Chiapas: Zapatistas “stronger” —despite paramilitary backlash

Refuting widespread media portrayal of the “erosion” (desgaste) of the rebel Zapatista movement, Jorge Santiago, director of the local group Economic and Social Development of the Indigenous Mexicans (DESMI), which has been working with Maya communities in the Highlands of Chiapas for 35 years, told Blanche Petrich of the Mexican daily La Jornada that 14 years after the armed uprising, “we are stronger, because we are linked” with social struggles across Mexico. “Our word has to do with the words of others. The people are beginning to have confidence in themselves as builders of relations, with the local base.” He especially credits the Zapatistas’ maintenance of the moral high ground—”The decision not to instigate confrontations with the local enemies, in spite of harassment and the onslaught on their territory.” (La Jornada, Jan. 6)

Paramilitary harassment of the Zapatista communities continues unabated. At Bolon Ajaw settlement, near Agua Azul nature reserve, gunmen with shotguns and rifles opened fire on community members working in the corn fields on Jan. 2. Although there were no casualties, community members say this was but the most recent in a series of such attacks. They say gunmen routinely set up illegal roadblocks, threatening community members and impeding access to their farmlands. They blame the attacks on the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC), which they charge is a paramilitary group loyal to the political machine of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). (CGT Chiapas, Jan. 5)

The attacks have continued despite a public ceremony Dec. 19 in which the pro-PRI leaders of the community Ejido Agua Azul supposedly “defected” from the OPDDIC and handed their arms over to Chiapas state authorities. La Jornada reporter Hermann Bellinghausen called the ceremony a media “show” organized by the state government. He also notes that attacks have continued despite the establishment of new Mexican army camps near Agua Azul in a supposed crackdown on arms and drug plantations. (La Jornada, Dec. 22)

Since then, the leaders of Ejido Agua Azul have publicly called for the eviction of the local Zapatista communities, accusing them of causing ecological damage and threatening the nature reserve. (Noticias Palenque, Jan. 12) Local Zapatista leaders, in turn, charged the Ejido Agua Azul leaders of seeking to clear the lands to make way for tourism development. A statement from the Zapatista community Nuevo Progeso Agua Azul said: “We are natives here. Like our parents. Our grandparents were resident farmworkers [peones acasillados] of the landlord [patrón]. And for more than 13 years we have been in resistance.” (La Jornada, Jan. 16)

Two local campesinos, Fidelino Ruiz Hernández, 73, and Alfredo Hernández Pérez, 48, could face 25 years in prison in an imminent judicial ruling for the killing of two OPDDIC members in 2002. Accused by local authorities of being “Zapatistas,” the two have been held at the prison in Ocosingo for almost five years. The Zapatistas deny any attacks on the OPDDIC. (La Jornada, Jan. 15)

At an international memorial held in the Highland city of San Cristobal de Las Casas for the late anthropologist and Zapatista supporter Andrés Aubry, writers John Berger and Naomi Klein, Belgian priest Francois Houtart and dozens of other academics and activists issued a statement on the growing paramilitarism in Chiapas, saying “a new Acteal must not be permitted in Mexican territory.” (La Jornada, Dec. 18)

La Jornada’s Hermann Bellinghausen, who has reported aggressively on the paramilitary activity, reports that in recent weeks his house in San Cristobal has been under constant surveillance by unknown men with cameras in matching sports jerseys, and that vehicles have followed him as he leaves his home. (La Jornada, Jan. 11)

In an ominous sign that elements of the violent PRI machine are being incorporated into the Chiapas state government now under a coalition led by the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Gov. Juan Sabines has appointed prominent rancher Jorge Constantino Kánter as his sub-secretary for commerce in the Agriculture Secretariat. Kánter is a bitter opponent of the Zapatistas, and was widely known in the ’90s as leader of the “White Guards,” a paramilitary force established by the state’s cattle lords. (La Jornada, Dec. 16)

The struggle over turf in Chiapas even extends to San Cristobal, where Zapatista-loyal inhabitants of the poor neighborhood (colonia popular) 5 de Marzo have announced that they will re-install water services, which were cut off to their families by municipal authorities. (CGT Chiapas, Jan. 14)

Escalating social struggles in Chiapas also extend beyond the contest between the Zapatistas and their opponents. On Jan. 7, members of the Coalition of Independent Organizations of the Lacandon Selva (COCISEL), an alliance of 30 community groups from the lowland rainforest, peacefully occupied the offices of various state and federal agencies in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, to demand better government services for the impoverished region. (La Jornada, Jan. 8)

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