Access of Evil: Genocide in Chiapas
by John Steinbach, Philip Wheaton,
and Milton Shapiro
CovertAction Quarterly, Fall 2004
'The high season for the eviction of campesinos
has begun." Thus began a January 25, 2004, report by investigative
reporter Hermann Bellinghausen, writing for the progressive Mexican
newspaper La Jornada. The Mexican Government, serving the interests
of transnational corporations representing financial, pharmaceutical,
oil, agriculture and mining interests and in close collaboration
with the U.S. government, is intent on crushing the Indigenous
rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, especially Montes Azules in and
near the Lacandon Rainforest (Selva Lacandona). Forced expulsions
of Indigenous communities have been carried out for many years.
Despite the highly visible Zapatista-led Indigenous rebellion
centered in Chiapas and the election of Vicente Fox on a platform
of reform promises, expulsions and deadly repression continue.
According to Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y PolIticas
de Accion Comunitaria (CIEPAC], as of 1998 the number of displaced
campesinos in Chiapas totaled 21,1592 and, as Bellinghausen points
out, these expulsions continue. Forced expulsion of Indigenous
communities like those being perpetrated in Montes Azules is considered
Genocide under International Law and Mexico is a signatory to
the International Labor Organization (I LO) Convention 169 concerning
Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which expressly prohibits such
Bellinghausen's article reported that
about 500 Indigenous people have been violently evicted from their
homes in the municipalities of Trinitaria, Suchiate and Montes
Azules in Chiapas. At least 23 homes have been torched; over 500
residents, including 160 families, have been expelled from their
communities; over 20 have been wounded and 60 taken prisoner.
According to Bellinghausen, the Secretary of Government in Chiapas,
Ruben Velazquez Lopez, the architect of the current expulsions,
declared that "this government will allow no more invasions."
"Invasion" is the Mexican government's term for the
Indigenous occupation of approximately 28 communities living in
The Indigenous Communities of Montes Azules
The successful Zapatista rebellion in
1994 and the subsequent negotiation and signing of the San Andres
Accords seemed to represent the realization of hopes and dreams
of the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico for true reform and autonomy.
Since then, the gutting of the Accords by Congress, ratified by
the Mexican Supreme Court, and more than ten years of "low-intensity"
warfare in the region have had a chilling effect on the Indigenous
communities of Southern Mexico and Chiapas. Despite these setbacks,
the autonomous communities continue to resist.
Montes Azules is an area of immense potential
wealth and strategic importance. It is one of the richest regions
in the world in biodiversity, containing important mineral resources,
oil deposits and Mexico's most important source of fresh water,
and thus immense untapped potential for hydroelectric energy.
The jungle habitat of the Lacandon Rainforest, where Montes Azules
is located, has provided life and protection for Indigenous peoples
for hundreds of years. Since the 1940s, the great majority of
these have been Choles, Tzotziles, Tzeltales and Tojolabales,
whose ancestral knowledge on the careful use of this biodiversity
has protected this natural treasure. But since the 1970s, stepped-up
logging by state-owned companies and exploitation of sub-surface
riches by multinational corporations have led to the forced expulsion
of the Indigenous and the plundering of these resources.
The Mexican government argues that the
great majority of the autonomous communities living in the Montes
Azules Biosphere Reserve today - roughly half of which are Zapatista-affiliated'
- are not native to the Selva Lacandona but are "invaders"
who have displaced the true natives, called Lacandones or Caribes.
The historical facts are that the original Lacandones were eradicated
300 years ago by the Spanish while the current Caribes originated
from eastern Campeche and migrated to the Lacandon jungle over
the last two centuries.' However, by 1978, out of a population
of 12,000 Indigenous inhabitants, there was a huge disparity between
the anti-government Indigenous and the Caribes: on the one hand,
62% Tzeltales and 32% Choles against only 6°/c of a nucleus
of 66 "Lacandon" (Caribes) families!
In order to get at the enormous wealth
of the sub-soil resources, the huge forests first had to be cleared,
roads built and police and military barracks erected. That is
why, in 1974, the federal government created COFOLASA, a state-owned
logging company that signed "contracts" - i.e., worked
out deals with the Caribes for "the exploitation of 35,000
cubic meters of hardwoods annually, in exchange for payments of
5,000 pesos (about $500) annually to each of the 66 families."'
As is always the case in every country where governments are trying
to take over Indian lands, they go after a small group or tribe
and make their deals with them, excluding the great majority.
Thus while "400 Caribes were awarded 614,321 hectares, 47
other Indigenous communities, including Tseltales, Tzotziles,
Choles and Tojolabales, with over 400 families (over 30,000 people)
were left without any legal claim to their lands."' Such
an enormous grant of land to such a few Indians has never happened
before in the history of Latin America. What this means is that
the Mexican government selected a very small group who would serve
as "government Indians" because of their willingness
to collaborate with the logging company and foreign corporations.
Falsely accusing the majority of the Indigenous communities as
being the ones ruining the Selva Lacandona, "covers up the
ones truly guilty of destroying 70% of the [jungle] over the last
40 years: private and para-state forest companies...""
The amount of investment in the Lacandon
exploitation during the 1980s reveals the escalating interest
in the region. "Funds for the Selva Lacandona went from 21
million pesos in 1985, to more than 2 billion in 1988, to 35 billion
in 1990,11 as the powers came closer to extracting the jungle's
subsoil riches. In August 2001, when the EZLN announced ;hey would
not permit the dislocations of any more Indigenous communities
from the Lacandon, the government quickly changed its tactics
and put the Secretary of Agrarian Reform in charge of resolving
the crisis. The Agrarian Reform Secretary gave the communities
two choices either initiate lawsuits in federal court against
him (which would have been financially impossible for the poor
Indigenous) or allow him to mediate the land disputes" between
the (majority) Zapatista Indigenous communities and the (minority)
Caribes, thus pitting one set of victims against another. But
the Zapatistas stood firm, claiming they have the right to live
in the jungle in order to protect the Lacandon rainforest and
to defend all Indigenous communities from being expelled. After
30 years of logging, cattle ranching and oil drilling, "the
Selva Lacandona has suffered massive environmental destruction
with more than 400,000 hectares leveled ."13
The current expulsions are facilitated
by an effort to "generate confrontations between Zapatista
communities or even the EZLN with the Caribes or Lacandones ...
a new tactic in the old Trojan Horse strategy 14 This strategy
has three basic goals: the displacement of autonomous Indigenous
communities of Montes Azules; the acquisition of natural resources
and implementation of ecotourism projects; and the "political
and military debilitation of the EZLN and the dismantling of the
Zapatista autonomous municipalities."" A recent example
of such a confrontation is the April 24, 2004,16 conflict between
the municipality of Zinacantan controlled by the nominally leftist
Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the Zapatista community
of Los Altos. Corrupt officials of Zinacantan cut off water supplies
to Los Altos, and when negotiations between the Zapatistas and
the PRD failed, approximately 4,000 Zapatistas and supporters
transported 45,000 liters of water to the besieged community.
The Zinacantan authorities blocked the road with cars and with
rocks and logs" and attacked the Zapatistas with guns, rocks
and machetes, injuring 35. One hundred nine families comprising
approximately 500 persons were expelled from Los Altos and only
recently returned under EZLN escort.
Plan Puebla Panama (PPP)
The current expulsions should also be
understood in the context of Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), which Corporation
Watch describes as "a development scheme that would turn
all of southern Mexico and all of Central America into a corporate
extraction paradise."" Under the guise of creating new
jobs and economic development, the central component of the PPP
is development of an $8 billion transportation infrastructure,
including shipping ports, airports, pipelines, railroad tracks
and highways, to facilitate the transportation of goods and extraction
of raw materials between the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean
and from southern Mexico to the entire continent. The plan envisions
moving maquiladoras from the U.S. border to south Mexico, which
has few environmental or occupational safety regulations and,
largely due to NAFTA, a huge unemployed labor pool. The system
of communal lands or ejidos is being privatized systematically
for corporate exploitation, displacing tens of thousands of largely
indigenous campesinos. Plans are already under way to construct
a regional system of hydroelectric dams to provide energy for
PPP, which will result in even more displacement." Sophie
Style, writing in Ecologist Magazine notes, "As more and
more [campesinos] abandon their land, and with it many of their
traditions, the options are clear. Rather than migrating to the
U.S., they can now become exploited salaried workers in Maquiladoras,
or in the oil or agriculture industries, at the same time opening
the way to corporations appropriating their land and the valuable
resources in it." She continues: "If the indigenous
populations refuse to leave their lands or give up control of
these resources, military repression may follow' "
Southern Mexico, especially Chiapas, contains
great wealth of natural resources, especially water, oil, lumber,
land and biodiversity riches. It is no accident that Montes Azules,
in the name of environmental conservation, is the most heavily
militarized state in Mexico with army, state and local police,
and paramilitary death squads operating with impunity. In defense
of the land, Zapatista and other Indigenous communities in the
region stand defiantly in the path of the PPP juggernaut. The
Fox administration, in collaboration with the U.S. government
and corporate controlled "environmental" groups such
as Conservation International (CI), is cynically attempting to
portray the Indigenous resistance to PPP as environmental terrorism.
According to Corporation Watch, "It is clear that although
Fox cannot annihilate the Zapatistas militarily, his administration
can successfully portray them as the environmental criminals deserving
retribution ."20 The logic of the PPP process is simple and
inexorable: drive the Indigenous communities off the land, privatize
it, pillage it for corporate profit and exploit the plight of
starving, hopeless refugees. The continuous "low-level"
warfare in Southern Mexico, including the recent expulsions, is
crucial to implementation of PPP.
Special scrutiny must be given to Conservation
International's role in the' expulsions. Founded in 1987 by transnational
corporate executives representing ( Intel, McDonalds, BP, The
Gap, Starbucks and others, Cl's stated mission is to protect 'biodiversity
hotspots" (like the SeIva Lacandona where many of the expulsions
are occurring), but in reality the group serves as little more
than a "front group" for transnational corporate exploitation."
Around the world, Chiapas, Palawan (Philippines), Colombia, West
Papua, Aceh (Indonesia), Madagascar and Papua New Guinea to name
a few, have been targeted as biodiversity hotspots.
Conservation International focuses particularly
on tropical and sub-tropical rainforests for "protection"
against the traditional agricultural practices of the Indigenous
inhabitants while ignoring the rapacious behavior of its multinational
corporate patrons. For example, in August 2003, the Energy and
Biodiversity Initiative, a CI creation, released a report entitled
"Energy & Diversity: Integrating Biodiversity Conservation
into Oil & Gas Development." With over 1,000 groups active
in over 30 countries and hundreds of millions in assets and spending,
CI is perhaps the world's largest and wealthiest "environmental"
group. With an emphasis on "market solutions" and "privatization,"
and an incestuous relationship with some of the worst corporate
environmental outlaws, Cl (and its corporate controlled cousins
like The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and The
World Conservation Union) is a Trojan Horse for the multinationals
within the environmental movement.
In coordination with USAID, using satellite
imagery and overflights, CI has been helping to identify and target
certain Indigenous communities to the Mexican government for expulsion.
Using advanced satellite imagery and fixed-wing
highresolution digital photographs provided by the Agency for
International Development, CI turned over to the "Lacandones"
and the Mexican government photos of the Selva Lacandona showing
the precise locations of the autonomous communities. The "Lacandon"
with CI then demanded that the army expel all the "settlements
and clearings in Montes Azules." Ignacio Marsh, the Cl Director
for Chiapas admitted to "pressuring the [Mexican] government
to stop the invasions or evict them," and that the autonomous
Indigenous communities are "ignorant peoples whom [sic] are
tricked and whom [sic] are sent." "He [Marsh] doesn't
consider them as being knowledgeable enough to manage the areas.""
CI is also practicing "coercive"
population control in Chiapas. According to Hermann Bellinghausen,
"[CI], in their Maya Selva project has a population and environmental
program, whose objective is to contain the 'overpopulation problem.'
Cl is holding reproductive health and
gender workshops with women in the Selva. It has been testing
various contraception methods 'in order to see which works best,'
according to officials. [Injections of Depo Provera, a powerful
synthetic hormone, and related Norplant, both having serious and
sometimes permanent side-effects, and forced sterilization are
long-favored coercive birth control techniques directed against
native women and other women of color.]" 'Lacandon' women
are excluded because 'there are very few of them left." The
objective is "eventually, the sterilization of indigenous
women."" Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population
and Development Program at Hampshire College, writes, "Increasingly,
international conservation agencies like CI are embarking on what
are called 'joint population-environment projects' which involve
collaborations between family planning and conservation NGOs ....
the main priority of many such projects is to reduce population
growth through increased uptake of contraception. Ideologically,
the projects also reinforce the message that it is population
growth and the practices of the local people themselves that cause
La Jornada has reported, "Cl has
been one of the principal pressures on the government for the
'relocation' of the communities within the Montes Azules [Chiapas]
reserve." In March 2003 CI said, "... tolerance of invading
groups of supposed Zapatistas increase the risks of communal conflict
and accelerate the devastation of the last 500,000 hectares of
the Lacandon Jungle's protected areas in Chiapas." But GATT
Watchdog activist Aziz Choudry counters, "In the name of
environmental protection, Conservation International is pitting
Indigenous communities against each other, raising fears of conflict
in the area."" Instead of recognizing stewardship of
the Selva Lacandona by the Indigenous population as called for
by the San Andres accords, Cl demands their expulsion, while simultaneously
planning "eco-tourist" hotels there. C l's self-serving
arguments notwithstanding, far from being the principal threat
to the Lacandon ecosystem, the Indigenous communities of the region,
who have vowed to resist neoliberalism, are the major obstacles
standing in the path of massive corporate exploitation and environmental
Biopiracy - The New "Green Gold"
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of
Conservation International's behavior is its promotion of bioprospecting
as a means of preserving biodiversity. CI is "well known
for its collaboration with pharmaceuticals in some of the most
biodiverse countries in the world, in search of medicinal plant
remedies some of which are later patented."" Biotech
corporations have a much higher probability of finding pharmaceutically
active organisms in these regions by exploiting traditional Indigenous
knowledge than through random screening. Cl's bioprospecting becomes
biopiracy when its corporate backers offer the modern version
of beads and trinkets to Indigenous communities in exchange for
their traditional knowledge and wisdom. "Exploitative and
unethical 'benefit sharing' agreements are drawn up, with a few
market-based community economic development programmes for the
locals on the side: some ecotourism here, some fair trade coffee
production there."" These traditional remedies are then
patented under intellectual "property" laws, reaping
obscene profits for the pharmaceuticals and corporate largess
Chiapas, because of its immense biological
diversity (Chiapas is located in a transitional zone linking tropical
and temperate ecosystems with great local climatic variability),
is increasingly a target of these biopirates. According to Global
Exchange, "Mexico [especially Chiapas] is in the crosshairs
of pharmaceutical and biotechnological corporations looking to
harvest the 'green gold' of the region, and to tap into the indigenous
knowledge that accompanies it."" Grupo Pulsar, a huge
biotechnology corporation intimately involved with CI and heavily
into transgenic seeds, has several biological research stations
located in the Selva Lacandona. Maya-ICBG, a U.S. government-funded
corporate-controlled bioprospecting project, has been suspended
due to strong resistance. Indigenous communities and traditional
healers are fighting back. The Chiapas Council of Traditional
Indigenous Midwives and Healers (COMPITCH), a coalition of 12
traditional medicine organizations, has denounced such practices
as biopiracy and is calling for an active moratorium."
Conservation International and the World
Bank are promoting the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor CMBC],
which would link protected biodiversity hotspots from Panama to
Investors [in the project] plan to create
gene banks and create an inventory of active chemical compositions
of each naturally occurring substance." 34 Critics see this
project as a biological counterpart to PPP. Bill Weinberg sees
a disturbing symmetry between PPP and M BC: "This symmetry
raises the vision of these tropical forests surviving only as
corporate administered genetic colonies in the midst of devastated
zones of industrial sprawl.""
The Role of the U.S.
Like an orchestra conductor, behind all
the repression and disinformation directed at the Indigenous rebellion
in southern Mexico, working to protect corporate "investments"
in southern Mexico is the not so invisible hand of the U.S. Since
1836 there have been 11 U.S. military interventions into Mexico.
When neo-liberal "structural adjustment" policies were
implemented in the early 1980s, intervention took the form of
"security assistance," between 1982 and 1990 more than
$500 million worth." La Jornada reports that from 1988 to
1994 the Mexican government received over 7,000 armored Humvees,
78 helicopters, 78 planes, 1,615 machine guns, 360,000 grenades,
1,500 other military vehicles and vast quantities of other military
field equipment. 17 Military assistance expanded under George
Bush (#1) and intensified during the Clinton administration, especially
after the Zapatista rebellion in 1994 and the collapse of the
peso in 1995. According to the San Francisco Chronicle on February
14, 1994, following the Zapatista uprising, "there were conversations
between officials of the Mexican and U.S. governments at the U.S.
Embassy in Mexico City about the need for development of counterinsurgency
strategies. "38 In 1994, "Clinton hurriedly issued export
licenses for $64 mil- c lion of additional military equipment,"
s including four satellite-guided UH-60 L Blackhawk helicopters,
23 tanks and 300 tons of additional equipment." In 1996,
Mexico received an additional $50 million in military equipment
including over 100 additional UH-60 helicopters, 500 more armored
personnel carriers added to the Mexican fleet of over 7,000 APCs),
and other sophisticated electronic equipment.
U.S. destabilization efforts were not
limited to "security assistance." In early 1995, acting
in response to the collapse of the Mexican peso and calls by Chase
Manhattan Bank for the "elimination" of the Zapatistas,
Clinton orchestrated a $50 billion bailout of the Mexican economy.
All this was followed immediately by a major U.S.-directed military
offensive against all Zapatista communities designed to "contain
[encircle] the Zapatistas militarily," while a "weakened
and divided" Zapatista leadership would be forced to negotiate
on the government's terms." The U.S. has shared satellite
and aerial photos of the region, and electronic intercept data.
There have been reports of U.S. military advisers in Chiapas,
and secret files released under e Freedom of Information Act "disclosed
that Mexico has been receiving support from military advisers
from the US, Guatemala, Argentina and Israel."
From 1984 to 1992, the U.S. trained at
east 512 Mexican military students at the School of the Americas
[SOA] and elsewhere, and approximately 500 at SOA in 1995 and
1996. "Many of these graduates are leading the counterinsurgency
operations against the Indigenous in Oaxaca, Chiapas and other
southern Mexican states. ,42 All of this is happening in addition
to the support given Conservation International and Mexican "environmental"
and "civic organizations" working to infiltrate and
subvert the autonomous Indigenous communities.
The Mexican government's brutal assault
on the Indigenous autonomous communities of Montes Azules is an
attempt to drive a wedge between the Zapatistas and the other
Indigenous in the area, part of a broader campaign to pave the
way for PPP, Central America Free Trade Agreement [CAFTA], Free
Trade of the Americas Agreement [FTAAI and other similar neo-liberal
exploitation schemes. Much to the chagrin of the Chiapas state
government, for the time being the focus of the expulsions seems
to be on the non-Zapatista communities. The architect of the current
expulsions, Ruben Velazquez Lopez, laments, "The invasions
located in the Zapatista zone, where not even the federal government
has managed to return the lands invaded in 1994 to their legitimate
owners, are receiving a different treatment [not being expelled].""
The Zapatista autonomous communities and the EZLN have publicly
opposed all expulsions, including the non-Zapatistas. According
to the Committee of Indigenous Solidarity [CISDC Area Zapatistas],
"Fox may be trying to provoke armed resistance by the Zapatistas
in order to justify a crackdown." On the other hand the Zapatistas
face a desperate quandary: If the expulsions and attempts to provoke
confrontations among the Indigenous communities continue relatively
unopposed, the Zapatista autonomous communities of Chiapas could
soon face virtual isolation, leading to their elimination.
Autonomous peoples in Mexico and around
the world continue to be threatened by the forces of international
neoliberalism. For example, despite an appalling lack of international
solidarity, the Punjab Tenants Organization, representing nearly
a million Christian and Muslim Indigenous tenant workers threatened
with expulsion by the Pakistani Army, are waging a heroic struggle
against overwhelming odds." While the media headlines focus
on the anti-globalization protests in the streets of North America
and Europe, the frontlines of the war are being fought in the
jungles of Chiapas and elsewhere by the Indigenous peasants with
nothing more to lose.
In Mexico, Zapatistas have continued their
struggle against these forces with solid determination. So too
must we continue our own struggle with that same commitment, not
only to support the struggle of our Mexican companeros and compañeras,
but also to establish the Zapatista principles of dignity, justice,
respect, inclusiveness, equality and collective decision making
in our neighborhoods, organizations, workplaces, union halls,
families, schools and churches.
At the Third National Indian Congress,
representatives of more than 40 Indigenous groups released the
"For us, Indian Peoples, our Mother
Earth is sacred, and so are all the beings, which inhabit her.
They are not a commodity, which can be bought or sold. For this
reason, we cannot accept the destruction of our territories through
the imposition of mega-projects by the federal and state governments
in our various regions throughout the country. We demand a moratorium
on all projects that involve bioprospecting, mining, water mega-projects,
and all biopiracy activities taking place in our lands and in
our country, until the Indian peoples have w discussed in their
own time the issues related to the control of their resources.
John Steinbach is a long-time grassroots
activist from the Metro D.C. area, working in support of Native
American sovereignty rights.
Philip Wheaton is an Episcopal priest,
Adviser and Board member of CovertAction Quarterly and a Central
American and Caribbean historian. He has led six solidarity delegations
to in Chiapas since 1994.
Milton Shapiro is editor of the Mexican
w Information Service for Social Justice and has been on three
solidarity delegations to Chiapas since 1994.