Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 201 | Abril 1998



A War Between Indigenous Memory and Government Amnesia

Chiapas once again returns to center stage in Mexico. The Acteal massacre was not an isolated event. It revealed in bloody fashion what is at stake in the Mexican southeast: the right of the indigenous peoples to govern themselves and to organize themselves according to their traditions, the right to make of Mexico a world with room for everybody.

Envío team

Ever since the uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) on January 1, 1994, Mexican society has turned its eyes to "deep Mexico." The First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle shook the consciousness of Mexican and international civil society, reminding them of the isolation and extreme poverty in which Mexico's indigenous peoples have lived for centuries. At the very moment when the country was preparing to enter the NAFTA accords with Canada and the United States, the Zapatistas firmly reminded the world that President Salinas de Gortari's modernizing program had forgotten them. Since the government minimized the message, the ringing in of that new year will never be the historic date of the beginning of commercial prosperity, but the beginning of a nightmare that, four years later, President Zedillo does still not know how to deal with, much less resolve.

In the last three years, the Chiapas conflict has generated new forms of violence in the country, which culminated in the genocide in Acteal on December 22, 1997. The Acteal massacre was "an announced aggression" chosen as a way to send a warning to the Zapatista support base and as a pretext to finish militarizing the zone. In the days after the massacre, 5,000 soldiers took up new positions in Chiapas, completing the army's encirclement of the EZLN. The massacre also detonated an outburst of international solidarity with the cause of the indigenous people living in Chiapas.

Chronology of a Non-Meeting of Minds

This is the chronology of the conflict since the signing of an initial agreement in February 1996:
February 16, 1996: Government and EZLN representatives sign agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture in San Andrés Larrainzar. The commitment is to send the accords to the Legislative branch to incorporate them into the Constitution.

September 1996: The EZLN breaks off the continuing dialogue, arguing that the government has given no sign of wanting to fulfill what has been agreed to, and that the delegates it sends to the negotiating table have no decision-making power.

November 19, 1996: The government and the EZLN agree that the Commission of Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) will develop a constitutional reform bill to include all that was established in the Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture signed in February. It is established that neither the government nor the EZLN can request changes to the bill and can only respond to it with a yes or no. If one side says no, COCOPA will take the bill to the Legislature to issue a decision.

November 30, 1996: COCOPA presents the proposed Indigenous Law it has drafted to the government and the EZLN.

December 3, 1996: The EZLN accepts the draft because it responds to the spirit of San Andrés, despite finding that some accords were not included.

December 9, 1996: President Zedillo asks the EZLN for two weeks to consult with specialists about the bill's content, to which the government has made over 20 observations. Three days later, Zedillo gives a negative response to the bill, arguing that one sovereignty cannot be created within another and that no group can claim autonomy that breaks the federal pact. COCOPA, concerned about the electoral events in 1997, does not present the proposal to the Legislative branch, as had been agreed. Since then, the governmental strategy to "resolve" the Chiapas conflict is clearly oriented toward low intensity warfare.

September 12, 1997: After months of tensions and declarations, 1,111 Zapatistas go to Mexico City to demand that the government fulfill the San Andrés accords.

September 16, 1997: The Zapatista National Liberation Front is founded. Its first objective is to fight for fulfillment of the San Andrés accords and the demilitarization of Chiapas.

December 22, 1997: Indigenous paramilitary forces from Chiapas enter the indigenous community of Acteal, in the Chenalhó municipality, also Chiapas, assassinating 45 and injuring at least 31.

March 11, 1998: The National Action Party (PAN) presents an alternative draft of a constitutional reform project dealing with indigenous rights and culture to the Senate, without consulting either the government or the EZLN.

March 15, 1998: President Zedillo presents his own draft of the same issue to the Congress of the Republic, without taking the EZLN into account.

Bestow or Recognize?

A comparative analysis of the text sent by President Zedillo to the Congress and the text agreed to in San Andrés demonstrates that the Presidential Initiative on Indigenous Rights and Culture breaks away from what was agreed to in San Andrés and affects the commitments of the Mexican government as signatory of the ILO Convention 169 for various reasons.

First, it reduces the exercise of the rights of indigenous peoples to their communities. Although the government initiative recognizes that "indigenous people have a right to free determination," it reduces "the concrete expression of this to the autonomy of indigenous communities." This reduction violates the San Andrés accords, which establish that "national legislation should recognize indigenous peoples as subjects of the rights to free determination and autonomy." It also violates the ILO Agreement, which considers indigenous peoples to be subjects of these rights.

Second, it talks about the Constitution "bestowing" rights on indigenous people instead of "recognizing" them, as was agreed to at San Andrés. The new relationship between the state and indigenous peoples agreed to at San Andrés is based on recognizing their pre-existence and their rights in the Constitution. The government initiative, on the other hand, refers to "bestowing" rights as if the state had created them.

Third, it does not recognize the rights of jurisdiction of indigenous peoples. The most that the presidential initiative does, by introducing the idea of discretionality, is to recognize that "the procedures, judgments and decisions—of these peoples—will be co-validatable," ignoring the COCOPA text, which says "co-validated." Making the co-validation of procedures and judgments of indigenous peoples optional violates the San Andrés accord, which explicitly establishes "as a guarantee to the full access to justice that positive Mexican law will recognize the authorities, norms and procedures for internal conflict resolution and, through simple procedures, its judgments and decisions will be co-validated by the state jurisdictional authorities."
Fourth, it does not recognize the right of indigenous peoples to their territory. The presidential text omits reference to the use and benefit of their lands and territories, which is explicit in the San Andrés accord by establishing that the government "should make effective the rights and guarantees that correspond to them, such as the right to the habitat and use and benefit of territories according to article 13.2 of the ILO Convention."
Fifth, it omits the mechanism established by the San Andrés accords and the ILO Convention 169 to determine a municipality, community, auxiliary body and related entities as indigenous. The presidential text only speaks of municipalities with an indigenous majority, but omits the defining criteria included in the COCOPA text. This omission violates the San Andrés accords and the ILO Agreement. Both establish that "the awareness of indigenous identity should be considered a fundamental criterion to determine the groups to whom the dispositions [contained in the accords] apply."
Sixth, it does not recognize, as the San Andrés accords do, indigenous communities as "entities of public law." It also does not recognize the right of indigenous peoples to define "the procedures to elect their authorities" at the municipal level. The presidential text establishes that "in municipalities with a majority indigenous population local legislation will be what establishes the basis and modalities to assure indigenous community participation in the make-up of town councils." In contrast, the COCOPA text says that "municipalities, communities, auxiliary entities of town councils and similar organisms will recognize the right of their inhabitants to define the procedures for electing authorities or representatives according to political practices from the traditions of each of them." This omission violates the San Andrés accords, which recognizes the right of peoples to "freely designate their representatives, at both the community and municipal government levels, and to designate their authorities as indigenous peoples, in conformity with the unique institutions and traditions of each people."

"A Masked War"

The low intensity war strategy didn't stop after the crisis around the COCOPA text. The Acteal massacre is one more expression of this strategy, the one that has had the greatest echo. Two months before it, on October 18, 1997, Raúl Vera, auxiliary bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, handed Minister of Governance Emilio Chuayffet a letter stating that "the paramilitary groups, far from offering a solution to the poor of Chiapas, are engaging in a masked war, where former military and public security agents train civilians and PRI representatives sponsor the sale and traffic of arms to be launched against their brothers." "If you [Chuayffet] and the President," said the bishop, "are painting a false picture of things, please listen to those who are honestly working for a true solution. What is happening here is very serious: to slowly and criminally destroy the indigenous population and those who dare to defend them through a civil war provoked by the security forces."
On December 21, the day before the massacre, Bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raúl Vera alerted the secretary of the Chiapas government of a possible attack on Chenalhó. But neither the federal government nor the state authorities took action. The paramilitary group, on the other hand, did.

Both before the Acteal massacre and since, the Mexican government has been committed not to finding peace but to mounting a political-military offensive against the Zapatista movement. With this policy it is seeking to override the negotiation process initiated two years ago, politically and militarily isolate the EZLN, slow down the proliferation of autonomous municipalities—an expression of the spirit of the accords—and create conditions to behead the Zapatistas or Lebanize Chiapas.

The Political Pieces Of the Offensive

* Promote social programs in Chiapas that, in addition to their electoral proselytizing objective, seek to render the San Andrés negotiations useless and weaken the EZLN social base.

* Project the federal government in the media as flexible and open to dialogue. In fact, without fulfilling the conditions proposed by the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI) and COCOPA for renewal of the dialogue, the government has sought to give the impression that it has reduced its objections to the Indigenous Law project proposed by COCOPA, to lead people to think that this action should be reciprocated by some new EZLN concession.

* Present as Zapatista intransigence what in reality is its strength in demanding acceptance of the COCOPA text.

* Try to justify to public opinion the presentation to the legislature of a presidential constitutional reform bill that has no consensus. Thus, the Executive passed the legislature a hot potato.

* Seek support from PAN, and if possible from the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) as well, for Congressional approval of this bill, accepting modifications from opposition parties as long as they don't approximate the text agreed to with the EZLN.

* Delegitimize CONAI for having questioned government actions.

The Military Pieces Of the Offensive

* Incite any kind of conflict between or within indigenous communities, above all in those that form part of the municipalities that have proclaimed themselves to be and function as autonomous. By differentiating between PRI and opposition, or between Protestants and Catholics, government authorities are trying to emphasize differences so as to break down the links of cohesion between indigenous communities.

* Promote or tolerate the proliferation of paramilitary groups in the communities. The objective is to poison the fish's water rather than take the fish out of that water.

* Increase the number of military forces in Chiapas, as well as their fire power, incursions into zones controlled by Zapatistas, military sieges, etc.

* Expel all foreigners from Chiapas.

With all of this, the government wants to provoke the EZLN politically and militarily, to corner it and force it to break the military truce. Even if it doesn't do this, the strategy is creating conditions for the government army to carry out a surgical operation.

Pieces of the EZLN Strategy

The EZLN's own strategy seeks to prolong armed peace as long as possible. The pieces of its strategy are:
* Civilly resist the military offensive and the social programs promoted by the government.

* Militarily avoid the federal army operations.

* Promote the creation of autonomous municipalities.

* Refuse to renew dialogue until the government fulfills the established conditions and the correlation of forces favors a dignified and lasting negotiated peace.

* Promote increased national and international pressure on the government to force it to accept the Indigenous Law text drafted by COCOPA.
Reality is demonstrating that the EZLN has not managed to contain government escalation with this strategy, but in fact is giving the government a pretext to increase or justify it.

International Observers

The Acteal massacre produced commotion and indignation in world public opinion and international civil society. It served as an incentive to form a plural space to gather first-hand information about the conditions that made that massacre possible and about the human rights situation in Chiapas. This is the origin of the International Civil Observation Commission of Human Rights, which visited Chiapas between February 16 and 28, 1998.

The Commission included 210 people from 11 countries, representing a broad gamut of social sectors: NGOs, unions, universities, political parties, social movements, churches, journalists and intellectuals. The Commission members came to Chiapas with the concept that respect for human rights is a conquest of all humanity and that defending and promoting those rights is a right and a duty not limited by national borders.

Autonomous Municipalities

The Commission collected information, interviewed all sectors involved in the conflict, visited various zones around Chiapas and tried to listen to all voices in order to develop their final report. Issues such as health, education, militarization, the role of women, respect for indigenous customs and the legal situation were specifically investigated by diverse working groups within the Commission.

The Commission visited the places for encounters between national and international civil society in five Zapatista communities in Los Aguascalientes. Representing the different peoples and zones of Chiapas, they were created in 1996, after the celebration of the First International Meeting Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity.

They also visited the new autonomous municipalities covering various communities that have been the base of Zapatista support for months, designing their own government as a concrete form of their concept of indigenous autonomy. In these municipalities, the citizens refuse to pay taxes to the Chiapas state government, administer justice autonomously and have their own organizational structures, democratically electing their authorities in assemblies with participation by men, women, boys and girls.

In the northern zone of Chiapas, the Commission visited the "divided communities" of Zapatista support bases and PRI supporters. This region, dangerous to enter, is the area of greatest conflict and violence in Chiapas. In its report, the Commission describes the general mood in these communities as one of "isolation, panic and terror."
They also visited communities of the displaced families forced to flee their homes due to the government low intensity warfare strategy, characterized by the presence and violent actions of paramilitary groups.

"The Government Is Very Tricky"

The Commission found 6,247 displaced in the autonomous municipality of San Pedro de Chenalhó, in Polhó. Over 40 communities and neighborhoods in Polhó coordinate with the other 11 autonomous municipalities of Los Altos.

The Commission traveled to Polhó on February 18, where it was received by more than 2,000 indigenous. There, Domingo Perez Paciencia, autonomous mayor of Chenalhó, read a text to the Commission in which he described with these words the reality in which they live: "The federal soldiers are protecting the paramilitary forces in every community and are obliging the PRI paramilitary members to drink and to plant marijuana. In one of the camps they are forcing the women into prostitution. In another they are putting in a liquor store.... The federal soldiers are surrounding the camps. The state and federal governments sent them arms and large bullets.... No airplanes are flying over today because they know you are here. The government is very tricky and does not show the world what it is doing. The paramilitaries are organizing to attack the displaced again. Although [the displaced] want to return to their communities, they will not be able to because the aggressors run free.... Our witnesses are the 45 dead. We no longer allow many people to go and give testimony because they have no money, and not only that, no one listens to the testimonies.... The bad government is prohibiting foreigners from entering because it says they are giving advice to the Zapatista indigenous. But the bad government is very wrong, because in our communiqué we have invited foreigners to observe what is happening in our autonomous municipality of Polhó, Chiapas, so they can witness all the threats and arguments.... All the soldiers should immediately be pulled out of every community and municipality in the whole state, and then there will be a solution."
Chenalhó Autonomous Municipal Council members told observers that "there have been many dead and burned and thousands displaced to the mountains and to other communities since the region's indigenous decided to organize their autonomous municipality with the idea of promoting active civic participation and fighting for just demands." They also said that "autonomy is not to separate from the state but to promote participation as indigenous citizens" nor is it "to destroy the nation, but to bring together all indigenous and non-indigenous so that once and for all they can be equal."

Las Abejas de Acteal

Leaving Polhó, the Commission went to the community of displaced people of Acteal, where the December 1997 massacre took place. Some 400 people had come to that place, fleeing paramilitary intimidation. The Commission was received in an improvised plastic tent next to the hermitage where the indigenous had been moments before the massacre.

The Commission could appreciate the collective cohesion that exists in the community and the tension still being experienced due to the impact of the bloody events of that December 22. The indigenous hang around the cemetery they are building for the victims in the center of the community. Forty-five lighted candles, a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe and flowers are continual reminders.

Representatives of the Las Abejas de Acteal Civil Society told the Commission that this group formed in 1992 and was attacked because the authorities were trying to force it to belong to the PRI, but it did not want to. They explained that the thinking of Las Abejas is not to use arms for anything, not even self-defense, because the people are pacifists and seek peace. They are convinced that is why they were attacked, that it was a cowardly attack because the paramilitary forces knew they would not respond. The representatives say they support the Zapatista demands against oppression and poverty and for the right to land and dignity, but do not use arms to defend their ideas.

They told the Commission that for over three years the army and the security forces have taken possession of their lands, burned their houses and harvests and tried to break up the communities. "This situation had never been seen before," they said. For them, the greatest demand is withdrawal of the army from the zone. After the massacre, the military forces came to distribute food, pull teeth, and have even brought barbers, but the indigenous said that "we will not accept food from the same hands that killed our children."

Seven Pieces to The Violence

The final Commission report says: "After gathering information, ordering and analyzing it, the Commission confirms that the human rights situation is critically deteriorated in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Chiapas is at this moment experiencing the consequences of a situation of critical political decomposition and worrisome social deterioration. The institutional structures at all levels are incapable of guaranteeing the rule of law, and Chiapas society and especially the indigenous communities are suffering the consequences of generalized violence and impunity."
The Commission identifies seven factors that contribute to this deterioration: the zone's intense militarization, the presence of paramilitary groups, the generalized impunity, the obstacles to access to justice, the structural poverty that the communities suffer, the repression against the organized forms of civil society and the lack of political will to seek a respectful solution to indigenous demands.

Where is Marcos?

The indigenous told Commission observers that the federal soldiers and police offer medicines and food in exchange for information about supposed Zapatista insurgents. The question they always ask is: "Where is Marcos?"
During its visit to Chiapas, the Commission wanted to interview Commander Marcos personally. Since the conditions of insecurity surrounding him did not permit it, they sent him a questionnaire instead, which Marcos answered via a video.

To the question about whether the Chiapas conflict was inter-community, inter-ethnic or religious, Marcos responded: "That is how they want to present and disguise it, with the aim of displacing a problem with political and social roots having to do with how the Mexican nation has related to indigenous peoples for all these years, and to the indigenous peoples' rebellion, to their Enough! However, the government doesn't accept the political and social cost of recognizing that, which would help, because one way to resolve the problem is to recognize that there is a war in southeast Mexico, a war between the memory of the indigenous people and the forgetfulness of the government. The government wants to present the conflict as one between indigenous,not between two armies, which would put it under the Geneva Convention. Thus, the government stops being part of the conflict and looks like a mediator."
The Commission also asked Marcos what the concept of indigenous autonomy is, and he responded: "It is that of the Indian peoples who made their voice heard at the San Andrés table and, to a great extent, recognizes that the indigenous are part of the Mexican nation but are different, so should be recognized and incorporated with their differences, not homogenized as some would want. In this case, homogenization is annihilation. We don't want independence, nor do we want a state within the Mexican state; we want inclusive autonomy. The creation of autonomous municipalities is how the indigenous communities are fulfilling and applying the San Andrés accords. Those agreements recognize the ability of the indigenous people to govern themselves according to their uses and customs, their internal forms, and that is what's happening, that's what gives sense to the autonomous municipalities. Even if the government doesn't fulfill the accords, the people consider them agreed to and are applying them."

EZLN: Five Conditions

About the five conditions that the EZLN set to return to a dialogue with the government, Marcos told the Commission: "The first condition is that the accords from Table 1 about indigenous rights and culture be fulfilled and therefore that the Follow-up and Verification Commission be installed, since it is in charge of monitoring the fulfillment of those accords. This demand is completely blocked. There's not even a glimmer of a solution. The government accepts that it signed those accords, but doesn't accept its responsibility to fulfill them. It has rejected the COCOPA initiative over and over, with different arguments and different pretexts. It has done everything possible to sabotage the Follow-up and Verification Commission and there is no hope, no indication, that the government will fulfill that demand, which synthesizes the other four and also synthesizes that what is at risk is whether the conflict will be resolved by dialogue or war.

"The second condition refers to a serious proposal for Table 2, about democracy and justice. Table 2 came to no agreement because in that table the government's goal was to break down the dialogue. A serious proposal is needed for that table, but if there isn't even fulfillment of the already agreed-to accords, there is no hope that there will be more accords in this dialogue.

"The third condition refers to ending military and paramilitary persecution and harassment in the indigenous communities in Chiapas. This has not only not stopped or slowed down, it has actually been increasing. If anyone thought that Acteal was the culmination of a process of militarization, paramilitarization and attacks on indigenous communities, then now, two months later, we know that no, the horror can go even farther, there can be worse nightmares than Acteal, like those that indigenous communities are living daily in the north of Chiapas, the highlands, the jungle, the coast, in all the indigenous communities of southeast Mexico. The military positioning of the federal army is not for dialogue, but for an attack.

"The fourth condition that we have set is the liberation of Zapatista prisoners throughout the country. Zapatista prisoners are not only in Chiapas jails, but also in other parts of the Republic. We are demanding their freedom. If we talk about a dialogue to resolve things, how can we continue to be treated like criminals? There must be consistency; Zapatista prisoners must be treated in terms of dialogue, not as if they were criminals.

"The fifth condition that we have put forward refers to the need for the government to name a representative, or give the current representatives decision-making power to make commitments. They can't be mere messengers, but must have power. These representatives must treat the discussions with respect and seriousness."
Marcos concluded: "If the five conditions are fulfilled, we will return to the dialogue. If the government accepts the COCOPA initiative, makes a serious proposal for democracy and stops persecuting and harassing the indigenous communities, if its representatives have decision-making power, seriousness and respect, if the Zapatista prisoners are freed, if all of this happens, then we would be willing to return to the negotiating table."

New Laws in a New World
The origin of the government stagnation in failing to find an authentic solution to the Chiapas conflict is, fundamentally, its block against recognizing the indigenous as valid participants in a dialogue. Traditional mentality leads it to think that the indigenous can be controlled and managed and that if they are intransigent right now it is because they are manipulated by Mexican intellectuals and foreigners who have other interests.

Trying to understand the issues of the different Mexican indigenous groups is a very complex task. But, even with all their diversity, there is a common denominator among them: western economic structures have always been unjust and have subjected them. There has been no justice for the original peoples of Mexico from the expedition of decrees that left them landless and in the hands of exploitative caciques, to the current abusive forms of commercialization—whether legal or illegal. From this history is born the official fear of autonomy and of forms of indigenous organization. With autonomy, the caciques, the landowners and the trade centers would have to adjust to organizational principles that would not allow them to continue obtaining the benefits they have had up to now by running free over the indigenous.

The current legal order is insufficient to resolve living and working conditions that have been and are different from western forms. The laws do not contemplate the specificity of the indigenous mode of production and commercialization. Today the indigenous are demanding that they be allowed to create a new legal order not only to resolve their problems, but also to insert themselves into the western economy without the disadvantages that the current laws have forced on them. They are demanding a place in the world, convinced that there will only be peace if Mexico becomes a world where everyone fits.

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