Mexican State Plays Ethnic Divide-and-Rule in the Chiapas Rainforest

by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT

When Mexico’s President Vicente Fox was elected six years ago, he pledged he would end the long-simmering Chiapas revolt “in fifteen minutes.” Now, as his successor Felipe Calderon prepares to take office, new social crises are emerging all over the country—from the challenge to Calderon’s election as fraudulent by the left opposition, to the dilemma of Oaxaca, where an occupation of the state capital by federal police has failed to quell a civil rebellion. And Chiapas remains as divided as it was in 2000, with much of the mountains and jungles under the real control of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), the indigenous Maya rebels whose brief 1994 armed uprising was a catalyst to the international anti-globalization movement.

The Zapatistas’ charismatic Subcommander Marcos is now on a national tour of the country in a bid to unite the various social struggles around a radical left program. But on Nov. 13, with Marcos far away on the other side of the country in Zacatecas, a new and horrific outbreak of violence was reported from the Chiapas lowland rainforest known as the Lacandon Selva which is the rebels’ primary stronghold.

At first it seemed to be the latest in a long series of paramilitary attacks against the Zapatistas. These attacks were at their worst in the late ’90s, and have abated somewhat since the 2000 elections broke up the entrenched machine of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for 70 years. Despite these lawless attacks on their supporters in the Selva and Highlands of Chiapas, the EZLN have refrained from taking up arms again ever since the Jan. 12, 1994 ceasefire that paved the way for a dialogue with the government. The government continues to stall on the Zapatistas’ minimum demand for laying down arms—constitutional changes instating local territorial autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous peoples. But the Zapatistas’ refusal to return to armed struggle despite both intransigence and provocation has allowed the rebels to maintain the moral high ground in the eyes of Mexican and international civil society. Therefore, hardliners in the government, who would like to crush the movement with armed force, have been effectively restrained. The rebels’ zones of control are tolerated, and provide a working model of the kind of indigenous self-government that their proposed constitutional changes would instate nationwide.

But this claim to the moral high ground, which has proved the Zapatistas’ most potent weapon, now faces a potential threat. In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 violence, it has become clear that it had a strong dimension of ethnic rivalry between Maya groups in the Selva which have been pitted against each other by an adroit government strategy. Since then, reports have mounted that up to 300 members of the Hach Winik people—popularly known as the Lacandon Maya—have fled their jungle settlements, saying they fear Zapatista reprisals.

Until now, the approximately 20,000 displaced persons in Chiapas have all been Zapatista supporters forced from their homes by government-backed paramilitaries. For the first time, allegations are being raised of indigenous Maya people fleeing feared Zapatista attack. The Zapatistas have been implicated in no attacks on the Lacandons or any other civilians, and these fears appear to be manipulated, the result of a propaganda campaign. But 300 indigenous persons displaced from their homes is not a matter to be dismissed. Failure to confront this situation could impact the direction of all Mexico, as the country confronts multiple converging crises, and the EZLN (as their name implies) still make a claim to the national stage.

Attack on Viejo Velasco

The attack came at dawn, at the settlement of Viejo Velasco, situated just within the borders of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, the UN-recognized protected zone that sequesters the Selva’s last shrinking remnants of intact ancient rainforest, in the valley of the Rio Usumacinta that forms the Guatemalan border. Initial reports claimed 14 dead; the number has since been estimated at four, with three others still missing. At least one rape was reported as well.

The Chiapas state government said in a news release quoted in an Associated Press account 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.”

A communique from the NGO Maderas del Pueblo, which supports local development initiatives by pro-Zapatista communities in the rainforest, read: “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 Chol families at the settlement Viejo Velasco Suarez.”

The reference to the “so-called ‘Lacandon Community'” seems an implicit attempt to deny that the Lacandon Maya are truly indigenous. In fact, how long the Hach Winik have inhabited the Chiapas rainforest is contested by anthropologists, but they were certainly there for centuries before the Highland Maya groups began to arrive over the past three generations—mostly Tzeltals and Chols, with smaller numbers of Tzotzils and Tojolabals. It is these more recent settlers, pushed from their ancestral territories in the Highlands by the Chiapas cattle lords, who today make up the Zapatista support base.

Additionally, it is highly uncertain that the attackers were in fact Hach Winik. Most reports have indicated that the attackers, like the victims, were Tzeltals and Chols—but from communities whose lands, like those of the Hach Winik, have been legally titled by the government, and have therefore perceived the rebel Zapatistas as a threat. The principal Hach Winik settlements are Lacanja Chansayab and Naha. Nueva Palestina and Frontera Corozal are much more recent settlements, established in the 1970s by Highland Maya colonists. They can be considered part of the “Lacandon Community” only in the sense that their lands were titled in the same process that demarcated and legalized the Hach Winik lands.

A Nov. 17 account from the online Narco News service likewise reported that the attackers came from Nueva Palestina, and also pointed to likely government complicity in the assault: “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 [presumably, state] Attorney General’s office and three from the state police, landed in the community.”

A Nov. 14 bulletin from the Fray Bartoleme de Las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), the respected Chiapas rights watchdog founded by the local Catholic diocese, also blamed the attack on presumed comuneros from Palestina, and stated that the Viejo Velasco residents returned fire. It said the dead were from both sides, and that there was an “undetermined number” of wounded.

Frayba called the incident a “premeditated attack” which may signal a resurgence of army-backed paramilitary violence as a “counterinsurgency strategy against the EZLN.” The bulletin stated that Viejo Velasco residents have named the group behind the attack as the deceptively-dubbed Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC), led by Pedro Chulin Jimenez, a former PRI state deputy who was also named as leader of the paramilitary Indigenous Revolutionary Anti-Zapatista Movement (MIRA), a group which attacked Zapatista communities in the region in the late ’90s.

But accounts persisted of Lacandon involvement in the attack on Viejo Velasco. The Mexico City daily El Universal reported Nov. 16 that some 400 state police agents have been dispatched to the Lacandon Selva. Agents of the State Fiscalia General (FGE) landed in two helicopters at the Hach Winik village of Lacanja Chansayab, where they reportedly confirmed that three residents of Viejo Velasco were being held there as “hostages.” However, Amnesty International’s alert on the attack, issued Nov. 18, said the hostages were being held in Nueva Palestina—not Lacanja Chansayab. Frayba also stated that the hostages were likely being held at Nueva Palestina.

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 (Chol Maya for “ants”), which was said to have a base of support in Viejo Velasco. The five men were later liberated.

The Chiapas newspaper EsteSur of Nov. 17 cited a public letter signed by several organizations, including the Frayba Human Rights Center and Xinich, which quoted an anonymous telephone message apparently left by a survivor of the Viejo Velasco attack. The message claimed that Lacandons from Nuevo Palestina had donned military fatigues and joined the assault on the community. But there are few Hach Winik in Palestina, and it is unclear how the men would have been recognized as Lacandons if they were in military gear rather than group’s traditional white tunics.

Xinich also issued a statement denying involvement in the incident at all, and asserting that the targeted residents at Viejo Velasco were followers of the EZLN. Xinich is generally sympathetic to the EZLN, but is a civil organization and not integrated into the Zapatistas’ rebel government or militia.

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

They 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 response 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.”

In a Nov. 21 communique, the EZLN General Command, in turn, likewise denied involvement in the incident, refuting claims that the victims were Zapatistas. “The indigenous who were confronted, the dead and the wounded, ARE NOT MEMBERS OF THE EZLN SUPPORT BASE, NOR DO THEY BELONG TO ANY OF THE ZAPATISTA CIVIL OR MLITARY STRUCTURES. When members of the EZLN are attacked, the EZLN says so clearly, and presents the evidence as to the causes of the aggression and who is responsible.” (Capitals in original.)

More attacks threatened

Ten days after the attack the OPDDIC issued a letter demanding the EZLN dismantle its system of rebel government in the Lacandon Selva, with a barely-veiled threat of new confrontations if this fails to happen. In a letter addressed to Subcommander Marcos, President Fox and Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar, OPDDIC accused the Zapatista Good Government Juntas of provoking “grave social destabilization” in the municipalities of Altamirano, Ocosingo, Chilon, Sitala and Tumbala. These “official” municipalities overlap with the Zapatista “autonomous municipalities” overseen by the Good Government Juntas based in Morelia (in the “official” municipality of Altamirano) and La Garrucha (“officially” in Ocosingo). The letter accused the Zapatista Juntas of “protecting delinquent groups.”

The letter denied that OPDICC is a paramilitary group, but stated: “We demand the immediate dis-occupation of the lands that have been occupied by the EZLN support bases, located in the municipalities of Altamirano, Ocosingo, Chilon, Tumbala and Sitala; if this is not done, the ejiditarios [collective farmers] will take the necessary measures to re-occupy their lands to which they have legal right.”

Zapatista reprisals?

By Nov. 20, reports were appearing in the Mexican national press that up to 300 Lacandons had fled their communities for fear of Zapatista retaliation for the Viejo Velasco attack. The national daily Milenio quoted Jorge Vecellio, director of the Na Bolom Cultural Association, a group based in the Highland city of San Cristobal de Las Casas which advocates for the land rights and cultural survival of the Hach Winik. Vecellio said some 50 Lacandons had arrived at Na Bolom since the Viejo Velasco attack, fearing for their lives if they stayed in the jungle.

“You don’t know if there are more displaced or if in the following hours they will continue arriving in search of refuge,” Vecellio said. “What worries us is that at the moment we don’t have clothes or shelter [for the displaced]; we also need medicine for colds and diarrhea.”

Milenio also quoted two Lacandon elders who had taken refuge at Na Bolom, Kayum Yuk Naash and Mariano Lagum Chambor, who said that the Hach Winik communities of Lacanja Chansayab, Naha, Metzabok, San Javier and Barrio Betel were all being abandoned. “The people are in panic, and for this reason they are fleeing,” they said. In addition to seeking refuge in San Cristobal, others had headed for Villahermosa and Tenosique, across the state line in Tabasco to the north.

Milenio reported that state police were seeking more Lacandons in churches, shelters and economical guest-houses where they presumably could have taken refuge. The representative of UNICEF in Mexico, Olivier Degreef, also spoke with the Lacandons sheltering at Na Bolom, to determine the need for international aid for the displaced children.

Roots of the Conflict

The government’s divide-and-rule strategy—pitting the Lacandon Maya against the Highland Maya colonists in the rainforest who support the Zapatistas—is finally, it seems, bearing grim fruit. The Viejo Velasco attack does bear a clear resemblance to the paramilitary violence which has long been endemic in the Chiapas Highlands and in Las Cañadas, the canyonlands leading down to the Selva. But the involvement—real or perceived—of the Hach Winik is a significant difference. 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 Lacandons when the colonists proved dangerously uncontrollable.

Colonization of the Selva by Highland campesinos displaced from their traditional lands by the cattle barons began spontaneously in the 1950s. It was then embraced officially by the Mexican government in the ’60s and ’70s as a sort of political safety valve, relieving social and land pressures in the Highlands. As Highland campesinos broke from the PRI-controlled agrarian reform bureaucracy, formed their own independent organizations and started to invade and occupy the vacant lands of the cattle oligarchy, the government encouraged this surplus population to instead relocate into the jungle, then considered an expendable wasteland.

But these relocated campesinos, left to their own devices on this wild frontier, formed their own de facto local governments, based on the same independent peasant organizations whose power the relocation policy had been a strategy to undercut. By the early ’80s, there were rumors that the colonists in the Selva were forming a guerilla army.

Simultaneously, there was an outcry from international ecologists as Mexico’s last strip of rainforest disappeared under the assault of the machetes and chainsaws of thousands of peasant colonists. And anthropologists raised urgent concerns that the Hach Winik, numbering only some 500, were being overwhelmed.

In 1971, the Mexican government declared a 640,000-hectare reserve for the Lacandon Maya. In 1975 it was expanded to 662,000 hectares to include the two northern primary Lacandon communities, Naha and Metzabok. The Lacandons needed large areas of rainforest for their traditional way of life-but the government simultaneously signed timber deals with their communities. The Lacandons got a cut, and started buying pick-up trucks and (eventually) diesel generators; government enterprises started taking out the reserve’s last mahogany and cedar stands.

With perhaps 500 Lacandons surrounded by 200,000 Highland Maya settlers, especially to the north and west, this was a recipe for conflict. Thousands of settlers had been rendered squatters on Lacandon Maya land by the stroke of a pen. Protests and negotiations ensued, in which the government agreed to recognize some of their land rights. Ultimately, 15,000 Tzeltals and 10,000 Chols were recognized as co-owners of the reserve. In exchange, however, they were made to concentrate in central communities, and abandon the scattered plots they had carved out of the forest. Some of these new settlements had names like Nueva Palestina and Monte Libano, reflecting the Biblical and prophetic significance the Maya settlers attached to their new frontier homeland. Others had names as coldly bureaucratic as the Luis Echeverria New Population Center (named for the then-president of Mexico). And the vast majority of the settlers in the area were simply disenfranchised, their lands untitled.

In 1978, the federal government declared the Montes Azules reserve, a 331,200-hectare protected area overlapping with both the Lacandon reserve and the settlement area—further complicating the already-confused land tenure situation. Other reserves were later added, protecting the Classical Maya archeological sites of the Selva, most significantly Yaxchilan and Bonampak.

On New Years Day 1994, the rumors of a rebel peasant army in the jungle were dramatically verified as the EZLN marched out of the Selva and briefly seized San Cristobal de Las Casas and three other towns in the Highlands. After 12 days of war, the rebels agreed to a peace dialogue, which was brokered by Don Samuel Ruiz, the bishop of San Cristobal. Years of intermittent and halting dialogue gave birth in 1996 to the San Andres Accords, a package of constitutional reforms calling for autonomous self-government for Mexico’s indigenous peoples. But the government has refused to instate the Accords in their original form, and the Zapatistas have refused to accept revisions which gutted provisions for real territorial control. The stalemate continued.

Barred by the law which established the dialogue from actually attacking the Zapatistas, the government has instead ringed their territory with troops under such pretexts as halting the flow of drug smugglers and illegal migrants through the Selva from Guatemala. It has also paved the Frontier Highway that circles the jungle parallel to the international border, and brought electricity to the “legal” jungle settlements like Nueva Palestina.

The untitled settlements largely came under the control of the EZLN and sympathetic groups like Xinich. The Zapatista “autonomous municipalities” and the “Good Government Juntas” which coordinate them on a regional level formed a working model of indigenous autonomy.

In 1998, a federal initiative called upon Mexico’s thirty-two states to add indigenous autonomy clauses to their constitutions. These measures largely called for carving new municipalities out of indigenous-majority remote areas, and were seen by the Zapatistas and their supporters as a means to undercut the San Andres Accords. Then-Chiapas Gov. Albores GuillĂ©n responded with a remunicipalization plan which bore a superficial resemblance to what the Zapatistas themselves were calling for-but aimed precisely at undercutting the actually existing “autonomous municipalities.” Ocosingo, the state’s biggest municipio, and among the most conflictive, would be carved up into thirteen new municipalities designed to maximize PRI strength. Eleven of the proposed new jurisdictions overlapped with already-declared autonomous municipalities. Nueva Palestina would become one of the new municipal seats, its territory encompassing much the Zapatista autonomous municipality of Ricardo Flores Magon.

In 2002, Conservation International (CI), which helps map and set policy for Montes Azules, was petitioning for the expulsion of the untitled communities from the biosphere reserve. By CI’s count, there are 140 settler communities in the Montes Azules reserve, and 225 within the Lacandon Selva’s protected areas. Of these, 32 are “undocumented”-that is, never had their lands officially titled. Mexico’s federal Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (SEMARNAT), citing the ongoing destruction of the forest by slash-and-burn agriculture, announced that these 32 untitled communities will have to relocate from the reserve-preferably voluntarily, to be compensated with new lands elsewhere in Chiapas. In December 2002, a detachment of Federal Preventative Police backed up by a helicopter carried out a “voluntary eviction” of one Chol community from the reserve, and federal authorities were said to be negotiating with the evicted families for compensation with new lands.

But the jungle settlers themselves, and the EZLN leadership, charged that the eviction policy masks both a strategy of counterinsurgency and an agenda of corporate exploitation of the rainforest’s oil, timber, hydro-electric and even genetic resources, as well as “eco-tourism” projects—long-standing plans which had all been put on hold with the Zapatista uprising. The Zapatistas and most of the threatened settler communities pledged to resist expulsion. Many developed their own ecological program, abandoning slash-and-burn agriculture in favor of sustainable methods they say protect the forest.

Ethnic Divide-And-Conquer

The Lacandon Maya, a small group known in their own tongue as the Hach Winik, or “Real People,” were living at three small settlements in the Selva for at least centuries before the rainforest was opened to settlement by the Tzeltal, Chol, Tzotzil and Tojolabal Maya groups from the Highalnds. They were never converted to Christianity and were only officially “contacted” in the 1940s. With their long hair, white cotton robes, and “pristine” shamanic hunter-gatherer culture, their preservation became a special cause of ecologists and anthropologists as the Selva started to disappear under the settlement policy of the 1960s and early ’70s.

But as is often the case, the titling of Lacandon lands coincided with a growing assault on their culture. The Lacandon communities are in the low depression of the Rio Usumacinta-what was the most remote part of the forest until Frontier Highway was cut parallel to the river to accommodate oil exploration by the state monopoly Pemex in the 1970s. Many Lacandons from Lacanjá subsequently got jobs as workers at the Pemex test wells. By the end of the 1970s, Lacanjá had been mostly converted to Seventh Day Adventism.

Seeing the colonists who have overwhelmed their lands as a threat, the Lacandons have maintained no contact with the Zapatistas, and the expulsion threat has exacerbated tensions with the settler communities. The settlers call the Lacandons the “Caribes,” and make much of the theory that they were not originally indigenous to the rainforest, but came from Campeche on the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast. Chiapas-based Belgian historian Jan de Vos argues that the original “Lacandons” encountered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century (so named for their island ceremonial center Lacan Tun in Laguna Miramar) were actually a Chol-related group who were completely exterminated in war and deportation. The contemporary Lacandons speak a Yucatecan-related tongue, and are said to have migrated into the rainforest from the Yucatan Peninsula to the north in the eighteenth century.

Read a 2002 statement from Autonomous Municipality Ricardo Flores Magon, protesting the expulsion threat: “No one took us into account, nor did they ask us, in 1972, when the President of the Republic decided to turn our lands over to a handful of Caribe families…”

NGOs working with the threatened communities have also embraced rhetoric alarmingly hostile to the Hach Winik. A Maderas del Pueblo pamphlet entitled “Brief History of the So-Called ‘Lacandon Community'” reads: “The real Lacandons were rebels and warriors who resisted the armed attacks of the Spanish conquistadors, defending their territory and their ceremonial center Lacantun. 1700: The first Caribe Indians arrive in the Lacandon Selva, they come from Campeche and are directly related to the Mayas of the Yucatan Peninsula…. Because the Caribes are few and do not attack the Spanish, they say the Caribes ‘are agreeable and peaceful people.'”

The Hach Winik actually consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the so-called “Classic Maya” whose city-states ruled the rainforest from roughly 300 to 900 CE. The ruins of the Classic Maya cities of Yaxchilan, Bonampak and Palenque are still sacred to the Lacandons, who gather at them in annual pilgrimages. And there are some anthropologists who adhere to the Lacandons’ own version of their history.

OnĂ©simo Hidalgo of the Economic and Political Investigative Center for Community Action (CIEPAC), which works with the threatened jungle communities, believes that the government policy which ostensibly favors the Lacandons is not based on real respect for the group. “For the government, the Lacandons are not human beings,” he says. “They are archeological relics they want to preserve in a museum.”

Jorge Santiago, director of Social-Economic Development of the Indigenous Mexicans (DESMI), which works with Highland Maya communities, believes that the government is using the Lacandons in a strategy which is actually inimical to their true interests: “The ecological project of the Selva communities is in favor of the Lacandons too. The project of the state is against the interests of the Lacandons. It is in the interests of the multinationals. But the project of the state will not work without the cooperation of sectors of the populace.”

Prospects for Peace

In June 2005, the Zapatistas issued their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Selva, a lengthy communique named for their jungle stronghold, pledging to seek a renewed national presence. In September, following a series of national meetings they hosted for their supporters in settlements in Las Cañadas on the edge of the Selva, the Zapatistas announced a national tour, to be dubbed the “Other Campaign”-a reference to the 2006 presidential race, in which they refused to endorse candidates. After a long period of retrenchment, the Zapatistas were once again aspiring to build a civil revolutionary movement at the national level.

But as the media followed the “Other Campaign” throughout Mexico, the Selva remained as divided as ever. Trying to capitalize on the Zapatistas’ new move towards a political strategy, Luis H. Alvarez, President Fox’s official pointman for the long-moribund Chiapas peace process, toured settlements on the edge of the Selva in July. But in late May, when he showed up un-announced at the settlement of Guadalupe Tepeyac, he was surrounded by masked Zapatista militants and forced to leave.

The Zapatistas continued to protest the militarization of their region. In August (a month before he was killed in a helicopter crash), Mexico’s Public Security secretary, Ramon Martin Huerta, announced new patrols in Chiapas-including the Selva-under the “Mexico Seguro” program, ostensibly to halt the flow of drugs, arms and migrants from across the Guatemalan border. That same month, three were killed and over 20 displaced in a land dispute between the Tzeltal Maya settlements of El Chamizal and Laguna Semental on the edge of the Selva.

With thousands still internally displaced by threats and violence from paramilitary groups in Chiapas, the United Nations Development Program began appealing to the Mexican government for cooperation in international programs to aid refugees. This would be the first UN program for Mexican refugees (or “displaced persons” as internal refugees are officially dubbed).

Plans to renew oil exploration in Chiapas also remain controversial. Also in August 2005, Pemex acceded to the demands of Gov. Pablo Salazar and shut the oil well at Santa Cruz, in the northwest of the state. Salazar’s demand came in response to safety concerns following a wave of industrial accidents at Pemex sites in the neighboring states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Mexico’s energy secretary, Fernando Elizondo, blasted Salazar’s action, saying there was “no justification for a state authority to intervene in this fashion.”

Against this backdrop, there are mixed signals on whether the Montes Azules crisis will be resolved peacefully. In January 2004, Federal Navy troops and state police agents were mobilized to forcibly evict indigenous families from the community of Nuevo San Rafael in the biosphere reserve. Twenty-three houses were burned down in the operation, according to the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center. The troops were officially led by the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA). Nuevo San Rafael was made up of Chol Maya who had moved to the rainforest after being displaced years earlier from their traditional lands at El Calvario, Sabanilla municipality, by big landlords.

The following month, Luis Gabriel Sanchez, head of the Chiapas legislature’s Ecological Commission, called for the deportation of dozens of foreigners who live in Zapatista-loyal areas inside the Montes Azules reserve and provide moral and logistical support to the rebel communities. Sanchez said foreigners providing assistance to the rebels were violating their tourist visas, and asked the Immigration Institute to intervene. Sanchez, of the Ecological Green Party, echoed concerns previously raised by officials in the Chiapas delegation of PROFEPA.

The first sign of compromise came in October 2004, when a Zapatista communique pledged to resist forced evictions-but also said that seven of their settlements had agreed to voluntarily relocate, “with the expressed consent of the inhabitants.” The communities were listed as Primero de Enero, San Isidro, 12 de Diciembre, 8 de Octubre, Santa Cruz, Nuevo Limar and Agua Dulce. In May 2005, another communique stated that the relocation had been completed, and thanked Mexican rights activist Rosario Ibarra for brokering the compromise and arranging non-governmental aid for the transition. The seven communities-some 50 families-accepted new lands at the settlement of San Pedro de Michoacan, just outside the reserve, across the Rio Lacantun. This still, of course, leaves the great majority of cases unresolved.

In December 2004, Hermann Bellinghausen of the national daily La Jornada reported protests from Zapatista communities in the Selva of army road-building operations, including a bridge over the once-remote Rio Lacantun, and new permanent army positions being established in the zone. Two months later, he would report protests over an eco-tourist “Hotel Lacandona” under construction in the rainforest at Ejido Boca de Chajul, on the banks of the Lacantun just outside the reserve.

Another forced eviction took place in February 2005, carried out by federal and state police at the Tzotzil settlement of Sol Paraiso. Four residents-including a youth of 14-were arrested and publicly accused of “ecocide.”

Following an agreement in April 2005, the federal and state governments committed to demarcate and legally recognize the land rights of 28 untitled communities in the Selva, including Viejo Velasco. But this has not happened, and as recently as July 2006, Autonmous Municipality Ricardo Flores Magon authorities wrote in an open letter to the Frayba human rights center that they feared a covert strategy to evict these communities through unaccountable paramilitary action.

In May 2005, just weeks after the agreement was concluded, the commander of the Chiapas 7th Military Region, Juan Morales Fuentes, stated that forest fires then raging across 15,000 hectares of the state were set intentionally, and defined action against environmental destruction as a new military mission.

SEMARNAT, the federal environmental secretariat, insisted the relocation of the remaining communities from Montes Azules would be completed shortly, and that it would be done peacefully.


Throughout the rainforest regions of Latin America, the indigenous peoples of the forest have been pushed to cultural and even physical extermination by the onslaught of colonization and deforestation. Sometimes, revolutionary movements have been paradoxically turned against indigenous rainforest peoples. In the 1980s, the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua made clumsy attempts to “nationalize” the lowland rainforests in the east of the country—which was seen a threat and an encroachment on local autonomy by the region’s Miskito and Mayangna indigenous peoples. This resulted in a Miskito front opening in the CIA-backed counter-revolutionary guerilla army seeking to destabilize the revolutionary regime—bringing about, in turn, the painful reality of a Sandinista counter-insurgency war against indigenous peoples.

More recently, and in a very different social context, US imperialism (for its own purposes) has posed as the protector of the national ambitions of the Kosovar Albanians. This caused many on the international left to rally around the fascistic regime of Serbia’s late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and to embrace his perverse ethnic demonization. For too many supposedly progressive commentators, its seems the Albanians as an ethnicity were agents of imperialism, and Serb aggression against them implicitly legitimized.

The level of violence in the Lacandon Selva does not begin to approach that of Miskitia in the ’80s or Kosova in the ’90s. But imperfect parallels to these scenarios can be seen at work in the Chiapas rainforest today—at least in terms of the propaganda being employed. The legitimate fears of the Lacandons are being exploited and manipulated by the Mexican state, in ways which are ultimately inimical to their own interests.

The EZLN’s autonomy program is explicitly “pluri-ethnic.” The dilemma of the Hach Winik pose the greatest challenge yet to this ethic of radical multiculturalism. If the Zapatistas are going to maintain their voice of conscience on Mexico’s national stage, they will have to maintain vigilance against an ethnic conflict erupting on their own turf—the jungle frontier which they have posed as a liberated territory. At this critical moment, as Mexico lurches deeper into crisis, the costs in the balance may be higher than ever.



Fray Bartoleme de Las Casas Human Rights Center

Maderas del Pueblo

Na Bolom Cultural Association

Hach Winik Home Page

See also:

“Biodiversity Inc.: Mexico tries a new tactic against Chiapas rebels: conservation,”
by Bill Weinberg, In These Times, Aug. 21, 2003

From our weblog:

“Chiapas: more attacks threatened against Zapatista communities,”
WW4 REPORT, Nov. 24, 2006


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution