Letter From An Observer in Chiapas - 1/21/98

They call it a dirty war--but what war isn't dirty? They call it low intensity war-fare--but how much more intense can it be than stealing EVERYTHING that people already poor once had? This is what the Mexican government is doing. Yes, the mexican government...unless, ofcourse, President Zedillo has lost control of the federal army. For it is the federal army that is commintting these atrocities. Yes: atrocities. No: not as spectacularly horrifying as the Acteal massacre, but every bit as relentless, every bit as cold-blooded, and every bit as deadly.

Here are some recent observations:
On Tuesday evening, 6 January, I left San Cristobal with 2 other human rights obsevers from Enlace Civil (Civil Link). We went in a hired car, accompanied by 2 young local Frente Zapatista vounteers. We were headed for "Diez de Abril" (10 th of April), a fully Zapatista community only 3 years old in the municipality (county)of Altamirano. None of us knew the way. Dark soon came down and we peered into the night searching for the sign that would read "10 de Abril" We never found it. We did find a banner announcing the presence of a "Peace Camp", but when we lumbered down the rutted dirt road and our driver asked at the first house, the inhabitants would/could not answer his inquiries. Perhaps they spoke only Tzeltal or Tojolobal (a not uncommon phenomenon amongst these Mayan descendants). More likely, they were terrified by the night-time knock, and a city-dressed Mexican asking questions.

We drove on. Further down the dirt carreterra, we came to Nueva Esperanza (New Hope), a tiny community clustered around a simple old white-washed church. It was a "pueblo de fantasmas", a ghost town. Not a light, not a chicken, not a dog, not a person in the place. At a loss as to what to do, we parked next to the church and made ourselves as comfortable as possible for the night. A beautiful night of sharp clear stars and soft breeze, but through it all, the spooky feel, the air of desertion. In the morning we found our way back to the peace camp and in the reassuring light of day were told that, indeed, this was the community 10 de Abril.

The peace camp is in the now-abandoned ranch house that also houses the school,taught in Tzeltal, with books in that language, too. There are also locked store rooms where the recently harvested coffee is kept during the night. In the day, it is spread out on concrete pads to dry and its sweet intoxicating odor dominates the place. This small finca was left 3 years ago and people from surrounding communitiies who shared Zapatista sympathies came and took posession of it. They built simple wondowless plank houses with dirt floors and rooves of thatch or tin. They dug a well and built a church and made a basket-ball court. There are women's teams in this region. Some of them play in their traditional dress wearing the little plastic shoes they favor, some wear shorts and tennies. I'm not a great judge, but they don't seem to shoot real well (nor do the men), but their team-work, the passing and strategies, is impeccable.

The houses of 10 de Abril ride and spread down a ridge that runs from a bank of forested mountains toward confluence of crisp creek and turquoise river. It is a beautiful site, open and ample. Pole fences protect the compounds from the horses and Brahma cattle that allow such a community to prosper at market.

The pueblo was very glad to have observers in residence, even for the few days we would be staying. Over and over again, there are incidents of intimidation, of harassment, of attack that occur when there are no outsiders present or that subside when they arrive. On the 4th of January, this community fled to the mountains and remained there for a night and a day when the federales were approaching. When they returned, it was to find that close to 1/2 their cattle had been carried off and a small store house shared by 7 families had been robbed of money to buy seed for the next growing season, and that blankets and children's clothes had been burned outside the place. To the best of my knowledge, the only recourse available to these people is to make "denunciations" to human rights groups. I've never heard of the cattle or money being returned.

This loss is not inconsiderable to 10 de Abril. But their neighbors at Nueva Esperanza had recently lost everything. Please remember that this is the story of one small community...similar reports have been coming in from all around the Zapatista areas of Chiapas since the first of the year.

Wednesday and Thursday passed without incident at 10 de Abril, but with a "red alert" in effect, most of the people were not going to their far-flung milpas to work. People with more experience in the area than I have observed that with chilling "coincidence" the federal army stages its incursions during harvest or planting. Clever way to bring agrarian people to their knees--no?

Thursday evening we were joined by 3 more obervadores. Since there were now so many of us in residence, 3 of us decided to hike over to Nueva Esperanza the next day to check things out and possibly to continue on to San Miguel, an older, more established and larger neighboring community in search of displaced families. Perhaps they would like to give testimonies and perhaps, with these and reports of their needs, we could assist by conveying these to organizations in San Cristobal.

As we approached Nueva Esperanza in the light of noon-day, we saw the bright colors of clothing and found on our arrival that a contingent of the refugees had just come for the first time in a week to look things over themselves. They were happy to talk to us and 2 men walked us about, showing us the devastation. The 2 little stores were empty, goods and money gone. The coop ofthe women's chicken cooperative was empty. The school-room was empty. There was a large black fire smudge on the back outside where the books had been burnt. One woman's kitchen had been used as a latrine. The other kitchens were empty except for some drying calabases. As much as anything, the women bemoan the loss of their molinas, without which they cannot grind their corn into tortilla dough. Of couse, the corn is gone. The beans are gone. The cattle are gone. The pots and plates and utensils are gone. The blankets and mattresses are gone. The tool are gone. The children's shoes are gone.

The premise of this and other occupations by the federal army is a search for arms belonging to the guerilla army. Nueva Esperanza is a Zapatista community. There were no arms found.

Here is the story of the inhabitants of New Hope, a compilation of testimonies we heard that day and from Elena, a young mother with a son named Marcos, whom we interviewed the next day at her mother-in-law's house.

On the first of January, the people were gathered on their basketball court for a party (being a Zapatista community, the traditional New Years celebration has deeper meaning for them). The federal army--perhaps 1000 troops in 18 trucks!--surrounded them, pointing their weapons at them. They managed to flee to the mountains, thence to shelter with their families in La Florida and San Miguel. By 3 PM, the women had returned, supported by the presence of women from 6 or 7 near-by communities.. 150 to 400 strong in all, depending on reports. They carried poles and machetes and their babies. They tried to drive the soldiers out. But the soldiers would not go, so the women camped in the road. They stayed there until the soldiers left--apparently around 1 AM on the 4th and then only because the press had arrived. When they went, they took all the material posessions of the community. This manouver of women with poles has been succesful before, but unless the women outnumber the soldiers, only when the media arrive. The men do not enter into it because they will be arrested or worse. Interestingly enough, the women are rarely harmed in these encounters. Such a glaring contrast to the war in the former Yugoslvia in which the rape and abuse of women was used as a strategy of war. Of course, with the paramilitaries, we have seen that it is an entirely different story.

Although the men claimed that they were reluctant to return because the women were afraid, it struck us as odd at first that after their bravery, the women would be fearful with the soldiers gone. On the other hand, going about your daily business, alone, without the support of numbers is a different matter. This is not to mention that everything they owned is gone: stolen, eaten, or burned.

Perhaps the story of Nueva Esperanza will never make the news--it does not carry the morbid fascination the Acteal masscre does. Nor is their situation quite as desperate as that of the displaced people in the highlands...the climate is milder here, there are friends and family to shelter them. Nevertheless, these people, who have lived backed up against hunger and want for so long, now have absolutely NOTHING. How will they live?

Here's what the government would like you to see:
Just as we arrived in San Miguel, so too did 4 trucks from the National Commission on Human Rights, a group that the Zapatista leadership has referred to as a joke. They brought sacks of dried corn, beans, cookies, sweets, oil, soap, blankets, mattresses. They distributed some of the goods to the people in San Miguel, La Florida, and 10 de Abril, so as not to cause resentment between the refugees and their generous hosts. It is good to have something, but the food will last maybe a day or two, the blankets are not enough for every household, and who will replace the cattle and the chickens? It is very odd to see one arm of the government striking the people and the other soothing the hurt. However, a certain grim strategy emerges: first you reduce proud people who often will accept nothing from the government to destitution, to literal life-and-death need. This may scare them out of their rebellion. But if it does not, you put yellow arm-bands that read "labor social" on the same soldiers that were, days before, shitting in some indigenous family's kitchen and send them out to communities to offer "aid." The aid is not enough to cover the community's needs and, even if it were, a dependency has been created that may allow for control over these troublesome people. These same troublesome people have an entire article..#4..in the Mexican Constitution devoted to them. One part of this article translates: "The law will protect and will promote the development of their (the "pueblos indigenas") languages,cultures, usages, customs, resources, and specific forms of social organization, and will guarantee to their members the effective access to the jurisdiction of the State." Hmmmm.....

OK.. OK.. so the Mexican government feels compelled (because it backed the slaughteer of its own citizens--some of these peoples whose "languages, cultures,etc...will be protected,") to then search for arms in communities which support the guerilla army...I suppose there is some twisted kind of logic to this, in their own terms, any way. But there is ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE for depriving these people of their means of livelihood. In anybody's terms.

It seems to me that many of the Zapatistas are smart enough to recognize the government's nasty little game of "protection" (read: we won't intimidate, harass, or rob you if you'll just stop embarassing us by demanding your constitutional rights.") Some communities have already refused these offers. But others are in such desperate straits that , althought they too may see the strategy, they nonetheless accept the token hand-out. Who is to say what any of us would do to keep from having to see our children starve?

There are many similar stories collected by observers during the first 11 days of 1998. I have told just the one that I heard myself. But the intimidation and harassment have been wide-spread. They are part of an attempt to destroy the morale of the Zapatista movement.

On 12 January, in cities all over the world, ther were marches organized to demonstrate support for the Zapatista cause, specifically for the de-militarization of Chiapas, a re-opening of the San Andreas peace talks, and true accountability in Mexico's government. I marched along in San Cristobal. It was a peacable excursion even as the crowd chanted slogans ("Soldados Mexicanos no mataron sus hermanos"...Mexican soldiers, don't murder your brothers and sisters) in front of the army base outside of town and graffiti-ists sprayed "EZLN" and "Zedillo=asesino" (Zedillo=assassin) on every available surface. On the way through town, some people closed their shutters, others nodded, smiled, and waved.

In Ocosingo, it was a different story. A 38 year old indigenous woman was killed and her 3 year old daughter wounded when police fired into a crowd that had thrown rocks at their truck. I saw her tiny limp body flopped like a doll in her beautiful Indigenous dress across the tv screen in a hotel.
On Thursday, the 13th, I ran into an observer who had just returned from Acteal. He'd been part of a delegation that had accompanied survivors as they returned there from Polho on 31 December and had stayed to take testimonies and to support them however possible. How was it? (I expected remarks about the cold and damp, the physical and emotional difficulties.) "Frustrating." How so? "The victims are being treated like criminals." WHAT??? Various police, seguridad social, and other "enforcement" groups tramp through their settlement daily demanding more testimony, questioning over and over these already traumatized people.

They just won't let them alone. It's NOT stopping.
The arrogance of the Mexican government (?army?) in pushing ahead with its brutal abuse of its people is an insult to all--countries, companies, individuals--who see it. Do they think no one will notice? Do they think no one will object? Do they expect business to go on as usual? This must not happen or we will be contemplating another Guatemala--the shame of that 35 year genocide policy. We must not allow our government to support this suppression, this genocide. Not with arms, not with training, not with money. No amount of "economic gain" or material security on our parts is worth the life of Guadalupe Lopez Mendez, who died Saturday in Ocosingo. No portion of your tax dollars should ever again go to buy the bullet that shot her or to arm the troops who bully the survivors of Acteal or to train the commanders and the troops who stole the chickens of the woman's cooperative in Nueva Esperanza.

We are all connected. What can you do to stop the genocide?

Conflict in Chiapas: Understanding the Modern Mayan World
by Worth H. Weller, Ben Weller (Photographer), Julia Weller (Photographer)
$16.95, Paperback, March 1, 2000
Rebellion in Chiapas : An Historical Reader
by John Womack (Editor)
$14.36, Paperback , March 1999
Voices from Exile : Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History
by Victor Montejo
$18.17, Hardcover, October 1999
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