Ethnic warfare in Chiapas rainforest?

From El Universal, Nov. 14 (our translation, links added):

OCOSINGO, Chiapas — The organization Maderas del Pueblo [Timber for the People], which has a presence in the Selva Lacandona, confirmed that up to nine campesinos were assassinated in the comunity of Viejo Velasco.

In an interview, Miguel Garcia Aguirre said that according to reports from indigenous who abandoned the community, the following residents were killed in an attempted eviction: Marta Perez Perez, Maria Perez Hernandez, Maria Nunez Gonzalez, Pedro Nunez Perez, Oliver Benitez Perez, Antonio Perez Lopez, Dominga Perez Lopez and Felicitas Perez Parecero. Also killed were two children: Noile Benitez, eight years old, and a recently born boy, who “still had not been baptized,” explained Garcia Aguirre.

The groups confronted them with firearms, clubs and machetes in the community of Viejo Velasco, some 400 kilometers north of Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of Chiapas state, the state police said Monday in a statement.

The Lacandon indigenous, who have lived for centuries in the jungle near the border with Guatemala, oppose groups supported by the Zapatistas who have arrived in the zone from higher lands to colonize farmland.

The Zapatista rebels support the new colonists because they consider the small farmers the best protectors of the tropical forest.

An indetermined number of wounded were able to escape into the jungle, and Maderas del Pueblo is calling for aid from the Red Cross.

The situation in Viejo Velasco remains tense and uncertain this morning.

From the AP, Nov. 14:

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico: At least three people were killed in fighting between two Indian groups, one of them backed by Zapatista rebels, in a land dispute in the Lacandon jungle in southern Mexico, authorities said.

But peasants’ and human rights groups on Tuesday put the toll at 14 dead from the previous day’s clash in the village of Viejo Velasco, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the Chiapas state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez.

The Chiapas state government said in a news release that “a group of Lacandon (Indians) entered the land at Viejo Velasco with the aim of evicting a group of squatters, who resisted, and they clashed with fists, stones and some firearms.”


Maderas del Pueblo, a peasant farmer group allied with the Zapatista rebels, said in a statement that six men, six women and two children were killed in Monday’s clash. Ten victims were recent settlers backed by Maderas del Pueblo and the other four were Lacandon Indians, the group said.

Chiapas human rights group Fray Bartolome de las Casas also released a statement saying 14 people had been killed.

But Chiapas state police spokesman Jose Domingo Perez said two were killed at the scene on Monday and a third died Tuesday in a hospital.

It seems the government’s divide-and-rule strategy—to pit the Lacandon Maya against the Highland Maya colonists in the rainforest who support the Zapatistas—is bearing grim fruit. We are not yet ready to line up with those (e.g. Narco News) who are calling this a “massacre” by “paramilitary” forces. If, as early news accounts indicate, Viejo Velasco was attacked by Lacandones, this is on a very different model from the paramilitary violence which has long been endemic in the Chiapas Highlands. Agrarian conflict in the Highlands is largely between small peasant communities and the big ranchers of the oligarchy or the caciques (regional bosses) that control indigenous lands through patronage and terror. In the Selva, the conflict is between indigenous groups who have overlapping land titles due to the government’s policy of settling landless peasants from the Highlands in the rainforest—then granting title to their new lands to the Lacandones when the colonists turned pro-Zapatista. (See, e.g. Fray Bartoleme de Las Casas Human Rights Center press release, June 11, 2005)

See also: “Biodiversity Inc.: Mexico tries a new tactic against Chiapas rebels: conservation,” by this reporter, In These Times, Aug. 21, 2003

See our last posts on Mexico and Chiapas.

  1. Tzeltales and Choles
    Hi Bill,
    To my understanding the killers came from Nueva Palestina. These people aren’t Lacandones but Choles and Tzeltales. Earlier reports on this region indicate that the state goverment wants to create a new municipality of which Nueva Palestina would be the municipal capital. Earlier problems were reported by the Zapatista autonomous municipal council of Ricardo Flores Magon:

    We can only wait for more information to come out.

  2. Trying to piece it together…
    This Nov. 13 communique from Maderas del Pueblo (online at Chiapas95) is worded ambiguously:

    At dawn on Nov. 13, in the northeast portion of the so-called Zona Lacandona (within the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve) an armed aggression was carried out, perpetrated by tens of colonists [subcomuneros] from Nueva Palestina and Frontera Corozal–members of the so-called “Lacandon Community”-against the Tzeltal and Col families the settlement Viejo Velasco Suarez.

    So the perpetrators were “subcomuneros” (presumably not indigenous Lacandones), yet part of the “so-called ‘Lacandon Community'” (a very suspicious construction–smelling like an attempt to deny that the Lacandones are truly indigenous).

    Anyone have further information?

  3. Paramilitary uniforms?
    An update from Narco News:

    The first wave, of 40 attackers, came dressed as civilians armed with machete swords and sticks, shouting insults at the families of Viejo Velasco. The paramilitary nature of the attackers is underscored by the fact that they were followed by a larger second wave of two hundred attackers: many dressed in official police uniforms, others in black uniforms, they carried firearms exclusively allowed the Armed Forces and police agencies (semi-automatic M-16 and R-15 weapons, .22 caliber rifles plus shotguns). The attackers came from the nearby community of Nueva Palestina, at around 6 a.m. on Monday. Immediately after the initial attack, an unidentified helicopter flew overhead, circling the community. It was not until 10 a.m. that other helicopters, one from the Attorney General’s office and three from the state police, landed in the community.

  4. From Amnesty International
    An “Urgent Action” alert from Amnesty International, Nov. 16:

    Urgent Action: fear for safety for the members of the community of Viejo Velasco, Chiapas

    In the early morning of 13 November the indigenous community of Viejo
    Velasco Suarez, Chiapas State, was attacked by over 200 armed individuals, many of whom were wearing security force clothing. Two men died and a woman was raped and killed during the attack. Two people from Viejo Velasco are also being held hostage in the nearby community of Nueva Palestina and are at risk of being beaten or killed in retaliation for two attackers who died during the confrontation and one who was injured. Two other men remain missing, and 39 people are displaced.

    About 40 individuals in civilian clothes and armed with machetes and bats first arrived in Viejo Velasco Suarez from Nueva Palestina on 13 November. About 200 individuals followed soon after, armed with high calibre firearms usually commissioned by the military. Some reportedly wore military clothes, some wore uniforms of the State Police (Policia Sectorial) and others wore balaclavas.

    On 14 November Diego Arcos Meneses, a resident of a nearby community, was walking near the site of the attack when he was threatened and detained by agents of the Attorney of the Selva Region (Fiscalia Regional, Zona Selva). Diego Arcos Meneses was reportedly forced to load the body of a dead woman onto the agents’ helicopter before being taken by them to the office of the Prosecutor in Palenque to be questioned as a witness to the attack in Viejo Velasco Suarez.

    Diego Arcos Meneses, who does not speak Spanish very well and who cannot read Spanish, gave testimony verbally in Spanish and was not provided with interpretation. He refused to sign the written version of his testimony because he could not confirm its accuracy. As a result, he was reportedly beaten severely and was put into preventive custody.


    Conflicts around land issues in the Selva Lacandona, Chiapas State, have brought violence to indigenous communities for decades. Following an agreement in 2005, the Federal and State government committed to regularize the land rights of 28 communities, including that of Viejo Velasco Suarez. However, since April 2006, the local government has started a process of forced evictions and relocations, allegedly with the support of pro-government militia groups and individuals from communities, such as Nueva Palestina. Local human rights organisations, such as Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolome de las Casas, have been documenting the threats and harassment in Chiapas and alerting the Federal and State authorities when incidents such as the attack in Viejo Velasco might happen.

    RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible, in Spanish or your own language:
    – urging the authorities to charge Diego Arcos Meneses with a recognisably criminal offence or to release him immediately and to investigate his reported beating and arbitrary arrest on 14 November;
    – calling on the authorities to ensure the safety of the displaced inhabitants of Viejo Velasco Suarez, following the attack of 13 November by a group of armed individuals, some of whom wore security forces clothing;
    – calling on the authorities to take emergency measures to establish the whereabouts of those who seem to be missing, and to ensure the safe release of those reportedly held hostage in Nueva Palestina;
    – calling on the authorities to identify without delay those who were killed and to ensure a full, prompt and impartial forensic examination and secure protection of all evidence;
    – calling for a full, prompt and impartial investigation into the violent confrontation of 13 November, in particular reports of official involvement, with the results to be made public and those responsible brought to justice. [addresses online]

  5. More from Frayba
    An analysis by the Fray Bartoleme Human Rights Center (Frayba), cited by APRO Nov. 16, calls the incident a “premediated attack” which may signal a resurgence of army-backed paramilitary violence as a “counterinsurgency strategy against the EZLN.” It states that residents have named the group behind the attack as the PRI-affiliated Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC), led by Pedro Chulin Jimenez, who is also named as leader of the paramilitar Indigenous Revolutionary Anti-Zapatista Movement (MIRA).

    A Nov. 14 EFE account puts the number of dead at four, and in a Nov. 15 statement, Frayba admits initial reports of 14 dead may have been overstated.

    El Universal reported Nov. 16 that some 400 state police agents have been dispatched the Lacandon Selva. Agens of the State Fiscalia General (FGE) landed in two helicopters at the Lacandon village of Lacanja Chansayab, where they reportedly confirmed that three residents of Viejo Velasco Suarez are being held there as “hostages.” APRO reported Nov. 15 that Viejo Velasco is effectively surrounded by state police.

    El Universal also reported Nov. 16 claims by Chiapas state prosecutor Mariano Herran Salvatti that the attack was retaliation for the kidnapping of five Lacandon men by the campesino organization Xinich. The five men were later liberated.

  6. From Weekly News Update on the Americas
    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 19:

    At least four people were killed in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas when 200-300 armed residents of the Nueva Palestina community attacked the 17 families who live in the small village of Viejo Velasco Suarez on Nov. 13. Both communities are in Ocosingo municipality, on the edge of the Montes Azules preserve region near the border with Guatemala, and both populations are indigenous, mostly from the Chol and Tzeltal groups.

    Three of the dead were Viejo Velasco residents: Filemon Benitez Perez; his uncle, Antonio Mayor Benitez Perez; and Maria Nunez Gonzalez, who was six months pregnant, according to the state attorney general’s office. One Nueva Palestina resident, Vicente Perez Cruz, died of injuries on Nov. 14 in a hospital in Palenque. Four Viejo Velasco residents were reported disappeared: Miguel Moreno Montejo, Mariano Perez Guzman, Pedro Nunez Perez and Petrona Nunez Gonzalez, the sister of Maria Nunez Gonzalez.

    Petrona Nunez was reportedly taken to Nueva Palestina after the Nov. 13 attack and was released on Nov. 14. On Nov. 16 she filed a formal complaint charging that Nueva Palestina residents had kidnapped her along with Pedro Nunez Perez, who was her father, and Miguel Moreno, and that they killed the two men near El Paraiso community. As of Nov. 18 police had not been able to find any of the bodies of the disappeared.

    Nueva Palestina and Viejo Velasco residents had a long-standing land dispute, but human rights groups suggest that the violence was at least partly political. Nueva Palestina is dominated by members of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico’s former ruling party, and the victims in Viejo Velasco supported either the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) or the Xi’nich (“Ant” in Chol) grassroots movement. Viejo Velasco residents reported that some of the attackers were wearing police or other uniforms and carrying high-caliber rifles.

    The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center charged that the attack was similar to ones carried out from 1995 to 2000 by paramilitaries as part of a counterinsurgency strategy against the EZLN. The center noted that retired major general Luis Mucel Luna is now heading a state police unit; he holds a degree from the National Defense College in national security administration and did post-graduate studies at the Inter-American Defense College at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC. (La Jornada, Nov. 15, 16, 17, 18; Narco News, Nov. 17)

  7. Xinich denies involvement
    From La Jornada, Nov. 19:

    The indigenous who were attacked in the community of Viejo Velasco Suarez on Monday are in their majority from the support base of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), and do not belong to the Xinich organization, the group asserted.

    The group rejected declarations by state prosecutor Mariano Herran
    Salvatti, who asserted that residents of Viejo Velasco belonged to Xinich and are those responsible for the violent acts in which four people lost their lives, according to state authorities.

    “We do not clarify this to appear cowardly or afraid of the issue, but so that the truth will be known,” said a statement released this afternoon.

    Rejecting any responsibility for the acts, Xinich said that for state and federal authorities “It is easier to cast the blame on the first fool they can find, than to recognize their own incapacity to govern and find solutions to the social problems at the root [of the violence].”

    The stated that “every time [the authorities] do not want to confront a large organization called the EZLN, they prefer to attack a small organization like Xinich. To our understanding, señor governor, señor prosecutor, señor secretary of Agrarian Reform, this is not dignified or honest. Nor is it courageous…

    “Our dignified and honest reponse to these accusations…is that we, as an organization, have no responsibility in the bloody acts at Viejo Velasco, neither as aggressors nor as direct victims. The attacked are our indigenous brothers, but, as an organization, they are support bases of the EZLN, and the aggressors, it is clear, were from Palestina or the Lacandon Community.”