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Overview of Social Justice Issues

Rachel's "report back" from the 2003 delegation to Chiapas (sponsored by CASA and the Mexico Solidarity Network), provides an overview of many social justice issues in Chiapas: the Zapatista uprising and subsequent government response, Las Abejas and the Acteal Massacre, displacement of communities in Montes Azules, and the continuing state of low level warfare against the Zapatistas.

Written by Rachel Wallis

The road to Acteal from San Cristobal travels through mountains, up and down around steep curves, entering and exiting thick fog every few meters. Every available plot of land we passed during the two-hour journey was occupied by houses, huts, small gardens or fields. Ramshackle huts were built on stilts over precipices, looking like they might plummet down at the next strong gust of wind or heavy rain.

 The highlands of Chiapas have been increasingly overpopulated as generations of campesinos move south, pushed out by cattle ranchers or seeking farm land. It is this migration that is currently pushing small farmers into the jungle region of Montes Azules, an ecological preserve near the border of Guatemala, and the sight of mounting political tension between the Mexican government, transnational corporations, indigenous groups and the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional.

I traveled these roads in the back of a pick-up truck on January 13th, 2003, as a member of a human rights delegation organized by us--the Chiapas Peace House Project--and the Mexico Solidarity Network. The eight day fifteen member delegation came to Chiapas to learn more about the situation in the southern Mexican state.

A Brief History of the Zapatistas

It was here in Chiapas, in 1994 that the Zapatistas--a predominantly indigenous guerilla movement--burst onto the  international scene. They were protesting NAFTA, government neglect and abuse of indigenous peoples, and demanding--not state power like so many revolutionary movements who came before--but that the Mexican government become accountable to its most oppressed citizens. A cease-fire was declared following twelve days of fighting which has remained more or less intact ever since.

In 1996, the Zapatistas and the government signed the San Andreas Peace Accords. This agreement initiated the government's recognition of autonomous indigenous communities and municipalities as well as those communities' rights to the resources of the land that they inhabited, rights that had been seriously jeopardized by portions of the NAFTA agreements. When the constitutional reform was drafted from the peace agreement, however, President Zedillo refused to support it.

In 2000, acting on a campaign promise to resolve the "situation" in Chiapas, President Fox brought the law before the Mexican Parliament, where it was warped and rewritten so thoroughly that not a single indigenous group in Mexico was willing to support the final draft. Against fierce opposition, it was adopted.

The Delegation 

We were in Chiapas to stand in solidarity with the indigenous people of the region, and to see for ourselves whether there was any truth to Fox's insistence that there is now peace in Chiapas.

We were headed to Acteal to spend the night in the community, among people who are the survivors of the worst massacre of the Zapatista uprising. It was in that village, in 1997, forty-five people were killed, unarmed, as they prayed. During the drive there, we passed by three different Mexican military bases.

Whenever we passed a Zapatista support community, we'd see a military base next to it. "They're always watching," remarked Cecilia, a Mexican psychiatrist studying how the indigenous communities cope with the stresses and atrocities of the low intensity conflict in Chiapas. It was true. As we drove passed the bases, slowed to a crawl by a series of speed bumps, there was always a line of soldiers peering into the car and videotaping our faces as we inched forward.


When we arrived in Acteal, we pulled off the road and parked next to an enormous statue that towered fifteen or twenty feet into the sky. Bronze torsos and faces in agony leaned out of the statue, clawing their way out. The statue was donated to the community by a Danish sculptor in 1999 as a memorial to the victims of the massacre. "This shouldn't be here," Cecilia remarked quietly seeing us looking at the statue. We turned to her in surprise and she explained. "As a psychiatrist, this is not what this community needs to heal. This is an important statue, but it should be in front of the UN building in New York. It shouldn't be here."

After slipping and sliding down an endless series of mud steps in the side of the hill, we came to the center of the community, a large pavilion with a concrete floor and rough wood benches. The pavilion was decorated with strings of papel picado, a traditional artform of paper or plastic sheets with geometric designs cut into them, which looked festive and striking against the background of heavy fog that blanketed the village. We sat under the pavilion and listened to two members of the community council explain the history of Acteal.

Las Abejas

Acteal is a community composed of members of the organization Las Abejas. Las Abejas, or The Bees, is a Christian pacifist group formed in 1991 in Chiapas. They formed out of a dispute within a family over property; the dispute came to blows and one person was killed and another injured. Some Christians in the community took the injured man to the nearest town to get him medical attention, but when they arrived they were accused of attacking him themselves and put into jail. When the family members of the jailed men heard of their plight, they set off on a pilgramage, on foot, to San Cristobal, where the Christians were being held. Along the way, Christian pacifists in other villages joined them and they decided to form a group, one dedicated not only to peace, but also to justice, and against neo-liberalism. They decided on the name Las Abejas, because bees are industrious creatures who live and work communally. Moreover, honey, the fruit of their labor, is created not for themselves but for humans.

Las Abejas successfully freed their friends and continued to grow as an organization. When the Zapatista uprising took place, they stood in solidarity with the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional's (EZLN) ends and principles, if not their violent means.

Acteal Massacre 

They paid an enormous price for their support however. In 1997, while more than two hundred Las Abejas members gathered to fast and pray for peace in Acteal, paramilitaries (armed civilian groups often linked to the military and government) from neighboring communities surrounded their small wooden church and began firing.

The two members of the Acteal council took us to the church so we could see the bullet holes in the walls and roof; the statue of the Virgin Mary that had been damaged in the attack. Then they led us to the surrounding scrubby hills where on that day in December, the terrified community members ran, hoping to hide from their attackers. It was there, at close range, that the paramilitaries shot and killed 45 men, women and children.

They led us into the tomb of the martyrs of Acteal, so that we could see pictures of the victims, and plaques marking not only the 45 dead, but also five unborn children who were cut out of their mothers bellies and stabbed to death by the paramilitaries. There was a group of Mexican soldiers stationed just up the hill during the slaughter, but as the shooting went on, throughout the afternoon and into the evening, none of them bothered to leave the building or attempt to save the villagers.

Fleeing Acteal after the massacre, the members of the community had been living in a refugee camp until just this past year, when despite the continued presence of the same paramilitaries in the hills surrounding their village, they chose to return. "We did nothing wrong," the council members said, explaining their decision to return, "This is our land, and God will protect us." That night at six, we joined the community in a prayer for peace, a prayer they have said every evening at six since the massacre five years ago. As we left Acteal the next morning, we could see through the fog and the rain, one white flag hanging over the community. On it was written the word Paz: Peace.


Our next stop was Polho, a Zapatista refugee camp for families and communities who have been driven from their homes by a nearly ten-year long campaign of paramilitary threats and violence. The camp sits on a hillside, surrounded on three sides by military bases. The sense of constant observation is inescapable. Polho houses around 8,000 displaced people. The town is crowded with houses built one after another, climbing up the hillside. There is barely enough open space for small gardens, where some families can grow some vegetables. The councilmen from Polho that we spoke to explained that the community survives on food donations from the International Red Cross, supplemented with smaller donations from philanthropists and NGO's.

This year, however, the Red Cross has announced that it will be cutting its donations in half. There is a lot of pressure from the Mexican government to empty these refugee camps. It is one tactic of the Fox administration to broadcast the message at home and abroad that there are no longer any problems in Chiapas and that Sub Comandante Marcos is just trying to gain attention for a dying movement.

But the people in these camps refuse to leave until the government can insure them protection from the paramilitaries living in their communities and, in many cases, farming their land. The Red Cross has also been pressuring Polho to accept rabbits or chickens instead of food donations, but the council members reject that idea. To begin with, the rabbits are unaccustomed to the climate in the mountains, and many of them die. Furthermore, donations of rabbits and chickens imply that Polho can be a self-sustaining community, an idea that is simply impossible, given the size of the refugee population. "We have land and animals already," the council men complain, "We don't want chickens or rabbits, we want to be able to return safely to our own animals, our own land."

La Red

That night, after returning to San Cristobal, the delegation had perhaps the most impressive meeting of our stay. We were privileged to visit a meeting of "La Red de Defensores de Derechos Humanos", or the Human Rights Defenders Network.

Began soon after the uprising, the idea of La Red came out of the needs of the communities. They realized that they could not depend on international observers or NGO's to document or publicize the human rights abuses that were being perpetrated by the Mexican military and paramilitary groups. Taking their defense into their own hands, they formed La Red.

Now every Zapatista support community chooses one or two representatives to be trained in human rights and the law. They return to their communities where they document abuses and publish press releases about what is going on in their communities. They are frequently the targets of threats from the paramilitaries. The twenty or thirty defensores in the room with us that night were all indigenous and mostly young, in their twenties and thirties. There were both men and women, and they smiled shyly as they rose to tell us of the threats and problems in their home communities.


The Lacandon Jungle and Montes Azules

They talked a lot about the Lacandon jungle, a rainforest near Guatemala, which is populated by a number of indigenous groups. It is currently the tensest area in Chiapas, as it is not only a strong area of Zapatista support, but also of interest to multinational corporations because of its pure waters sources, precious hardwoods, and genetic biodiversity valuable for pharmaceutical corporations and genetic engineering.

Recently, the Mexican government declared one specific indigenous group the true "Lacandonas", one that supports the government and corporate interests. With the backing of corporate funded environmentalist organizations like Conservation International, the Mexican government has declared the area Montes Azules a bio-reserve, and are threatening to displace all other indigenous groups from the region, accusing them of cutting endangered hardwood and slash and burn agriculture.

As the defensores from the region reported, the evictions have already begun. One community has already left the Lacandon, leaving behind their houses and all their belongings. Soon after they left, people came and destroyed everything they left behind, and now they are being housed by the government in an auditorium in Comitan. The defensores argue that the accusations against the indigenous communities are baseless. Zapatista autonomous communities have prohibited the cutting and sale of hardwoods, and they have evidence that the illegal logging is being done by the army and the government.

Low Level Warfare

Other community representatives rose one by one and related tales of disappearances, threats, murders and displacements. One representative from the town of Roberto Barios related how the paramilitaries come and destroy the road through their community every time they repair it. A young woman from Cintalapa explained how a neighboring military base pollutes the river that runs through their town. The army also brings in prostitutes and solicits women from their community, spreading venereal disease.

A man from San Geronimo told how pervasive the military occupation is in his town. Last year, the head of the army came and sat publicly at the school graduation, as if to show the people there that he was a permanent part of their community, and there was nothing they could do to make him leave. As the night went on and the stories continued, we were all moved, many to tears, by the simple acts of incredible bravery these people were committing when they stood up and demanded basic human rights for themselves and their communities.

Moises Gandhi

The final Zapatista community we visited was Moises Gandhi. It was named after two heroes of the Zapatista people, Moses, who brought his people out of oppression and found them a homeland, and Gandhi, who used non-violence to fight colonialsim.

The difference between this community and Acteal and Polho was like night and day. While the first two communities had been built into the sides of mountains in the damp, cold highlands of Chiapas, Moises Gandhi was much lower, and the sun shown warmly on wide gentle green hills. While Acteal was clearly still healing from the atrocity that took place there, and Polho was in the midst of a struggle for survival, Moises Gandhi seemed to me to be an example of the incredible successes of the Zapatista movement.

Located on land that had been seized by indigenous peasants during the uprising, the community collectively farms coffee, beans, bananas, corn and sugar cane. They run a cooperative store that is frequented by individuals from all seven of the autonomous municipalities in their zone, allowing them to trade with each other and cut out middlemen. They have a clinic, a pharmacy and an ambulance which serves not only the surrounding Zapatista communities, but also provides care for families that support the government.

They have three different age groups of education in the community, and are beginning to start a program of technical education. They, like all autonomous Zapatista communities, do not allow government teachers to teach in their schools. "We don't want people from the government teaching our children," the community leaders explained, "they don't teach our language and history. The goal of our education is that every month our children become more humane. So that hate is never a motivation for them. So that individualism cannot triumph. The goal of the government's education is to promote individualism. Our motto is 'lead by obeying.' Our goal is to serve."

Although the community is thriving, it is not without challenges from the government and paramilitaries. Several months ago, the army came to their cooperative store and told them that since they were not the legal owners of the building the government would reclaim it. The people of Moises Gandhi replied that the building was theirs, and that they would not give it up without a fight. Although the army left, the community is waiting anxiously to see if they will come back.

Olga Isabel 

In August, in the neighboring municipality of Olga Isabel, a Zapatista community leader was shot and killed by paramilitaries. Although his wife witnessed the murder and can identify the assailant, no authorities have come to interview her or take her testimony. The paramilitaries remain at liberty in the area, and the community is afraid to harvest their coffee crop for fear of more attacks.

Following the San Andreas Peace Accords of 1996, the struggle in Chiapas has shifted from the outright bombing and attacks on civilian villages by the Mexican military, to a type of low intensity warfare, characterized by paramilitary threats, attacks and continuing occupation and demoralization by the army.

As time passes, there is a growing risk that the occupation of the state of Chiapas by the government of Mexico will no longer be worthy of comment or outcry; when that day comes, the global struggle for human rights will be in danger. There is a pervasive fear in the Zapatista communities that Fox's media campaign declaring the struggle in Chiapas resolved, will be successful.

Everywhere we went, people said to us, "We are displaced, we are killed, we are threatened by paramilitaries who live next door and there is no justice. There is no peace in Chiapas." Despite rumors to the contrary, the Zapatista struggle is not over, the problems of Chiapas are not solved.

On new years day, over 20,000 Zapatistas rallied in San Cristóbal, reaffirming their commitment to the struggle for autonomy and human rights, and against neo-liberal globalization. "Viva la Vida!" they cried. "Muere el Muerto!" "Up with life! Down with Death!"