The United States continues to export far more than McDonald's hamburgers and Disneyland fantasies across its borders. As the indigenous people of Chiapas can testify, the Mexican government has imported a vicious strategy developed by the U.S. military, a strategy brought over by Mexican officers trained at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Known as low-intensity conflict, this strategy is being used in a move to squash the popular uprising that has spread throughout the dense mountains and jungles of Chiapas since 1994.
(l-r) Emma Lozano, Centro Sin Fronteras; Cecilia Rodriguez, U.S. Zapatista spokesperson; and Congressman Bobby Rush taking questions from reporters.
A recent delegation of human rights observers visiting the region heard stories of the conflict, which according to one observer is intensifying as Mexico's October elections near. "I call them gangsters," said U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush about Mexican President Zedillo, the Mexican army, and paramilitary groups that are laying siege to the indigenous communities of Chiapas. Rush, along with church representatives from the Chicago area, spoke at a press conference held at Adalberto United Methodist Church in the West Town area July 7th. "I first want to say that taking this trip, being a delegate, was one of the most remarkable things I've undertaken in my life," said Rush. "Flying out of O'Hare, landing in Chiapas to bear witness. . . there I saw the most abhorrent atrocities performed by mankind. In the mountains we visited the refugee community of Polho, and saw the conditions. People forcibly removed from their land. Mothers with seven children, where the fathers had been killed by paramilitary groups. People live in dwellings that the word 'shack' doesn't describe, where the smoke is so thick inside you can hardly breathe. One woman had slipped and fallen, sprained her ankle. She had no health care, and couldn't leave to go to the Mexican Red Cross. She asked for our help. This is an example of the atrocities the Mexican government has inflicted on the people of Chiapas. The Chiapas situation is a question of the genocide of indigenous people."
Sparked by the Zapatistas in 1994, the indigenous people's uprising coincided with the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), widely seen as a business pact that not only exploits Mexican people as cheap labor, but has wrecked havoc on workers' rights and potentials here in the United States.
The Zapatista uprising remains a thorn in the side of Mexico's elite; the government's
siege remains a threat to a way of life developed over centuries by the indigenous
people, whose practice of communal land ownership conflicts with the government's
desire to attract
According to Adalberto Methodist Church Reverend and co-pastor Slim Coleman, indigenous organizations in Chiapas made a request directly to the church and to West Town's community-based Centro Sin Fronteras (Center without Borders) to form an official delegation to investigate widespread human rights abuses in the area. Recognizing the vacuum created by the ending of the Catholic church's role as mediator in the crisis, Coleman, Emma Lozano, and the staff of Centro put together a delegation that also included State Senator Jesus Garcia and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez.
"We had the opportunity to meet people on all sides of this conflict,
federal, state, and local officials - including those coordinating government
policy regarding the Zapatistas in Chiapas," said Coleman. "We met
with human rights organizations, with political prisoners. We interviewed both
sides, with the leader of the group arrested for the massacre at Acteal, with
We interviewed indigenous people who had been pushed out by the paramilitary groups, whose relatives and children had been killed by the paramilitaries, people living cold and hungry on the mountains."
Coleman, along with other members of the delegation, stressed the urgency and tenseness of the current situation. "There are an estimated 70,000 Mexican army troops in the area. In the last month, the federal army has joined the federal police in conducting raids and serving warrants. These raids are being used to intimidate and displace autonomous communities of indigenous people."
These raids and other forms of harassment are consistent with the strategy of low-intensity conflict. Richard Tholin, a member of the delegation and former dean of Garrett Theological Seminary, says that the Mexican government's plan was developed by Jose Ruben Rivas Peña, a 1980 graduate of the School of the Americas, where low-intensity conflict strategies are taught. That strategy is now demonstrated every day in Chiapas, a strategy hatched and made in the USA.
Tholin sees the military presence and the raids as part of that strategy -
terrorizing the civilians, separating them from the activists. The goal is to
eliminate the activists' base of support.
Another tactic in the strategy is to send in paramilitary groups; the governement then uses this as an excuse to call in the military to "restore order."
But, as with the massacre of indigenous people by a paramilitary group at Acteal
at the end of last year, when the military came in, "all they did was look
for Zapatista supporters," according to Tholin. "They claimed they
would disarm everybody - but there is no evidence of their disarming the paramilitary
The delegation contends that the paramilitary groups enjoy links to the government. "They are in cahoots, they are supported, encouraged, in collusion," says Bobby Rush.
Tholin gave an example of this collusion, from an article published in a Mexican newspaper in December 1997. La Jornada revealed details of an agreement made between the Chiapas government and the paramilitary group named, ironically, Paz y Justicia (Peace & Justice). The Chiapas government payed 450,000 pesos [about $56,000 U.S.] for fishing and agricultural activities.
"But there is no evidence of those activities taking place," says Tholin. "Oddly, the agreement was also signed by General Castillo Fernandez, the head of army troops in Chiapas. Castillo Fernandez is a graduate of Fort Bragg. What interest does the army have in agricultural and fishing activities?"
Negotiations between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas have broken down; the government has not met the Zapatistas in good faith but with the intent of destroying their support among the indigenous people, with the intent of displacing the autonomous communities of Chiapas from the land.
Slim Coleman outlined the delegation's conclusions. "It is the delegation's opinion that negotiations won't resume unless these [governmental] tactics are stopped, the army withdrawn, the military pulled back, and the autonomous communities allowed to function. The present conditions make the upcoming elections unsafe."
Says Bobby Rush: "We have to join hands with the indigenous people of Mexico. Their only chance of survival, their only weapon - their lives rest with us. Public opinion is their shield against President Zedillo and the banditos of the military."
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