Some Personal Observations on the reasons Behind the Events in Chiapas

by Jeeni Criscenzo

“Acteal is a symbol of how this government works:
it simulates peace and makes war,
pretends to negotiate and prepares treason,
promises solutions and massacres the innocent.”

-Subcommander Marcos

by Jeeni Criscenzo

As the tragic events in Chiapas began to unfold in the media during the past weeks, like many people I kept asking the question - Why? Why would a group of fifty men attack a group of poor, unarmed men, women and children praying in a chapel in a remote village in Mexico? What could have motivated them to commit such an atrocity and how could they have rationalized it in their own minds?

As a student of the Maya culture, initial reports in the media of the Mexican government’s explanation, that this was an "internal conflict between different indigenous groups," seemed suspicious to me. But, while governments and special interests still attempt to control the dissemination of information to the public through traditional media, they haven’t yet figured out (and I hope they never will) how to control the wildfire spread of information on the Internet. Via e-mail, listservs and Web sites, I had access to hundreds of reports from many different sources: eyewitness accounts, letters from leaders of the Zapatista rebels, travelers’ reports, and excerpts from the Mexican media. From these many stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to “Why?” grows as you peel back each layer of responsibility, but at its core, the rationale comes down to this: greed.

While the pathetic paramilitary gangs, who actually implement the “low intensity war” being waged on Chiapas’ indigenous poor, may not be aware of it, they are merely the bottom level of a greed-machine controlled and manipulated by arrogant US based multi-national corporations. Corruption is so ubiquitous in Mexico that the players at every level seem oblivious to the fact that their motivations have been crafted by others who work them like mindless marionettes. Everyone, from the president of the country, down to each member of the paramilitary gangs, is acting out according to the way their strings are being pulled by a “bigger” puppeteer.

But this puppet show doesn’t need to end in tragedy. Before we throw up our hands and cry that nothing can be done - that the powers that control Mexico’s destiny are beyond control, let us be inspired by the courageous actions of the Maya women who have been confronting heavily armed soldiers with only sticks and stones and their unwavering determination to survive. Their bravery deserves our assistance. In a war of words, we must confront the injustice... the deceit... the atrocities being inflicted on our fellow human beings. Our weapon - the truth. Take the time to learn what is really going on and to determine for yourself the reason why. Only when we understand the underlying motivations can we attempt to affect change.

Why is the entire political machine of Mexico engaged in a low intensity war against the Maya?
What is their crime to warrant this genocide? If you have ever had the opportunity to spend any time in Chiapas, you met an engaging, self-sufficient and shrewd people. What impressed me most about the Maya of Chiapas is that, while I observed few of those things one would normally consider requisites of a decent standard of living, (there are no traditional houses with electrical appliances and indoor plumbing and heating... no supermarkets... no family cars...) I never had the feeling that I was with poor people. What is lacking in material things is compensated with a sense of community and tradition that permeates every aspect of their lives. These are a proud people who have been fending off oppression long before the Spanish conquest 500 years ago. As I learned more about the Maya people, my respect grew with my interest. They have maintained their ties to their land, their view of the universe and their way of life for over a thousand years, resisting outright and insidious campaigns of conquest and assimilation.

At first thought, it would seem ludicrous for a government to engage in a campaign to systematically destroy strong, independent, self-sufficient communities, who present no drain on the resources of the country? Why would you want to rend stable communities into thousands of displaced refugees, without the resources to feed, clothe or house themselves? I’ve come to the realization that within those very admirable qualities that have sustained the Maya people through hundreds of years of hardship and oppression, lies the “why” for this latest effort to remove them from the face of the earth. While the paramilitary may think they have a different agenda, the master puppeteers, those who control the global economy, cannot tolerate the existence of a “non-market segment” - a society of non-consumers.

In the world of international economics there are only two entities of any value: the consumer and the consumable. Anything or anyone that doesn’t fit into these categories is not only expendable - they are an obstacle to economic security. The soul-less eyes of capitalism do not see the indigenous people of Chiapas as a viable, respectable culture. They are simply “non-consumers” who are impeding the acquisition of valuable raw resources. To them, the Maya’s commitment to their land and their community is perceived, not as an admirable trait, but a problem that must be solved.

In 1994 Mexico’s leaders entered into trade agreements with foreign interests (NAFTA) that at US insistence, made changes to their constitution that effectively ended Indian communal land right, making it possible for Foreign corporations to take Indian land and resources.The Maya rose up in rebellion to defend their land and their culture. This courageous act of resistance against a system that was sucking the life out of an already beleaguered population, brought the wrath of the Mexican government on any community in Chiapas suspected of supporting the Zapatista rebels (EZLN). When President Zedillo tried to solve the “Chiapas problem” in February 1995 by launching a military attack, domestic and international criticism forced him to begin the pretense of negotiations. In February 1996 the San Andres Accords were agreed to and signed by President Zedillo. This agreement acknowledged the constitutional rights of the indigenous people, and in particular, their right to self-determination and autonomy. This agreement represented an opportunity for peace, justice and true democracy for all of the indigenous people of Mexico. Sadly, President Zedillo has refused to implement this agreement. In fact, this past December, he was quoted as saying: “I prefer to go into history as a repressor before implementing the (San Andres) agreements with the EZLN.

Why would a President enter into an agreement that could bring peace to the Chiapas region, and then refuse to implement it?
According to Zedillo, the San Andres Accords would result in the balkanization of Mexico. But his reasons for reneging spring more from concerns of fracturing the stranglehold of the ruling party (the PRI) and not the fracturing of the nation. The autonomy assured in the San Andres Accords would shatter the grip of the PRI elite landowners on the poor in Chiapas. For the first time in 70 years, last year’s mid-term elections brought the defeat of many local PRI candidates.

So now Zedillo finds himself in the un-enviable position of a political no-win scenario. If he honors his agreement with the EZLN, he’ll have the old-guard PRI at his throat. But the December 22 massacre has angered the Mexican urban population and Zedillo knows he must do something to appease the voters. Either way he looses. To placate the domestic and international outrage following the massacre, he replaced his Interior Minister and a appointed a new coordinator of Dialogue and Negotiation in Chiapas along with 21 new appointees. But the question remains if this won’t bring “more of the same” since all but one of the appointees are loyal PRI. Meanwhile, Zedillo has increased the federal military presence in Chiapas on the pretense of keeping peace by disarmament. The obvious irony being that the troops are concentrating their entire effort on those villages known to be sympathetic to the EZLN, while no one is doing anything to disarm the paramilitary gangs who are responsible for the Acteal massacre. The military is using United States equipment in this campaign of harassment, and US Condor spy planes, equipped with infrared sensors and silent flight capacity are being use to detect EZLN command posts in the Chiapas mountains.

Why is the United States aiding the Mexican military against the indigenous people of Chiapas?
While President Clinton joined other international leaders in condemning the massacre in Chiapas, the Treasury Department is committed to a program to maintain political stability and guarantee investor confidence. This has nothing to do with human rights - it’s strictly a matter of protecting our economic interests. The US provides Mexico with military aid, intelligence, training and information to fight “terrorists”. Many of the military officers and security police currently leading the dirty war against the Maya people, were trained in the School of the Americas (SOA) in Ft. Benning, GA. While this aid was approved by congress as part of the “war on drugs”, in 1996 President Zedillo was assured that arms shipments from the US did not have to be used exclusively in anti-drug operations. And a report states, “The light infantry skills US Special Operations forces teach during counter drug deployments... can be used by:...armed forces in their counterinsurgencies as well...during which human rights violations might occur.” The answer to the question Why? can be found in a January 1995 Chase Bank memo titled “Political Update on Mexico” where it was stated, “Government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate effective control of the national territory and security policy.” The fact that the Zapatista are only asking for basic human rights for the poor peasants of Chiapas, never entered the picture.

If the problems in Chiapas can be traced to the fallout of neoliberal economic policies, why is it that the rural elite are so eager to implement this extermination of the indigenous people?
I doubt genocide is the motivation for their participation in this scenario. From the perspective of the wealthy landowner, the Maya must be kept in servitude and attempts to organize and empower them must be hastily squashed. For generations, wealthy landowners have lived “high on the hog” off the near-enslavement of the indigenous people. Local PRI officials, the cacique, have controlled the people with the iron fist of the corrupt Security Police. The rural PRI political machine stays well oiled with corruption and greed. To the PRI-ista, the EZLN represents a grave threat to the status quo. Their strategy for elimination of this threat involves using paramilitary gangs of indigenous thugs to do their dirty work. If any of their illegal activities are publicized, they can label the incident an inter-tribal conflict, arresting their own worthless “soldiers” to appease outside objections. The outrage over the Acteal massacre may have resulted in the arrests and resignations of some municipal officials, but offer little hope for change when PRI lackeys are being appointed by a party hell-bent on preserving its stranglehold on the region.

And finally we come down to the “soldiers” in the dirty war in Chiapas - the paramilitary, who are also indigenous. Why are they attacking their own people?
There are reports of more than 1500 political murders in the state of Chiapas since Zedillo broke the truce with the Zapatistas. Most were carried out by paramilitary bands linked to the PRI, with names like the Red Mask and Peace and Justice. In November, members of one of these groups even attempted to assassinate Bishop Samuel Ruiz of the San Cristobal diocese, who has championed the rights of the indigenous people. The paramilitary are disenchanted street gangs, who are being trained and armed by the PRI elite. These are young men who have despaired of earning a living in the abject poverty their communities have been reduced to by PRI policies. Powerful landowners encourage their alienation from their communities, strategically grooming an army of ruthless soldiers who finance their operations with what they steal from their victims. As the pawns of the PRI, paramilitary thugs have terrorized the inhabitants of any village which is sympathetic to the EZLN, driving the people from their homes, stealing their meager possessions, taking their crops, torturing, killing and raping. To add insult to injury, they demand regular protection payments of a “war tax” from villagers, who are thus bullied into financing their own persecution.

And so the puppet show is complete. Each puppet deceived into believing that he is acting for his own reasons, unaware that he is merely performing to the whims of his puppeteer.

And you and I - are we also being manipulated?
While we sit in front of our televisions, being spoon-fed whatever has been determined we should know by those who control the global economy, are we wondering:
Why isn’t the real story of Chiapas explained in any of the TV news features?
Why weren’t the demonstrations of solidarity around the world this week shown on the nightly news?
Why doesn’t anyone seem to care what happens to the Maya of Chiapas?

And as we start to learn the answers to those questions, we can feel the puppet strings falling away. In their place is an angry determination to bring about change - not with violence and destruction, but with the dissemination of the truth. Let your voice be heard. Let your government know that you want the flow of military aid to Mexico stopped and to immediately disassociate the United States with the notorious School of Americas. Join in solidarity with people around the world in support of the Maya of Chiapas, and let it be known that you know what’s really happening in Mexico and that it is not acceptable. Add your voice to the roar that is growing around the world.

I read that old Chan K’in, the spiritual elder of the Lacandon Maya, who died last year at the age of 104, had predicted that when the last Maya dies, it will be the end of the world. While it certainly will be the end of the world for the Maya, it may very well signal doom of us all. For in the one-being that we are all part of, if we fail to protect that part which is most vulnerable, we may fatally weaken the whole. Let our efforts to bring democracy, liberty, and justice to all people, begin now, in Chiapas, Mexico.

Copyright 1998 Jeeni Criscenzo. Permission is given to reprint and pass along this essay in any media with this copyright notice and permission included. Your feedback can be sent to

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