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 acts.

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 Montes Azules.

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.

Conservation International

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 environmental degradation."

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 destruction.

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 for Cl.

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 Chiapas.

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 following statement:

"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.

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