Chiapas: prisoners on hunger strike; land conflicts continue

Fourteen Toztzil and Tzeltal Maya prisoners at Social Readaption Center Number 14, known as El Amate, in Cintalapa, Chiapas, went on hunger strike Feb. 28, in protest of harsh conditions and to demand recognition as political prisoners. Eight are followers of the Zapatista rebels’ “Other Campaign” political initiative. Most have been imprisoned five years, in connection with the Tres Cruces case involving land conflicts in the highland village of San Juan Chamula, which is ruled by notorious political bosses known as the caciques. The Fray BartolomĂ© de las Casas Human Rights Center has issued an urgent statement expressing concern for the men’s health. (La Jornada, Feb. 29) On March 3, nine indigenous prisoners being held in the highland city of San CristĂłbal de las Casas announced they were joining in a solidarity hunger strike with the Cintalapa 14. (La Jornada, March 4)

Land conflicts from highlands to rainforest
Land conflicts continue to dominate the news from Chiapas. Followers of the PRI political machine in communities around Huitepec, a mountain outside San CristĂłbal which the Zapatistas have declared a rebel-administrated ecological reserve, appealed to the city’s mayor, Mariano DĂ­az Ochoa, to expel the rebel presence. “We have been patient with this problem, but if we do not meet with a response, the affected communities will join together to take the necessary measures.” (Cuarto Poder, Chiapas, March 4)

On Feb. 24, the Zapatistas hosted a national gathering of indigenous activists at the community of Betania, Ocosingo municipality, attended by hundreds, mostly Nahua, Mixtec and Triqui from Oaxaca. The gathering issued a statement protesting the “silent eviction” of indigenous communities from Las Cañadas, the region on the edge of the Chiapas rainforest that forms the Zapatistas’ heartland. (La Jornada, Feb. 24; La Jornada, Feb. 24)

That same weekend, Chiapas state officials reported a disturbance at the conflicted community of Bolom Ajaw, in Tumbalá municipality near Agua Azul ecological reserve, in which a “reporter” was supposedly detained by Zapatista rebels. Hermann Bellinghausen later wrote for the national daily La Jornada that the “reporter” was actually an armed agent of the National Security Investigation Center (CISEN), Mexico’s top intelligence agency, who had been filming a Zapatista encampment on contested lands without permission of the community. He was released, but disarmed and his weapons kept, Bellinghausen reported. He quoted unnamed “police sources” in nearby Palenque saying they were considering “an operation to recover the arms.” (La Jornada, Feb. 24)

Defections reported—on both sides
Following a boycott of their coffee crops organized by Zapatista supporters, leaders of the Union of Ejidos of the Selva (UES), a PRI-aligned group that has been petitioning for eviction of Zapatista communities from Las Cañadas, called for dialogue with the rebels. UES leader Arturo Jiménez Hernández called for the Catholic dioceses of San Cristóbal to mediate the conflict. (La Jornada, Feb. 28)

In the rainforest community of Monte LĂ­bano, more than 2,000 followers of the PRI-aligned Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC)—decried by the Zapatistas as a violent paramilitary group—announced they were leaving the organization to pursue their aims through “institutional” channels. At the “desertion” ceremony, they said the OPDDIC would dissolve into the National Campesino Confederation (CNC), Mexico’s largest peasant union and an official arm of the PRI. (La Jornada, March 2; Cuarto Poder, March 1)

Reports of Zapatista desertions have also made it into the English-language media for the first time. Associated Press reports that nearly 200 families have abandoned the Zapatista movement at the highland community of PolhĂł, in order to receive government aid—which the rebels bar to their followers. AP said each family received an initial payment of $43 in a ceremony with Salvador Escobedo, a top official with the federal government’s Social Development Department. The government is promising similar payments every two months, as well as a school and medical center. The AP report claims there were similar desertions at the Cañadas community of La Realidad in 2004, leaving the settlement divided.

The report quoted Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, upon declaring that he is withdrawing from the public spotlight in December, that national and international support for the Zapatistas has been “insignificant or null” recently. (AP, Feb. 7)

See our last posts on Mexico and the struggle in Chiapas.