Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mexican army steps up harassment of Zapatistas

In the June 21-22 edition of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, columnist Guy Taillefer reports that human rights activists in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas have observed increased Army activity against towns occupied by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in recent months. And there are disturbing rumours that right-wing paramilitary groups are being reactivated.

In the article, which I have translated below, Taillefer reviews some of the major historical events in the ongoing confrontation between Zapatistas and the Army in Chiapas. He mentions the town of Ocosingo and the Mayan ruins at nearby Toniná. While bicycling through Chapas in 1998, just after the massacre at Acteal, I stayed two nights in Ocosingo. The town was occupied by Zapatistas and their supporters, most of them indigenous and mestizo campesinos. They were protesting an armed attack by paramilitaries on a march that had left Ocosingo a few days earlier to travel to the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez to protest anti-Zapatista repression.

I travelled on the next day to the ruins at Toniná, along the same road described by Taillefer. The photos below were taken by me on that visit, ten years ago. For security reasons, I did not photograph faces directly or close up. -- Richard

Perspectives - Misleading calm in Chiapas

by Guy Taillefer

On a road near Ocosingo, Chiapas, the bucolic peace enveloping the countryside is broken for several hundred metres by a reality that does not have exactly the same charm. On one side of the road, there is a major Mexican military base, as clean as a whistle. On the other side, a Zapatista hamlet in front of which a rickety sign has been planted: "Here, the people are not serving the army, it is the army that serves the people."

A closer look reveals that the calm is misleading. Some say the government of the new president Felipe Calderón seems to have decided in recent months -- no reason has been given -- to remilitarize the confrontation with the indigenous peoples who identify with Zapatismo.

The conflict between the Mexican state and Subcomandate Marcos, in his Lacondon jungle fastness, has almost completely disappeared from the political and media radarscreens. Years ago, silence fell again on the "Chiapas problem". A problem that remains largely unresolved, however, 14 years after that historic January 1, 1994, when, to general surprise, between 3,000 and 5,000 indigenous militants of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación nacional (EZLN) seized control of four Chiapas municipalities, including San Cristóbal de Las Casas, for a brief period. It was an especially striking blow since it coincided with the coming into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), celebrated with great ceremony by President Carlos Salinas de Gartari. The government's counter-offensive was a bloody one.

There were indeed a few attempts to reach a political settlement. In February 1996, the San Andrés Accords were signed, recognizing indigenous identity and their rights to healthcare, education and land in a region of the country where agriculture is still based on feudal structures. Mexico City did not keep its word. Just a little under two years later there was the massacre at Acteal; a paramilitary group killed 45 Indians with the blessing of the local police forces.

Ocosingo occupation_edited

Occupied Ocosingo, 1998

Ocosingo poster_edited

Note poster modeled on a poster produced in the May 68 French revolt.

In 2000 Vicente Fox, who had promised while campaigning to settle the conflict "in fifteen minutes", took over the Presidency. Hopes for democratization were widespread among Mexicans. Fox's election had put an end to the "perfect dictatorship" of 71 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The new president, professing good will, submitted a new version of the San Andrés Accords to the Congress -- which emptied them of all their meaning in the name of the Republic and its egalitarian principles.

As a result, the Mexican Constitution still does not recognize the existence of the indigenous peoples, who make up 10% of the country's population (about 10 million people). In Chiapas, the poorest state in the country, they account for one third of the four million inhabitants. The state is rich in petroleum and provides the country with 30% of its electricity, but the indigenous communities, mostly of Mayan origin, still live to a large degree without potable water or electricity.

A strange cohabitation, tinged with mutual distrust and indifference, set in under Vicente Fox, between the state authorities and the network of several dozen "autonomous" municipalities that make up the Zapatista country spreading around San Cristobal.

The reputable Centro de derechos humanos Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, founded by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, has continued to inventory incidents and acts of intimidation. However, it says that over the last two months it has witnessed a renewed increase in Army activities in the region, bigger than anything since Ernesto Zedillo was President. One of the most aggressive operations was mounted on May 19 in the municipality of Chion, a major EZLN base, where soldiers descended en masse and occupied the place for 24 hours. "Especially disturbing", says the Centre's spokesman, Victor Hugo, is that we have also heard rumours that the paramilitary groups are being reactivated."

How is this sudden turn to a hard line to be explained, given that the EZLN, despite its name, is primarily a "peaceful civil movement"? asks Victor Hugo. Some think it is part of the intense militarization of the fight against narcotrafficking being carried out by President Calderón since coming to power a year and a half ago. Javier Sicilia, a columnist with the magazine Proceso, recently summarized the argument with an incendiary effectiveness: "For this government, which is showing itself to be increasingly removed from the concerns of the people, the war against narcotrafficking is confused with the war against social dissidence." And he added: "For Calderón, Zapatismo and whoever is opposed to [his] democratic logic [neoliberal and bureaucratic] is guilty."

The small road leaving Ocosingo leads to the Mayan ruins of Toniná. A site very nicely arranged, in the midst of pasture lands. At the entrance, an excellent museum of archaeology opened a few years ago. From Mexico to neighbouring Guatemala -- and in Canada, too -- the museological presentation of the indigenous heritage bears more than a trace of hypocrisy. [end]


Tonino pyramid_edited

Views of Mayan ruins at Toniná, the last city of the classic Mayan civilization, enduring more than 100 years beyond the fall of the other classic sites such as nearby Palenque. The pyramid at left was the tallest pyramidal structure in the Mayan world, rising 80 metres above the floor of the Grand Plaza. (RF)

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