Peace Action Delegation to Chiapas: 6 - 13 March 1999

Report and Photos by Tamar Gabelnick


Peace Action led a ten-person delegation to Chiapas from 6-13 March 1999 to look into the impact of U.S. arms, military aid, and training on the region of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. The group was based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the former capital of the state of Chiapas. We took a one day-trip to Actéal, scene of the December 1997 massacre of 45 peasants, and a two-day trip to La Realidad, one of the Zapatista headquarters, or aguascalientes. The Peace Action delegation was led on site by Global Exchange (GX), an American non-governmental organization (NGO) which hosts delegations and conducts independent research in an effort to educate the international community about the situation in Chiapas.


Saturday, 6 March 1999

Upon arriving at the airport of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of the state of Chiapas, most of our group was asked to present our passports. Our names and passport numbers were duly noted by an immigration officer in this tiny airport. We then took a two-hour bus ride to San Cristóbal, passing by gorgeous scenery as we climbed up to 3,000 meters. Houses along the side of the road were usually made of wood, with corrugated tin roofs. Agriculture continued even on steep hills, mostly corn or coffee, with banana trees dotting the landscape. It became clear as we moved east that the best land for farming was in the wealthier coastal area in the west, whereas the small, steep plots in the central highlands could only be used for sustenance farming.

Upon arriving in San Cristóbal, we settled into our colorful hotel and then toured around town until dinner. I discovered that the area still attracted many tourists, though its reputation as a "dangerous" area meant that only a few adventurous Americans were there along with many more Europeans, who either had better information about the true security picture in the region or were not as easily dissuaded as their American counterparts. In fact, I never felt in danger during the trip; on the contrary, I found it an exceptionally hospitable place (at least on the surface). Even the soldiers who drove through the city in military trucks, the heavily armed guards who protected the banks, and the soldiers who later stopped our vans as we left the San Cristóbal region were all good-natured and unthreatening (especially as our group was made up of non-indigenous Mexicans and American "tourists.")

Tourism does live on in Chiapas. In fact, the government tolerates the sale of a certain degree of Zapatista paraphernalia – soldier dolls, t-shirts, keychains, even literature -- because this too is part of the tourist attraction to the region. San Cristóbal is a beautiful city, its bright colors are kept clean by the pure air and the heavy rains. The relative wealth of some of the city's residents is apparent in the number and high quality of the shops, the clean streets, and the preserved architecture. Yet social stratification was readily apparent: one mural advertising a car wash in town showed a dark-skinned employee working up a sweat while the fair-skinned and well-dressed owner welcomed people into his establishment.

Many of the indigenous poor were apparently forced out of town when the main market was moved to the town outskirts. A small produce market remains, as does an area where indigenous women can sell weavings and other crafts to tourists. Other, poorer women and children peddle a small bundles of handicrafts that they carry around to the tourist spots: the main square (el zocalo), the cathedral (a yellow and ochre-painted building in the town center), and the area near the craft market. The colorful cloths and rugs the indigenous people sell can be bought cheaply and bargained down to almost nothing as the women try desperately to make a living. Bargainers beware: these women will agree to go below their own costs just to get some cash. They deserve—but will rarely receive—the price westerners would pay in expensive stores for "authentic handweaved fabrics" back home.


Sunday, March 7

Global Exchange gave us an orientation in the afternoon because most of the groups we planned to visit were not available to meet on Sunday. The head of the local office of Global Exchange our group leader and interpreter spoke to us about the groups we were going to meet and our planned day trips. They spent a lot of time emphasizing that we faced risks by going on the trips to indigenous communities. The Mexican government was cracking down on foreign human rights monitors and had made a few deportations earlier in the year. The government had understood that foreign visitors were able to do significant damage by reporting to the outside world that all was not well in Chiapas. That the so-called internal conflicts within indigenous communities were not simply the continuation of long-standing disputes, but the direct result of a central plan to exacerbate intra-communal tensions and turn them into violent confrontations. The villagers who had long profited economically and politically from an association with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) resented the uprising of fellow peasants who opposed such corrupt relationships. The Zapatista revolution in January 1994 led to the creation of autonomous municipalities, parallel local governments led by the Zapatista members rather than the "PRIstas." The new municipal leaders made ripe targets for a new government policy of "irregular warfare" (described in more detail below). Paramilitary groups made up of loyal PRI villagers were armed and encouraged to use force to defend their privileges.

These tactics were a perversion of lessons the U.S. government took from Vietnam and passed on to Mexican military officers in U.S. training programs: rather than fighting expensive, controversial wars in distant lands, the U.S. military began arming and training local soldiers to fight for themselves. Beginning in 1995, the Mexican government realized it had lost the political battle over Chiapas and decided to launch a military confrontation with the EZLN (the Spanish acronym for the Zapatista army). Using the strategies learned in the U.S., the Mexican government shifted most of the burden of fighting the Zapatistas and their indigenous supporters from the Mexican military to local paramilitary groups. Mexican soldiers—some of them retired—armed and trained PRI-allied villagers to threaten, attack and kill local opponents.

The PRI also engaged in tactics to fuel animosity within indigenous communities, such as granting both groups the same valuable tract of land and letting them fight it out. Violence escalated rapidly, and many deaths by paramilitary troops were recorded in 1997. The attacks in the municipality of Chenalhó culminated in a bloody massacre in December 1997, when 45 unarmed men, women, and children in the village of Actéal were killed by a government-backed paramilitary group ironically called "Paz y Justicia" ("Peace and Justice"). The slaughter took place over a period of several hours while those who tried to escape were hunted down, and the police who were stationed within earshot and were alerted by survivors did not intervene.

Global Exchange was planning to take us to Actéal on Tuesday, but wanted to make sure we were prepared for possible problems with the immigration and military officials stationed throughout the Chiapas countryside. During the January 1999 delegation’s trip to Actéal, three people were ordered to have an interview with the Immigration department in San Cristóbal. While they were not deported, they had to endure an intimidating interrogation. Global Exchange was also not clear how technologically advanced the Mexican immigration authorities were. They would certainly note all of our passport numbers and names, but no one knew whether those names would be available to immigration officers at the post on the way to La Realidad, destination of our second day trip and the largest EZLN headquarters. On tourist visas, we could plead innocent at the first stop since "real" tourists did pass by to buy indigenous handicrafts or visit the beautiful countryside. But heading in the direction of two highly sensitive destinations would be enough to tip us off to the police. Again, the worst that would happen would be deportation, and we were to leave after La Realidad anyway, but we might not make it to the latter trip if we had troubles on the former. (In later discussions, all participants agreed to go to Actéal.)

The GX leader then described our planned trip to La Realidad, which was especially noteworthy because we would be able to witness the organization and launch of "La Consulta," a national referendum on indigenous rights organized by the EZLN. Five thousand masked but unarmed EZLN delegates were to travel to communities around Mexico to them four questions about the rights of indigenous peoples in Mexico and the state of the peace process. There would be a heavy military presence in the area of La Realidad since it is one of five EZLN aguascalientes in Chiapas. Near La Realidad is the town of Guadelupe Tepeyac, which became a ghost town after the government invaded it and other Zapatista bases in February 1995. Its residents fled to the mountains and never returned. After the February military offensive, many communities spent months in the jungle, and many died. Those from Guadelupe Tepeyac were in the mountains for over a year before settling in a community near La Realidad. Formerly an unusually festive community, Guadelupe Tepeyac is now a symbol of the Zapatista resistance. There are military bases at the entrance and exit of the former village, and the villagers showed their strength by resettling rather than returning to this intimidating environment.

Part of the military’s strategy is to prevent foreigners from seeing the region as it really was. Usually, this meant an intimidating military presence to ward off foreign human rights monitors and too many tourists. The government, businesses, and the governor of Chiapas (Roberto Guiellen) refer to human rights activists as "pernicious foreigners." These pernicious folks earn their title by preventing further blatant acts of violence against the indigenous communities. In preparation for the international press expected to document La Consulta, however, it was possible that the immigration and military checkpoints would "disappear" around La Realidad so as not to give the world the impression that this was a region of conflict.


After the briefing, some of us dropped by the Catholic Peace Teams office, where we were told a little about the military training received by Mexican soldiers. They told us that one third of the students of the School of the Americas (SOA) were Mexican, up sharply since 1994. At Fort Bragg, soldiers learned drug interdiction and psychological warfare tactics. Drug trafficking is not actually a problem in most Chiapas villages since indigenous groups fiercely oppose the use of drugs, but narcotics provide an easy excuse for the military to search and harass these communities. They also told us that in the Chenalhó area alone (where Actéal is located), there are 20 military bases. Of the 18,000-20,000 displaced persons, the highest concentration is in this area, probably due to the high number of paramilitary groups. Military promises to provide protection have thus far been empty. Instead, indigenous people associated with the EZLN have been targeted for harassment by police. In 1998, 1,000 people were arrested for association with the EZLN.

In the afternoon, a few of us went to the Na Bolum museum, which used to be the home of an odd German-origin couple. Now a Mayan museum, the eccentric indigenous guide told us about the dinners they had when the mistress sat at the head of the long, wooden dining room table. Guests from around the world would have fascinating conversations that could only take place at this strange crossroads. James Baker and Francois Mitterand used to meet there annually. On our tour around the gardens, the guide told us that Mayans wore colorful clothes to protect themselves from the evil spirits: bracelets and belts were favored because they covered one’s wrists and stomach, the body’s most vulnerable spots. He explained what all the colors meant: blue symbolized energy; white stood for purification.


Sunday evening we had a medical briefing from a Spanish doctor who had just spent a year working in a hospital in the jungle of eastern Chiapas. He told us that the infant mortality rate in Chiapas was 60 per 1000 births, or twice that of the rate for all of Mexico and 10 times as much as that of Europe. He estimated it to be as high as 100 per 1,000 births in Lagunas. The mortality rate for mothers was also twice as high in Chiapas as the Mexican average.

Medical care is "free" for the poor, but they receive low-quality care and may need prescriptions that are prohibitively expensive. Many diseases would be treatable if caught early, but there are few medical facilities in the countryside. Moreover, government hospitals may provide better care, but many villagers are wary of them. Women especially have had bad experiences, as doctors have sometimes implanted contraceptive devices in their uterus whether the women want them or not. They often do not tell them afterwards, leaving them to wonder why they cannot become pregnant.

Most health problems stem from the poor water supply. In a region with a large amount of annual rainwater, many communities lack the facilities to properly treat their drinking water. They have been asking the government for water purification systems for a long time, but now that the government is finally beginning to build them, they are rejected by villagers suspicious of their motives. As well, the systems are often too complex and maintenance-intensive for these remote communities, and they fall into disservice after the first problems.


Monday, March 8

Fray Bartolomé Human Rights Center

Our first meeting with a local NGO was at the Fray Bartolomé Human Rights Center, a civil group run under diocese auspices. The staff of 30 investigates human rights abuse reports and publishes reports on the local human rights situation. They are often the target of government attacks, discredited by the government in media reports, and have also been subject to death threats. They aim to dispel the notion put forward by the government that there is neither a political problem in Chiapas nor a counter-insurgency program. They also seek to raise the level of consciousness of the indigenous population and raise their expectations for a better life. Below is a description given to us of the economic and political situation in Chiapas.

Outside of Peru, Chiapas is the region with the largest amount of indigenous rebellions in Latin America. There have been strong guerrilla movements in Mexico since the 1960’s, usually in the form of popular movements with a small number of armed forces. Mexico reacted to the 1960’s movements with extreme measures, vacating villages and killing supporters. Over 300 students were killed in student massacres in 1968. These groups began to move underground to avoid persecution, but the persecution continues to this day. In the spring of 1996, for example, six teenagers were killed by PRI supporters and were not punished for the act.

The uprising in Chiapas stemmed in part from the glaring inequality between the resources allocated to this state and those available to others in Mexico. For instance, Chiapas receives 20% of the country’s rainfall and produces 60% of the hydroelectric power, but has the lowest percentage of households with electricity in Mexico. After the conflict erupted, the government did little to correct this disparity, and even seized on the shortage of resources to promote intra-communal conflict. In one instance, the government assigned both PRI supporters and Zapatista sympathizers the rights to gravel pits, which are highly valued. The ensuing conflict was blamed solely on the Zapatistas.

The Mexican government’s reaction to heightened tensions has been to send more security forces. Their real function, according to our speaker, is to take complete control of the territory, spy on the EZLN, and surround refugee camps. The goal of counter-insurgency tactics is to control the population with little cost, in part by using paramilitary groups. Paramilitaries mostly join voluntarily, though some people were forced into fighting the Zapatistas. In 1997, paramilitaries began collecting money for arms. Those that didn’t pay were beaten in the center of town. PRIistas speaking out against violence were also killed.

One paramilitary tactic was to shoot into coffee fields until people fled. The land would either be given to PRI supporters or burned. For indigenous peoples, land and the earth defines their lives; taking it away psychologically destroys them. One third of the diocese (10,000 people) have been displaced by paramilitaries. According to the speaker, the tension in the region was again at the level as it was in Actéal before the massacre.

He also argued that – contrary to U.S. rhetoric – there is an inverse correlation between respect human rights and US military aid. US counter-narcotics aid is given to military forces who are actually aiding drug traffickers.

Enlace Civil

Our next destination was Enlace Civil, a three-year-old organization that runs community projects in health, agriculture, education, and communication. It keeps in close contact with the EZLN and forms a link between indigenous communities and international civil society. Their presentation on the history of the conflict in Chiapas, as well as historical background, follows.

In 1988, a new, economic-driven, era of Mexican history began and the era of "institutionalized revolution" ended. In 1917, the Mexican revolution brought about one of the most progressive constitutions in the hemisphere. It guaranteed the rights to ejidos (communal land) and land redistribution until the law was changed for NAFTA in 1992.

Lazano Cardenas, the very popular Mexican president from 1934-40, was the only Mexican leader who carried out land reform and redistribution on a large scale. He also nationalized the oil and railroad industries. His party—the National Revolutionary Party—changed its name to PRI and has been in power since. Under Cardenas, the first indigenous unions formed, the first roads were built, and hospitals were constructed in indigenous areas in Chiapas. Much of these policies were reversed after he left, but the National Indigenous Institute created in those days remains.

The repeal of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution—which guaranteed the right to communal land and land reform—was seen by indigenous peoples as an act of war against them. While their revolution launched in opposition to this policy can be recognized under international law as legal belligerent force, the Mexican government only refers to them as terrorists.

The Zapatista revolution began on January 1, 1994, but they only fought two battles. A cease-fire was rapidly declared by the military because they were unprepared to fight back, despite the relative weakness of the EZLN. The government began negotiations with the EZLN, with San Cristobal bishop Samuel Ruíz as mediator. The government offered 30 elements of a "peace proposal," but the EZLN eventually rejected them as "surrender proposals" after consulting with the Zapatista communities.

In August 1994, 6,000 people from around Mexico attended a "national democratic convention," in Chiapas to dialogue with the EZLN, but it was apparently infiltrated by government forces. National and state elections scheduled for August 21, 1994, made this a particularly tumultuous time. Zedillo became the PRI candidate after the original candidate was assassinated in March. He ran against the PRD candidate, who was the son of former Pres. Cardenas. In Chiapas, the opposition PRD candidate won, but was not recognized by the government. People reacted with acts of civil disobedience, such as refusing to pay for government services. They organized themselves under the AEDPCH, the Democratic state assembly of the people of Chiapas. The government’s reaction to the AEDPCH was to divide it into camps, creating tensions by giving aid and favors to some while ignoring others.

The Mexican military received its second humiliation in December 1994, when the Zapatistas took over 38 municipalities. During 1994, high strategists in the Mexican government began studying counter-insurgency tactics in Guatemala, Israel, and the U.S. They used the first year of the conflict to identify hostile groups, prepare maps, and buy arms. The three strategies they planned to implement were the creation of internally displaced persons, the creation of paramilitary groups, and the destruction of the EZLN’s support base. The government began to implement the plan in February 1995, when President Zedillo ordered a military offensive in the region to capture EZLN leaders.

In March 1995, a group of high-level members of Congress formed the COCOPA (Commission for Peace). Also in March, the Mexican Congress passed the important Law for Dialogue, Reconciliation, and a Just Peace in Chiapas, which established that a conflict existed and made it legal for the EZLN to carry arms. The law was used to bring back the EZLN to the negotiating table after the February offensive pushed them away.

In the fall of 1995, the negotiators laid out several areas that needed to be addressed: indigenous rights and culture, justice and democracy, economic development, and women’s issues. On 16 February 1996, the parties signed the San Andrés Accords, covering the first of these areas. Among other items, the Accords committed the Mexican government to recognize in national law (i.e., the constitution) the existence of indigenous peoples and their cultural heritage and rights. In November 1996, the COCOPA presented a proposal to reform the laws and constitution, as required in the Accords. The proposal was to be voted up or down, with no amendments. The EZLN said it was incomplete, but agreed to it nonetheless. The government responded with a counter-proposal, ignoring the agreed-upon process and the outcome of the San Andrés dialogue. The differences reflected pressure from the international community, as recognizing the indigenous peoples’ rights to their own resources would have conflicted with external demands for these resources.

In September 1997, the EZLN sent 1,100 representatives to Mexico City to witness the formation of the EZLN’s independent political wing (the FZLN). They denounced the paramilitary groups and human rights violations, but Mexicans outside the region were skeptical that such violations were occurring because of the tight control of the media.

There have been 6 governors in 4 years in Chiapas, none of whom were elected. The governor in December 1997 (at the time of the Actéal massacre) was Guiellen.

In 1998, the government began a dual campaign of kicking out international observers and launching operations to dismantle autonomous municipalities. Between February 1998 and March 1999, 370 foreigners were deported. The harsh repression of autonomous municipalities was suspended in June 1998 after 10 people were killed and the EZLN returned fire, for the first time since the January 1994 cease-fire. In 1998, natural disasters also struck the region, including an intense drought followed by flooding. Government emergency response was sorely lacking.

Three government legislative proposals were introduced in early 1999, showing a desire to continue the same low-level attacks on the indigenous population. First, a remunicipalization law would redraw the boundaries of municipalities to counter the borders of autonomous municipalities. Second, an amnesty law was passed which allowed "civil armed groups" (paramilitaries) to hand over their arms and thus receive civil recognition and immunity. Finally, there would be a new independent indigenous rights law, essentially replacing the never-implemented COCOPA proposal. Our speaker concluded that the Mexican government could either continue this low-level war for a long time, or it could decide to launch a serious strike against the EZLN.

A sign on the wall showed that there were 5,000 refugees in the Northern zone of Chiapas, 10,500 in the highlands, 4,500 in the Selva (jungle), and 700 in San Cristóbal. The poster also stated that there are 34 main paramilitary groups in Chiapas and 1,100 communities in rebellion.


Tuesday morning, we visited CIEPAC, an organization that performs research and training on economic and political issues. It has several analysts who used to work for the Peace Commission (CONAI). Their presentation follows:

Chiapas is important geographically as the entrance to Central America. Mexico’s national development plan involves much exploitation of resources in Chiapas. In addition, when the Panama canal reverts back to Panamanian control, Mexico will become a more important passageway for products from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Three important land trade corridors will be created to help move products across the landmass. A route from Veracruz to Oaxaca will be the route at the narrowest point, and Mexico plans to build high-speed roads and new ports for this route. Drug routes also follow two of these corridors.

Since 1985, Mexico has sent out the military to occupy these land corridor areas. The military occupation of the south therefore predates the EZLN and extended down to the border with Guatemala. Chiapas is a port of entry for drugs into Mexico from Central America. The military was also concerned about Guatemalan refugees and revolutionaries moving into Chiapas, as well as narco-traffickers. From 1982-88, therefore, there was already a military occupation in Chiapas. The state governor was an army general, and peaceful popular movements were repressed, providing the basis for popular support for a military solution against the state in 1994.

Chiapas has two important ports, which are connected with a two-lane highway, and one is connected to a major port in Oaxaca. These ports receive the most investment from government and private investors from Japan, China, Norway, and Vietnam aiming to support—among others—the seafood, peanut and eucalyptus tree (for paper-making) industries. Twelve promising oil wells are being explored, some in the Zapatista regions, and the cloud forests of Chiapas contain a mineral used in making computer chips. Most foreign investment is in the coastal and border regions, and therefore autonomy projects in these areas (especially in the eastern jungle region) threaten capital investment projects and natural resource exploitation activities. Indigenous people are seeking compensation for the resources which are being removed.

Under current law, the government cannot occupy communal lands, but it has used the pretext of the EZLN presence to occupy certain areas, usually coinciding with areas rich in natural resources. Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution gave farmers the right to purchase a piece of land if they farmed it provided for a certain period of time. This type of land reform put population pressures on the good farmland of western Chiapas and encouraged many farmers to move to the Lacanonda jungle. In 1972, under the pretext of returning the jungle to indigenous groups, a Presidential decree gave back the land from the migrant indigenous groups to a small group of indigenous people who had already agreed to sell the land to mahogany lumberers.

In 1992, the Constitution was changed to eliminate (ejidos) and to end the ban on foreign ownership of Mexican land. The changes put market pressure on small communal land owners to sell their plots, though many refused to sell their land for private industry projects. Paramilitary groups were therefore recruited to force people from their land so that it could then be privatized. The first of these groups – Paz et Justicia – appeared in February 1995. Paramilitarization has occurred in strategic locations for natural resource exploitation, especially in the north, east and southern border areas. They cut off people from the EZLN, displace the influence of the diocese among indigenous groups, and help international business investment.

In 1974, an indigenous congress was held (organized by Fray Bartolomé and Bishop Sam Ruíz) to help foster a sense of commonality of purpose and the possibility for indigenous peoples to defend their rights themselves. Yet barriers were placed at every peaceful step they tried to take to win their rights. Thus in the 1980s, the Zapatistas began to organize, and in 1983, six people began the EZLN. By 1990, there were thousands of Zapatistas, becoming a rival of the diocese for support of the indigenous base. In May 1993, there was an encounter between the military and the guerrillas. The army found a Zapatista training camp with a map of a city. While they tried to portray the Zapatistas as narco-traffickers, such groups do not plan for urban takeovers.

In January 1994, the EZLN took over all municipalities in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal. The biggest battle was in Ococingo, the only place where the military was prepared for possible action. By January 12th, both sides agreed to a cease-fire after tremendous international and domestic pressure. Mexico wanted to present itself as a first world country, and declaring a cease-fire helped Salinas maintain Mexico’s international image. In February 1994, the Cathedral peace talks produced a peace treaty, but in March, the assassination of the PRI presidential candidate made the Zapatistas fear that they might suffer the same betrayal as this PRI victim. They therefore refused to approve the treaty. In August 1994, 5,000 civil society members gathered in Zapatista aguascalientes. National and state elections also took place, but were deemed to be a fraud in Chiapas. Nonetheless, by December 1994, a PRI governor was in Chiapas, leading indigenous groups to create 34 autonomous municipalities.

Many weapons used by Zapatistas were bought from Mexican army and police who thought they were selling them to drug dealers (they often sell guns to narco-traffickers, then later seize them and sell them again to others. Drug smuggling is a problem in San Cristóbal and southeastern Chiapas as the land entry point of drugs from Colombia). Peasants mostly used their .22 caliber hunting rifles. They also invaded warehouses and took weapons. Many arms from demobilized soldiers in Guatemala also fed the market. The Mexican army sometimes goes to Guatemala to buy arms and then sells them to paramilitary groups (a general arrested for involvement in the Actéal case described the gun running route).

According to the presenter, US arms are not the most important contribution the US makes to the conflict because Mexico can get arms anywhere. The worst thing the US does is supply training, military aid, strategy assistance, and diplomatic support. Mexicans learned from the US’ Vietnam experience, in which the US won battles and killed more people but lost the war because they lost legitimacy. Mexico did not want to launch a full-scale war because it would also lose politically at home and abroad. As a crucial ally, the US would not tolerate massacres or the refugee crisis heavy military attacks would engender. Instead, Mexico opted for a counter-insurgency strategy taught to them by the US. The US helped their efforts through training and provision of satellite photos and intelligence info. Adoption of the counter-insurgency process allows the US to pretend that there is no conflict and no major problems in the region. On the other hand, increased militarization in Chiapas—the Mexican army has grown from 160,000 to 205,000 troops since 1994-- helps defends the interests of foreign investors.

January 1995 was a watershed in the peace process as Mexico shifted from negotiations to low-intensity conflict. Paramilitary groups were trained in the north and Chenalhó regions. The Mexican military sought out existing community battles and used the excuse of local conflicts to create a military presence in these areas. They also exacerbated conflicts by granting the same land or resources to opposing groups, again in the Chenalhó and northern regions. For example, in Los Charros, a gravel pit was given to both PRI and Zapatista supporter communities, and the two groups fought over it.

Chenalhó has a population of 30,000. In the 1994 elections, the opposition PRD won, but the elections were not recognized. In 1995, the Zapatistas called for a boycott in this strong anti-PRI district, and in the spring of 1996, the Zapatistas created an autonomous municipality as one of numerous attempts to implement the stagnant San Andrés accords.

Paramilitary attacks on churches, clergy and nuns in the north has forced many churches to close. Paramilitaries also take advantage of the tensions between mostly pro-PRI Protestants and mostly pro-Zapatistas Catholics to attract more protestants to their side (most, but not all, paramilitaries are Protestant). Paramilitaries have also attacked local production and stolen coffee harvests, which had been enabling indigenous groups to survive without accepting government assistance. By 1998, there were 21,159 displaced persons, many resulting from the activities of paramilitaries in their regions.

Paramilitaries have acted in the north to free land so that it becomes available for commercial interests. Most are young men, between 15-25, aided in their recruitment by the glorification of war and the offer of pornography. Young men are given money for prostitutes, alcohol and drugs, becoming indebted to the other soldiers and committed to staying. Some are motivated by an evangelical opposition to Catholicism, which they equate with the Catholic church, Zapatistas, communists, and the feared obligation to share their land and goods.

Training for the military is often done by retired military officers who join the public security force and travel around to provide training. Big ranchers also have a history of keeping and training private armies (called "white guards").

Mexican NGOs would benefit from more information from the US into Mexico, i.e., on what arms have been sold. As problems stem from government policy, US groups need to inform US policymakers about what’s really going on in Mexico, as opposed to what they are told by Mexican officials. Mexican consulates monitor the press about Mexico worldwide and report all negative press to Mexico.


Tuesday, 9 March

Day Trip to Actéal

We traveled by bus to Actéal, through the town of Chenalhó, where we were stopped by immigration officers carrying FN assault rifles. They claimed to be implementing the "law against narcotics and firearms." Our guide, a Mexican woman from Mexico City, told the officers that we were tourists interested in exploring the area and buying indigenous crafts. We all pretended not to speak a word of Spanish. They took our passports and noted down our names, and we wondered how effective their communications and database systems were. Would the information collected be available to the officials who would stop up on our trip to La Realidad on Thursday? Could we count on them being technologically backward, or would they surprise us with the efficiency of a determined security system?

The presence of immigration officers along a small road in the middle of nowhere, Chiapas seemed odd to all but the locals who had grown accustomed to official interference in their daily lives. The primary role of the immigration officials was not to bother the locals, however, but to prevent outsiders like us from taking too close a look into the repression that continues in Chiapas. For officials supposedly interested in stopping the traffic of arms and drugs, they paid scant attention to our belongings. Instead, they took care to note down our details in a failed effort to intimidate us.

Military trucks on the road to Actéal

Shortly down the road, we were stopped at a military post. Their sign also said they were enforcing the laws against arms and narcotics, but they asked us for our passports too. Global Exchange decided to protest the military’s regular demand for foreigners’ passports by arguing that the military had no legal right to ask us for identification (only immigration officers have this right under Mexican law). Our guide, Anna, argued heatedly for over 15 minutes with the military officers, who in turn responded in a fairly respectful manner. Anna asked them to tell her where in the law they were given the right to ask for this information. They responded that the "General" had given them these orders, which they had to obey. She retorted that they were supposed to be upholding the law and protecting the population, not spending their time harassing foreigners. They responded that they needed the information in case we were killed on our journey!

Entry sign to Actéal "Welcome to the Bloody Land."

We were hardly at risk from anyone in the region but the security forces. We were warmly welcomed in Actéal, where after being offered a drink of coffee, we were invited to the coffee fields to see the harvesters at work. Under the shade of the tall coffee bushes, we had a first briefing on the situation in Actéal. Our host told us that the villagers had not been cultivating the fields over the past years for fear of the paramilitaries. With the support of human rights groups in San Cristóbal and the participation of three groups of displaced persons living in the area, however, they had decided to go back to harvesting. The local community leader, a PRI member, began to accuse human rights advocates of being provocateurs and supplying arms to the villagers. In response, the Red Cross, human rights commission, and Las Abejas signed an act of accord stating they would not provoke problems and would work together to keep the peace. Paramilitary activities seem to have quieted down since, and things are now calmer.


House in Actéal

We later hiked the steep slope back up the village, surrounded by women in the local dress, a white background with mostly red embroidery. The children were playful; the boys were hams and the girls camera shy. One boy held a toy assault rifle. At the top of the hill, we saw some of the buildings that were hit during the December 1997 massacre. Small bullet holes punctured the thin wooden board structure, and inside, signs in English and Spanish told the horrific story and the complicity of the government in the paramiltary’s actions. The first attacks began in this building where they were distributing donated clothes to villagers. The other shooting began in the church, where members of the non-violent Abejas, or "Bees," group were conducting a prayer for peace. Paramilitary soldiers arrived from all sides and started shooting, killing people as they tried to flee, and hunting them down in their hiding spots. The event lasted from 11:30 am to 4:00 pm while police within earshot made no effort to intervene.

The military was scarcely present before the massacre, but arrived in force afterwards, with 18 military camps now in the region. Their very presence in the region violates their human rights, our host argued, but also interferes with their activities. Soldiers harass women tending the fields and gathering food, destroy shade trees which provide crucial protection for their coffee plants, and take intimidating pictures of women, children, and others as they enter and leave the communities. The villagers have long protested the presence of the military, but to no avail. The military pretends to provide social projects for the local population, supplying some food, medicine, and recreational activities (such as a new basketball court). Yet the only people who take advantage of these offerings are paramilitaries, who do not fear the military. Some paramilitary members also took part in the massacre or committed other crimes, and therefore avoid going to their fields for fear of being arrested. They depend instead on the military to feed them. After the February 1995 offensive, many of the Actéal residents fled for three months in the mountains. When they came back, they found that the army had stolen all of the food and destroyed the water system as well as people’s documentation

Displaced persons live in perpetual fear of more attacks by the heavily armed military and paramilitary soldiers. Some of the paramilitaries who took part in the massacres still walk around free in the region, making the locals fear that they will commit the same atrocities again. The previous week, two young paramilitaries were released from prison because they were minors. They now live in a neighboring village and have threatened to "finish off" the village.

Two communities of displaced persons continued to have problems harvesting their coffee in the areas from which they came because of paramilitary groups. On one occasion, the displaced persons were escorted back to their fields by the National Commission for Human Rights and Fray Bartholomé Human Rights Center. The municipal president assured them that they could all come in to harvest their fields except for two "provocateurs." They were also told they would need to request permission to come back again. Upon the next such visit (without escorts), they were denied permission to enter. They made a third attempt to enter, but were met by a group of about 50 men armed with machetes and sticks, who followed them to the fields. Too scared to stay, they left without harvesting. They have not returned because the paramilitaries remain on their land. Besides losing access to the land – which is symbolically precious for indigenous people – they have lost the coffee harvest, which had been their main source of income.

Our host placed much faith in La Consulta, which Las Abejas felt would grant them respect for their rights and end the violence. Las Abejas distinguish themselves from the Zapatistas because they are purely peaceful, their only weapons "the words of God" and now the Consulta. While not entirely naïve about the attention the government would give to the Consulta, they saw it as a sign that civil society was doing what the EZLN only had done before, which is to mobilize the population towards peace and respect for their rights.

The shrine to the Actéal massacre victims.

At the end of our formal presentation, we were given a tour of the village. We saw the open-air church where some of the massacre began, and the new brick structure built over the graves of the 45 massacre victims. Inside, flashing lights and murals adorned the walls; the last wall was covered with photos of the victims. Fifteen children and many women (some pregnant) had been killed, all innocent and peaceful. Forty-five faces reduced to two-dimensions on the wall of a shrine. The greatest, but not the last, victims of senseless violence in this beautiful land.

Without this physical sign of the violence, an outsider might not know what had happened. The children ran and played as if they had forgotten what they had suffered. Many men were busy building a new home for the displaced. The house was made of wooden boards, cut with machetes by men wearing traditional white tunics. They too seemed light-hearted, laughing and giggling at the antics of one who was showing off for their guests.

Sign for Autonomous Municipality of Polho

After leaving Actéal, we tried to visit the EZLN-run autonomous municipality next door, but were not allowed in because the leader was not present to grant us permission. Their camps are clearly marked with EZLN and pictures of masked soldiers, the flimsy barrier only a symbolic gesture to keep out the military. But for now, in this community, the military simply drive by without trying to enter the camp.


Wednesday, 10 March

Wednesday morning we met with Kinal Anzetic, an NGO that supports indigenous communities through cooperatives, including a women’s cooperative in San Cristóbal. They explained to us how they help indigenous women earn a respectable amount for their weavings, as opposed to the independent women who sell at the markets for cutthroat prices, often earning less than the costs of materials and production. They teach the women—who often have little education—accounting and general business skills. The cooperative they assist is one of the few that is run by indigenous women themselves.


In the afternoon, we visited CIDECI, a large occupational training center for indigenous workers. Their goal is to provide holistic training to selected young men and women so that they can earn a better living in their communities or in town. They also house over 250 internally displaced persons from Chenalhó who feel the repression is too strong to return. The center had many buildings, each for a particular training course, including electronics, auto repair, woodworking, farming skills, clothes dyeing, and mass-production cooking. The organization was mostly funded by foreign foundations and appeared to be offering a unique opportunity to many indigenous workers.


Wednesday evening we were given a briefing on the indigenous resistance by Don Andrés, a renowned journalist and historian. In his effort to educate people about the events in Chiapas, he has been harassed and his house and archives robbed. He explained to us the history of the conflict and three major phases of the negotiations process.

The first phase of negotiations took place at the Cathedral in San Cristóbal on 21 February 1994 between a presidential delegate, an EZLN delegate, and mediator Bishop Sam Ruíz. Also present were the Mexican Red cross, civil society members, unarmed military police, and 400 journalists. After ten days of negotiations, the groups produced an agreement and a protocol of about 30 points. The Zapatistas signed the document, and took them to the communities to be endorsed. But three weeks later, the PRI presidential candidate was assassinated, shocking the nation and the EZLN, who felt that if the PRI could turn on their own like that, they could certainly betray the Zapatistas. They therefore decided to suspend negotiations.

After Sam Ruíz worked to get the parties back to the negotiation table, the second phase of negotiations began in the selva (jungle) in January 1995. This time, Sam Ruíz mediated between Marcos and his supporters and the Interior Minister and his supporters. The first meeting only lasted a few hours, and the next meeting was set for 8 February. But at the next encounter, the government ambushed Marcos’ delegation and took several prisoners, once again betraying the trust of the EZLN. A military offensive in several communities followed.

With even more difficulty, Sam Ruíz brought the parties back to the negotiations table in April 1995. He was helped by a legislative intervention in the process. A law for dialogue was passed which cut back on the President’s power in the negotiations and attempted to limit the risk of further breakdowns in the talks. This next series of meetings eventually produced the San Andrés accords, signed on 16 February 1996. Since then, dialogue has not been broken, but suspended because the government did not comply with the agreement. Now, said Don Andrés, "dialogue exists, but there are no meetings; a war exists, but there is no fighting."

After the government failed to translate the San Andrés accords into law and practice, the EZLN decided to implement them unilaterally, especially Article 2, which establishes them as a legitimate group moving from an armed movement to a civil body. As such, the EZLN has acted as a political force, calling for a new dialogue with the Mexican people. They are trying to move the issue from the framework of Chiapas to a larger, national issue of democracy. They seek a national debate and among all Mexicans about what they want their society to look like. The government, on the other hand, insists the problems are limited to the region and that negotiations should only address local issues. And while the government failed to live up to its responsibility under the San Andrés accords, it accuses the EZLN of being intransigent because it won’t return to the negotiating table.

The EZLN’s political actions have included a national convention, where 5-6,000 people from around the country were convened to learn about the true situation of the indigenous people in Chiapas and to develop a group consensus on what to do about it. In August 1995, the EZLN held the first national consultation with the Mexican people. They asked over 3 million people whether they believed the EZLN should be converted into a political force and "mandar obeciendo," or "obey leading" (as Zapatista leader Marcos describes his role). The Mexican people responded positively, calling for the Zapatistas to become a political force. (In contrast, President Zedillo could only get 300,000 to participate in a national consultation on economic development.) The Zapatistas then convoked a national indigenous forum on the reformation on the state. Although only 1,000 people came to the "National Indigenous Congress," this was a significant number given they only took a week to organize it.

In April 1996, the EZLN arranged a "continental" meeting of 600 people from North and South America, and in August 1996, an "intergalactic" meeting brought 6,000 people from around the world. In 1997, 1,111 delegates (from each community in resistance)took part in a march on Mexico City. In a November 1998 meeting between the EZLN and civil society, it was decided to launch another national consultation in March 1999. The government’s reaction to these acts was to begin meeting with opposition parties to discuss political reform, but these meetings only produced minor reforms in the electoral process.

In 1998, frustrated with the government’s failure to comply with the San Andrés accords, the Zapatistas decided to implement part of the accords dealing with remunicipalization by inaugurating many autonomous municipalities. The government later dismantled many of these municipalities, eventually using force, including bazookas, mortars, and helicopters. Some Zapatistas were killed and some imprisoned, but the EZLN did not respond with force in accordance with the terms of the cease-fire. Such restraint in the face of government violence, however, cost them some respect among followers.

In general, the government responded to the EZLN’s political activities with a military approach, understanding that they had the military advantage while the Zapatistas maintained a stronger political position. This strategy became clear in February 1995, when the government launched a strike on the EZLN the day after the Selva negotiations were supposed to continue. President Zedillo gave a radio talk stating that the Zapatistas were misleading the public. The Mexican military destroyed Guadelupe Tepeyac, while the EZLN refrained from reacting, costing the government politically. In another political victory for the Zapatistas, the legislature broke with the government to pass the law for dialogue in March 1995. This was the first such break between the legislature and the executive branch and forced the government to act in a democratic fashion.

The law on dialogue prevented the president from commanding the army to engage in an all-out war against the EZLN. The Mexican government therefore turned to the solution taught them at training schools in the U.S., including the School of the Americas, Fort Benning, and Fort Bragg: irregular—or "low-intensity"—warfare. Mexican military officers took the U.S. training manuals on low-intensity warfare and changed them into "irregular warfare." The term irregular is used in Mexico because the type of warfare taught by the U.S.—total military, social, political, economic, and psychological war against civilians—is unconstitutional in Mexico. Mexican officers learned at the SOA to create paramilitary, or armed civilian groups as part of psychological warfare. The paramilitary groups are controlled by municipal communities of police and security forces and managed by inter-departmental structures in the state, headed by military leaders. Paramilitaries would therefore have the backing of the state and the municipalities, but the military could keep a level of plausible deniability for the violence.

The Mexican Defense Secretariat’s military field manual says the paramilitary groups’ first task is to spread false news and misleading rumors, divide and disorganize communities, introduce behavior in communities to reduce support for the enemy, and cause general confusion with a strong psychological impact. The goal is to polarize communities, disintegrating the ejidos and the social fabric so that the government can blame problems on inter-communal conflicts while denying its role in creating or exacerbating such conflicts. The military manuals specify that these activities are not legal, but states that there is enough political reasons to justify the means. The military can then go into communities under the pretense of keeping the peace, pretending to turn from party to the conflict to neutral mediator.

The paramilitary scenario explains why there has been no solution in Actéal: to move forward, the government would have to admit its role in the irregular warfare process. In the meantime, the people of Actéal have pledged to keep resisting, working, dreaming and struggling for their freedom. The March 1999 national consultation is seen as a form of this type of resistance.

The Mexican military budget has risen in accordance with the shift in approach to its internal strife. Before 1994, Mexico had the lowest military budget on the continent; it is now spending as much on the military as on education. It is difficult to track what arms are being bought for the counter-insurgency effort since they are usually procured under the pretense of counter-narcotics activities and then transferred. Not all Mexican arms come from the U.S.; tanks come from France, and high-tech planes are bought from Switzerland. The sophistication of Mexican arms has increased with the level of military training. Training therefore becomes a critical element because it allows the military to increase its capacity to use sophisticated arms, contributing to a spiral of growing military violence. At the same time, the training of soldiers—especially special forces—who are not using their new skills is building up a level of frustration which could lead to a particularly bloody encounter if these soldiers are ever directly involved in fighting. As paramilitary activities increased, reports are rising of chronic soldier desertion in the selva region.


Thursday, 11 March

Two-day trip to La Realidad

The day started at 3:30 am. We piled into two large Suburbans and headed off on the eight-hour ride to La Realidad. The trip was extended by frequent car problems, including one car that kept overheating and one car that fell halfway off a small bridge, leaving one side lurching over a three foot drop into mucky water. We’re still not sure how the driver put the two wheels off the road, waking us up with a start but injuring no one. Luckily, the middle of nowhere to us was actually a major thoroughfare for the local population, and several trucks passed by, asking if we needed help. We were finally pulled out by attaching a chain to a bus (with passengers still on board) and gently pulling the car back onto the road. I’m still not sure how we didn’t break the axle, but we took this as a good omen and continued the bumpy ride to La Realidad.

We passed through immigration while it was closed, avoiding the feared efficacy of the Mexican communication system, which might have allowed the officials to match our names with the list noted on the way to Actéal. We were stopped at two military checkpoints, informed by the guards that they were "here to implement the law against drugs and guns." We all got out of the cars while the soldiers halfheartedly poked at our bags. They asked for our identification, and again our guide respectfully refused, telling the guards at both checkpoints that they did not have the right to ask for our IDs. Perhaps the guards had more respect for a male interlocutor, perhaps because he spoke with more confidence, or perhaps they were less worried about intruders in that region, but both times they let us go without much debate.

The rest of the trip was uneventful except for the scenery. We passed from canyons to peaks of the jungle-covered, razor-sharp hills, passing the occasional small village of wood and thatched roof houses, women and girls hauling wood on their backs, and men with machetes and horses or donkeys foraging for wood or food.

Military patrol on the road to La Realidad

Soldier in Armored Personnel Carrier with .50 calibre machine gun Soldiers carrying M-16's in a humvee
M-203 automatic grenade launcher atop humvee

Near Guadelupe Tepeyac, we made way for a caravan of 33 armored personnel carriers, humvees, and converted trucks, all full of soldiers, many with machine guns or turrets. We exchanged photo-taking as they passed. Their job is to drive daily past La Realidad for no purpose but to show their presence and intimidate the villagers. Usually they drive by, but sometimes they enter the compound. Guadelupe is now a military base; no one else dares live there. There is a large, brand new hospital, which the locals refuse to use because they don’t want to be bribed by government services into cooperation with the authorities. Sick villagers will travel hours further along the rough road for medical attention rather than stop between the two military posts guarding the ghost town and its hospital.

Sign annoucing the "Consulta" at the entry to La Realidad

The "guards" at La Realidad let us in after seeing our passports because our guide has spent a lot of time with the community and has won their confidence. But since La Realidad was one of five centers preparing 1,000 delegates for "la Consulta," the community leaders were too busy to talk to us. So we waited in the village on long wooden benches in front of "sleeping area" #17, unable to even see the preparations from afar. We cooled ourselves off by bathing in the stream (women in the shallow part far from men’s view; men in the deep, lake-like area suitable for a real bath). We played with the boy children who were bored by the preparations (the girls were not to be seen for the most part), observed the women in brightly colored dress who came and went in groups, and inspected the murals that we were allowed to see: one of Columbus’ boat, Marcos, and Zapata, with sunshine and corn fields on the end. The people were generally warm, though many looked at us with suspicion. There were 850 residents (not including the Consulta delegates), including many displaced persons from other communities. They share two latrines and other rudimentary facilities. Electricity was used sparingly as part of the "resistance" to any service brought by the government.


Friday, 12 March

La Realidad

In the morning, 36 humvees and APCs drove through the village while all foreigners present (including several Europeans in a "peace camp") lined up along the road to demonstrate an international presence. They drive by daily, proceed to the end of the road, camp out for a few hours, and drive back. Sometimes they get out and do exercises in front of the villagers. Once they even got out by the EZLN HQ and feigned an invasion. Huey helicopters also fly over twice a day, sometimes flying low enough to brush the tree tops. We saw them fly over several times as the delegates preparing for their departure were singing the Zapatista anthem at the top of their lungs.

Military/police patrol in La Realidad

 Humvee with FN MAG light machine gun

We waited patiently over two days for an invitation to witness the preparations for the Consulta and were beginning to despair that we would have to leave before we were invited in. (We had to leave that evening to catch our plane the next morning.) We sat on the benches, looking at the splendid view of the hills, the women passing by in bright colors. The kids spent their day asking us, often aggressively, to buy their hand-embroidered scarves, which all had EZLN or associated themes. We were told that we would be invited to an EZLN dance after the preparations were finished; we would then be able to see the delegates board the buses and make their way off on their historic journey. Apparently, the preparations were over, but the buses had not arrived, causing speculation that they were held up by the military.

Eventually, under a false rumor that we would be let in, we walked over to the aguascalientes—the biggest of the five EZLN headquarters. Hundreds of people were milling about a large courtyard, surrounded by a school, a "library," a store, a large stage, and an impromptu shelter with long rows of benches—all surrounded by a fence and a guard who would not let us in. They did not want non-EZLN people to see the delegates without their ski masks, and they did not want to put the masks on any longer than necessary since they would be keeping them on until the end of the Consulta (almost 10 days later). We returned dejectedly to our benches on the other side of the stream to wait again.

The need for complete secrecy was striking. Even though our group leader had a long history with the community, they did not even trust him to witness the events and would not accept his word about our good intentions. They were discussing the key organizational tactics—who would go where, what to say to the civic groups they met with, how to answer questions about their own four questions—and thus wanted no outsiders to get this strategic information. Many of the delegates (half of which were women) had never left their own communities, let alone the state of Chiapas. All delegates were from EZLN-supported communities, thought they were not necessarily members of the EZLN.

Zapatista supporters were very optimistic about the Consulta, looking at it as a way to break the current deadlock in the peace negotiations. So they could afford no compromises when it came to preserving their security. The government did not say it would prevent the Consulta, but intimidation tactics were in force, including plane and helicopter fly-overs. A TV report the next day said that one government official labeled the Consulta an "assault." Officially, the government discounted the importance of the event, but said it would not try to block it since the delegated were unarmed.

We were finally allowed into the aguascalientes at 9:00, a half-hour before our scheduled departure. We were the immediate center of attention, if there could be one in a group of 1,000 people. Ten tall, white foreigners were a spectacle, towering over the small, traditionally-dressed group which had moved on from preparations to the long-awaited dance. Low-key music was played while couples danced a two-step waltz. Some people began cheering when we moved onto the dance floor, and the band welcomed us as "international journalists and students." After all, our presence was perceived as a deterrent to any military aggression, providing them with a small measure of comfort. Our acceptance and inclusion into this dedicated group of indigenous activists was a moving experience, well worth the 48-hour wait.


Lessons Learned

A key lesson from the trip was that U.S. military training is hardly the catalyst for democratization that the U.S. government makes it out to be. In this case, U.S. military training undermined the peaceful negotiations process and provided support instead for a militarized approach to the conflict. Mexico’s movement towards counter-insurgency was particularly striking in Chiapas because it was not a protracted military conflict. With one exception, the EZLN respected the cease-fire, meaning that a violent military approach was unjustified and actually counter-productive. It put them further from winning a political war by alienating much of the populace, and put them on a path of military confrontation, which can only be a long, drawn-out and costly affair. At a critical juncture in the negotiations process, the U.S. apparently encouraged the Mexican government—either directly or implicitly through the provision of counter-insurgency training—to pursue a military solution to an essentially civil conflict.

Another lesson of the trip was that the Mexican government is highly sensitive about its international image. It wants to preserve the idea that Mexico belongs to the group of democratic, industrialized nations, not the group of troubled developing states located to its south. As such, Mexico tries to avoid any press or public attention given to the problem in Chiapas. The international community can therefore be quite effective by publicizing the heavy militarization of Chiapas and the role of the Mexican military in arming and guiding the paramilitaries.

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