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Conflict in Chiapas

Report from the Caravan of International Peace Observers to
Roberto Barrios, Chiapas, Mexico
--- D.L. Nevin

On December 22, 1997 the world was shocked by news of a massacre in the hamlet of Chenalo in the Acteal municipality of Chiapas. Forty-five Mayan Indians, mostly women and children, were gunned down in cold blood. By the time I heard this news, I had already planned my trip to Chiapas. The story sickened me and made me wonder what to expect when I got there.

I left Chicago on Christmas night and three days later, I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, the colonial capital of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. I stayed in a house some of my friends were renting downtown,and proceeded to explore the marketplaces and parks of the city.

On Jan. 4 we heard rumors that the Mexican army was invading the Zapatista base community of La Realidad, a seven hour drive to the east. We heard many conflicting rumors, and since there are no phones there to call out with, an eight-vehicle caravan was organized, complete with two ambulances, by a Mexican non-governmental organization called Enlace Civil (Civilian Link) to go and give whatever assistance was needed, and hopefully return with more reliable information.

The following day a second caravan was sent out to another Zapatista base community to the north, to a town called Roberto Barrios. I decided to go along, as one of my purposes in traveling to Chiapas was to find out the true situation with the Zapatistas, and also to make myself useful rather than just being a tourist. The three-vehicle caravan of international observers included people from Spain, Canada, Austria, Mexico City, and North America.

The community of Roberto Barrios has existed for 40 years. In 1995 it was one of the five sites (called Aguascalientes, in reference to an historic negotiation site during the Mexican Revolution) hosting the First Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and against Neo-liberalism, sponsored by the Zapatistas (EZLN, Ejercito Zapatista Liberacíon Nacionál). About 2,000 people live in the area, which is a hilly rainforest partially cleared for settlement and agriculture. The campesinos (subsistence farmers) who live there are Mayans who speak Tzetzal; about half speak Spanish as well. They raise corn and coffee, as well as pigs, turkeys, and chickens. A river runs through the site, which tumbles down spectacular waterfalls into a series of semicircular lakes. The townspeople fish here and the women do their laundry in the river. The community hosts a volunteer-run clinic, a school, a Catholic church, a small library, a collective kitchen, and a small store (now closed). A source of ever-present tension is a Mexican Army base, built across the river in 1996. Home to 200 soldiers, the townspeople live with the constant threat of invasion from the Army base.

One of the highlights of my three-day stay was the interview we conducted with the community leaders, who wanted us to let the world know about their current situation. What follows is a summary of that interview in the words of Los Responsables (the community leaders), which focused on the political climate including the paramilitary threat evidenced by the massacre in Acteal, and the paramilitary links to the PRI (Partido Revolutionario Institutional, Mexico's ruling party). What follows is a summation of that interview.

The situation is very tense, like the rest of the Northern Zone of Chiapas. The population here feel very restless and scared. They are afraid of another military occupation like the one in February 1996. [On the night that the international observers' caravan arrived, at 2:45 a.m. (five hours late because of an accident), we were mistaken for paramilitary personnel, and many people fled the town for the night. The presence of international observers is generally minimal.] People have taken all the valuable supplies form the storage area and the little store for fear that they will be robbed or destroyed in a hypothetical occupation by the military.

Currently, living in Roberto Barrios are some refugee families from the town of Aguablanca, who live in fear of the paramilitary groups, especially "Paz y Justicia"
(ironically, "Peace and Justice").

On Dec. 28 ten more trucks full of soldiers arrived at the Army base. These soldiers were added to the 100 soldiers already stationed there. They have increased the patrols of the surrounding roads and control the only road to Palenque, the nearest city. They are registering and identifying everyone, including all of the campesinos who live in the area. [This happened to us observers as well. We can also confirm the presence of planes used to spy on Roberto Barrios constantly. At 10 a.m. Jan 6 we witnessed a plane which circled at a low altitude seven times. This was repeated at 3:45 p.m. At two p.m. a helicopter circled three times at low altitude.]

People who live here report that the army has been registering other communities as well. They fear that the army may come in and plant weapons here and use this as a pretext to persecute the Zapatista base of support. Because of this, people are on the alert, and ready to leave their homes if the army comes to register them.

People here confirm that for several months PRI members have been attempting to organize campesinos in surrounding towns into a group called "Union Campesino." However, in the immediate area, the presence of PRI supporters is minimal. Only three extended families here are PRI members. There are rumors that these families are being trained by the army. They go to the military camp and play soccer with the soldiers. They sell the soldiers a corn meal cereal called pozol, oranges, and other produce. In return the soldiers give them cookies, soap, beans, groceries, and rope, which they sell.

Here one must have PRI credentials if they want credit from the state government, a home loan, or loans to buy corn and chile seeds. These enemies of the base camp have threatened to kill foreigners who come to bathe in the river, just as they killed a Zapatista supporter who came to the camp last year after kidnapping him, tying his hands and feet, and throwing him into the river. Several times, in order to relieve tension in the community, Zapatista leaders have spoken with the heads of the PRI families, the last time being at the end of December. At that time they got the response that "The community is divided and nothing can be done about it."

The PRI leaders who have connections with paramilitary groups in the area are Roberto Valcazar Mendoza (who has a relationship with the municipal president in Palenque), and his son, German Mendoza Hernandez. After the massacre in Acteal, German Hernandez asked his father for permission to carry out a similar attack, which was denied. After this was discovered the entire community fasted and prayed to avoid a confrontation. (The reason for mentioning these names publicly is to tell the world who to hold accountable in the case that an attack happens.)

PRI supporters were overheard saying things like "that house will be mine" to Zapatista supporters. They also brag that the government will disarm the Zapatistas. The children of both sides go to the same school. Some children repeat what they hear at school in their homes, and talk about plans to attack Zapatista supporters. The children tell their parents that they "don't want to die."

Because of this situation, this community in resistance considers important the presence of outside observers, and these reports to the outside world. Donations of blankets, medicine, and money can be sent to Enlace Civil. Contact Sandpaper for information.


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