ricardo dominguez on Tue, 10 Sep 2002 06:15:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Who is killing the Zapatistas of Chiapas

MexBarb @1177
  Big Trouble in Indian Country - 1 of 2



MEXICO CITY (Sept. 11th) - Who is killing the Zapatistas of Chiapas?
In the past month (August), four members of the civilian support base of
the Zapatista Army of National Liberation  have been killed in renewed
conflict deep inside the rebels' Lacandon jungle zone of influence.  The
Zapatistas and their supporters blame the killings on a rejuvenated
paramilitary presence and have mounted a national and international
campaign against the Mexican government of Vicente Fox and Chiapas state
governor Pablo Salazar.  For its part, the Salazar administration claims
that it has dismantled the paramilitary apparatus that flourished in the
state when the long-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party
(PRI) ruled Chiapas and that the killing is being done by disgruntled
PRIistas seeking to undermine Salazar, that southern-most state's first
non-PRI governor.

The paramilitary phenomenon is a long-standing one in Chiapas.  Soon
after the Zapatistas' surprise January 1st 1994 uprising, a group of
generals at the Rancho Nuevo military base just outside San Cristobal de
las Casas circulated a Chiapas Strategy Plan, designed to create and arm
civilian counter-insurgency units in the 38 municipalities in which the
rebels had influence.

The bitter fruit of the Chiapas Strategy Plan was plucked at
Christmastime 1997 when members of a paramilitary death squad thought to
be named Mascara Roja ("Red Mask") slaughtered 46 Tzotzil Indian allies
of the Zapatistas, "Las Abejas' or 'The Bees', in the highlands at

At the peak of their power, 11 distinct paramilitary formations were
calculated to be active in Chiapas.  The so-called 'Development,
Peace &Justice' group, backed up by the commanding officer of
the 31st Military Region, General Mario Rennin Castillo, a counterinsurgency
trained at the Fort Bragg North Carolina Center for Special Forces,
conduted a reign of terror in the north of the state, where human rights
groups charge the paramilitary formation with more than 60 murders.  Led
by PRI state legislator Samuel Sanchez, 'Peace and Justice' drove
Zapatista supporters off their land. closed down Catholic churches in
the region, and is thought to have organized a failed assassination
attempt on San Cristobal bishop emeritus Samuel Ruiz and his
then-coadjutor Raul Vera in 1997.

Sanchez eventually went to jail and was released by the new governor
Salazar after agreeing to lay down his arms.  But some 'Peace and
Justice' stalwarts resisted pacification and the paramilitary split into
three warring factions.  The leader of the most violent branch, Diego
Vazquez, was jailed last spring after he refused to abide by a
non-aggression pact arranged by the diocese in the north of the

In a recent interview with this reporter, Salazar's Indian Affairs
Secretary Porfirio Encino, insisted that no paramilitary group was now
active in the state, a position that was ratified by Chiapas Government
Secretary Emilio Zabadua at a Geneva Human Rights conference in August -
the affirmation is rejected by the Zapatistas and their supporters.
The problem may well be one of definitions.  There is no Mexican law
that defines and sanctions a paramilitary formation.  The strictest
definition would be a group that is armed and trained by the military to
carry out a military strategy, such as low intensity warfare, with the
approval of the Mexican government - but few paramilitary groups
actually fit this profile.  Mascara Roja, responsible for the massacre
at Acteal, for example, bought its weaponry on the black market and was
trained by a Tzotzil Indian who had once been a low-ranking member of
the military.

A looser definition of a paramilitary group might be an armed formation
with military characteristics such as uniforms, a description that would
fit the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

An examination of five separate incidents of violence against Zapatista
civil bases in the Lacandon jungle between July 31st and August 31st
tends to debunk the hypothesis that paramilitary bands armed by the
Mexican military and supported by the government of Vicente Fox, are
responsible for the skein of killings.

All of the incidents took place far away from public view with no
neutral observers to challenge partisan interpretations of the events.
All the killings seem to be more about cows and corn and timber poaching
than ideology.  In three of the killings, the aggressors are Indians and
in all five of the incidents, the perpetrators were PRIistas, mostly
with limited fire power (they sometimes used stones.)

--- On July 31st, a group of PRI Indian farmers in communities just
outside the Montes Azules biosphere reserve in an area the Zapatistas
designate as an autonomous municipality named for the old anarchist
Ricardo Flores Magon, rampaged through the Zapatista hamlet of La
Culebra, injuring seven.  The mob was led by Pedro Chulin, a member of
the PRI delegation in the state congress and the head of that body's
Indian Affairs Commission.  Chulin is also the founder and leader of the
Organization for the Defense of the Rights of the Indians and the
Farmers (OPDDIC) which the EZLN considers to be a paramilitary formation
- the OPDDIC's base community San Antonio Escobar is a few miles down
the road from a military installation.  But there is no other evidence
that the Indian farmers who attacked the Zapatistas were either armed
and trained by the military, or carried out a specific military strategy
ordered by President Vicente Fox, both conditions for defining the
OPDDIC as a genuine paramilitary organization.

--- The next incident occurs on August 7th at a ranch named August 6th
in the autonomous municipality of November 17th, when a Zapatista civil
supporter Jose Lopez Santiz is murdered under mysterious circumstances.
The details have not gotten less confusing as the case has progressed.
Lopez Santiz's murderers are thought to be led by a local rancher,
Baltazar Alonso, from the nearby mestizo town of Altamirano - but slow
action by the police there allowed the alleged gunmen to escape and they
are still on the lam. The killing does not seem to be a political one -
the victim and his presumed assassin knew each other and drink and bad
debt seem to be involved.  Nonetheless, the rebels see the hand of
paramilitaries in the Lopez Santiz murder  and blame Governor Salazar
and the 'mal gobierno' (bad government) of Vicente Fox, for failing to
crack down on armed groups.

A few days after the killing, Zapatistas marched through Altamirano
behind a large banner charging that "Pablo Salazar is directly
responsible for the counter-insurgency."  Salazar, an ex-PRI senator who
headed up the legislative commission that wrote an Indian Rights law
favored by the EZLN, had arrived in Altamirano to try and 'dialogue'
with the rebels.  Hermann Bellinghausen, chronicler of the Zapatista
rebellion who files for the left daily La Jornada, and who often
compares this long-smoldering conflict to the Macondo of Gabriel Garcia
Marquez's magic realism classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude",
captured the following colloquy for posterity:

Pablo: "Hola, I'm your governor."

Masked Zapatista: "Can you prove that you're the governor?"

Salazar, who looks a little like the U.S. social commentator Michael
Moore, takes off his baseball hat.  "Do you recognize me now"

Masked Zapatista: "Is your name Pablo Salazar?"

Pablo: "That's my name but I don't have any picture identification
with me today."

Masked Zapatista: "There's no problem.  We just want to tell you what
we want."

The Zapatistas explained that they were looking for Baltazar
Alonso, the accused killer, to ask for money to support Lopez Santiz's
widow, a community custom. The two sides parted amicably.

--- The third incident of supposed paramilitary violence against the
EZLN unfolds August 21st. Spurred on by Chulin, a band of PRIistas
launch a stone-throwing assault on a Zapatista roadblock at Quixmil,
just outside the Montes Azules reserve.  The Zapatistas are masked and
armed only with sticks.  The rebels explain they have set up the
roadblock to stop clandestine shipments of precious hardwoods to the
county seat at Ocosingo.  They also are looking for stolen cars and bar
beer trucks from entering the zone - the EZLN prohibits alcohol
consumption in their communities.  The PRIistas claim the Zapatistas are
charging a 'tax' of $150 USD to let the poached timber proceed to
Ocosingo.  One person is shot and six injured in the ensuing melee which
Bellinghausen, whose headline writers are often given to hyperbole,
calls the "biggest paramilitary attack sine Acteal."

headline when, on August 25th, two officials of the San Manuel autonomia
were fatally wounded in a shoot-out whose origins are cloudy at best.
Other state and national media were more circumspect, describing the
gunfire as erupting between family members during a heated discussion
over a bride price. The facts substantiate that the Zapatistas Jacinto
Hernandez and Lorenzo Martinez came to the school house in Amaytik to
settle a dispute involving a Zapatista girl who had eloped with a
non-Zapatista youth - her family was demanding a high dowry in
accordance with Indian uses and customs.  Although the selling of women
into marriage is prohibited by the EZLN's own Revolutionary Law of
Women, the two officials had been called in to mete out justice.
Apparently, all sides arrived at the session armed.

When Bellinghausen reported the incident as yet one more instance of
paramilitary vengeance against the Zapatistas, Governor Salazar grew
choleric and took out full-page newspaper ads blasting the Jornada
reporter: "it is irresponsibly simplistic to reduce every act of common
delinquency to one of paramilitaries vs. Zapatistas."

--- The final incident in this skein of blood took place August 23rd
(but was not reported until the 26th) at K'an A'kil in the autonomous
municipality of Olga y Isabel near Chilon in the north state where the
rebels have been blocking a Pablo-sponsored road-building project, and
bears more resemblance to a paramilitary killing than its predecessors.
Antonio Mejia, a local Zapatista leader, is gunned down and his ears
taken as  trophies by the "Aguilares", a family of ex-military men with
reported ties to the PRI  - all the gunmen are still at large.

Curiously, the Aguilares do not appear on a list of paramilitary groups
that has long circulated in Chiapas.

According to Enlace Civil, a non-government organization that
distributes complaints or "denuncias" issued by the autonomous
municipalities, 92 incidents were reported between January and July
2002, most of them catalogued as  "intimidation" by either
paramilitaries or PRIistas, although the distinction between the two is
not always clear.

There is little question that Chulin and the PRI are inciting Indian on
Indian violence in an effort to destabilize the Salazar administration
and take Chiapas back by hook or by crook.  Chulin's agitation has found
sympathetic ears in non-Zapatista jungle communities devastated by the
collapse of the international coffee price and the PRI's limited
abilities to provide agricultural subsidies in exchange for votes since
the party lost the state house.

On the other hand, Zapatista communities are doing a better job
of surviving the coffee crisis because they are ideologically unified
and have consistent support from national and international
non-government organizations.

A leaflet attributed to Chulin and widely distributed in the jungle, is
a measure of PRI disintegration.  The screed blasts the Zapatistas,
Vicente Fox, Salazar, and even the military whose members are described
as "bloodsuckers only interested in their paychecks", not exactly a
typical paramilitary sentiment.  Even though the PRIistas appeal to the
Indians of the jungle to "stand up like men" to the hated Zapatistas'
roadblocks, the leaflet also borrows a page from the EZLN playbook by
lambasting Fox's grandiose development scheme, the Puebla to Panama
Plan, as opening up the Lacandon jungle to transnational exploitation.

Despite the PRI offensive in their bailiwick, the EZLN's top command
has remained silent for the past 17 months, apparently awaiting a
Mexican Supreme Court decision on the Indian Rights law for which they
have battled many years.  The court's surprise opinion that it has no
competency in the matter handed down this past Friday (September 6th) is
certain to ratchet up violence between Zapatistas and PRIistas in this
already tense zone .

John Ross, whose "War Against Oblivion" covers seven years of Indian
uprising in Chiapas, has written this piece to temper the alarm
generated by national and international support groups who claim the
EZLN is under paramilitary siege, a conclusion that leads to a
dangerously skewed analysis of the actual political dynamic in Chiapas
and Mexico today.

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