Violence Prior to Acteal - 12/17/97

Date: Wed, 17 Dec 1997 This report from the National Coalition for Democracy in Mexico

Thousands of indigenous children, women and men who have been expelled from their communities by paramilitary violence in the municipality of Chenalho, in the Highlands of Chiapas, are living in the mountains in a situation of extreme emergency. The hundreds of families, split into groups by the intricate geography of the area, are without food and medicine; they have no clothes to change into or to cover themselves with, and don't even have a roof under which to sleep. Some pieces of plastic and banana leaves tied between trees are all that covers their bodies in the cold and damp December nights. A thick fog covers the mountain during entire days. Ninety percent of the children are sick, many seriously so: pneumonia, bronchitis. Some of the women have given birth in these somber conditions, and the babies are on the verge of dying from respiratory diseases. The majority of the women are ill, reporting menstrual periods of two weeks.

Meanwhile, in their villages, the paramilitary groups of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rob and plunder, burn the houses of Zapatista supporters, and enjoy absolute impunity. These armed groups are made up of indigenous people from the official party mixed, trained, and confused with Public Security police and federal soldiers. The authorities of the rebel municipality of Chenalho [parallel to the official government] say that already six thousand indigenous people have had to abandon their villages. In Yochoj there are 448 persons taking refuge in the community of Yibeljoj. They eat two corn tortillas a day per person. Of the 150 children, 142 are ill. On Saturday a woman gave birth. Two hundred more persons are hiding in a swamp further down, in still worse conditions than those just described.

But the worst has occurred in the community of Pechiquil. In Pechiquil the paramilitary troops have kidnapped 20 families that can be considered hostages or "prisoners of war." They have not permitted them to talk or to move. Patrolling the area are men with various uniforms, from those of the army, the judicial police, and special forces to brown and black with red bandanna (imitating the uniform of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) or civilian dress.

Paz Carmona, member of the observation mission formed by federal legislators, representatives of human rights organizations and of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers of Mexico, declared after visiting the community: "The anguish shows in the eyes of the people. The other refugees in the mountains are [also] screwed but at least they can shout, cry, explain to us their situation. In Pechiquil several armed men watch them and one shouted at them "don't talk," and then he told them to get back.. They stayed with me, those gazes that wanted to say so much and couldn't speak. . . ." In the village several houses have been burned--those of people who don't believe in the PRI or of who refuse to pay exorbitant sums to the paramilitary troops for "protection."

The observation mission had to leave the area quickly, faced with the hostility of the owners and authorities of the village and their people. The 20 families, some not complete because some of their members have been able to flee, "could be dead right now--they are at the mercy of the gunmen. this is a war, they are prisoners of war," repeated Paz Carmona dispiritedly. The troops "were very nervous" about the visit of the observation team. They photographed its members and those who accompanied them. "They were assault forces, some dressed in civilian attire, others in black pants, like the Zapatistas."

Upon leaving Pechiquil, to everyone's surprise, the observation mission ran into a recently-installed immigration police checkpoint, which demanded the papers, visas and passports of all the foreigners in the group. "They were the same officials from the migration checkpoint that is at the entrance of the Lacandon Jungle, before Las Margaritas--they had been sent just for us. I say that if the migration service serves to take care of the borders, in Chiapas they're always put on the border of misery and impunity," said Carmona.

The municipal president-in-rebellion of Chenalho explained that the people "have neither food nor clothing; there are many who are ill and we have no medicine. We are in an emergency." The women are now not only victims of these inhuman conditions, but also of the bullets that come for them as well as for the men. Two indigenous Tzotzil women, Elena Hernandez Perez and Rosa Perez Lopez, the one 40 years old and the other a girl of 16, were assassinated when they tried to seek refuge in the mountains fleeing their village, Aurora Chica, November 18. Two men, Mario Hernandez Perez and Mariano Santiz Gomez, met the same fate. According to the testimony of the inhabitants who succeeded in fleeing from the site, the aggressors were PRI members from the area along with those from the village of Canolal, together with the Public Security police "who had between them about 100 guns." They had already come several times and opened fire in the community, to sow terror. Then they burnt down the houses. But the valuable things, like the coffee, they took away in their trucks.

State authorities have repeatedly claimed that there are no armed groups in Chiapas other than the EZLN. In the last month, the violent deaths of 14 indigenous people in the region have been reported, the majority from the support bases of the EZLN. Within just a few weeks 15 communities in the municipality have been attacked, and according to testimony received, 50 houses have been burned down. The state Attorney General's office has confirmed at least 5 of the deaths and 12 houses burned down in violent attacks by 40 masked men.

One refugee, Alfredo Gomez Guzman, told of how they killed his brother Jose November 24 during the paramilitary attack on the community of Yaxjemel, about 70 kilometers from San Cristobal de Las Casas: "The PRI aggressors from Puebla and the Public Security forces just arrived there and attacked, beat up and killed my brother." Gomez Guzman testified: "The priistas beat and raped three women. They grabbed another man and they detained three others whom they later let go after charging them a fine of a thousand pesos. All of the houses of the Zapatistas were destroyed.”

This region of haphazard geography and varied climates is rich in coffee production. The economy of the inhabitants of the region depends on this aromatic crop that this year reached a good international market price. Part of the paramilitary groups' strategy has been the economic undercutting of the campesinos who support the rebel government. Two days after the attack on Pechiquil and Tzajalukum PRI militants and police raided the coffee that the Zapatistas had harvested. The same thing happened in some twelve communities during recent weeks.

"They stole 43 quintales approx. 4300 lbs.[?] of coffee from Jose Perez Hernandez of Tzajalukum. A three-ton truck left full of sacks of coffee from the whole village," said Luis Perez in an interview. "The priistas are even harvesting in our coffee plantations. They are using the money to by weapons to do away with us. They could kill me with a bullet bought with the coffee which they stole from me," Jose Luis adds with a lump in his throat. Along with his family, he has not returned to his village since leaving four days ago. His wife, children and neighbors are withstanding tears and hunger in the middle of the mountains. The theft of the coffee, the only annual source of income for these indigenous people, means hunger in the year to come.

"They burned down our houses and stole everything," is the story that is repeated in Yaxjemel, Tabteckum, Tzanembolon, Los Chorros, Chimix, La Esperanza, Yibeljoj, Pechiquil, Tzajalukum, Bojoveltik, Aurora Chica and Canolal. In a mountainous spot near the community of Acteal, dozens of children, women and men appear between the coffee plants and large trees. They have spent two months living among the trees and the interminable mud.

"We came displaced from the community of La Esperanza, since September 21. We came to seek shelter here. All this time we have not had anything to eat, they gave us tostadas one time, but those are already gone. The people are already going to die of hunger. Yes we had homes, but they destroyed them and burned them. Some of the companeros had stores, but they looted all the merchandise. That's why we left. And here we are, stuck," recounts Manuel Lopez with his little son, only eight months old, in his arms.

The women gather behind, with the children between their legs and babies on their chests. An older woman covers her face with the white huipil bordered in red, the traditional clothing of this village. Sobs cause the women's chests to convulse. The barefoot children, hanging on their skirts, cough, and some cry. The older women begin to speak. Little by little, all the women talk at once, in Tzotzil. A litany of laments. It doesn't matter to them that the journalists don't understand. Sufficiently expressive are their tone of voice, their longing gazes, their hands that close and open indicating emptiness. We have nothing, now, nothing for our children. That is what they say in their sad collective story: they have lost everything. A man listening to them covers his eyes to cry.

Finally a boy translates: "They left Pechiquil after the 20th for fear of the bullets, then they arrived here. They left all their things, the materials, hoes and machetes. The horses and animals they had were stolen. And [the paramilitary troops] ate everything also. The women cry because they left all of their things there in their houses. They cut coffee and corn, they left their work."

"We don't know why the president gave the order and send weapons. Like in Yibeljoj he sent 27 boxes of `goat's horns' [AK 47s]. For this reason the people are already afraid, because we don't have weapons," explains Joaquin Santiz Lppez, from Pechiquil.

Veronica Perez is a ten-year-old Tzotzil girl. She starts to speak in her language while her fingers play nervously--almost trembling--with her colored bead necklace. She took her brothers away from La Esperanza on September 21. A man translates: "They started shooting in La Esperanza and her mother wasn't there, only her father. She left carrying her brothers, from there they started to shoot, she went to hide, there was more shooting, they were looking for the girl. She says that she is already suffering, that they have neither tortillas nor corn nor anything to eat now."

Marcela Jiminez left Tzajalukum and walked at night through the mountains and a snake bit her. "Other women and children are sick. We have neither corn nor beans to give them, we have none left," explains the teacher Sebastian Perez of Acteal, to whose environs this group of refugees arrived.

The indigenous mayors-in-rebellion of Chenalho, San Andrs Sacamchen de los Pobres and San Juan de la Libertad condemned the violence taking place in the Highlands, North, South and Jungle regions, "fostered by the federal and state governments by means of the priista municipal presidents, the white guards [paramilitary groups] and the public security forces." The autonomous town governments demanded that the federal government comply with the accords on indigenous matters signed with the EZLN in February 1996. They also demanded the removal of the PRI municipal president in Chenalho, Jacinto Perez Cruz, whom they hold responsible for arming the white guards.

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
©Copyright 1997-2000 Jeeni Criscenzo