toward renewing peace talks with the Zapatistas, the
rebels denounced it and cancelled plans to restart direct dialogue
with the government.
The Zapatistas contend that Congress-perhaps with Fox's tacit
approval-has made a mockery of the San Andres Accords. "With
these reforms, federal legislators and the Fox government are
closing the door on dialogue and peace, since they are preventing
a resolution of one of the causes which led to the Zapatista uprising,"
read a Zapatista public statement. "They give a raison d'être
to armed groups in Mexico by invalidating a process of dialogue
Many members of Congress argue that they had to defend property
rights and prevent the balkanization of the country, but some
politicians joined the Zapatistas in rejecting the legislation.
Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar called the bill a "triumph for
Since the measure involves amending the constitution, 17 of
the country's 32 federal entities must ratify it. Although southern
states with large indigenous populations, such as Chiapas and
Oaxaca, will likely reject the measure, its chances of becoming
law look promising.
Seven state legislatures have approved the bill so far, despite
demonstrations. In Puebla, 200 protesters from indigenous groups
shouted "Traitors!" and "Racists!" at legislators
who voted in favor of the bill, according to the Mexico Solidarity
Network. In Queretaro, local indigenous people and representatives
of more than 30 non-governmental and indigenous organizations
threw coins in protest at state deputies after they ratified the
measure. If the bill becomes law, members of Mexico's National
Indigenous Congress have vowed to set up road blocks and occupy
In Chiapas, the low-intensity war-which has caused the deaths
of hundreds and displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous
people in the past seven years-continues. In Polho, a Zapatista
stronghold sheltering 11,000 displaced rebel sympathizers, residents
tell Dave McConnell of Pastors for Peace that anti-Zapatista paramilitaries-who
operate with impunity in the conflict zone-are still active in
the state's central highlands.
McConnell says people have little faith in the government.
"There's some sense of a sliver of hope," he says. "But
there's also cynicism about the political situation."
Freelance writer Rick Mercier accompanied the Zapatour to
Central America watch