PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

March 1998

Chiapas: The Mexican Kosova

James Petras

Mexican army invades communities, burns crops, ransacks houses, beats peasants, threatens community leaders, shouts obscenities to women, frightens children with overhead helicopters encircling villages. This is not as the Mexican government claims and the government controlled media reports, making 'peace overtures' to Zapatistas. The growth of paramilitary groups within military controlled territory, their threats and assassination of dissident villages continues to this day. It is clear that while President Zedillo and his new Minister of Interior talk peace, they engage in low intensity warfare.

One of the more effective organized efforts preventing abuses by the Mexican military and its paramilitary allies is the international peace monitors. The presence of these overseas monitors inhibits the use of force and acts of depredation. In their absence, the pro-government paramilitary forces have massacred villages, forced over 1 0,000 villagers to flee to safe havens and led to the illegal occupation of community lands by local PRI party hacks.

It is not surprising that the Mexican government has launched a campaign to oust these international peace observers from Chiapas. They are inconvenient witnesses of obscene military abuses. More important, the international observers have access to the overseas media and work with influential human rights groups. It is ironic that the Mexican government should accuse these human rights observers concerned with the rights of the Indian community of foreign meddling when the regime's economic policies have been explicitly designed to accommodate foreign investors and overseas bankers while military units have undergone intense training under U.S. military tutelage.

The Mexican regime's expulsion of a 75 year old French priest Michel Henri Jean Chanteau who served the faithful in Chiapas for over 30 years is one of many flagrant examples of the selective xenophobia which passes for immigration policy in Mexico today. The priest s sin in the eyes of the Mexican government was to officiate at the funeral of the 45 Indians massacred by a pro-government paramilitary group on December 22 of last year. Each and every day Indian communities in Chiapas report military aggression. On January 8th community leaders from the Moises Gandhi community reported that the military occupied community land. Peasants going into the forest to obtain firewood were intercepted, threatened and sent back to their homes. Children were prevented from going to school. Women on their way to do washing at the river were intercepted, interrogated and subject to sexual abuse. Helicopters and airplanes circled over the village night and day. Four tanks and 20 trucks with 30 soldiers patrol the village.

Polho, another community in Chiapas, has received over 6,000 Indian refugees from the Chenalho region, the site of the December 22 massacre of 43 Indians, fleeing the presence of a paramilitary group calling itself Peace and Justice, led by local party bosses from the PRI, the government party.

On January lst, 150 soldiers surrounded the village of San Miguel Chiptic. They subsequently entered the community, robbed the local store and took 20,000 pesos from a cooperative. On the same day, another brigade of soldiers occupied the village of La Esperanza. They stole the 50 chickens that the women's cooperative were raising to supplement their household income. They entered homes and robbed everything of value: farm tools, kitchen utensils, etc. The following day women from 13 neighboring communities came together in the village demanding that the soldiers leave. The soldiers continued to pillage community resources, robbing the local store of 27,000 pesos and all of its produce. The women organized protests against the militarization of their villages, against the pillage of their scarce and hard-earned resources. Clearly the military is in Chiapas to intimidate these dissenting communities. On January 9, the federal troops entered the May 10 community with heavy armaments and were confronted by peasant women with the most primitive weaponry: stones and sticks. They were no match: the soldiers advanced, seized the sticks and beat and kicked some of the women senseless.

By February 16, 10,433 Indians had been displaced from their communities by paramilitary groups sympathetic to the government and federal troops. The tactics are threats of new massacres, beatings and selective assassinations to spread terror.

On February 22 a community leader who had provided written testimony to international human rights observers was assassinated on his return to his village, Tzaquil, by eight members of the paramilitary group Peace and Justice. The assassins were identified by survivors as residents of the neighboring village of La Libertad. The names were turned over to the federal government, but as yet no arrests have been made. Coincidentally, the leaders of Peace and Justice are members of the governing party.

The Indian communities are beginning to resist the continual military abuses. Armed with sticks and stones, they courageously confront armed peronnel carriers with mounted machine guns that trespass on their farmland, block roads essential for commerce and engage in military exercises within the confines of their communities. The government engages in the typical ploy of all conquering armies: it combines a massive show of force with the offering of basic foodstuffs in hopes of taking advantage of the food shortages that their occupation has induced. The Indians reject the aid, even as they resist the policy of intimidation, recognizing the regime's divide and conquer policies. Many U.S. religious and human rights groups are active in monitoring the human rights situation in Chiapas and many are active in trying to provide food and medicine to the communities without the regime's harsh political strings. The Indian communities in Chiapas are not asking very much. First and foremost, they want to get the Mexican Army out of their communities and they want the paramilitary forces that they created to leave with them. Secondly,they want to secure local autonomy and the right to self-government. They are fed up with being ruled by corrupt narco-politicians from the ruling party state. Thirdly, they want to secure uncultivated lands to feed their families. These are reasonable demands, but appear radical only in the context of a centralized, one party state that believes there is only one line of thinking: the policies of free markets and machine guns. Fortunately, public opinion polls show that the majority of Mexicans sympathize with the goals of the Indians and favor a peaceful solution.

The U.S. government approves sanctions against Serbia for its brutal invasion of Albanian villages in Kosova. A similar signal to the Mexican government would contribute immensely to the demilitarization of the Indian communities in Chiapas and an end of human rights abuses.